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Just a matter of matter

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ISSUE Poor Nature, always taking the rap for human misdeeds. It’s a matter of breaking laws: break civic law, ignore the laws of physics, and the result is death and destruction

Propping up my recently discovered thinking pillow against a bony arm of the settee I settled down to musing on the First Law of Thermodynamics. This calls for some explaining, I can tell by the bemused look on your face. It is the law that tells us that energy — and hence matter — can neither be created nor destroyed. Oh, you knew that already? But you’re still looking bemused. Got it! I haven’t explained the thinking pillow. Most people put on their metaphorical thinking caps; I have found, of late, that a certain pillow does the trick for me. It is too hard for daily use but, in conjunction with said arm of settee, seems to generate ideas for my column and for other purposes of a literary nature. I recline laterally, my head against the pillow, my heels dangling over the other rubber-wood arm, and think away.

It was the rain, coming down in buckets every night like clockwork, which got me meditating on the matter of matter. Liquid matter conquers solid matter: water besieges streets and houses, drains gush, walls crumble and buildings tumble while headlines scream “Rain wreaks havoc”. Poor Nature, always taking the rap for human misdeeds. It’s a matter of breaking laws: break civic law, ignore the laws of physics, and the result is death and destruction. Reports about illegal constructions and workers fatally crushed by falling concrete have become routine. Building byelaws are given the go-by as people erect unstable houses without scaffolding or raise extra floors on weak foundations. When rubbish chokes a lane, causing rainwater to stagnate and weaken the walls of an old house which collapses, killing the inmates, the rain is blamed. When a raja kaluve is encroached on, a culvert blocked with rubbish, and basements of flats flooded, the rain is blamed. When construction debris in an empty plot pushes against a damp wall, causing it to topple over and injure two men on the other side, once again the rain is blamed. Nobody asks how the rubbish and the debris got there.

My thinking pillow directs my thoughts towards rubble that magically appears. Everyone would have seen, one fine morning or another, hillocks of smashed bricks and concrete, leftovers from a demolition, piled up on roadsides and in other odd spaces. Matter can’t be created or destroyed, but it can be relocated. Old buildings never die, they just move into water bodies. Whenever I see a lorry loaded with wreckage I rue the fate of the nearest tank or lake. Encroachment: it’s a disease that the authorities never seem able to detect or prevent. Archimedes’ Principle kicks in (I’m quite the physics student today, aren’t I?) during a downpour; the volume of water displaced by the matter dumped into the tank spills over into the surroundings.

Matter chokes a massive raja kaluve, which is desilted at equally massive expense, and then we find — surprise, surprise — that the silt sits tight while the money flows away. Waste matter is supposed to be channelled through pipes but every locality has open gutters where rainwater mingles freely with sewage and forms what I can only call dark matter. Beware o pedestrian, for beneath the paving stones of every footpath lies the heart of darkness. I recently found twenty feet of pavement leading to my fishmonger, usually occupied by flowers sellers and vegetable vendors, entirely obscured by a six-inch-thick layer of muck. Some kind soul had cleared the gutter. The muck, caked by the sun into a grey, giant cushion, lay there for a week, after which some other kind soul transferred it to an unknown location.

Matter can be relocated. My thinking pillow now transports me to excavation sites, to foundations dug for the myriad flats that continue to spring up in our city. Compact earth, when gouged out and loosened, undergoes a frightening increase in volume. Where is the soil carted off to? In the absence of a crystal ball, I stare fixedly at my right big toe (which is easy, given my posture) and visualise the future. I see, I see a convoy of lorries, each carrying a ‘backpack’ of red earth, travelling to the edge of a lake. One by one they tip their contents into it. They are joined by other lorries loaded with rubble. Thousands of lorries later, the lake has ceased to exist. Solid matter has captured liquid matter. I see, I see apartments rise upon the lakebed. The next monsoon arrives. Liquid matter re-captures solid matter.

I shift my pillow and pursue a new line of thought. How convenient it would be if mud could be used instead of sand to make concrete. I know there are soil bricks, but they are used for individual houses, a luxury we can’t afford, and not in multi-storeyed or high-rise buildings, which require concrete and/or steel. But I read recently that artificial sand has been invented, so maybe the same geniuses could invent an alternative to concrete. If only the same dug-up mud could be re-used in construction, it would be an end to the curse of sand-mining.

My thinking pillow is of no concrete use, though. Mind cannot conquer stubborn matter. Only a change in mindset will help us tackle the unwanted matter that plagues so many facets of our urban lives.

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

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