The State of Life
Illustration by Freddie Rowland
THE signs were always there.
Before the doors began to creak, the wood was rotting. The bottom of the bathroom door was pale as if it had been left floating in water for years, which in a way, it had. Inside, there must have been thousands of growth rings in the wood. Each time I looked at it closely, I bet it would be a matter of seconds before tea-coloured mushrooms began to shimmy out. The only thing keeping them away was that we were there. We pulled the doors open and closed them shut in a daily rhythm that insisted they become a part of our lives.
The moisture seeped into the hinges and made them expand ever so slightly, until they refused to fit into their frames and we had to stop bolting the doors on the other side. The pipes leaked in spillages of damp on our ceiling. The plaster that was holding our lives together had started to look like plaque.
All this rot was hidden under a spotless coat of white paint. White paint made everything feel okay.
Little by little, decay grew into an impossible monster. Without our attention, our house expanded around us. The reinforcements swelled and the plaster cracked to occupy just a little more space than it did before. We turned our attention away from this slow but steady encroachment of property as our life began to chew parts of the public planet, spilling out onto the streets and pavements.
These things were already far beyond our control when we found them, so when a piece of the wall fell out onto the floor, we simply pushed it aside with our feet and called the repairman.
Decay didn’t arrive one day. It was the slow piling of small losses that collected over years and years before turning visible. Rust ate away at the plumbing, anything metal — gate, taps, doorknobs — oxidised, the paint peeled. All over the house, thin black rashes appeared on the glass like age spots that turn up as soon as you hit fifty. The process was unremarkable, mostly. But it was impossible to look away once I had noticed it.
Everything was a little more corroded, a little less alive, wormier than before. We had spent our entire life building a home against decay, and before we realised it, we had gotten used to the ruin. The floor was marshy with dirt and so were the walls, the gaps where the door-locks went were clogged with grey mush. Each time the dusting cloth hit a surface, dust floated into air as if gravity had been turned off for a second.
Then, as soon as we looked away, it gently settled back.
There was always old dust over old dust, years of dirt layered over itself like a trifle. It was everywhere, already, long before we had arrived. Far beyond where life ended, there was only heat and light and microparticles that stretched beyond our most impossible imagination of space. Every day, a hundred thousand kilograms of dust falls on us from outer space. This carbon-rich, cosmic dust was most likely the earliest beginning of entire planets. Around us, it collected into soil, fibre, pet hair, even pepper…
HUMAN civilisation was grounded in the clear separation of the outdoors and the indoors. We planned our lives across doors, windows and carefully located chimney openings that safeguarded who we were in this world – a compulsively inventive, intellectually-sophisticated species who had traded their imagination for routine. But despite our best efforts to keep the outside at a distance, it crept in.
A pigeon laid an egg in our balcony.
Each time we went out to dry the laundry, the Mother Pigeon flew up in a fit, twitching its wings at us as her red eyes called danger. Eventually, we had to stop stepping out. The balcony couldn’t be washed for weeks. Grime settled on the marble as if even the bolsters were sweating.
Our domestic reality was conditional, hanging in the balance along with the lives we had dismissed to build temperature-control homes.
They came back crawling on six nimble feet.
Under the right conditions, termites could eat through an entire house. It would take a fairly large colony about two years. We had been there before. Every single object we owned had to be moved out of its shelf and piled on the floor, away from the growing infestation we were just beginning to catch on to. The cupboards grew craters and crumbled to powder right before us as if they had only been temporary arrangements.
I can still feel the milkiness of the pesticide on my skin. It was strange, to have smelled so much death, gnawing at the living, the disintegration of an entire lifetime of maintaining a house and come out the other end, unaffected. The realisation that our lives were precarious was everywhere, every day. We were left at the mercy of razor-teethed pests, who could terminate our lives when they willed, pushing us to self-destruct like ants driven to death by the parasitic fungus in their brains.
We had to ignore these calamities if we were to go on living, but they turned increasingly obvious. Last spring, locusts became a national emergency. A swarm migrating east from the Horn of Africa tore through whole towns of crops across the northern belt of India. At 3:40 in the afternoon, they reached the capital, falling like rain over the towers looming out of the city. Residents were advised to keep their windows locked and bolted. Block the gaps under the doors with blankets. Spread plastic sheets on outdoor plants. But really, there was very little we could do, but wait.
It didn’t always take so much. I had started seeing red ants everywhere. Occasionally, I found small spiders hanging in the corners of the bathroom. Hard-shelled cockroaches scurried away from me in the daylight. In the evenings, the windows grew an infection of blue and if even a single one was left open, you could find tiny snot-like insects on the walls. Some of them had wings that prised open as they flew across the four walls of the room, pirouetting like they were performing a dance. The mosquitoes swarmed in by the second, then ticked away through the night.
We structured our days around routines of shutting the windows close, locking the doors, mopping away the dead insects in the morning. We grew used to waking up to the dense, invisible scent of the insect spray. The machines had to be refilled every other month and we dumped the empty nibs in the trash one after the other. I imagined them piling over each other, in a pyramid of nothings that had helped us survive our lives.
IT was easier, I suppose, to live surrounded by insurances. Good to know that somewhere discreet cabinets had pepper-blue cleaning spray, dishwashing liquids, disinfectants, bleach and soda and that they will still smell so repulsively of lemon tomorrow. We had put so much trust in them. Every day we stepped closer to an antiseptic life – a life made error-proof through automation. Our electrical assurances came with nothing less than one-year warranties. But there were losses we didn’t speak about.
Two years ago, our technology-smart washing machine gave up on us. It shivered like a time-bomb each time it was loaded and eventually started pissing soapwater in the gallery. The towels came out soaking wet. They took days to dry, and in the meantime, our entire house started to smell like death.
The refrigerator was an unnatural, frosty universe of its own. There was no wiggle room within its laws and they were brutally laid out before us on mornings when we found the milk we had left out had, inevitably, split. Dotted with cream. Inside its reassuring doors, the fruit buns we had gotten so used to eating over the summer expired without so much as a sigh. Day after day, the strainers in the sink clogged as we washed our dinner plates. The sponge tired and tore apart. The dustbins and dustpans where we so neatly cut off life’s less presentable edges, had to be rinsed and left out in the sun or else they began to stink.
It was exhausting, keeping up with the fantastic illusion of life.
WHAT else. This disorder was arranged in multi-storey kingdoms. Houses stacked into colonies, colonies stacked into neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods into cities, cities into countries, into continents that were closer together now than ever before. The discards from our public life exited through the backdoors of restaurants, hotels and train stations in the after hours, as if the whole thing was meant to be swept under the carpet. The planet pulsed with the constant births and deaths in our everyday life like a well-oiled machine that had designated outlets for what goes in and out.
We had built elaborate cables of pipework, a second parallel mantle that gave us some sense of functionality. Flush. Plug. Twist. Our waste was perpetually swallowed down by this artificial geography and carried to open drains, underground gutters, overpopulated sewages that sometimes flooded and spilled up to the surface. We had built landfills, big brown eyesores like volcanoes that could sink inwards any second. Someone had pointed to a plot of land and said yes, this is where we will pile all our trash, starting now, until…we’ll see.
Anything that you want to throw really, will go.
Packaging? Nappies? Yes.
Used cars? Yes, yes.
What about dead animals? Sure… yeah.
In the middle of the sea, vortexes like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch sucked every piece of trash we dumped, leaving little islands of garbage floating at the top. Except, there was nothing ‘little’ about them – the surface area of the Pacific Garbage Patch alone made it impossible to measure.
Life collected in oceanic piles of waste, slipping under waves and waves of our two-thirds-blue planet, like skeletons of who we had been. Long after us they will find fossils of chicken bones that gave us our beloved fried chicken. The plastic tips of shoelaces. Even our toothbrushes will outlast us. Every item of plastic we have manufactured still exists in some form. Plastic bags, twenty years. Straws, two hundred. Single-use plastic, millennia.
We must carry the weight of this life on our backs like terrestrial snails, only to leave it all behind in the shape of shells that will erode after us.
This was it. We were snails.
The totality of our lives had lasted for mere seconds on the earth’s clock. Billions of years and years of growth and erosion, and here we were, discarding the wrappers of our soaps as if it meant nothing. But where one minute was longer than three million years, it would take the planet hours to decompose parts of our lives. This is how we would pass into the deep time of the future.
The short truth is, we had always been dying. Every second of every day, we were inching closer to decomposition. We left traces of skin, hair and bacteria everywhere we sat and lay down, keeping up with the constant decay of our material lives. We were a part of the soft, burgeoning rot that surrounded us. For the little time we were here, we had to inhabit our lives with everything. The centrepiece of our existence was a bottle of tomato ketchup that had thickened with knots of goo around its mouth with use. There were newspapers stacked under the bed, the laundry dried on the couch late into the night, the shoe-stand capsized and the coconut oil froze in its jar ritually. We put it under hot water and waited for it to melt between our fingers. We ran out of hot water.
Our life would have looked nothing like our own without these impermanences. It rusted, dampened, leaked, fractured, grew fungus, expired. We rusted, dampened, leaked, fractured, grew fungus, expired.
It didn’t matter. Nothing lived here and nothing died.
You simply had to do the work life called for, until you were dead. You had to wake up tomorrow and start at the beginning. You had to start by oiling the doors.