Sunday, May 17, 2015

Chippoke Na Gomi, by Misha Nogha (1989)

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (where this story is reprinted) tells me that Chippoke Na Gomi means tiny specks of dust, or, put in another way, petty refuse. In the title itself is evoked a kind of duality that is arguably the very tension that drives this story, and, in a much larger sense, science fiction itself. This tension is that between a literal reading of something and the figurative impression that it creates. What is dust to some is garbage to someone else. The dust in this story, however, is a very specific sort: it refers to the radioactive fallout succeeding the Nagasaki bombings of 1945.

The protagonist of the story is a scientist who studies dust, a konologist. It is his profession to take something seriously, scientifically, and objectively, what might seem to others as being an inconsequential aspect of their existence. But that is one of the very purposes of science: to explicate as objectively as possible the workings of nature, and lay bare its invisible engines. The very foundation of science is mired in this objectivity: it has little meaning otherwise. A positivism, till very recently, was what defined scientific explorations. Gauging something empirically, using our senses, is the sole recourse that humans have towards making sense of the world around them.

Our protagonist is being haunted: by the ghosts of Nagasaki, and by a woman at the station where he is waiting for a train, a symbol of that slaughter. She is, in one sense, representative of everyone who perished that day. Through the sections of the story which are italicized, we glean the inner workings of our scientist's mind. It betrays an anxiety that is punctuated with images from that past. Through the twin figures of the scientist and the woman, history comes full circle, comes back, in a way, to teach us again what we have forgotten thanks to a pride we take in enunciating and making sense of things. The scientist tries to explain to her how his profession works, but is repeatedly thwarted by her inexplicable gaze that simultaneously unnerves and intrigues him. What does intrigue him is the effects of history, but it is something he cannot meet head on. Thus, he clothes it in a detached and curious demeanour: detached since he is escaping the difficult questions concerning responsibility that history is asking of him, has been asking of him rather, from the minute he chose his profession, and curiosity as the sole 'human' reason that is permissible in science. For a profession that prides itself in being objective and unromantic, the only romance allowed to creep in to its domain is that of 'curiosity', what we call, by turns, the sense of wonder, the sublime, and sometimes, the grotesque.

But nothing is isolated, can stay isolated. We already feel the scientist's defenses crumbling on his phone conversation with his wife, where his inner insecurities are revealed to us using a surreal combination of imagery. We know it for a fact when he sees a human face trapped in the blown up photographs of dust motes. He does not quite know how it escaped him before. He was possibly too enthralled with the bizzare, monstrous shapes of the minuscule insects, almost a boyish love for the imagination.

Appearing near the end of this comprehensive anthology, Misha Nogha's highly cryptic take sums up several of the concerns of science fiction, and science, using a framework that defies the genre. If we consider this story as SF proper, it'd be a conceptual leap in itself, and would mean a positive, life affirming step towards understanding what it is ultimately capable of.

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