There is a peculiar episode from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s years as a journalist for El Espectador. A correspondent had cabled in reports of fighting taking place in Quibidó. Upon reaching the town, Marquez and his photographer were disappointed to find that the news was a hoax. The correspondent cabled in the report to protest the uneventful nature of his town and how ‘nothing ever happened’ there. It’s an incident of a near-metafictional miracle considering how Marquez echoes the same line in his novel in the same context of remembering and propaganda. Unwilling to let their troublesome journey to waste, Marquez and his photographer, ‘with the help of sirens and drums’ decided to conjure up an artificial scene to make real that which was not. Over the next two days, Marquez sent deceitful stories of action, soon attracting hordes of reporters.
Reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is a lesson in maintaining the balance between truth and farce, between fact and fiction, history and interpretation. As I reached the midway point of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, my reality collided with the world which the Colombian author had constructed. At some point, Macondo jumped out of its pages and landed right at my doorstep, in post-370 Ladakh.
Before catching a glimpse of the Buendía family, I already experienced the absurdity, which I later recognised in a different form in the novel. On the late morning of the fifth of August 2019, I was volunteering at a neurological camp in downtown Leh. For hours, my phone was on ‘Emergency calls only’ mode. Considering how busy I was expecting the first day of camp to go, I did not mind this. The minutes trickled into longer minutes, refusing to budge to the next hour no matter how many times I looked at the time. Then, an anonymous, faceless voice announced: Ho gaya.
I say anonymous because it was a) spoken in Ladakhi which I am barely fluent in, and b) it was someone who I did not know. One can say I lost my fluency on both counts. I had failed to surmise the complete meaning of this incomplete sentence, unaware of the context, and I had not registered the speaker’s identity as necessary either. The information stood in stark contrast to the simplicity of its syntax. I itched for my smartphone only to remember that I had no way of confirming this piece of news. Word-of-mouth was all I had.
‘We’re a Union Territory now,’ the same person—or maybe another whose name I did not know—clarified. Even this memory of my understanding is hazy, and it only clears up from the moment that a well-known acho, big brother, walked in with his usual imprudent stride. He was wearing a teal-coloured polo shirt with a white line running along its collar. His trousers were faded blue-grey denim, not from a conscious choice of fashion but the harsh sun rays of Ladakh. His sunglasses, white-framed, sat atop his slick gelled head and his fingers moved in a flurry across his smartphone.
‘Congratulations,’ he grinned at us, and it was like being forced into applause by a schoolteacher to welcome a special guest at a school event. Are we not supposed to be happy? Were we not supposed to embrace this with warmth and open arms? The uncertainty of not having read the news with our own eyes, a piece of news which spelt significant change for our hometown, had spread a sense of unease. A fellow volunteer stood next to me with worry in her gaze. Why, I seemed to ask, not to know but to hear a denial. Nothing, I wanted to hear.
‘Well,’ she said, her jokey tone shaking with tension. ‘Guess it’s time to pack up and leave.’ She was referring to the right to buy property in Ladakh, one whose restrictions had protected the environment in whichever way it could. Over the years, mismanagement had driven some parts of Ladakh into ruin. The water was no longer safe. In some regions, there was no water at all. The dogs were running feral and biting humans; recently, they mauled a tourist who was so drunk she could barely feel the pain. Residents neighbouring a four-star hotel murmured about the staff throwing the waste into the communal stream, which was often used by the public for washing and cleaning. The rapid changes taking place in Leh and its surrounding areas were like a cliche ‘small-town-greed’ story. A little on the nose, but only because no allegory could befit such disparity.
From then on, the day passed with a mocking rhythm not dissimilar to the famous Jaws score. The nature of the news depended on who was reading from their phone. Sometimes there was hope. Other times there was an apocalyptic shroud looming over our future. My network connectivity fluttered like a broken shuttlecock on a breezy day, and I could only receive half-complete affirmations of the division. According to national papers, we were finally receiving our long-awaited unity, independence and assimilation.
I felt the grinds of delayed homesickness slowly rising in my stomach. My body pushed up the very first spoon of barley mix I ate as a twenty-day-old baby at my family friend’s house in Leh. The fold of my pink cotton hat shielding my head against the sunlight under the apricot trees. Colourful crepe streamers were dancing lightly, directionless. It was the afternoon of my first birthday, and I never got to eat a piece of the cake.
All this is imagination, but it was not untrue. I have photographs to corroborate, pictures which have over the years helped summon the memories regardless of my own emotions and needs. Sometimes it feels like a broken desk keeps opening inside my brain, a different folder pushed out, a different time of my life clearer than before.
One of our first patients was a young 14-year-old girl who had been suffering from bouts of unnatural exhaustion and the inability to see at night for a year now. I realised that my land had now become something it wasn’t before. We were now visible. They could see us in the same maps which had failed to confirm how close my people were to this country. Where is Ladakh? The very mention of my hometown alone would dissolve it into absence. People saw us in the same way that this 14-year-old patient saw darkness. She did not know of its presence until it became absent, the camouflage lent by night discernible from blindness itself.
Another absence had taken place that day. Toni Morrison had passed away, three days after I bought Song of Solomon from the local bookshop. Three days after I purchased OHYoS and decided to save Solomon for after Marquez since the latter had inspired the former. For a second, I saw it as a sign: read Song of Solomon first. But there is an arrogance in tying the gravity of a situation to one’s own choices, especially when it involves the death of a person like Toni Morrison.
It is a similar kind of arrogance which causes the downfall of the Buendías. From the very beginning, the founders of Macondo look for reflections of themselves, as seen in the patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia’s clairvoyant search for a ‘city of mirrors’.
A city of mirrors would only give the illusion of eternity. Standing in a hall of mirrors would only serve a delusion of one’s limitlessness. It is this delusion which Buendia chooses as a way of life, one which spreads like a hereditary disease from generation to generation. Each Buendia dissolves into an absence which stems from an over presence, of a stubbornness to choose one’s, own family. The extreme consequence is even pursuing incestuous relationships. The Buendias wait for the pig’s tail, an objective symbol of ominousness, to direct them away from the darkness of their solitude. By the time the pig’s tail appears, it is too late, and Macondo is no more.
The pig’s tail represents the paradox of the characters of’ ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . Their search for warnings and patterns represents their personal biases and desires. In the end, when we see Melquiades’ predictions unravel from their indecipherable tongue, the Buendías, as well as the town of Macondo, is physically uprooted from its self-exile. No matter the number of outsider visitors, none are influential enough to change the ways of Buendias. People fill this town to the brim with different cultural backgrounds, plants and houses are shifted around by weather changes, but the Buendias resort to their narcissistic, isolating ways. It is this choice of ‘solitude over solidarity’, this ‘lack of love’ which Marquez opines as a precursor of their fate. Jose Arcadio’s blood trickles in umbilical form back to its mother. Similarly, there is no factor variable enough to change the path of the Buendia bloodline.
In the days which followed the news of abrogation, it was becoming clear to me how easily variation could become a constant. A trip to Nubra became a sad echo of a fear I had long held. What will happen when these hills turn green? The marmots hadn’t stuck their head out of their holes yet. Someone messaged me on Instagram, asking if I was in Scotland. ‘It’s just climate change,’ I replied. I called it a ‘wholesome uneasiness’. The green looked pretty, and it sure did suit Hozier crooning Work Song from the Bluetooth stereo. But this was not natural. My eyes, always mapping my compass across Nubra valley according to the different shades, could no longer discern the green from the brown. Today, they blur.
Id and Independence Day coincided this year. Again, no work of fiction would be permitted to be so on the nose. Growing radical sentiments had vilified an entire community. A twisted reading of Macondo’s ending would mean seeing it as a kind of freedom. There was irony in the real-life reminiscence of liberty. Countries around the world are remembering rather than celebrating independence.
There is a fantastical, almost absurd quality to how straightforward, almost exaggerated reality can be. Marquez recognised this in the politics of Latin America. Durix also defined magical realism as a genre which is ‘deeply politicised’. Marquez echoed this by protesting Europe’s objectification and colonisation of the Latin American consciousness. On the other hand, Marquez believed that this ‘vicious cycle’ of accepting Colombia as alternate reality was holding back the country from progress.
Time did not equal progress, certainly not in Colombia and certainly not in Macondo. ‘In fact, the only real variation is the rain.’ Claire Adam contemplates upon the intriguing nature of the first line of the novel.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
During a writing course, Adam contradicted her teacher’s notion of time as ‘western’. Seasons pass and time is represented in that Western canon of spring turning to summer turning to autumn turning to winter and then back to spring. In tropical places like Adam’s hometown of Trinidad & Tobago, as well as Macondo and its muse, Colombia, the weather does not denote the passing of time, but rather the opposite: its endlessness. The never-ending of time recurs as a frequent motif, enough times to be the very spirit of the story of the Buendías. The weather rarely changes. Unlike temperate climates, where the landscape itself is a natural clock, tropical countries rarely see a difference. The only time change takes place is when it rains.
Just like Macondo’s rain of four years, a change in weather which ultimately changes the very character of Macondo as well, Ladakh has been experiencing rain like never before. Beginning on the fourteenth of August, the first day of being cut off from network completely, it rained nonstop for twenty-four hours.
Ladakh is supposed to be a rain-shadow region. The keyword is ‘supposed’. A lifetime of constant had promised no variation, but both act symbiotically to the other. The brown hills had turned green for a reason. The marmots had not stepped out because it was not hot enough. It was eerie reading about endless rain in a town experiencing isolation by rain. It is not one reality superseding the other but the coexistence of alternate realities, overlapping from time-to-time.
Rain in Ladakh never arrives with good intentions. We have flash floods, ancestral houses made of mud-brick which never even imagined being washed away by a wave of water. There are entire regions of Ladakh which sustain themselves on farming alone, a monthly ration stall set up for sugar, salt, etc. Isolation is normal. Solitude is normal.
The boom of tourism, just like the annual parade of Melquiades and his technological miracles, has changed Ladakh year-by-year. It is a steady source of income, especially with the unpredictability of weather changing farming patterns. But there is a level to which isolation heals. Stok Kangri, a famous and well-polluted peak in the valley, will be on an indefinite hiatus. While officials are claiming it is only a one-year shutdown, there is no confirmation on the exact timeline.
How long does it take for a mountain to recover?
It was challenging to revel in the technology-less solitude of no network connectivity. Unlike before, when emerging out of our very own marmot holes would not reveal anything new, things had changed rapidly over a few weeks. The government was finally putting Ladakh on a map. Lack of social media access had cornered us into the darkness of not-knowing and suspicion. We did not know if the news was accurate, did not know who to trust. International news sources had photographic evidence of large-scale protests in Srinagar, but the government treated these facts as absurd. It is imagination, they claimed. Not unlike the manner with which the fictional government of Macondo and its citizens deny the Banana Company massacre, this distortion of history erased thousands of people and their past. This was not a simple waiver made by truth, but a wielding of unquestionable power.
Sitting in our kitchen, atop the terrace, one can see the Stok range with deceptive clarity. It feels close enough, and yet we understand that we witness its complete majestic presence due to the distance.
During the twenty-four hour rain, which was interceded by light, almost mocking, drizzles, the entire village of Stok disappeared under a fog. We could no longer see the mountains, our go-to way of intuiting the course of the weather. A mist had settled not just over the land but our very consciousness. There was no way for our loved ones outside this town to know what was happening. My friends would never know if something were to happen to me.
Colonel Aureliano experiences the cycle of time through the never-ending nature of war. Ursula sees patterns repeating with passing generations, grandchildren and great-grandchildren dying before her. For the first time in my life, I realised the passing of time in this cold desert town. The landscape has been changing, and ironically I have recognised this place as home just as it transforms into something it is not. But what else did I expect? ‘Time passes,’ both Ursula and Colonel Aureliano murmur to me. Not so much, I insist. Never so much.
Author: Kunzes Goba
Kunzes Goba is a 26-year-old freelance writer based in Gurugram and Ladakh. She has done her M.A in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) from the University of East Anglia in England.