Sunday, September 10, 2006

What a Fall

Byline by M J Akbar: What a Fall

I first saw the Niagara as a child, in the Readers’ Digest, in the form of a retro wavy-line illustration for an article on a man who jumped over the Falls in a barrel. It was the kind of article that used to make Americans, who owned the Digest, rich, and Indians, who read it, literate. The chap inside the barrel was either mad or French, or possibly both, but he survived to become an international icon. Why did he dare death? Perhaps because circus had not been replaced completely by television as family entertainment, and the world still bred stuntmen who could put their heads in a lion’s mouth for a living.

He could not have made that jump from the American side of the Niagara Falls, or he would have landed on hard rock and reached purgatory rather than the Digest. The Niagara river sweeps to the edge of the precipice with a brisk, choppy urgency, and then divides unevenly on either side of an island before descending with a crash, a roar and a cloud into the gorge. The American falls are linear, much smaller, and hit huge boulders of rock.

The Canadian falls form a horseshoe over which an olive green river changes colour suddenly at the invisible line of descent, turning an exquisite jade interspersed with powerful, broad rolling columns of milk-white. Ever so often, foam ascends up the fall, like a salmon cascading up a perpendicular storm. The gorge is enveloped by a mist that rises into a vague, unthreatening, unsteady mushroom cloud.

Remarkably, the river turns placid very quickly, as if energy has rebounded into the air rather than travelled forward with the water. The man in the barrel understood that if he developed just a little extra momentum, he would be pushed by the force into the calm.

However, despite being mad, or French, he had the gumption not to try and repeat the stunt.

I was told of a child of five who fell from a boat gone amok on the regular part of the river, and survived because of his life vest and the unmentioned possibility that the Almighty had personally drafted his destiny. One acrobat strung a tightrope through the wet cloud, from one end of the horseshoe to the other, strapped a man, seated in a chair, on his back, began to cross, stopped halfway, placed the man-plus-chair on the metal wire and walked on to the other side. By the time he returned to save his partner in the act, he was still sane, but his companion had turned into a gibbering idiot.

There is something in the Niagara air that encourages dubious behaviour. For some reason — possibly a holiday mood — I began surging with puns. Let me offer you a particularly poor one. The Canadians have the Niagara Falls; the Americans have the Niagara Fallout.

One should have known by the signage of the first restaurant to greet us in the city of Niagara: Bar B.Q. Village. Restaurant. Indian Cuisine. Pakistan and Bangladesh Foods. Halal. There were more nations represented in the Sunday tourist melee than sit in the United Nations. A walk through the promenade was a journey through a dictionary of languages. Of those I could recognise, if not understand, Gujarati was at the top, closely followed by Tamil. If American is given its correct due as an independent tongue, and the subcontinent variety formally disowned by Oxbridge (see placard), then English came pretty low on the list. Identities swarmed by: an Arab pushing his mother in a wheelchair; Afghan women in headscarves gossiping on the railing; a bald man in a red Suisse T-Shirt; a Latino honcho with a padded crotch. The most visible faces were Chinese and Indian, a display of the new purchasing power of their surge-economies. Judging by the number of Louis Vuitton bags, Indians and Chinese are either getting richer at a fabulous pace or Chinese counterfeiters have taken over the commerce in quality brands.

Canada and America share the Falls. There is the occasional spiteful jibe from America, which is uncomfortable with being the junior partner, but the wonder of the world is peacefully shared. What would have happened if the Niagara had been on the border of India and Pakistan? War would have broken out over the small patch of green separating the two sections, for starters: if we can fight over the frozen water of a glacier, we can certainly go to war over the flowing torrents of a fall. Media would have constantly described it as the most scenic battlefield in the world. Every evening, frontier guards from the two countries, flaunting military plumes, would have high-goosed to assert sovereignty to the plaintive sounds of some forgotten British Indian Army hymn. The national flags would flutter high. In addition, 30 saffron banners would wave over Shiv temples on one side, and 48 green flags would test the breeze over mosques on the other. There would probably be one shrine at which troops from both countries would forget their differences and pay common homage. The most fascinating aspect of an Indo-Pak Niagara would of course be the fact that there would be no water in the fall. We would have drained the water upstream and diverted it to wheat production. At the bottom of the gorge, dhobis would be washing dirty linen in the trickle that survived the water-hunters.

Capitalism starts where nature ends. Cross the street from Niagara, stroll up a mild incline and you suddenly arrive on a street that makes money out of fear. It is an extraordinary fact that children who do not display the slightest tremor at the ferocity of nature, available free at the Niagara Falls, pay good money to enter Frankenstein’s Gothic-lettering laboratory. The fear-shop managed to mix up Frankenstein with Dracula, but that is a minor quibble. Puns rule on Fear Avenue: a deep baritone voice orders the passer-by to step into Frankenstein’s world to kill time. Across the street, King Tut’s eyes glow a deep red, his slab-shaped beard moves to and fro and periodically he utters a few words which, fortunately, I cannot decipher. Why does artificially induced fear, which needs to cross but an age-line to slip into laughter, work? It must be because the child’s imagination is still pristine, endless, and unburdened by the mundane facts that govern life’s reality. Is age the slow erosion of imagination?

The big debate in Canada is whether the looming labour shortage should be solved by immigration from abroad or more babies at home. (I shall bravely resist the temptation to labour away at another pun.) Canada has enough space, a First World economy and not enough people at the bottom end of the economic pyramid, hence the soft immigration policy. Basically all you have to do is turn up, even using political asylum as your stated reason, hang around for three years and they make you legal. An Indian working in my hotel told me that he had come for a cousin’s marriage 15 years ago, and never returned. There are a million South Asians in Toronto, and Punjabi is their national language. Some turn up to claim political asylum. That is probably why the waiter with a heavy Bangladeshi accent at one Indian restaurant told me that he was from Afghanistan. My sympathies are with this young man. Canada cannot be the happiest destination for Bengali sons whose mothers ordered them to wear monkey caps when the Kolkata or Dhaka temperature dropped in November. The winter temperature in Toronto can stay at minus thirty for months. You need a bear hat around here rather than a monkey cap.

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