Guru is a science fiction aficionado but when he stumbled upon a book called Hawaii by James Michener, he was hooked. Michener won a Pulitzer prize for his first book, Tales of the South Pacific. In his book Hawaii, he starts with the geological formation of the islands, how the Polynesian seafarers made their way there and then how American missionaries arrived with organized religion. In Micheneresque style, he tells the story of a region through a generational saga.

Found an interview with James Michener. It’s worth listening to.

Another book about place was a book Madhukara got called Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent. In the book, Gabrielle Walker who is armed with a PhD in chemistry writes lyrically and accessibly about the relationship that human beings have with the coldest, most inhospitable alien terrain on earth.  Antarctica’s geological history is unusual. While most of the single continent migrated upward, Antarctica was covered with ice and in some parts even have Dry Valleys, places where there is no ice at all as there has been no precipitation of any kind and for which reason they have been christened as Mars on Earth.

Antarctica has always been a back of the beyond place with an inflow of researchers only from the last century, following the Antarctic Treaty of 1961. She demystifies many pre-conceived notions about the South Pole. There are penguins there, of course, and they are very similar to bipeds in that they even hug! But penguins aside, Antarctica throws up many questions and has many stories to tell. Walker traces the journeys of the explorers who started it all including Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen. Walker talks about researching in the Antartica from a feminist perspective and in terms of male and female ratios, which is interesting.

She mentions a problem that this frozen terrain presents- mental health issues. Madness is extremely common in extremely cold places, a premise that has been used by Stephen King in his horror novel The Shining, so to go to  Antarctica, you need rigorous training. For Madhukara, the book reminded him of the precarious adventures of climbers in Everest. It opened up a whole range of questions from who owns resources in Antarctica (this was swampland and since dinosaurs existed, the chances of fossil fuels existing here are great) to the possibilities of space mining, the movie Elysium and whether you need a visa to go to the coldest place on earth.

The idea of several countries sharing space was reminiscent of The Treaty of Tordesillas signed by Portugal and Spain in 1494. According to this treaty, the lands to the east would belong to Portugal and the lands to the west to Spain. The conversation veered to claimants of geographical relics and ancient places. The dubious discovery of Machu Picchu and the bungling of the Archaeological Survey of India when it came to the way Stupas and other reliquaries with Buddha’s remains were lost were discussed, not to forget Elgin Marbles that did not belong to Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, but was heritage belonging to the Acropolis, Athens. Some relics in Pompeii have also been removed from the scene and moved elsewhere. The past has been misappropriated many times in the name of heritage and exploration.

This was an intense session. More in Part 3.