• Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Interview with Rajesh Talwar, Author of "How to Kill Everyone on the Planet"

on Aug 02, 2022
Rajesh Talwar

Frontlist: “How to Kill Everyone on the Planet” is science fiction. Could you please explain the term “Nuclear Matricide” mentioned in your novel?

Rajesh: Yes, aside from the main title to the play, that is to say, ‘How to Kill Everyone on the Planet’ a subtitle was also needed to explain how this task – of killing everyone on the planet – would be accomplished. Now that corona has been around for a while, we are all only too aware that, multiple and large nuclear explosions apart, there exist other ways of exterminating the human race. After some reflection, I settled upon the somewhat lengthy subtitle: ‘Ukraine and Other Recipes for a Nuclear Matricide’.

Now to your question: why ‘nuclear matricide’? I could have used ‘nuclear holocaust’ the more usual term, but despite the terrifying visuals the term originally conjured up, over the years the impact of that expression has become diluted and it even sounds clichéd. It does not bring forward anymore a visual of the almost unimaginable horror of something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Besides, the expression ‘holocaust’ is a homocentric term that tends to focus more on ‘human’ suffering alone.

It is our mother, Mother Earth, whom we are killing. Over the years we have been slowly destroying her by poisoning her skies, her forests, and her oceans. 

As an Indian, growing up in a culture that practices worship of the sacred feminine, there is nothing as horrific as killing your own mother, the one who gave birth to you and nurtured and cared for you.  It’s sacrilegious to even think or imagine how this could ever happen, but as the situation stands in the world today, it is a possibility that is very much on the cards.

In general, across the world, matricide, as a crime, seems to be a much more terrible crime than its gender equivalent, patricide or fratricide. Patricide and fratricide are relatively commonplace; there were ambitious princes in many cultures and kingdoms who thought killing a brother or even a father was par for the course in order to gain access to the throne. Killing your mother though – that is something else entirely.

Frontlist: You have decided to write your book in play style, which is a unique approach. Why did you choose this style of writing?

Rajesh: When I searched for plays about nuclear war, I found surprisingly few. Hundreds of novels, films, and documentaries have been made on the theme but there has been comparatively little theatre. Perhaps this play could help bridge that gap.

This was one reason to write out this book in the form of a play but there were other reasons as well. The format of a play is more direct and immediate and, in some ways, it hits the reader sharper and quicker than a novel would. Ukraine is a burning issue right now, and I wished to take out a book on the issue as soon as possible. As you know I write in multiple genres but I have found that I can generally turn around a play much faster than the time taken with a novel. A novel for me would definitely have taken much longer. With the nuclear threat looming over the planet, even as we speak, I did not want to delay publication any longer than absolutely necessary. In this regard, I must thank my publisher Bridging Borders for taking the book out in record time while retaining excellent production values.

Frontlist: Could you share some intriguing facts you learned while researching for this book?

Rajesh: The book involved a fair amount of research. While writing it, I wondered if there were any other species on the planet that was as suicidally minded as we are. An obvious choice was that of the lemming, a rodent-like creature, that is said to commit mass suicide. When I researched the issue, I found it to be an urban myth. Lemmings do not commit suicide. What actually happens is that they know how to swim but sometimes the body of water where they decide to swim is too large for their capabilities. That has given rise to this myth.  I did however discover that among the thousands of life forms that populate the planet, there is a snake that is known to eat its own tail without realising it. It makes you wonder if our human species is like that serpent then, with the difference that while the serpent does at some point realise that he is eating himself and backs off, we may not, till it is too late?! A third troubling fact I discovered was often we actually came close to a nuclear conflict, but in the words of an American diplomat ‘we lucked out.

Frontlist: How could a conflict between Singapore and Malaysia escalate into a World War?

Rajesh: You know that it’s a matter of historical record that the first World War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The attack was made by a Serb. So, because of the assassination, war was declared first on Serbia by Austria-Hungary and Germany who were allies. But Serbia was close to Russia – as a matter of fact, they are still very close – so Russia too got involved in the conflict on Serbia’s side. And then with more and more countries joining in, in next to no time, we had a World War on our hands.

Yes, a hypothetical scenario discussed in the play is that of a possible conflict between Singapore and Malaysia, and how that could escalate. Now, in military terms, Singapore has technical superiority being a richer nation, but Malaysia has a much larger army being more populous. In my play, both countries immediately start looking for allies. Singapore approaches China for assistance because as you may know, Singapore has a largely ethnic Chinese population. In the same way, in the scenario depicted in my play, Malaysia approaches Indonesia and Turkey for military assistance, which they agree to provide as fellow Muslim nations. And so, there is a possibility of more and more countries getting involved. Fortunately, in my play both US and China intervene and the crisis is averted. 

Frontlist: One of the situations you mention in the novel was undoubtedly influenced by Naveen Shekharappa, an Indian medical student who was the first Indian victim to die in Ukraine. Could you speak on the incident in more detail? 

Rajesh: Naveen’s death was a great tragedy, but his situation was not a unique one. At the time there were thousands of students in a similarly precarious situation. One of the characters in the play is also a medical student like Naveen. He has a beautiful young Ukrainian girlfriend, Olga, who is also a medical student. Together with one of Naveen’s other friends they are staying in a bunker to avoid artillery shelling and bombing by the Russians. Like Naveen, this boy also goes to buy groceries and while he is away there is a sudden resumption of artillery fire. Olga falls to her knees and starts praying for his safe return. Unlike Naveen’s truly tragic case though this boy survives. I introduced this scene because I thought it would bring home to Indians the horrors of the war in Ukraine in a relatable fashion.

Frontlist: We are gradually destroying Mother Earth by poisoning her skies, forests, and oceans. Meanwhile, we're attempting to establish civilization on another planet. Do you believe we have lost hope of saving our planet?

Rajesh: That’s an excellent question, thank you! Billionaire Elon Musk explained that part of the reason he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in journeying to Mars is to explore the possibility of creating human settlements there. Earth, he fears, may not survive. Elon Musk is not suggesting anything new here; the American cosmologist Carl Sagan raised similar arguments a quarter century earlier. The idea is that humans should become two-planet species or multi-planet species. Billionaire Bill Gates clearly believes it is far better to spend money saving lives on the planet, and his charity has, in fact, spent huge sums of money battling malaria, and helping to eradicate polio. Someone could say Musk is too pessimistic, and Bill Gates too optimistic. Without getting into a Musk versus Gates debate, I would urge them both and other billionaires as well to give some thought to the idea of what can be done to alleviate the risk of nuclear warfare. I would suggest to Mr. Musk that he should not give up on our planet so easily, and, with great deference point out to Mr. Gates, that he should pause to consider the work he has done, and all the lives he has saved while helping combat malaria and other diseases will come to naught in the event of a serious nuclear conflict. 

In general billionaires like to steer clear of confrontational politics; at the same time would it not be worthwhile for these gentlemen to spend a small fraction of their enormous wealth looking for ways in which the looming prospect of nuclear annihilation was significantly reduced? This could take the form of organising seminars, international conferences, creating a groundswell of public opinion, and so on and forth. The United Nations doesn’t need to have a monopoly on these efforts. Both Mr. Musk and Mr. Gates are great problem solvers and far be it for me to suggest what they could do to significantly reduce the risk of nuclear warfare. They can come up with their own innovative ways of handling this issue. If the world’s richest men were to come together on the nuclear issue, and I include Indian billionaires such as Mr. Adani who has recently replaced Mr. Gates as the world’s fourth richest man, it would make a huge impact.

Frontlist: In your book, you also discuss extra-terrestrials. Do you genuinely believe in them, or are they purely fictitious?

Rajesh: Let me speak a little about human self-love here. Nothing wrong with a bit of self-love as long as you are not vain. Alas, we are a vain, narcissistic species. We are immensely disrespectful to our planet. We believe that we are the most important species on the planet. Mr. Gates and his foundation spend hundreds of millions on saving human lives by combating diseases, a worthy task indeed, but does the preservation of ‘balance’ on the planet receive nearly as much attention? When I use the word ‘balance’ I mean that, with the possible exception of cockroaches, mosquitoes, and rats, all life forms have an equal right to subsist on the planet, but through our irresponsible actions so many species are now on the verge of extinction.

As an extension of this narcissism, of feeling special, many of us believe that Earth is the only planet on which life exists. It is said that we live in eternity, but we also live in an infinite universe. No one knows where it begins, or indeed where it ends, and if it even ends. Given the vast, seemingly endless expanse all around, and the presence of other universes beyond our own, the law of probability would suggest that other life forms must exist elsewhere too. Whether we can or will eventually establish contact with those extra-terrestrial beings is another matter entirely. 

One comment regarding the use of the word ‘alien’. For us, other developed forms of life on other planets, should they exist, are aliens but to them, of course, we are the aliens. If you stop to think about it, we are more alien than anyone else, the genuine aliens, because we behave towards our planet like uncaring outsiders, as if Planet Earth were not our own home, that we need to take care of, even as it takes care of us and our needs.

Frontlist: How could a nuclear power that is currently responsible become reckless or even rogue tomorrow?

Rajesh:  My play has a scene that has a populist jihadi leader trying to convince the Pakistani prime minister to launch a nuclear strike on India. The prime minister of Pakistan rebuffs that suggestion following the advice of one of his advisers. So far so good, and this is a fictional scenario but it remains true that there isn’t a shortage of jihadis in Pakistan and many of them are popular and are in politics. Just last year, in 2021, during a debate in Pakistan’s National Assembly, Jamaat Ulema Islam’s Abdul Shakoor suggested that Pakistan nuke Israel. Maulana Chitrali of the Jamaat-e-Islami provocatively asked the Pakistani army chief if the country’s nuclear weapons were just artifacts to be displayed in a museum. Tomorrow, God forbid, if you have such crazy people acquiring still greater clout in the Pakistani parliament, there is no saying what can happen. 

Also, consider the current conflict in Ukraine. We might consider Russia to be a stable nuclear power, but that could change. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago recently spoke of how there was no telling what could happen when a military superpower such as Russia is pushed to the wall or believes that it is pushed to the wall. Now Professor Mearsheimer is the author of a thick, but brilliant tome titled 'The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and is a kind of world authority on how great powers behave. If the Russians start to lose in Ukraine, President Putin’s leadership will be questioned, and rather than lose face he may feel tempted to push the forbidden button. You can only imagine what might happen next.

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