Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Climbing an active volcano feels like election 2019

An idle brain is the devil’s workshop, which is why it is when one is most relaxed that one has the worst ideas. A few weeks ago, freshly relieved of my employment, I washed up on the Aeolian Islands off the northern coast of Sicily. The hills were bright with wildflowers and birdsong, the sea ridiculously blue, the spring breeze cool. I poked around in churches and markets, and sipped cheap supermarket wine over home-cooked steak in a sweet little bed and breakfast (BnB). Relaxing, right?

The devil said: See that hulking island on the horizon, under a permanent cloud of smoke? You’re out of shape, you’re a smoker, and your friend won’t come with you, but you’re going to climb that volcano.

I told the devil that he could take a hike, but the next thing I knew, I was quaking in my shoes on a motorboat with a group of strangers, hurtling across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the island of Stromboli, named so that everyone would forever confuse it with a cheese and salami roll.

Of course I had to—how often does one get to climb an active volcano? It was thrilling to think that beneath the sea, the Eurasian plate was clashing with the African plate to produce these fireworks; the climb would wring the life out of us, but it would also be primal, beautiful, and worth it. That’s when it struck me: Stromboli was just like the Indian election I was trying to get away from. Thanks a lot, idle brain.

Stromboli, called the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean, has erupted continuously for a couple of thousand years. Ever so often, it has a proper tantrum and blows itself to bits, but the rest of the time, it just belches lava and volcano bombs into the air every few minutes, like a dyspeptic debauch.

The closer we got, the more I questioned my choice. Black smoke floated from the summit, the northern flank was a charred cliff where lava occasionally flowed into the sea. Fogs of smoke seeped endlessly from the mountain’s four nostrils. The gradient ranged from “Mad or what?" to “Valar morghulis (all men must die)". Everything about it screamed that tectonic activity—much like democracy—is not a game; that it’s powerful and violent and awesome, and could well go horribly wrong.

Stromboli is cone-shaped, so you start climbing the minute you step off the boat. When we arrived at the little town centre a few minutes later, I was already winded. I rented hiking boots and walking sticks at the rental shop, popped briefly into the church (pretending, as a good atheist, to be admiring the architecture), and then we were off behind our vulcanologist guide.

It began steeply, through vegetation on mud, and got steeper. Chit chat died very shortly. At the first rest stop, I creaked up red-faced and panting, but with some steam left in me. It reminded me of that first phase of the election in April, when the Prime Minister was milking the Balakot strikes and the Election Commission was making its first concessions to the Bharatiya Janata Party. How smooth that seemed, in hindsight. At the second rest stop, I was sweating like a tap, quads screaming, glugging water from my backpack. I thought of the violence and coercion in the polling booths, about complaints over electronic voting machines, and of voter names gone missing from Indian electoral rolls.

At 350m, I took a selfie in which I look like a ghost. In fine weather, the climb features panoramic views of the Aeolian Islands, the Tyrrhenian sea, and mainland Italy, but we’d been washed out. I was soaked in sweat and rain, hot and cold, face drained of all expression. One foot in front of the other, I told myself. So what if politicians were insulting each other, dragging the discourse down to the gutter, and getting caught with bundles of cash? Hopefully democracy would triumph.

At 500m, the vegetation stopped. Now it looked like a different planet, with unfriendly rules. It made me think of how we are now a country where someone accused of terrorism can be nominated. Standing against a grim wall of rock behind him, the guide said that anyone who wanted to go back should go now—this point forward required a commitment to go all the way. My body suggested that I quit.

Over my dead body, said my head.

Probably, replied my body.

I climbed to the rhythm of an internal chant: “One foot in front of the other, that’s all it is, one foot in front of the other." Very much like this instalment of the great festival of democracy, things just grew bleaker and bleaker, until naked rock gave way to volcanic ash at a 70 degree gradient, and the stench of sulphur. It felt like running uphill on a soft sand beach with rotten eggs stuffed up your nostrils.

Then there was a huge roar to our right, and everyone turned just in time to watch a shower of fire fly into the sky, part hellfire, part celebration. We all cried out together, involuntarily. The end was in sight. That propelled us through the last brutal 150m. We strapped on hard hats for the final ascent to the viewing platform at the summit, and finally came face to face with one of the most extraordinary sights on earth.

I won’t tell you what it was like at the top—that’s a different story—but I’ll tell you that it was magical. Back in Delhi to vote in one of the last sordid phases of these sordid polls, it suddenly struck me: This Indian election has been like the climb up Stromboli, except much uglier.

But the end is in sight, and it is always, always worth it.

Mitali Saran is an independent columnist and writer based in Delhi

Subscribe to newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperLivemint.com is now on Telegram. Join Livemint channel in your Telegram and stay updated

My Reads Logout