At my sister’s home in Hartford, we have been playing pass-the-parcel with a cough. It started with the two grandchildren, then my niece, her husband, my sister, me, Bins and now it’s back with the grandchildren! Once Bins gets a cough however, he refuses to let it go without a struggle. The spasms start in his toes and work their way up his long wiry frame. He writhes and chokes and falls about on the floor with his eyes bugged out, until the demon stuck inside his throat is dislodged. Then he collapses, panting and gasping like a fish out of water, until he recovers his breath.

During this week-long ordeal, he has been reading a book called The Martian by Andy Weir. I had seen the film on-board the flight to the US. According to Bins, the book is better. “It explains in scientific terms how a man can survive almost two years alone on Mars,” he says. “I already know all that,” I say. In the film, Matt Damon gets stuck on Mars after a severe storm forces his five crew-mates to abandon the mission, thinking he has been killed. “Pah,” says Bins dismissively. “You were only staring at Matt Damon, learning nothing.” He thumps the book. “Here, you’ll find out exactly how he rationed his oxygen, made water from hydrogen, grew potatoes using his own shit and managed not to die!”

He begins another fit of coughing. “At least read it so you can appreciate what it’s like to be running out of air!” he croaks. “Why would anyone want to know that?” I ask, but I open the book to humour him. I’m convinced there won’t be anything there to keep me turning the pages. And I am wrong. It is an absolutely riveting read. In fact seeing the movie adds to the ease of comprehension. The author provides mounds of technical detail to explain how a lone astronaut might survive the nearly-airless, waterless wasteland that is the Red Planet, but the movie provides a handy visual reference to at least some of the details.

The question is, why do we care? It’s a fictional ordeal, after all. It takes place in the context of an environment so hostile as to leave most of us feeling very grateful never to have to face anything similar.

The astronaut in the book is not especially heroic or charismatic: all he wants is to survive. According to Bins, however, the book reminds every reader of the extreme fragility of life.

“It’s what I feel while I am coughing,” he explains, still gasping a little now and then. “That my body is a little, warm planet and all it needs is a bit of air, a bit of water, a bite of food. Yet on Mars? These simplest of things are not there.”

So we gasp and suffer and harvest our own urine along with the astronaut, seeing our own fate in his every bruise and bone-fracture.

“And he looks like Matt Damon,” I say to Bins. “That really helped me get through the book.” “Pah,” says Bins, beginning to cough once more.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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