Between Flood and Fire

Between Flood and Fire

The spread of precarious conditions across the world can lead to despair, but it points to possibilities as well.

Flooding in Assam in 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

The following is part of a series of essays, Why Im (Still) a Socialist, in our Fall 2022 issue.

A young friend went to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn earlier this summer. It was his first time on an American beach, and I’d hyped the experience up to him. “How was it?” I asked a few days later. “Amazing,” he said. He talked about the subway ride to the beach, the concession stands, the cold water. “A plane flew over our heads while we were there,” he said. “It was trailing a banner that said, ‘Have hope.’” That sounds nice, I thought. Who among us doesn’t need hope these days? He continued: “It said, ‘Have Hope. Keep Faith. Say No to Abortion.’”

The banner was flown in the sky in the days before the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, before it overturned a New York gun law just weeks following the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, but it encapsulated perfectly the cruelty that marks so much of life in the United States. They do not just want us to suffer. They want to remind us of the fact of our suffering. On a beautiful summer day when you are on the beach, at the threshold of land and ocean, where you can, depending on your mood and sensibility, do nothing, read a book, stroke your way through the salty water, or think about the line of terror leading from the Black Atlantic to climate change, there are people who will hire a plane to fly a banner and put their hopeless message on the sky. They will remind you that in an ownership society, some people believe in their right to own the bodies, minds, and lives of others. This is the barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg once warned would await us if we failed to create and shore up a just, equitable society.

I grew up nearly 8,000 miles east of this ownership society, in a place much more incoherent in its attitudes toward ownership, with people still making their transition into modernity. My father was a refugee who crossed the new national borders created by the British departing the Indian subcontinent in 1947, a process that led to more than a million deaths, the displacement of many millions more, and countless sexual assaults. I never saw the village my father grew up in. I do remember, at eighteen, moving my mother and him—he was paralyzed by this time—into the house he had built on the floodplains of Assam. A year later, while I was away at college in Calcutta, my mother and he had to be rescued by my sister’s husband in a boat when the river upstream overflowed its banks and flooded the neighborhood.

It had not been much better in the picturesque town in the hills looking down at Assam where we had lived until then. My high school years were marked by the ripple effects of ethnic riots. The paramilitary patrolled the streets to enforce a curfew; during a brief morning window, we ran to the market to purchase essentials; in the evening, I could smell the burning flesh of cows from some distant settlement that had been attacked.

Who did what to whom is less and less important to me as the years go by, and this is true whether I am thinking about the events of 1947 that marked my father’s adolescence or the small-scale conflicts of the 1980s that marked my own coming of age in the northeastern borderlands of India. What seems more significant now is that what I had thought of as events of the past, happening on the remote edges of a country that was itself peripheral to the great centers of power in the West, have spilled over in every direction. The floods and fires of my youth now constitute the national pulse. The corporate globalization forced upon India since the 1990s—remember all the cheerleading by Western mainstream media and liberal leaders—and the subsequent rise of Narendra Modi have led to large-scale devastation, all taking place to the beat of a toxic nationalism that infects every pore of public life.

Yet this is no longer just about India, or one particular nation. With the rise of Trump, the pandemic, and the onset of climate collapse, there are fearful symmetries between that incoherent periphery of my youth and the seeming certainties of where I now live, in New York. My teenage son was in isolation during lockdown much the same way that I was during the curfews of my youth. The flooding in Assam, increasingly severe over the decades, is mirrored by the flooding of subway stations and people drowning to death in basement apartments. The menacing graffiti in my hometown is echoed, across decades and oceans, by a scrawl at the subway stop on 116th Street and Lenox that reads, “N—s Indians Chinese S–cs Out.”

One can despair at this brutal leveling, even if the leveling is not total—to be an American is still a great privilege; it is still, like whiteness, like masculinity, and like wealth, to be in possession of an undeserved, unearned superpower. But the spread of precarious conditions across the world points to possibilities as well.

In my youth, caught between flood and fire, I discovered my own liberation in the idea of justice for all. I was enchanted by Marx’s critique in The German Ideology of professionalism, of the hardening of occupations into class and caste, of people being straitjacketed into an occupation primarily for fear of losing their “means of livelihood.” I also found his description of an ideal communist society thrilling, a realm where it is “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” 

Caught between the floods and fires of today, I am glad that I’ve never jettisoned that notion of equality and freedom, although its scope has expanded. “I would annex the planets if I could. It makes me sad to see them so clear and so far away,” arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, a forerunner of today’s petty tyrants, once wrote. I dream the reverse, of bringing to this planet a cosmic socialism that already exists.

In Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light, the Atacama Desert in Chile comes alive against the barbarism of Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed regime of torture and death. The film cuts between the stories of women, many of them elderly, picking through the desert sands for remains of loved ones disappeared by Pinochet and astronomers looking out through an antipodean sky at the mystery of the stars. Guzmán affirms that we are made of the same elements as the stars themselves. That is the way to look at the sky and the world, I believe. Have hope, yes. Keep faith, absolutely. Always say yes to the beautiful worlds that are possible.

Siddhartha Deb is a writer and journalist. His new novel, The Light at The End of the World (Soho Press), will appear in 2023. He is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.