The Sisterhood of Carnage Century

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 3:38pm

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Courtesy of Danyel Tharakan, Design by Kate Glad and Liz Bigham

The century is young, but not naive. Ask any person you know, who inherited its turn, about its carnage. They might recall for you mass shootings and gun violence, or catalogues of assaulted women around the world who are forced to hide, or mounting xenophobia worldwide. They might tell you about genocides and civil wars, naming Syria and Sudan on a long list of their griefs. Make no mistake that promises made in the 2000s are tied to guns, wrapped in disrepair, and stacked alongside economic hardship and nationalist violence. Make no mistake that the century has been one of carnage. Millennials have survivor’s guilt just by being alive. 

But be alive we must. 

I moved to Delhi for a summer at 20 and was welcomed by triple-digit temperatures that held me like the swaddle of a woolen-blanket. The cab ride from the airport north was a long journey, with traffic in a dozen lanes at a near standstill for hours. I was not bothered by the delay, enraptured instead by the breadth of movement on the streets — busses and trucks, motorcycles filled beyond capacity, cows and their herders, open-air rickshaws, and sellers of fruits all sharing the lanes. I felt charmed by the functioning of a system which moved with a set of rules I had yet to understand. “This is why we have bad air in Delhi,” the driver said, “too much traffic.” Still, I found the roads miraculous, density and all. As we passed through the city, he informed me of the sight on my right, which without affection he called “trash mountain.” The Ghazipur landfill, I would learn, was rivaling the Taj Mahal in height.

I remember June for its late dinners of paneer paratha and steaming chai at the local dhaba, where a sisterhood was born among women with immeasurable dignity, strength, and certainty — each woman an opus of her own. Among the sisters was Aditi, who always saw things as they were, and graced every conversation with a quiet knowingness only she had. Tanya was bold and unafraid and brought out others’ truths by admitting to her own. Vishi could impose levity at any moment, conjurable only by a quick and pointed humor like hers. Nivedita used historical fact to invoke in us a contemplation of our ethics, reminding us of our situation in the broader arc of humankind. Meghna gave us anecdotes laden with a deep sincerity, and Garuika’s habitual thoughtfulness combined with her embrace of freedom made her a fast friend to any lucky enough to know her. My worthiness for sitting at the table could be contested, and my frequent inability to fulfill its social graces goes undisputed, but the chorus which resounded from our coming together grew only louder, clearer and more melodious with each passing day.

Many breezeless nights we spent on the dhaba’s lawn, sometimes in shared quiet contemplation and others loud laughter. We joined together in the way sisters often come to unite: by exchanging stories of our liberation. Praises we sung for our independent journeys toward self-fulfillment, consensual intimacy and political freedom. “What a queen!” someone would say, and the rest of us would coo in support. Bound in these stories of small victories we’ve accumulated toward our autonomy were the harsh anecdotes of assault that we, too, have accumulated. But a bruised sister in a sisterhood heals, and their company made Delhi a home without fear.

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Courtesy of Danyel Tharakan

This isn’t to say the city was entirely free of danger. Heavily armed officials and being alone in night alleys brought their risks. It seems that no matter what corner of the world we sit in, the unlikelihood of our survival against the forces-that-be seems something worth celebrating. To be 20 in this era is to ask, “why did the gunman skip my school, and the movie theatre I attended? Why must it be my democracy, and these borders? By what accident was I born inland? By what accident born at all?” 

Each of us has a fragile body that somehow makes it out alive every day, damaged as we are, by similar forces of patriarchy or poverty or grief. None of us is spared, but some of us, it seems, entirely by accident, have dodged the worst of it. I know the world is unequal in its distribution of pain, and that my share has been comparatively small. But no matter what size slice of the ache we’ve been dished, we’ve all been dished it and — if you’re reading this — been spared some of it. 

And yet, despite our perseverance thus far, some forces will not spare a single one of us. The grief which looms, casting its shadow on the unfolding 21st century, is climate change.

Not a day passed in Delhi without reference to some climate-induced ailment. For those living through the Carnage Century in an air-conditioned, Western home with plentiful water and clean air, the conversation may seem confined to the dystopia of late-night news. But in India, where a single summer bred witnesses to a deadly month-long heat wave, an outbreak of Encephalitis claiming over 200 childrens’ lives in Bihar, Chennai’s fatal water shortage, and unbreathable air suffocating the capital, the conversation is a staple.

India’s complexity mimics that of the new century, riddled with paradoxes and imposing on us a cognitive dissonance we must perpetually untangle. The century knows both heat waves and the polar vortex; India itself fends off floods and droughts simultaneously. Paradox is written into millennials' way of life. In every corner of the world, insufferable pain and unimaginable beauty walk hand in hand.

Yes, alongside Carnage Century’s aches are its gifts, too numerous to count and too frequent to forget. Take for instance Tanya’s 20th birthday. She danced through the night, friends in tow, glowing with a joy unparalleled. How beauty pervades! That night, she blocked all climate change tags from her social media. “My gift to myself,” she said proudly, “is to pretend for a single day that it isn’t happening.” (The next morning, she said grimly, “Back to reality,” and the tagged news flooded back in.) Another afternoon, Gauri and I were sharing ice creams, the sweetness of mango rivaling all other modes of refreshment, when she laughed and said, “At least I don’t have to plan for 60. I mean have you ever even pictured it? Being so old?” I hadn’t. “It’s only going to get worse, you know,” she said morosely, slurping sweet pulp from her cup. “More violent. I didn’t sign up for going through what we’ll have to go through.” How pain pervades.

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Courtesy of Danyel Tharakan

An undying sense of entitlement in the generation before mine makes it hard to believe that young people can remark about their short, climate-bound lifespans. Gen-Xers assume they will have long lives, actively plan for them, and feel slighted by any mention of potential ruin. 

“I’ve always wanted to live there,” Vishi said about the islands near the country’s southern coast. It was another dhaba lunch, the paneer gloriously thick and the chutney miraculously spicy. This was my classic order at the neighborhood hut, and I ate it with such focus that I often lost my sense of time in conversation around me. “Then no Ph.D. for you,” Gaurika retorted. “I give them five years before they go under.” Suddenly swallowing was a challenge. I pried about the question of choosing a place to live. “It’s just a choice we make,” Tanya said. “If I’m not asthmatic, perhaps I’ll pick Delhi, and willingly give up that decade I thought I’d have, had the air quality not prematurely destroyed my lungs.” I nodded. “But, maybe, instead I risk it on Bombay, which gives me at least a decade before the sea takes it back. Not enough time for children, but who wanted those anyway?” No matter which way you spin it, we’re running a race against time and circumstance that’s stacked against us, and stacked unfavorably for those in places dense with careless multinational corporations, coastal cities and unbalanced ratios of populations and resources. 

Weeks later, I traveled south to Mumbai where monsoon season was in full force. Refreshing, hot rains soaked me to my bones. We played, laughed, danced. Strolling by the ocean was an untamable joy, though momentary, for the dangers were pronounced. Stopped railways, canceled flights, pollutants lurking in deep street water and innumerable car crashes dotted the city. Before I was to travel farther, Vishi called to warn me of the floods and wish me safety. My dance turned to a tiptoe.

I’m still learning how to understand my experience in a world bent into paradoxes. Am I allowed to love it? Am I allowed to mourn it? Cities made unlivable by the forces of the century are stacked, too, with breathtaking landscapes and a heritage so rich, ancient and particular that all other parts of the world pale in comparison. Must beauty and pain walk hand-in-hand?

At the end of July, I went to a posh concert hall tucked in the city’s southside with Garui and Nivedita. On the way there, we piled onto each other on the rickshawsome rules I was beginning to understand. Ditty, a spoken-word poet and musician extraordinaire, sang gorgeous melodies with captivating lyrics about the slow dying of the planet. We drank sweet, red wine and listened to her Eulogy of a Sparrow. My heart felt full, and laden with the ache of awareness. 

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Courtesy of the Author

If I report to you the world beautiful, will you think me naive? If, instead, I paint the world with its ails, will you blame me for not looking hard enough? 

I don’t know how we will greet our existential crisis as it knocks on the door. I don’t know whose door it will come to first, or if it has been knocking and we have been telling it we aren’t home. I only know the knocks will get louder as well as more persistent with time, and we’ll need to hold one another close when they come to stay.

On my last Saturday in Delhi, Tanya squeezed my hand while I added three piercings to my already-decorated ears. I am always afraid of how it will hurt. I imagine it unbearable, asking the piercer repeatedly to tell me the length of time I will experience pain. (He always exaggerates.) And I emerge smiling, ears anew, friends close. I know that being loved and heard in Carnage Century does not make pain obsolete, but does make it bearable. 

The decade has made each of us witness to emerging recklessness and greed, as well as unquantifiable technological advances for connectivity and meaning. Neither the ills nor joys of the era can be totaled (though those of us in empirics keep trying). Many days, the aches grip us, sometimes prompting awareness and action, and sometimes only apathy. Still other days remind us how much goodness persists without our asking it to. Luckily for us, alongside destruction and grief have emerged sisterhoods, thick enough to withstand the melting century.