Radical hope

How do we heal from this carnage?

A college junior just died. Shaoli had thalassemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough haemoglobin. She desperately needed a Covid vaccine but couldn’t meet the government’s age cut-off. The virus caught up with her, and now she is gone.

Hospitals in Delhi, where I live, nearly ran out of oxygen jeopardising hundreds of lives, a piece of news that doesn’t sound unbelievable anymore. People everywhere are gasping to their deaths on the streets. Makeshift crematoriums burn non-stop as the pandemic eats my country, but politicians continue to preside over packed election rallies in my home state of Bengal, where my parents live. The state has already got its own mutant virus strain, feared to be sneakier and more potent, but voters have to be corralled and elections won. In Nashik, Maharashtra, 24 Covid patients died after an oxygen leak. States are bickering over oxygen cylinders. Meanwhile from May 1, everyone above 18 can get a vaccine off the free market. Not Shaoli. I don’t know anyone — not a single human being — who has not been singed by this crisis. Many of Sanity by Tanmoy’s supporters are in devastating strife. They include Priya, one of India’s finest media entrepreneurs and a dear friend. Priya contracted the virus for the second time while already battling long Covid and is now in the hospital. Her entire family has tested positive.

Those of us lucky enough to avoid the hospital have been waking up from our fevered delirium to retweet requests for plasma and ICU beds and register rapidly diminishing shock at the apathy and unpreparedness of the people in power. I am trying to organise all these thoughts so they have some degree of coherence, but I all want to do is break my laptop, set fire to my desk, and run away. The human brain isn’t wired to process the vastness of this disaster. What is happening right now doesn’t end in grief. It is the end of time itself. A mushroom cloud of doom that is swallowing us whole and regurgitating us as a cautionary tale for the world.

As someone asked on Twitter: after this carnage, what healing?

Help me preserve the memory of hope

Before Covid entered my home a couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany for this newsletter. I’d centre it on radical hope — an idea founded on accepting that the world is going to shit but a better world is possible, even though we may not know yet what that world might look like. Radical hope, often invoked in climate activism, is the opposite of what it sounds like. It isn’t escapism or naive optimism or the bestselling self-help gospel that you can make good things happen just by wishing them into existence. Radical hope, as I understand it, is brutal. The pathway to renewal it holds out passes through the inevitability of destruction.

The philosopher Jonathan Lear, who has a book called Radical Hope rooted in the cultural struggles of America’s Crow people, explains:

What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified?

Through this pandemic, we’ve heard from intellectuals and thought leaders that this is the Great Reset we deserve. There is a Noah somewhere assembling an Ark that holds the seeds of a new world.

Today, mouthing the word ‘hope’ feels monstrous. So I need your help to imagine hope without guilt.

What is hope worth right now?

How do we save its memory from breaking?

If you live in a part of the world that has come out of seemingly bottomless despair, tell us how you did it.

God knows, stories are all we have right now.

Leave a comment

PS: Laura Oliver just published this interview with me for the Reuters Institute. I sounded so hopeful just days ago, and now I can’t read it without an overwhelming numbness. Maybe you’ll see in it what I can’t, not right now.

Until next time, may sanity be with you.