Even as I was urging myself to sit down to write this, I was inexorably drawn to the news coming in from Afghanistan and Meghalaya. Some days, it feels difficult to hold onto hope in the face of all that is unfolding around us. As I stared into my screen, each news report and video clip bringing with it a sense of heaviness, I found myself thinking also of these past few months in India and of the second wave we have experienced—in times of deep distress and trauma, how do we stay afloat and turn to what makes us human? What does it take?
Reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, written over a decade ago in 2009, it felt like answers were to be found in her study of disasters, born of some mixture of human and natural action or inaction. Studying 5 disasters and its social consequences (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the devastating 1985 Mexico City quake; Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 deluge of New Orleans), she examines how these moments sweep away barriers that otherwise isolate people, instead inspiring the “better angels of our nature”. She found that what emerged from danger, loss and deprivation was a sense of group solidarity among the survivors and a feeling of intimacy and unity otherwise rarely achieved. She writes, ‘The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.‘
When I think of the first lockdown in 2020 and the second wave earlier this year, what comes to mind are shelters, community kitchens and relief projects that emerged from a collective human spirit rallying in the face of governance and established institutions that had collapsed. It included running errands for the elderly and volunteering on helplines for those experiencing loneliness and isolation. Much like the disasters Solnit studies, communities of mutual aid and neighbourhood societies of cooperation emerged in this period through hyperlocal infrastructures of care and through online communities that began organising for hospital support, oxygen and medication. Solnit writes, ‘The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.’
‘Solidarity, not charity,’ is the essence of this coming together where interpersonal relationships are fostered that often cut across generational, gender and political divides. I think of the two big protests India witnessed—Anti CAA and the farmers protests—and how they brought together volunteers to set up makeshift stages and shelters, provide food, water, medicine, and brought in blankets and electric heaters by also mobilising through social media. ‘When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change […] Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the realm in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire and are each our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers,’ writes Solnit.
As we live in a time of crisis, I find myself asking the question: Who are you? Who are we? How do we want to show up for ourselves and each other? As always, we would love to hear thoughts on this, how you practice mutual aid and what shape and form it takes for you. We hope that you and yours stay safe and well.