The Vulnerability of Home on an Afflicted Planet, From California to Calcutta

When Every Displacement is a Catastrophic Breach

By  Torsa Ghosal

In August, heavy showers lash the city of my birth, Calcutta. From the Chowringhee neighborhood of central Calcutta, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in a poem dated August 20th, 1928 (translated by K. K. Dyson):

In the dripping evening, friend, you brought me
a single ketaki. I was by myself
my lamp unlit. In the tossed green of a row of arcea-palms
fireflies flitted, unflagging in their quest

The August rains of Calcutta from the years preceding my move to the US are less lyrical. Instead of the Kadambaand Ketaki flowers of which the poet speaks, I smell sewage. My college was a mile or so away from Chowringhee. From the classroom’s window, I would watch rain skim the tapering head of a deodar tree and know that I had to wade through muck, accumulated over hours of incessant rainfall, to catch the homeward-bound metro train. If I had a prayer for the clouds, it would be that rickshaws run. A narrow, open drain flowed sluggishly in front of my apartment, carrying polythene bags and household waste, but a little downpour and it would flood the alley like a mighty river. Yet, when I think of Calcutta monsoons now, I picture a rain-washed city soaking magical light.

One blurry morning last August, I woke up to find my car covered in tiny ash-color particles. I live in Sacramento, California, and drive a hybrid Toyota, like half of my neighbors. The color of my car is not white, but pearl, the sales staff at the dealership had said. To my eyes—that of a new transplant in California—ashfall on pearl suggested the vehicle’s paint peeling off. My first impulse was to take it to the dealership. The second was to Google. The particles covering my car were debris billowing out of the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires. Ash travels thousands of miles during the fire season. A few hundred miles from the burning forests, the Sacramento Valley had become a bowl collecting the remains.

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#CaliforniaWildfires was trending on social media. I posted about the ashfall. A friend advised me to keep my passport and other essential items ready, in case the fire reached Sacramento and I had to leave home in haste. The comment disturbed me, though given the speed at which the North Bay and Thomas Fires spread in 2017, I knew, it was pragmatic. My discomfort, then, had less to do with my lack of knowledge than my unwillingness to imagine the possibility of evacuation. I did not want to believe I can be forced out of home, and that despite the fact that I know something about leaving homes—I migrated out of Calcutta, eight years back, and I grew up listening to my ancestors’ stories of being forced out of their homeland, the present-day Bangladesh, little more than 70 years ago.

I was born the year James E. Hansen testified before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources about the onset of global warming. It was 98 degrees in Washington, D.C. on the June day he testified and central Calcutta was flooded the August afternoon I was born. Over the course of my lifetime, global carbon emissions increased. My mind still finds ways to block the worst out. And in this, I am not alone.

Can we deny that the history of colonialism, domestic, and international conflicts is fundamentally connected to scrambling over resources?

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” David Wallace-Wells writes in an essay, first published in New York Magazine, that opens his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The book approaches the dearth of collective action addressing climate change as a crisis of imagination. When we are told that the earth will be 3.2 degrees warmer by 2100, even if all the commitments made in the Paris Agreement were to be immediately implemented, “Human experience and memory offer no good analogy for how we should think of those thresholds.” So Wallace-Wells offers readers worst-case scenarios to consider—imagine Dhaka in Bangladesh completely flooded, along with hundreds of other cities. Imagine the territorial reach of wildfires in the United States sextuple. Finally, to make the threat of climate change real, Wallace-Wells appeals to the idea of home. “You can choose your metaphor,” for what climate change is, but “You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.”

Imagining the sweeping scope of climate change requires us to first accept the vulnerability of our homes.

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I moved to Sacramento to teach contemporary literature at a university. Between August and November 2018, an eager group of undergraduate students studied contemporary fictions about forced displacement and migration with me. From a windowless classroom, we would conjure up the ebb and flow of peoples, their desires, and delusions, though this often meant coming up against the limits of imagination.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, one of the fictions we read, follows characters migrating from one city to another in a world where wars are commonplace and endless. The protagonists eventually land in Marin, California, but Hamid leaves readers with the sense that there are no final stops. Once uprooted, you are always in transit. To my students, endless war as well as endless migration were foreign. Some of them would tell me about their ancestors’ journeys from Mexico, Philippines, and South Asia to the US. Still, war and displacement belonged elsewhere, on the fringes of imagination. In Exit West, Hamid never names the protagonists’ place of origin. I am not sure during which group exercise my students decided that a war-torn region from where characters come West must be that fuzzy piece of land called the Middle East, but that impression stuck, making its way into their written assignments.

“In the wealthy West,” Wallace-Wells says, “we’ve come to pretend that war is an anomalous feature of modern life, since it seems to have been retired as fully from our everyday experience as polio.” Students in my university are not quite the beneficiaries of Western wealth. They are casualties, I think, of a certain indifference with which the powerful in the West consider the day-to-day realities of the relatively powerless communities. The sense of remoteness associated with wars and the accompanying death and displacement is also exacerbated by the nature of the armed conflicts with which the US military remains involved. The veterans in my class have served elsewhere, deployed in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and so on. Therefore an extensive armed conflict displacing civilians within the US in the near future—the premise of Omar El Akkad’s novel American War—comes across as an unlikely event.

American War imagines a second civil war fought in America over the use of fossil fuels. When we were reading the novel, the Woolsey and Camp Fires broke out. The fires didn’t reach Sacramento, but, they affected the community and, in a few cases, destroyed family homes of students, faculty, and staff. The Sacramento Valley was a smoke bowl again. The university shut so that we wouldn’t  breathe the hazardous air.

After the first couple of days, I was tired of following the health advisories and remaining indoors. Outside, my eyes didn’t itch, and my head didn’t ache. I did cough a lot, though. Grading student responses to American War from a coffee shop, I couldn’t escape the notion that their thoughts on the polluted environment of 2075 was also a commentary on the dense haze pressing against the café’s glass walls.

The California wildfires of 2018 surpassed the scale of those from the previous years, becoming the “deadliest” in modern history. The distinction is, however, unlikely to last—wildfires will recur. The next fire could be deadlier. Stephen D. Fillmore, a wildland fire manager, wrote for Slate, “Lately it seems that the fires that defy our initial suppression efforts are escalating rapidly and catastrophically. Fires are doing things we aren’t used to them doing.” Wildfires do not happen because of climate change but the fires burn longer, cause more wreckage in a hotter planet.

wildfire Wildfire in Yosemite National Park, 2009, by Kip Evans.

Should we take measures to prevent them? Biologist and writer Maya Khosla’s documentary on post-fire biodiversity Searching for the Gold Spot: The Wild after Wildfire provides reasons why we should not, one of them being the black-backed woodpecker that thrives in burnt coniferous forests. Can the devastation be prevented? According to Fillmore, “The unpalatable truth is that there may not be an overarching solution to California’s wildfire problem.”

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, fictions that earlier seemed to be about elsewhere—about a different place or time—came home. The political rhetoric that demonizes refugees and immigrants had motivated me to design this course. The growing resistance to immigrants in the US and elsewhere, along with the narrative of “crisis” used to justify the separation of families at the US-Mexico in summer 2018 were my immediate points of reference. However, when the university re-opened in the last week of November, the same fictions sparked conversations that I could not have foreseen. The Camp Fire had been contained by then but families based in or around towns like Chico and Paradise had nowhere to return. The experience of forced displacement was more proximate than before.

On FM stations, I would hear homeowners’ insurance companies advertise quotes in anticipation of future disasters and wonder how many people in the US will evade forced displacement during their lifetimes. As we continue to wage wars against one another and the planet, isn’t home becoming an obsolete concept?

As we continue to wage wars against one another and the planet, isn’t home becoming an obsolete concept?

Catherine Malabou, a French philosopher, observes that Western thought generally refuses the possibility of complete change. From Greek mythology to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, there are numerous instances in Western literature of people, animals, or objects altering their external shape. However, deep down the being stays the same, unaffected by the outward transformation. The Western imagination insists on continuity, believes that essences of things endure.

Despite such conviction, however, Plutarch’s famous paradox asks whether a ship with all its components replaced can fundamentally remain the same ship. Fire consumes a house that took a lifetime to build. The structure is reconstructed, return on the regular insurance premiums. Is it home? Malabou would say, no. An accident or trauma produces a definite cut—“a brain injury, a natural catastrophe, a brutal, sudden, blind event cannot be reintegrated retrospectively into experience.” A catastrophe is a breach in history.

Collectively, we are yet to acknowledge climate trauma. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that one in every 110 people globally is a refugee, an asylum-seeker, or an internally displaced person. This includes climate- and weather-related refugees, along with the population that armed conflicts displace. Storms and wildfires already cause thousands of people within the US to move every year. Climate-related displacement also lays bare structural injustices at the global level: Least Developed Countries (LDCs), such as, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Ethiopia, though not major greenhouse gas emitters, face the direst consequences. Nepal is a land-locked country, but home to some of the highest glaciers in the world. The Himalayas are projected to lose one-third of their ice by the end of the century. Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Timesnotes that the Himalayan thaw will have devastating consequences for as many as 1.6 billion people. The concept of “environmental migrants” has existed since the 1970s, but climate refugees are neither internationally recognized nor protected. The backlash against refugees in the US and other nations, along with the obliviousness to patterns of climate-related internal displacement, sustain the illusion of peace and environmental stability.

Since extreme weather, contaminated air, and displacement feel remote until one experiences them firsthand, artists are simulating the horrors in an attempt to draw attention to them. British visual artist Michael Pinsky’s Pollution Pods—geodesic domes—recreate the heat and smog-filled air of London, New Delhi, Beijing, and Sao Paulo. A fifth dome simulates the clean air of Tautra, a Norwegian island, for comparison. Pinsky identifies the installation’s audience as the West that breathes relatively cleaner air while its craving for cheaper goods poisons the environments of other regions. Pinsky hopes that “the visceral memory of these toxic places will make us think again before we buy something else we don’t really need.” Tackling the crisis of imagination through simulation, Pinsky can evoke guilt and possibly even impact individual choice. But will that be enough?

Those of us not in climate change denial mode try to “do our bit.” Avoid plastic, drive electric cars, if we can afford them, or go “hybrid.” We believe that our choice of having or not having children has planetary significance. But when we “do our bit,” what are we really doing? While picking paper bags over plastic in a grocery store, we exercise choice, though as Wallace-Wells explains, “Plastic panic is another exemplary climate parable, in that it is also a climate red herring. […] while plastics have a carbon footprint, plastic pollution is simply not a global warming problem—and yet it has slid into the center of our vision.” Plastic is at the center of our vision because, as individuals, we can “do something” about it.

In the face of powerlessness, the ability to do anything feels empowering. During the Camp Fire, an acquaintance based in Chico texted me to say she was upset with herself for leaving town at the fire’s onset, when her acquaintances hadn’t yet evacuated. She felt guilty for being able to get away. I understood this. That I had donated to GoFundMe set up for victims of the fire had to do with my own guilt for being this close to the wreckage and yet safe.

Though the university shut for 10 days during the fire, the fitness studio I attend was open. The group classes were packed to capacity. We crunched and planked with the doors bolted. We clapped at the end of each session for making time for ourselves, a standard practice in such classes. But we cannot sweat off the world’s toxins, and avoiding plastic bags will not save us.

Actions and policies that draw on individual guilt get us nowhere when the US, a major greenhouse gas-emitting country, declines any guilt or debt on the global political stage. Todd Stern, America’s Special Envoy for Climate Change to the 2009 UN negotiations in Copenhagen, maintained that “We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that.” Climate-related art or parables that evoke either fatalism or individual guilt shroud the bigger picture. Wallace-Wells considers large-scale carbon capture from the air and other geoengineering strategies worth exploring to mitigate the present climate crisis, but his optimism on this front is guarded. He argues that only a combination of collective political will and international policies will make any difference.

The implications of climate change are manifested everywhere and, yet, remain intangible. It must be, in part, because of the stories we tell.

Contemporary studies claim that climate change multiplies the threat of both international conflict and civil unrest. Syria is offered as an example of this. Wallace-Wells observes that, “From Boko Haram to ISIS to the Taliban […] drought and crop failure have been linked to radicalization.” This line of argument is contested, like many others related to climate change. However, can we deny that the history of colonialism, domestic, and international conflicts is fundamentally connected to scrambling over resources? Or that natural resources become bargaining chips for conflict resolution?

During winter vacations from school, I used to go on picnics with my family to various spots by the Ganges river in India. That is how I saw the Farakka barrage, a dam India had constructed in 1975. Farakka barrage diverts water from the Ganges River System and flushes the sediment deposited at the Calcutta port. The mile-and-a-half long Farakka bridge offered a panoramic view of the river, which is probably why the area was a popular picnic spot. Post-lunch the larger picnic groups, their bellyful with mutton and beer, broke into dance on the embankments. The latest Bollywood and Bengali film songs played on their portable sound boxes. But for my sister and me the highlight of the trip was the spell of water discharge from log gates. We hadn’t seen waterfalls, and I liked to imagine that this was it.

What I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine was that the barrage, built 10 miles from the Bangladesh border, increased the river’s salinity on that side, affecting human health, agriculture, fisheries and the livelihood of fishermen. Water remains a tipping point in India-Bangladesh relations as it does in India-Pakistan relations. India and Pakistan, despite their long-standing hostilities, honor a treaty signed in 1960 to oversee the distribution of water between the two countries. In 2016, when political tensions between the two countries heightened, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that blood and water cannot flow together. By 2018, India had decided to expedite the construction of three dams that would prevent the water that was allotted to India under the treaty but remained unused from entering Pakistan, rebuffing Pakistan’s objections to the projects.

Disputes about water-sharing can only aggravate as these densely inhabited tropical countries become hotter, more river beds dry up, and groundwater depletes. Yet, conflicts among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh will probably continue to be understood in terms of religious and ethnic hostilities, rather than in the context of the changing climate.

My father’s father and his siblings—children of a schoolteacher in Faridpur, East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh)—began trickling into Calcutta, West Bengal, in the 1930s. They did not own much land or property, and Calcutta, which was once the capital of British India, offered more opportunities to economic migrants like them. The male siblings put up in dormitories until they had the means to bring their spouses. Soon the large, joint family was cramming small, rented houses. The first years of the family’s settlement in Calcutta coincided with the Second World War.

The backlash against refugees in the US and other nations, along with the obliviousness to patterns of climate-related internal displacement, sustain the illusion of peace and environmental stability.

The British were exporting grains, essential goods, and human labor from the Indian subcontinent in order to sustain Britain and those people who the British forces were liberating from the Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, crop disease, flood, and cyclone diminished India’s rice harvest. The result was the infamous Bengal famine of 1943. Winston Churchill said that Indians brought the famine upon themselves by “breeding like rabbits,” though as economist Amartya Sen contends, the colonial government’s policies were responsible for the crisis. If grains were imported to India during this time, they were distributed among those who served the British army or toiled in industries the British prioritized. By 1940, my grandfather, having earned a master’s degree in English from Calcutta University, was employed as an administrative officer of the Alipore Jail, under the British Raj. His profession seems to have aligned with the wartime priorities of the colonial government. So, while the large family did not thrive, they also did not starve. In 1947, with the end of the British Raj, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, Calcutta and Faridpur stood on opposing sides of the border.

Families, like nations, choose the events that constitute their history. When asked why my ancestors remained in Calcutta when the subcontinent was partitioned, their homeland being forever relegated to the “other side,” my oldest aunt mentions the communal violence. We are Hindus, and the Muslim-majority East Bengal that first became East Pakistan and, then, Bangladesh (after the 1971 war) had no place for us. But it is also true that the life my father’s family carved out in West Bengal, India, had strategic advantages. Here my ancestors pursued careers that were less exposed to the vagaries of the weather. My father believes education and government service saw the family through the turbulent years of famine, war, and Partition. Had the family remained in East Bengal, without a large piece of land to farm and hoarded harvest, the famine would get them.

Sundarbans National Park. Sundarbans National Park.

The single-minded focus on communal violence in the aftermath of Partition overshadows the fact that currents of movement from Bangladesh to India cannot be solely explained by that factor. Saline intrusion, riverbank erosion, and rising sea levels cause communities to move away from the coastal regions of Bangladesh. Disappearing mangroves on the Bangladesh side of Sundarbans also uproot communities. Many of these displaced people make their way to India. However, India is unlikely to remain the last stop on the trail. It is posited to be badly hit by the climate crisis, as is US where I am currently based.

I go to Calcutta for winter holidays. On my last visit, as soon as the flight landed, there was a niggling sensation in my nose. I sniffed burning coal. It took my sleep-deprived, jetlagged brain a few moments to gather it was the haze. Runway edge lights bore through thickets of smoke. I was home.

The international airport in Calcutta has a ceiling textured to resemble bamboo sheet, a nod to the foliage of rural Bengal, I suppose. Enlarged and screen-printed, Tagore’s verses in his flowing handwriting run on the ceiling. Outside the terminal, individuals waiting for the arriving passengers had pollution masks covering their mouth and nose. In December, the city of my birth smells of charred remains.

A few years after India’s independence and the Partition, my father’s father was deputed to form the Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC) along with nine other colleagues. My mother’s father was also among this group of founding members. That is how my parents’ families met in 1955, and my birth, decades later, owes something to the company’s inception.

Meanwhile, other relatives—primarily, on my father’s mother’s side—who had previously lived in Dhaka, East Bengal (East Pakistan by that time), came to Calcutta as refugees. This group of newly displaced relatives took turns to squat in the already crammed house in which my grandfather and his siblings were living. It would be a while before these relatives were allotted land on the outskirts of Calcutta, where they could build a mud hut. They were lucky—not all refugees from East Bengal were rehabilitated.

Eventually, my father’s maternal uncles found employment as drillers in ONGC, camping in remote locations for exploration projects. The grueling working conditions translated to financial reward. Where there was a hovel, I have only ever seen a bungalow with a garden. It is impossible to spend a summer night there anymore without air-conditioning.

Now a prominent public-sector energy company, ONGC has been indicted for flouting environmental norms by the Central Pollution Control Board on several occasions. The company is responsible for the oil spill in Kathiramangalam in 2017. When facing protests for contaminating water used for irrigation, a regional communications team of the company released an online video in which a man corrects a seemingly naïve woman’s perception that ONGC’s actions influence farming conditions. The problem, the man says, is the lack of rain, not the Oil and Natural Gas Company.

Generating energy is a priority in a developing country like India, and it is playing catch up with developed nations by taking the same route: increasing the emission of greenhouse gases. In this scenario, whose responsibility is the climate?

My grandfather did not see the home he built in Calcutta shrouded in smog. But I have. This would be generational injustice if I could self-righteously claim to have taken paths that are radically different from those of my predecessors. Using paper bags in place of plastic does not count for much. At the same time, being alive today means belonging to a generation that can push for cultural and political metamorphosis and reimagine life on the planet in ways that avert some of the forthcoming disasters. Our generation is hard pressed for time.

Torsa Ghosal
Torsa Ghosal
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a novel, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India, 2017). Her shorter writings have appeared in Catapult, Bustle, Entropy, Michigan Quarterly Review Online, Himal Southasian, and elsewhere. A writer and professor of literature based in California, Torsa grew up in Calcutta, India. She edits the South Asian literary magazine, Papercuts. Website: www.torsaghosal.com. Tweets @TorsaG.





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