I’ve left that infernal mask in my room again! The sense of irritation returns to my lungs, while my throat feels just like it is on the cusp of a horrendous cold – except, of course, that it has been that way for many days now. To be more precise, it has been that way since the unbelievably polluted smog came for us.
The head begins to hurt and a feeling of gentle nausea returns to its post: significant enough to be maddening, but not really powerful enough to reach any conclusion. In other words, it’s the worst kind of nausea, which you can really do nothing about – always lurking just out of reach like a detachment of mounted archers from the steppes, harassing you with the occasional arrows of cruel sickness, but never closing in for a decisive clash.
As I’m mentally kicking myself for not having brought with me that filtering mask I’d bought, the imagination begins to take over. Not that it needs to work very hard, given the conditions out here on the street, but it does play an important role in taking me from a smog-infested Lahore morning to that supernaturally foggy town in the Silent Hill series of games. The mind, already foggy from a lack of caffeine, begins to conjure up wild nonsense – every distant shape now seems likely to turn into one of the monsters from the game. The burning smell of the smog only adds to the feeling that you’ve wandered into a town where something terrible happened.
My Silent Hill experience is soon broken by an uncle-jee riding past on his motorcycle, smoking a cigarette. So, that takes his count of cigarettes smoked so far today to 52, I find myself thinking. One in the morning before he went to the privy, one as he zoomed past me on his way to work and then a good 50. The last figure is, apparently, what inhaling the smog over the course of a day is equivalent to.
I curse myself, asking why I had left home in the first place. Then I’m reminded of the moment last monsoon when I had waded through our flooded home, through water that reached above my knees, to get my morning shot of espresso. And that is why I was out on the street again. A few minutes later, as the day’s caffeine fix courses through me, I begin to think more clearly. Self, enough of this, I say to myself. Let’s do a morning news and social-media run!
On my Facebook feed, I see a major international media outlet’s story about Lahore and Delhi suffering together in the smog. True siblings, these two cities, heina? Their fates are so closely linked that they must even choke to death together. I’m thinking the usual South Asian Peacenik thoughts, and then I make a horrible mistake.
I go to the comments section. I really don’t know why people of my persuasion do this to themselves. Perhaps it’s part of being human – you want to know what people who share your geographical space are thinking, even when you’ve already had far too much exposure to their thought processes in life?
In any case, the top comment is by a young Pakistani woman, who believes that such pollution and the resulting smog are the natural result of having such stupid neighbours – a country where farmers burn stuff in the fields. Presumably she thinks on our own side of the barbed wire, we rely on hydroponics in agriculture. In the replies to that comment, a number of Pakistani males with Bros-in-Murree profile pictures and religious-themed cover photos arrive to smirk their approval. Some Indians, never ones to take such a challenge lying down, respond with terrorism-themed ‘humour’. It’s on!
Next comment – same story, more or less, except that it’s initiated by a Pakistani male. Next comment, same story. Repeat.
This, then, was my vision of the end of the world – Pakistanis and Indians duking it out on social media, unable to breathe in the smog, but each side still determined to let the other know precisely how much they hate them.
Then, in the next comment, the Indians decide to take the fight to the Pakistanis rather than relying on a purely defensive and reactive posture. Implementing a social media version of the Cold Start military doctrine, no doubt, an Indian arrives to hurl abuse at the Pakistanis and their beliefs. The defending Facebook warriors from the Pakistani side give a truly ‘fitting response’ with sneering references to cow urine. The exchange intensifies.
Meanwhile, the Pakistanis launch a counter-counter-attack over the course of the next few comment threads. Some random non-Desi people try to initiate a peace mission in the next few comments, trying to point out how silly a nationalistic spat over pollution appears to neutral observers. None of the desi trolls pay 1 paisa’s worth of heed. You see, for them, the only time when the world actually gets a ‘negative impression’ of their countries is when some undaunted woman happens to publicly criticise some aspect of the backwardness of our societies…
I would have hoped that when we’re choking to death on this Apocalyptic smog, one might see something reasonably worthwhile in their final moments – perhaps expressions of regret from humans at how badly we messed up. Or at the very least, some sense of solidarity. In South Asia, perish the thought.
This, then, was my vision of the end of the world – Pakistanis and Indians duking it out on social media, unable to breathe in the smog, but each side still determined to let the other know precisely how much they hate them. There was to be nothing but a mortal duel – to the knife!
Anyhow, I message a friend, declaring my intent to leave this horribly mismanaged, conflict-ridden, climate-change-ravaged hellish biosphere, to establish a colony on Mars. The friend tries to point out the problems with leaving a polluted but habitable biosphere for one which is entirely hostile to human life. I am quite annoyed by such a lack of imagination. We’re going to terraform Mars, I declare! (Google that, please: breath is precious to me now, as are finger movements on the keyboard…)
Crossing one Earthling friend off my list of confidantes, I message another. I tell him how, just like in The Expanse, I’m going to move to Mars, and then eventually stir off a revolt to win our independence from Earth. Then we’re going to set up a collectivist utopia there. Anyone caught saying anything remotely individualistic could run the risk of being pushed out an airlock after one warning. It will be a glorious, truly brave new world, I assure him. He actually agrees, commenting on the difficulty for Earth to retain control over its Martian colonies at such a great distance. I agree. We both note that our strategic position on the Red Planet would be analogous to that of the British colonies in North America – improving the odds for a successful uprising at some point.
And so, it is settled. Mars is going to be different. We swear it.
But while we’re trapped, suffering on this hellish biosphere on Earth, please do watch that TV series, The Expanse, if you haven’t already been doing so. It’s not every day that you’d find a science fiction story that takes both its science and its political economy so seriously – and ends up telling a gripping story. It’s the near future and humans have expanded into space, colonising not just Mars but the furthest reaches of the solar system. Earth’s massive population is ruled by the United Nations and kept in control by means of a universal basic income, surveillance and subsidised drugs provided by the state. Mars has won its independence and confronts Earth in a new Cold War. Important sectors of the economy are kept going by an exploited new under-class of humans who live and work in the Asteroid Belt their entire lives – managed and policed by the two planetary superpowers. The depiction of class struggle, bigotry and violent repression should resonate with all those who find our contemporary world going deeper into the abyss with each passing day.
Gone are the days when we dared to imagined a classless, stateless post-capitalist utopia on Earth, like in Star Trek. The writers of The Expanse series (both in the books and the TV series), in building up the setting for their space opera, seem well aware that when we do move out into space, we are likely to take with us much of the social and political conflict that we find here on Earth today.
If you need further persuasion for The Expanse, please note that George R. R. Martin loves it, apparently.