Yes, yes, we know. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. That distant glow we can see beyond the bend in the tunnel may just be a bulb marking the halfway point-the actual end may be much further away. Yes, if in 2014 we were staring into the abyss, now we are in full plunge, waiting for some hook or protuberance from the side to catch us and keep us from falling further, so let’s not even talk of ‘climbing out of the hole’ just yet. It’s too soon to know where exactly we can place 2016 in the anni horribili rankings, and of course different groups of people (and different countries) will have very different rankings, but even so it’s clear that the just-departed ’16 was a classic, one of those years at which you will look back and shudder, one of those which will provide endless party-game fun in the future, as people compete to name their worst moment from a year that was full of them.
Perhaps one can argue that it wasn’t the fault of poor, innocent 2016 at all, that a lot of what happened during its 12-month period can be put at the door of the criminals, say 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2014, or even that notorious old trio of gangsters, 1989, 1991 and 1992. That, however, is a fruitless argument, for each of the other accused could equally well blame some other year, or period, that preceded and begot them. As the Beatles sang, ‘Sunday’s on the phone to Monday, Tuesday’s on the phone to me.‘
Alternatively, one could also turn the whole thing upside down and ask: who says 2016 was a ghastly year? Surely we can see that 2016 has been an epically amazing and happy-making year for some people. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for example, would have begun her 2016 with far more anxiety, fear and nervousness than she ended it. In January, we who were about to get a whole poultry-farm’s worth of egg on our faces were cheerfully predicting that in the state elections the TMC would have a tough fight to stay in power. By March, the corruption accusations and the collapsed flyover in north Calcutta made us all the more certain that La Didi was on her way out. As it happened, she increased her majority by a chunk, drew the sting from the bribery videos and buried the flyover enquiry. In the Anglosphere, think of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, both of whom started the year planning, at best, spoiling manoeuvres, vile mischief that might or might not shake things up somewhat to their advantage. Here they are now, their smiles Siamese-twinned, grinning from ear to ear to ear like a pair of old ivory poachers who’ve been given a free run of the elephant sanctuary. Think of Bashar al-Assad, the Butcher of Aleppo, who would have started the year fearing for his life while leafing through brochures for high-end villas in Southern Switzerland and Argentina, and who has now reattached his seat to his dictator’s throne with a little help from his friends directly north.
Finally, imagine Tsar Vlad I bringing in the new year, the teetotal tyrant rocking samovar tea while his subordinates knock back the vodka and Oscietra caviar: ‘Dimitry? Igor? What do you say? How did we do this year?’ ‘Vashe Imperatorskoye Velichestvo, your Imperial Majesty, I think you were brilliant.’ ‘You are a ryock styaar my czar! Under your iron and cunning leadership we did very well!’ Vlad, Dimitri and Igor then go through the list of their 2016 hits: Brexit, tick; EU in turmoil, tick; Gas pipeline through Turkey, maybe-probably; Trump, huge tick; Assad saved, big tick. ‘Imperial Majesty! All this is great, but what is also truly brilliant of you is the filigree detail of the smaller stuff, what you’ve pulled off with our South Asian friends for instance. 2014 was superb, of course, but to monetise our control with this paper money tiger, unbelievably masterful!’ ‘Majesty of the Great Thighs, what shall we do with their next year’s state elections? Pull that clown further down a notch or two? Or push him up?’ Vlad sips his tea and reveals his perfect teeth in a simulacra of a smile. ‘You know I like to avoid the dramatic. So we will proceed with our customary subtlety. I think it’s time for Agent Orange and Orange Peacock to, er, further their friendship and start looking at China with seriously hostile intent. But let’s see, let’s think about what works best for us.’
WE ARE SEEING THE END OF THE NOTION THAT ALL HUMANS ARE EQUAL, THAT EVERY LIVING BEING HAS INALIENABLE RIGHTS
Speaking of elephants, the biggest elephant in the room is, of course, the environment and the ongoing ecological disaster in which we find ourselves, us the only culprit but far from the only victim. Already we see certain realities installed: recurring toxic air conditions in major cities, from Delhi to Beijing to Paris, the crazily high mid-winter temperatures in the Arctic ice, the whittling away of the Sunderban delta and so on and so forth. Even if Trump doesn’t dump on the Paris agreement, even if China pulls back its emission gears a tad, even if Narendra Modi & Co. don’t go through with their reckless plans which would destroy so much of our fragile ecology, we are still headed for hell in a very fast hand basket. Clearly in 2017 we are going to have to keep praying for miracles, even as we fight tooth and nail to make that Ecocalypse a bit more tolerable, survivable. How do we do this when people are pointing out that we are now at the end of the age of Humanism? There are strong and cogent arguments that the deadly admixture of environmental implosion, rampant global capital and deeply cynical political skulduggery has led to the wildfire spread of the feeling of every man for himself, of every group for itself, the larger notion of a humanity that lives in peace and justice be damned. That this explosive alchemy of factors probably means the end of all the positive ideas that have staved off a fully loaded kalyug over the last 70 years since the end of the Second World War. That we are now seeing the end of the principles that drove decolonisation, the notion that all humans are equal regardless of colour or religion, that each and every living person has inalienable rights, no matter in what context they find themselves in the world, that the unimaginable inequality between women and men has to be erased.
We can’t have answers to these questions immediately, not even temporary working answers, not in the January of the year following such a turbulent cluster of 12 months such as 2016. Yet the questions keep coming at the individual in a barrage, and from all angles. Recently, a well-known writer-film-maker friend of mine got a call from a young reporter working for a big English daily. The young woman wanted to know what my friend thought of a recently released film that had attracted some controversy. ‘Ma’am we are doing a For and Against piece, so are you for this film or against?’ ‘I haven’t seen it,’ said my friend, ‘so I don’t have any opinion.’ ‘But ma’am,’ wailed the young reporter, ‘surely you must have some take, na?’ That’s where we are: in a post-truth, post-humanist world one must have a take on everything, some strong and clear opinion, even stuff about which one knows nothing.
Which side are you on? 2016 or 2017? Now, I haven’t seen more than a few days of 2017, none of us have, but I want azadi from 2016. So I’ll go with 2017.