Views from the third world. Earth.

Misfortune Favors The Paranoid

A mother losing her child to the ocean in Udappu. People formed a human chain and got the child safely back

When COVID-19 hit we suddenly had to be paranoid about everything. Breathing. Going outside. Having supplies. I really thought things would get back to normal someday, but they haven’t.

It’s just been wave after wave, not just COVID but compounding disasters. Sri Lanka avoided COVID once but then it got us. Then cooking gas started both exploding and running out. Then we got power cuts. Then fuel ran out. Now the whole economy has collapsed.

We left the shores of normalcy long ago. Now we’re treading water in the open ocean, holding onto driftwood if we’re lucky. Lots of us just drowned.

Before each wave, there’s been some sign, some inkling, and each time it’s been unbelievable. Each time I’ve thought “that couldn’t happen” and each time it does. At this point, I’m paranoid AF. We react immediately to any perceived danger because we know where any hesitation gets us. Underwater. Acting like we have anything to stand on is just folly. We’re all just barely holding on.

They say fortune favors the brave, but these are not fortunate times. Misfortune favors the paranoid. So that’s what we are.

Money Paranoia

Sensing a coming shit storm, we went to the gold shop’s on Sea Street, but so did everybody else. We decided to come back another day. But that day never came. Gold prices skyrocketed. Misfortune doesn’t take rain-checks. It is the rain.

Then the currency started collapsing and the wave of global capital that had washed over us after the war started to recede. We couldn’t get debt to service our debt. We had followed self-serving western advice and never industrialized, and so we had no real way of earning dollars. And so the rupee started to crater. It lost 50% of its value in a few weeks. The black market rate which actually functions is even worse.

We had all of our money in savings but that was losing sometimes 10% a day. So we pulled out what we could and bought anything that we could, in my charming parlance, ‘shove in our butts and flee with.’ Watches, gems, anything that was available here. We even held crypto for brief periods (like hours) just to sell it abroad and get another currency. We also tried to give away as much as we could to the poor, because god knows the gods are angry.

At every moment we did this before the need became obvious, because by then it was too late. When we felt things were wrong we went out and bought physical assets that day. And sure enough they disappeared or the prices went up the very next day. When the rupee started cratering we moved money out immediately. And sure enough, it only got worse in the days to follow.

We’d been saving money for a while, but this was different. This was salvaging. We lost probably 40% of our savings which is fine, people have lost 90% of their food. We managed to protect a bit only because we were paranoid and we reacted quickly, but we should have done it earlier, when we first had an inkling. Misfortune has no mercy.

Everything Paranoia

Ever since the food fiasco with COVID, whenever it seems like something is going to run out, we buy it. We don’t wait for a better price, we don’t wait for a another opportunity, we just take it and go. Capital is sadly the only defence against a collapse in capitalism and we’re lucky enough to have it. The only skill is to deploy it quickly.

When power cuts started we quickly bought rechargeable fans and lights and, sure enough, they were gone from the market within days. When fuel started running out I suggested trading in our diesel for an electric, but now it’s too late, that car is just a paperweight. We bought bicycles instead and, sure enough, those prices have gone up too. Everything has to run on electricity or fire or human power now, we’re a post fossil-fuel society, which is post-apocalyptic, really.

The worst is cooking because, even if you can afford food, how do you cook it? Natural gas supplies have completely run out. People roll their gas canisters into these kilometer long queues and just wait there for hours or even days. And this is cooking gas, a few months later you have to roll the rock down the road again. It’s a Sisyphian task.

We luckily don’t have this problem because we have an induction cooker, but these cost like 20k now and are in short supply. Our extended family bought up hundreds of them and distribute them to all and sundry, but it’s not enough. People are buying/gathering firewood and cooking over fire, like we do in my Achchi’s house, but it’s completely different in an urban environment.

It’s not just energy, energy is an input into everything. If there’s no transport the kids can’t get to school or — if they can — the teachers can’t. If there’s no transport goods can’t get to market so prices go up. It’s just everything, everywhere, all at once. So then we get the strong sensation that should just leave, which is another problem. Misfortune has no home.

Passport Paranoia

By the time it becomes obvious that you need to at least be able to get out, so many people have got this idea that the passport office is clogged. I went and lines just snake around the whole building, I went home to book an appointment and the nearest one was a month out. And I’m lucky. I have another (white) passport.

For people with just Sri Lankan passports, they’re fucked. The best we can get is quasi-slavery in the Middle East, where employers take away our passports, don’t pay us, and beat, rape, and abuse us. That’s where we are, where capitalism wants us to be, where imperialism put us. Just waves of cheap or free labor, to be beaten and discarded whenever. I’m a lucky one for now good reason. I just happened to be born in Canada, which I had nothing to do with. I was just born.

Even for our criminally lucky family, it’s hard. All the documents we didn’t have in order, all the visas we needed, if it wasn’t done before, it’s not getting done now. Everything takes months if it’s possible at all. We spent months wating for a British visa, of course after paying those ghouls up front.

Today we just got word of a decision and we’re going to pick it up now. But I requested for my visa to be couriered, and that doesn’t make sense anymore, there’s no petrol. You can’t make plans months or even weeks ahead because basic assumptions will topple. I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow. You have to be paranoid all the time. Misfortune has no chill.

Everything Together

A promise that my wife and I made each other is that we’d be paranoid together. If one person senses danger we don’t debate or even discuss it, we just do it. It’s like running between the wickets in cricket. There’s no time to talk about it. Once you get the signal, you just run.

The other promise is that we’d let the other person fuck up without blaming them. Because it’s inevitable. No one can manage this much uncertainty, and neither of us were that organized in the first place. This promise is really hard to keep and this level of stress is awful for a marriage.

And we’re the lucky ones. Our marriage was stable before, we have money, and a strong extended family. I know this stress must be tearing less fortunate families apart. It’s not anybody’s fault but it sure feels like your fault all the time. Misfortune has no loyalty. You’ve got to fight to keep your relationships together while everything else falls apart.

Paranoid Forever

I used to look fondly at the old-timers that avoided cassava because of memories of the ration days, or reused things, or always asked if we ate. But that’s me now. I’ll be paranoid for the rest of my days. My kids don’t even know what the fuck normal is, they were toddlers when this all started. I wonder how they’ll be. This is all normal to them. I’m in this weird generation that still clings onto a stable future that never was before and never will be.

Every generation that led to me—from amoeba to mammal to ‘great’ ape—has survived, usually in incredibly harsh conditions. And yet I’m incredulous when much simpler challenges are offered to me. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s I guess. I was born in the era of ‘fucking around’ and was unfortunate enough to live in the era of ‘finding out’. Now we’re back in the great rush of history that scholars proudly proclaimed the ‘end of’ and boy does it suck. May you live in interesting times, as the saying goes. It’s a curse.

The only way to survive this era of misfortune is to be paranoid, all the time, about everything. The minute something might be running out, we buy it. The minute money itself might disappear, we move it. And the minute we might be unsafe, we move. It started with COVID, when we weren’t save to breathe or go out anymore, but now it’s everywhere.

Plus the fact that COVID-19 is COVID-∞, thanks to western nations not being paranoid and trying to merely ‘flatten the curve’. Now wave after wave has flattened almost everyone, and we’re all floating out at sea without life preservers. Just grab whatever floats from the dead world and hold onto it for dear life.

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi was gambled away by her husbands (yes, plural) in a game of ‘dice’ (or Parcheesi)

It’s customary to end articles with some hopeful message but don’t fucking ask me for that, I’ve got it worse than you. All I can tell you is a story, which is the image I led this article with. I was in Udappu for the Draupadi Amman festival. The whole village went out to the ocean—which was incredibly rush at that time of year—to give offerings to the gods. While we were there the angry ocean swept a child away, and the mother rushed in, screaming, helpless.

But then—just as quickly—the entire village jumped in, everyone that could swim. A man grabbed the child, someone else grabbed that man, then someone grabbed him, and so on and so on. They formed a human chain, hand holding hand, until they pulled the child out of the ocean and into their mother’s arms. I don’t know what the lesson is in that, but it happened. I certainly can’t say that Draupadi protects everyone, I tried firewalking with the village later and burned my feet into papadums.

All I know is the fear, and the worry. Gods only know the outcomes, and they’re not telling anyone. All I can tell you is react quickly, react together, and just be ready to get it wrong. Misfortune favors the paranoid, but I have no idea where fortune comes from. All I can tell you is good luck. These days are like dice, and sometimes they just come up wrong.