The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them.Lois McMaster Bujold
“The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.” Said Lois McMaster Bujold, the American speculative fiction writer. So, I’m speaking for the dead around me in spite of being told by an important gent from the “System” that there is no point in talking about the dead. They are gone anyway.
Just take a pause, Sir, and ask those living, the ones who lost their dear ones – every waking moment they think only of the dead. Every waking moment they feel “What if we had done things differently?” or “What if we found that oxygen bed on time?” The “What ifs” are deafening, not allowing them to sleep. The dead might be gone but their chilling voices remain. Many of them died not because of the pandemic but for lack of medication, oxygen, ventilator or a hospital bed. By denying their voices, we do a disservice to them and to us. The dead can’t speak so the living needs to speak up for them.
We are not new to mass-scale deaths – they have happened before. Whether they were riots, wars, natural or man-made disasters, we have seen it all. But what we are facing today is something we have neither seen nor witnessed in our living memories where every household is battling a disease or succumbing to death depending on the severity of the disease. It’s reminiscent of the Spanish Flu, or kala-azar as it was called in India, which claimed a whopping 12 million lives. Apparently, in these hundred years, we learnt nothing. Today, as we deal with the pandemic, there are scores of virologists and epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, vaccines, and advanced scientific help. But all of this has failed miserably as the stench of death has started to pervade the posh upper-middle-class homes which till date existed in a bubble protected by education, money and easy access to the powers that be. The COVID is a great leveler as right from ministers to corporate honchos – everyone is running from pillar to post trying to organise beds in hospitals or oxygen for their loved ones. Death robs you of dignity but in this case, it robbed you of personhood – you were just a statistic in the hospital register or the crematoriums, and the illusion of governance that had existed till now showed itself for the sham it was. The ‘system’ had collapsed, our TV anchors reported. They were losing their own but they dared not name the people behind it. So, yes, we do have a culprit – it’s none other than the infamous ‘System’.
Meanwhile, we have been asked to “remain positive” by the powers that be. I try to make sense of it. Was Anne Frank, the posthumously famous diarist positive enough as she wrote her diary concealed in the rooms behind the bookcase till the family was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944? The two years (1942-44) must have been ‘positive’ and ‘therapeutic’ – who knows? In recent times, we had Natasha Narwal, the Pinjra Tod activist who was finally released from jail to be able to perform the last rites of her father. As she stood in a PPE kit giving her father the final red salute – was that a positive message good enough for the grand speech (a one-sided speech made by the ‘System’ from time to time) which in its current edition plans to collate positive messages?
In these dark times, we have indeed seen positivity – it has come from the indomitable spirit of the common wo/man who has rushed to help others in whichever way they could. Right from helping at the hospitals to the crematoriums, these angels have stood up for humanity – some, of course, even had to face police complaints for daring to help their brethren. These selfless COVID heroes have done what the “System” should have done and because the “System” didn’t rise to the occasion, it didn’t like other people rising up to it either. The System’s unsaid verdict is clear – behave like an ostrich as if nothing has happened and if something does happen, just die quietly without inconveniencing anyone. Believe me, System ji, the Indians are listening to you – just that the number of deaths is so many, the cover-up is becoming just a tad difficult.
Long back, I had watched a video of animal culling which had shaken me to the core. The animals were kept in unhygienic situations and starved and they witnessed the culling as one after the other they were made to lie on the line before the electronic axe came upon them. It was noticed that the animals didn’t protest, they lay down patiently, putting their necks exactly where the axe would fall. The acceptance of death was eerie, if not positively frightening. In India, we are slowly reaching there! As these deaths have necessitated mass cremations, there was talk of even using public parks as crematoria. A ghastly video of dead bodies floating in the holy river Ganga has surfaced. It is similar to what had happened in 1918 as the noted Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala had penned down in his memoir Kulli Bhat (1938) translated as A Life Misspent, (2016). Nirala’s description of the river Ganga, laden with swollen, abandoned dead bodies, bear witness to the scale of the devastation that befell India. “My family disappeared in the blink of an eye. All our sharecroppers and labourers died…,” he writes. The fact that the Ganga is swollen with bodies yet again after 102 years is because of our collective amnesia.
The news of deaths is coming in thick and fast. From the first COVID attack to the current one, the virus has chosen to go up the economic ladder – so the affected party is people like us who felt sorry for the migrant labourers but could not empathise because of the class difference. During the previous lockdown, we made Dalgona coffee, tried new recipes and complained of boredom. Now, there is no severe lockdown, yet we stay at home and dread looking at our phones lest more news of deaths pour in.
A young colleague types in a WhatsApp chat saying that his O2 is going down, two days later he is gone. Soon the smiling young family’s (husband, wife and their 7-year-old son) photograph does the rounds of our Whatsapp group chat again, the only change being the RIP message attached to it. Another colleague rushed from one hospital to the next with her aged father, they were shooed away from the gates till the father breathed his last in the car. She cremated him alone with just her driver for the company. Our neighbour of 30 years passed away, all my mother could do was to stand on the terrace with a mask on, as she wept with the neighbour’s son who stood on his balcony crying helplessly. COVID has taken away the simple pleasures of weeping into each other’s arms. As far as the deaths of members of the academic community, we don’t have the numbers yet. Aligarh Muslim University recently came up with a figure of 44 death, of which 18 were Professors. They have gone a step further requesting for a central team to fight the new variant. Delhi University, my workplace, hasn’t put out the death toll yet. However, given the deaths being mourned on the DU teacher’s Page on Facebook and on WhatsApp groups, the number can’t be too small. Hope the University collates the list lest we forget yet again.
In all this, there is indeed some good news coming in – when some patient manages to get a plasma donor on time or is able to find an Oxygen bed in the hospital, when the weary doctor picks up the phone and assures the family members that all is well, when the Twitterati tries to match patients with beds, when volunteers cremate the bodies which family members have abandoned, when an unknown person sends you a home cooked meal because your entire family is down with COVID. These and many more humanitarian gestures fill up for where the “system” has let off.
So where exactly is the system? Last we saw, they were busy campaigning asking more and more people to attend the rallies, COVID be damned. Since then, the “System’ has gone into hibernation fulfilling a dream for an “atmanirbhar” Bharat (or a self-reliant India). “Don’t expect hand-holding folks, go deal with the Pandemic yourself. Manage your own oxygen and hospital beds and if you fail, don’t act like a cry baby. Just die quietly and be done with it” the ‘System’ seems to be telling us in no uncertain terms. Add to this, the fancy house the ‘System’ is building -it will see the demolition of our colonial past and will usher in the legacy of the great majoritarian premier. If this isn’t good news, what is? Haters and corrupt foreign media might talk about the stench of death all around but who cares for them anyway? You and I can only hope that the palace has enough mirrors where the “System” can see itself stark naked just for once.
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