Pandemic is So Short, Grief is So Long
This story first appeared in The Quint
Unlike other times, people might not forget how and when they grieved. And that is what the “system” is afraid of.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Neruda has worked almost always. Except now. It should not be a surprise. These days nothing works: government portals, telephone numbers of hospitals, minister saheb’s sifaarish, expensive drugs bought from life-saving black-marketeers, or even faulty oxygen concentrators.
A city heaves a collective sigh of grief. Yet, it is inured to grief. While everyone appears to be grieving, nobody is grieving. There is something else to be done instead of grieving. Another life to be saved, or another loved one to be cremated.
We Need to Talk About to Grief
Many of us, including the highest level of political leadership of the country, seemed upset when our grief coloured the pages of international publications. We felt belittled when “vultures” feasted on our grief. The same people are silent today when dead bodies are being torn apart by hungry birds and animals because they can’t be cremated or buried. Impoverished family members can’t muster resources or social cache to afford a dignified farewell; Ganga, the ultimate purifier, is accorded that duty. In such scenarios, whither grief?
Yet, we need to talk about it. And many of us are doing so. In the face of impending doom, patients are recording their last battle in images, video clips, or words. Once they bid goodbye, family members are putting out these vignettes as a form of collective mourning. Because personal, ritualistic grieving is denied to them, this novel form of bidding farewell is bringing bereaved families close to each other. On social media, there is a somber wake in progress, punctuating a constant stream of messages seeking help for those who are still alive.
Game of Numbers and Grief
Grief cannot be quantified, other things can. A lot of attention has been paid to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 that claimed a substantial part of India’s population. Yet, when official records are accessed, a gaping hole is found with respect of people who perished.
History is repeating itself in ways more than one. Some deaths are deemed lesser than the others. In rural Uttar Pradesh, a village saw fifteen deaths in the last ten days. Oddly, almost everyone died, officially at least, of heart attack. There seems to be another epidemic in the offing, if official records are to be believed.
It is interesting how bereaved families also do not want to acknowledge that the tragedy has reached their doorsteps, too. It is something still out there, impacting other people in faraway lands.
Anecdotally speaking, “Fridge ka thanda paani” seems to be another mysterious killer. Sore throat, fever, heaviness in chest, shortness of breath, weakness, death.
Perhaps, this is the only way to cope with grief for some. The reality might raise questions: personal and institutional. If we do not acknowledge something, it cannot impact us even if it does.
We need the things-are-not-that-bad intoxicant to deal with grief. Who knows, even the State needs it, too!
Memory and Grief
Funny thing, memory. The gaps in national histories are filled by individual, personal memory. When the State does not want these holes filled, it wants to falsify any personal memory project. It’s not allowed to be a part of India’s memory that when the capital city was gasping for oxygen, the construction of our new polis was ongoing in full swing. Photography and videography are now prohibited at the Central Vista construction site.
Funny thing, memory. While India is topping the charts in COVID-19 deaths and daily cases, we are reminded about “positivity”. This attempt at erasure of our grief is perhaps the State’s own coping mechanism, since it has failed on every single parameter. We shall be encouraged to remember only positivity. Not positive cases.
Funny thing, memory. Each time a new obituary is written, the older one gets relegated to background. There are crowds everywhere: in hospitals, at vaccination centres, at free-food stalls, and even in our grieving hearts. We promise to remember everything and everyone. We promise that when “all this is over”, we’ll grieve properly. Till then, memory and spectating the present jostle for space.
The “System” is Afraid of Grief
“Am I the government? Why am I forced to do their job?”
“Are we doing enough?”
“What is the point of it all? We cannot make any difference?”
“Every life I cannot save is weighing down my conscience.”
All expressions of grief that will take a long, very long, perhaps even a lifetime to subside.
And that is what the State, the government, or wait…the “system” is afraid of. Unlike other times, perhaps people would not forget how and when they grieved. Maybe that’s why all the red-herrings—from ludicrous COVID-19 treatments to pointless announcements—come our way.
What if people do not forget how they grieved?
What if people do not forget how they were not allowed to grieve?
Milan Kundera says, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
After all, the real ‘long covid’ is nothing but grief, in all its manifestations in tears, blood, and sweat. And the memory of this grief.