Coronavirus and the struggle with new rules of mortality
Pakistani rescue personnel checks the body temperature of a man during a drill as a precaution against Coronavirus, Peshawar, Pakistan, March 2, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
The voices rise. More voices join. Is it a dialogue? Are multiple monologues struggling to overlap? Does a debate ensue in the middle? As voices expand into a haze of cacophony, rationality takes a backward step. Everyone is talking. Is anyone listening? Who is speaking? What happened to the audience?
Without taking a break to exhale, voices of humans—excited and faint, sincere and fake, passionate and sombre, sensible and incoherent, well-meaning and opportunistic—merge into one another forming a mass that is indecipherable. One voice is indistinguishable from another. It is baffling. It is also scary as hell.
I hear them everywhere. They appear in elegant drawing rooms. They crave for attention on the floor of parliament. They get into arguments on how to park the car in a no-parking zone. They consider everyone who disagree with them a personal enemy. They divide an already divided society into binaries of you and me, us and them, we and they, ours and theirs.
In my room, they are on the screen of the television that stopped working years ago. They are under clickbait captions on YouTube videos that get views not for the content but the loudness, the harshness of the sounds they make. Scrambling on Twitter timelines, voices disguised into typed words, are declarations in shouty caps, one-sided verdicts, and categorical judgments. The anonymity of social media acts as stripping of that last vestige of decency, that leftover sliver of decorum, that forgotten drawing of line.
The abundant good—societal, of social media, of personal interactions—crouch into a corner, helpless, disconsolate, hopeless. A strained darkness hovers over everything that is good and pure and undiluted and artless and genuine. The majority of humankind is harmless. It is just that the minority has the means, vocal chords and various platforms—on personal and bigger level—to propagate its doctored niceness, its plastic wokeness, its selective morality, its wafer-thin political correctness, its agenda-based social and political activism, its manufactured truths, its self-attested narratives of the right and the wrong. The mass of their unified voices is the bulwark against any disagreement, a different point of view, a counter-narrative.
They are everywhere. Methodical chaos, premeditated disharmony, curated distancing, hyped slights, manicured altercations, hyphenated outrage—the world today, in the microcosm of a home, in the demarcations of friendships and relationships, in the sprawl of society, in the collectiveness of nationhood, in the limitlessness of lives of the almost eight billion humans.
Blood relations are measured in worldly connotations of give and take. Relatives become pariahs on unresolved non-issues. Lifelong friendships shatter on the flimsiest of pretexts. Romance is a half-forgotten word from Yash Chopra movies and Nicholas Sparks tearjerkers. Lust, an already bewildered word in a deeply religious society, disguises itself in half-stimulated reasons for its existence. Fear of loneliness and need for companionship keep comatose relationships alive, hooked to a ventilator. Real love is bemoaned for its brevity. Real words vanish into hurried texts, dismissive emojis. XOXO replace a tight hug.
Professional dilemmas are taken to heart. Matters of the heart turn into nonchalant asides. Political priorities trump personal issues. Political affiliations, irrespective of their age, take precedence over social imperatives. The short-term benefit supersedes old loyalties. Personal, and not collective, advancement is the mantra of social acceptability. The cosmetic pushes the substantial to the side. Loyalty to party overshadows loyalty to country.
Everything is taken too seriously. Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is forgiven. While the real big bads—murder; rape; kidnapping; forced possession of a person or family’s property; fraudulent claims to an individual or state’s assets; looting of national treasure; imprisonment on falsified allegations; violence against anyone in a position of physical or material or other form of weakness; persecution on the basis of creed, ethnicity, colour or faith; war; terrorism, displacement—should matter and must matter, the world of today pulsates in anger and frustration with much that is inconsequential, forgivable, not really a big deal.
As we huff and we puff and we hiss and we snarl and we scowl and we fume and we simmer and we expect and we lament and we complain and we stamp our feet and we anger-punch keys and we tag and we insinuate and we label and we judge and we divide and we distance, in the backdrop is that one thing that shaking its head tries to force its tired smile to skim its eyes. It watches us, heartbroken. Life.
It sends us many messages that appear as missed calls, un-blue-ticked texts on our minds. It gently nudges us. It, at times, shakes us taking us by our haughty lapels. It does what it can to make us cognizant of that one tiny detail that is so huge in its reality, in its power that it becomes invisible to us.
Life’s rigid transience. Its whimsical hardness to change without a notification. Its powerlessness to avoid the inevitable. Its absolute capitulation to the biggest constant of humanity: death.
The year 2020 should have changed humans. Has it? The answer is a melancholic shrug. Once upon a 2019, pain and death tiptoed in the long corridors of carefully guarded lives. In 2020, new rules of mortality emerged, and human beings started to fall apart like rag dolls in the grasp of an unfamiliar beast. Coronavirus happened, and the world halted in its stunned helplessness.
For once, the entire world became the stage on which the macabre dance of survival of not the fittest had its global showing every day. Who dies, who lives, who suffers the most excruciating pain, who remains symptom-free, who responds to treatment, who remains immune even to the most expensive medicines, the rulebook of human body with its resistance, strengths and weaknesses was rewritten every day.
Not that the world before the new coronavirus was blissful, without the horror of unexplainable deaths of babies, murder of children, teenagers killing themselves for reasons they took with them to their graves, young people dying in speeding accidents, young people overdosing on meth, men in their 20s dying in their sleep due to a brain aneurysm, women in their 30s getting diagnosed with stage 3 breast or cervical cancer, busy fathers dying of a prolonged heart disease, beautiful mothers battling depression and surviving on sedatives to ensure they looked happy for their children, old people dying overwhelmed with their dementia, their Alzheimer’s, which turned their families into a bunch of strangers. But in 2020, the very idea of survival went into a wringer, taking forever to return to its original form.
‘Normal’ deaths matching strides with Covid-19 caused losses are a constant in 2020. The death of the 40-year-old son of an older cousin shocked and grieved the entire paternal side of my Tarar clan. He died of high blood pressure. A first cousin of my father lost her husband to what was suspected as untreated Covid-19; he was one of the nicest people I had known in my life. A few days later, his younger brother passed away, succumbing to whatever had taken his older brother’s life.
The father of a friend of my niece was in ICU for weeks for Covid-19. Every few days the family searched for injections and medicines that were either unavailable or were being black-marketed on exorbitant prices. My niece’s friend, a young man in his early 20s, looked after his father day and night. The father passed away. That was when I found out that he was the older brother of a class fellow, a friend in college, and was someone I knew quite well socially. Another wonderful person who died just like that.
My cleaning lady didn’t come for work one day. Next day, she showed up with her eyes red. Her cousin, a healthy 22-year-old, suddenly died after complaining of pain in his chest. She cried talking about her aunt who was shattered at her young son’s death.
One of the federal ministers I was supposed to interview for my show that I recently started doing on a Pakistani TV channel told me that he had a family emergency. His younger brother was on ventilator. He had Covid-19. The brother died a few days later. When I spoke to the 77-year-old minister to offer my condolences, he told me that his other younger brother was in hospital too. He also had Covid-19.
The year 2020 seems to be in no hurry to wrap up its business of death, masked and socially-distanced funerals, hurried eulogies, frantic burials.
There is another aspect of 2020 that has left a deep scar: deaths of global and regional celebrities, before and during the time of the coronavirus. Kobe Bryant,41; Naya Rivera, 33; Kelly Preston, 57; Sushant Singh Rajput, 34; Elizabeth Wurtzel, 54; Irrfan Khan, 53; Rishi Kapoor, 68. All of them, and many more I didn’t mention here, were mourned by millions of people across the globe.
Did the world pause to think that perhaps it was time to recalibrate its priorities? For a few days? A couple of weeks? A month? Three months? The silent vow to not take anything for granted didn’t last long, did it? The promise to the loved ones to make more time for them was as flaky as the intent to not indulge in gratuitous meanness to strangers on social media. How serious was the introspection? The weight of warped priorities was shed only to gain it back faster than Keto diet could be spelled in desi lexicon. Everything changed, with the longevity of an ice-cream in the hand of a child on a hot afternoon.
Coronavirus scared the living daylights out of even the most reckless of humans. The fear of catching the disease simply by being in the proximity of someone carrying the disease was so palpable, one of the most important human sensibilities slunk into its newly-made shell: physical interaction. As social distancing became the norm, touching one another suddenly acquired a new dimension. It became priceless. People longed to be close to their loved ones, but coronavirus hovered over their heads in its bent-neck lady horror. Not even that lasted long.
Coronavirus is still very much a reality. According to the government of Pakistan’s statistics, on August 17th, the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan was 288,717. The number of people who have died stood at 6,168. That is 6,168 families mourning a loved one. The number of patients in critical condition was 769. Their loved ones pray for them with dread in their hearts, unshed tears in their eyes.
Pakistanis, as visible on Eid-ul-Azha and on August 14th, think the coronavirus is gone, everyone is safe, no precaution is required, and physical proximity with an inch or two between two humans is the way to be now. But then living in fear cannot be the new normal. That is something positive. What is not is taking anything for granted. Least of all, life.
Do I overthink it all? What am I trying to write today? Have I lost the thread of my initial idea for this essay? Am I rambling? What was it that I was trying to say hundreds of words ago, on page after page? Ah, life. And the unbearable lightness of life.
Every breath is a blessing. Every hour with loved ones is a prayer. Every day of good health is gratitude. Every good thing, from clean water to a comfortable bed to well-cooked but simple food to personal freedom to do what you want, is a gift. To me, it is all that and more. I value it all. Nothing in my life is what I take for granted. Nothing in my world is for which I don’t have a silent thank you. There was much that I was almost my entire life, but something shifted in me not so long ago. It was not the coronavirus that made me rethink the meaning of life.
Every week, I visit the graves of my mother and younger brother. The weekly ritual became an integral part of my life when my brother Babar left us on March 18th, 2019. My mother passed away on November 6th, 1999. Twenty years later, the two of them were buried side by side, their graves joined in one simple marble rectangle. In the middle of that white rectangle are two small rectangles of mitti. There is no real translation of the Urdu word mitti.
After the graves are cleaned to a sparkling white, rose petals shrouding the mitti ke rectangles, and my recitation of five Quranic surahs that are my daily dua for my deceased loved ones, I sit on one side of Babar’s grave. I have a monologue with Ami and Babari. I feel they hear me. I pray they hear me. Silently, I look around the graves on all sides of their graves. The G Block Gulberg 3 graveyard is overcrowded. There is hardly any space between graves. There seems to be no empty burial plots for the dead loved ones of anyone.
Every week, I keep some rose petals to sprinkle on the graves on the four sides of those of my loved ones. The graves on their left and right are katchi, made of mud, mitti. There is no tombstone. One on one side, six on the other. In my weekly visits, I have never seen a single rose petal on them, or the sign that someone has cleaned them. Weeds grow on graves made of mud. The graves made of mud seem to have no visitor. It is as if they are of people who have been forgotten. For worldly or religious reasons, who is to say. Some Muslims don’t believe in visiting graves.
Next to one of the tombstone-less graves is a marble one. It is the grave of a very wealthy man, from a very well-known business family of Lahore. Looking at the overgrown weeds and congealed mud on various parts of the surface of the grave, it is evident that the grave of the very wealthy man doesn’t have frequent visitors. It is as if he is forgotten by his family. Or perhaps they belong to that class of Muslims who believe that it is just the dead body of their loved one in grave, and their remembrance doesn’t require more than an annual visit on Eid or their barsi.
But I can’t help feeling a deep sense of sadness when I see those graves. All over the graveyard are neglected, forgotten, crumbling, mud-covered graves. Everyone is equal in that graveyard. There is no distinction of class and power and money. All the distinctions faded with time. The only difference between one grave and the other is the touch of a living person on their surfaces. Some of them are remembered only in the hearts of their loved ones. Their graves are covered in wild growth, mud, droppings of birds. No one visits them. No one cleans them. No one says a dua for them on their graves.
That is the reality of human life. It ends in a moment. For a long time, it is squandered in things that do not matter, that should not matter. The drop scene is in a grave. The wailing loved ones visit often until they stop. They still love but that love is not shown in visits to graves. That is your value in a world that you trivialised for as long as you were alive—with you taking everything for granted, and doing almost everything you should not have done.
And once you are dead, your weeping loved ones keep you in their hearts and stop visiting your grave after a few or many visits. Weeds cover your last resting place. No one visits you. No one cleans your grave. No one says a dua for you on your grave.
You are forgotten. That is the unblinking reality of death. Yet you take life for granted. Do you ever wonder if you had a magical power to reverse time, would you live your life differently? Why does a little voice inside me tell me that your life would be the copy-paste version of your last one? Perhaps the voice inside me is just jaded. I hope I am wrong.