Between failure and grief, there is also the compassion of the community and the unbending glory of the human spirit. What will define us is how we confront this moment and we might still come out a better country
There are, it is said, five stages of grief, beginning with denial, leading on to anger, and then bargaining, followed by depression and, finally, acceptance. When first formulated this was a theory to do with people who were dying and how they met their own extinction. But then the psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who came up with it, extended it to all forms of sorrow. When Covid-19 struck, she was no more, but her co-author, David Kessler, said it could fit the pandemic too. Like most things to do with the non-empirical sciences, and the nebulous propensities of the human mind ought to fit into that branch, there is no reason for this to be the absolute truth of pain and suffering. There have since been those who have put forward seven stages, nine stages, 12 stages of grief. But what human beings often need, in the absence of clear answers, is a structure with which to confront enormous unknowable forces—imminent death is certainly one. And so is a pandemic. We don’t know what we don’t know but there must at least be a ladder to climb in the direction of the unknown. Others then will point out that its rungs are hollow or even imaginary but would add their own bits and pieces to make the truth less and less hazy. That is how humans have advanced from astrology to astronomy, from hymns to medicine.
What is the stage that we are at now? We were in denial but have been so overwhelmed by the unfolding tragedy that no amount of statistical jugglery can hide what is before and over us. We are a country inured to horrors but the shock this time is in the suddenness. We allowed ourselves to think that we had escaped because we were unique. Now we know different. We are not just not unique, we are not more resilient, no gods have bestowed on us special genes, familiarity with disease and death has not inured us, our lungs need as much air as anyone else in the rest of the world, the virus makes no exception for atmanirbharta. We are now only special in the absence of oxygen and the sheer requirement of it. We were in the first stage of grief even before the dead bodies began to accumulate. And now all the other stages—anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—have crashed in together. We suffer every stage except denial now.
There are more stories of grief than oxygen concentrators. Just this week, like a milestone anticipated but hoped not to come to pass, dead bodies floated down the Ganges. The poor couldn’t afford to cremate anymore. They just gave up their dead to the river. It is not a story that ends there. The bodies drift downstream and then dogs eat them and then they become carriers (or do they? As with everything about the pandemic, we really don’t know). And the next day, the count of bodies travelling through the Lethe of the Hindi heartland increased. A superintendent of police ascribed it to the longstanding tradition of Bihar. This is a stage between denial and bargaining but without grief. And the next day, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar blamed each other. A Bihar minister tweeted the bodies were four to five days old and so couldn’t have come from their territory. No one believes any one anymore and that is just as well. When corpses are given up in stray waters, it is imagery harking back to an ancient India, of callous kings, famines and ruin, tipping into its own vast destitution. The next day they found bodies buried in the river shores of Madhya Pradesh. Like the footfalls of migrant labourers last year that started with one and two and then exploded into thousands, it is the dead who do the civil disobedience now, and they are not walking but swimming.
An advantage of democracy is that the Government is concerned about the front pages of newspapers and these corpses are emblazoned in loud headline fonts. The problem of the floating bodies will be addressed. They will fix this hole in a boat where holes are multiplying like the replication of viruses. This is not one crisis. There are, as that saying made famous in the context of a war goes, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Something else equally shocking will raise its head. To expect any reprieve from bad news is to be in denial again. Protection, both from society and science, is a chimera. Among the stories that wrenched the heart was that of AK Rawat, a doctor from Saroj Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi. He was among the 80-odd from the hospital who became infected as they took care of patients. Only one person died and that was the doctor. What makes his story singular is that, when newspaper reporters got in touch with the hospital to write about him, they found that he had been vaccinated with two doses. One colleague told the Indian Express that the doctor was completely certain about not dying: “Before he was put on a ventilator, he said to me ‘I’ll come out of this. I have been vaccinated, I’ll come out.’” Imagine that doctor. He believed the entire medical establishment of the world that said death is almost impossible after two doses and went into the ventilator certain of life and then slowly came to another realisation. What room then for any of the stages of grief? Isn’t there only betrayal?
Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil begins with a husband, a doctor, witnessing his wife having sex with another man and decides to go right into the heart of a region having a cholera epidemic in China. It is punishment for both himself and his wife. He finds redemption and even the love and respect of his wife in the middle of pestilence. She finds purpose too in relief work. He dies not knowing whether the child she is pregnant with is his. She survives, still to fall into temptation once more with her earlier lover but with that self-disgust that tips over, and she is finally able to escape the frailties of being human. A new meaningful existence begins. As with all fiction, it can only scratch the surface but also provides tantalising glimpses of the human condition. Maugham’s story tells you that even in betrayal and in the folding of human beings, there is still something of the human spirit left to shine. Your meaning is not in being subject to the tragedies that you have been swallowed by, but what they do to you. Your destinies and errors are not your definition. It is in how you confront them that allows redemption. You couldn’t envision and line up resources to meet a crisis that was foretold, you didn’t ensure oxygen or vaccines, you lived in delusion and hope and that has brought you here. But what will define you is how you experience this moment and then, even if you fail and pay the consequences of it, you might still come out a better man or a better country. Betrayal does not need to be the last word.
They speak of the Mumbai model now. Of foreseeing chaos, of avoiding it by not allowing patients to see test results until a municipal officer can directly come to their home the next morning and take them to a hospital, of creating new oxygen beds without stretching hospitals, managing oxygen, organising medical and nursing students and overpaying them. There could be a hundred pillars to this model but it rests primarily on one and that is not even a departure, it is how this country was designed to function. It is in its absence that in many other places crisis reigns. The state is ruled by the Shiv Sena, Mumbai’s municipality is ruled by the Shiv Sena. It is a city in which the political party, despite all its violent and venal history, has umbilical roots that touch the people. There is no friction when policies written on paper meet the people they are written for. The machine works as one by a concatenation of political circumstances. There is no bargaining involved between two arms of the same government. Unity of endeavour is a cliché but it is also the commonsense underpinning the success of the metropolis. Or, of anything related to governance. The reason why so few died, why no one is bereft of a hospital bed, why bodies don’t float down the Mithi river. Unity is a necessary condition, even if not a sufficient one, to triumph. And, though, near impossible in the mishmash of Indian democracy, it is one that must be forced onto the system, whether by judicial diktats or the sheer terror of the politician for his own career. It is hard for them to survive the death of constituents. It does not matter who was responsible, someone who feels unjustly bereaved wants accountability and there is nowhere else to look but at the men he voted in to protect him. Pandemics make for cataclysmic changes. During the Spanish Flu, the British abdicated their responsibility because their resources had been expended in the World War, and civil society stepped in. They formed links and then it was only left for the triggers for these to coalesce into what would become a national independence movement that involved the masses and not just literate elites. Pray, therefore, for this pandemic to end, and then also to salutary alternative futures.
Unity is a necessary condition, even if not a sufficient one, to triumph. And, though, near impossible in the mishmash of Indian democracy, it is one that must be forced onto the system, whether by judicial diktats or the sheer terror of the politician for his own career
In the collapse of the state and its infrastructure today, we again have communities stepping in, a 100-year-old echo. It is good and inevitable. In Mumbai, they set up giant Covid facilities with thousands of beds last year and kept them going. But Mumbai is rich, its municipality has Rs 70,000 crore as a reserve to tap (for comparison, the new chief minister of Assam, the biggest state of the Northeast, boasted having Rs 7,000 crore in the treasury to battle Covid). In India, few places will be either as resourceful or competent. But you also hear from elsewhere of Gurudwaras constructing at speed Covid facilities with hundreds of beds using funds generated from the public. Or tweaking the concept of langar, or free food, to create oxygen langars.
Religion is the antithesis of reason and its painful progress which takes a step back with violence for every two steps it manages to inch ahead. Just the other day, you saw a video, a line of men in an Ahmedabad cow pen, applying cow dung over their bodies to assist against a Covid infection. Someone from there said even doctors do it. Elsewhere, people drink cow urine to ward off the virus. But there is also the vein of charity inbuilt into religion and it has found its calling in the crisis. Like Gurudwaras, Hindu temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques across the country help. Temples convert into places where quarantined people stay for free. Churches turn their schools into temporary hospitals. In Baroda, a Muslim seminary becomes a line of oxygen for 142 patients at a time. Al Jazeera, speaking to the head of the seminary, writes: ‘He says they admit people of all faiths to the make-shift centre.’
What room then for any of the stages of grief? Isn’t there only betrayal? But even in betrayal, there is still something of the human spirit left to shine
There is also kindness. Strangers helping bury dead bodies, a neighbour placing a plate of food outside the flat of a quarantined family, yuppies mapping the supply of oxygen and medication, theatre artists doing acts online in return for donations that go to charity, someone giving their empty house to host an infected family, bus conductors and bank clerks who merely by doing their jobs increase their probability of dying. Ordinary people doing what they can without any aspiration to be a footnote of history. It is the glory of being human, what turned apes into men and then made them the masters of the earth—the ability to be the worst of all creatures and also the best of them.
As Sophocles wrote 2,500 years ago in the play Antigone (and which Malcolm Lowry in his immortal book Under the Volcano added as a preface): ‘Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year. And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull. And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when it is hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come; only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escape.’
When corpses are given up in stray waters, it is imagery harking back to an ancient India, of callous kings, famines and ruin, tipping into its own vast destitution
I found myself in Kerala in early April, in my native village 12 kilometres from the town of Palakkad, just as Mumbai announced the first lockdown. Soon, the wave was just as overpowering there. Opposite where I stayed was a family, tenants of a small one-room home about 10 metres away. The father sold chocolates for a living. One day we learnt that he had tested positive. He had fever and a cough. The couple sent their little boy away to a relative’s home. The wife stayed back to take care of the man. Within two days, she was also coughing. Neighbours supplied them food and water through a long hose from a pipe. Outside that little home, you could hear the silence. It was stifling hot in the Kerala summer but their doors and windows remained closed. They were model patients. After two weeks, the window opened. They still didn’t come out. A few days later, they sought permission from neighbours to enter the world again. Then the door opened. One day, as I looked at the house, their little boy and his sounds filled the air. He was sitting outside and speaking to imaginary friends as little boys do. This baffling malady also has its escape written into it.