A Covid victim awaits cremation in New Delhi (Photo: Reuters)
THIS IS ONE of those moments, when the distance between life and death is made bearable by the shared sense of sorrow. A moment when we realise the banality of consolations and the weary sameness of condolences. Words, I tell my friend, won’t fill the void left by the passing of the one who added that extra bounce of joy which no one else could till the day before, when, alone in enveloping darkness, death whispered, beckoned. In another time, in another context, the philosopher wrote, “There’s no poetry after Auschwitz.” Reality had made imagination redundant. The beauty of creating the alternative had been made impossible by the damnation of the living. Today, when a country is on ventilator, when even self-imposed confinement doesn’t ensure safety from pathogenic air, words—of anger and despair—are blowing in the sighs. Marooned in a desolate city, I write this knowing that fatalism is not necessarily the withdrawal of the lost and abandoned. It’s the state of being stranded in that space between protest (futile) and prayer. India is there, the stranded republic.
The images are depressing. Shut the windows. Banish the bad news. They still creep in, as if our sanity can be sustained by unsolicited reminders alone, and as if a shattering of illusions alone can make reality affordable. There they are. In the parking lots of barricaded hospitals, the last breath would not have been the last had we been prepared. Running from black market to inaccessible intensive care units for oxygen. Waking up to see human bodies floating in the river. The fraternity of grief on social media taking solace in shared loss and memories. The profusion of images may have spawned the stereotypes of the wretched Orient, its exoticism now drawn from the plague. It’s a bad story; it’s perhaps the worst story. No government wants to be portrayed as the author of the horror. Authorship cannot be attributed entirely to the government either. It could have made the story less horrifying, and minimised the metaphors of the insensitive state.
Still, should any government be more worried about the consequences of the story than about the authenticity of the story itself? Should it be so bothered about flattening the narrative curve? What the plague has exposed is not an India made by the post-Wuhan months. It’s an India shaped to all its social imperfections by the skewed architecture of nation-building over the decades of ‘socialist’ raj, no matter what nomenclature was in use. Our First-World ambition, legitimised by democracy and the marketplace, has been consistently mocked by our Fourth-World inheritance in social infrastructure, and it takes a pandemic to remind us what the hell we have been building. We are still gasping for answers. Maybe we need to build on the ruins that have accumulated beyond our best hopes about the future. Building anew is nobler than being offended by bad stories. It’s about restoring faith in the state.
That said, even as we struggle to postpone mortality, we are caught in a dilemma, unknowingly perhaps. In the latest issue of the New Yorker, I was reading a review essay by Brooke Jarvis on two books on life and death: Extra Life: A Short History ofLiving Longer by Steven Johnson, and The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart. The first book is about the long road to immortality the rich man is building. As Jarvis asks, “Why would anybody, given the chance to live longer and longer, say no?” The second book explores, with anecdotal details, the moral and medical questions about assisted death. As Jarvis writes, the death-seekers in Engelhart’s book “feel abandoned by a medical system that they believe ignores their suffering because of what one palliative-care doctor describes as ‘modern medicine’s original sin: believing that we can vanquish death.’” Even as the quality of life improved exponentially, science continued with its triumphs over controlling death. Science has made the suddenness of death rare. Once we are out of this hell, bad deaths will be the abiding memory of the living. Scriptures poeticise suffering as the essential inevitability of being alive, and death as a door through which infinity passes. In the plague year, both science and gods lost the argument to our failures, our evasions, our transgressions, our original lies when the first alarm came from a ‘renegade’ in Wuhan. Death was not the end of suffering. Death was the unseen stillness of suffering.
What will the Day After be like? Pandemics too will pass. The fortunate of us will look back with a long sigh. Oh yes, the markets will bounce back. Some may even be tempted to flex the conqueror’s nationalist muscle. We may put modesty back in the deep freeze again. We may unlearn faster than we managed to procure an oxygen cylinder. Or, we may redeem ourselves. We, survivors, the orphaned and the bereaved, will look back from desolation’s last outpost, with a firmer grip on the future we deserve. That requires more than humility, more than the possibilities of science and expertise. That requires saving social justice from the rotten politics of social justice. That requires a systemic overhaul to bring back the value of life. Looking back, we will realise that we are here as lucky travellers from that wretched zone between life and death, that we have been spared by the virus to make tomorrow less unequal than the day before. We will have come a long way.