A Covid patient prays on her hospital bed in New Delhi (Photo: Reuters)
If death does not unite us, how will we ever come together in life?
We believe we understand life, its limitations and possibilities, creativity and routine, because we have experienced it. We know that every individual existence will end, making implicit mockery of highs and lows, ego and ambition. You don’t get extra days of survival for genius, although you might get punished for stupidity by premature departure. Our submerged fear of death is compounded by the dread of sudden death.
We cannot prevent death, but there is a life force which always seeks to delay it. All medicine is, in the end, only a placebo rather than a cure, for no vaccine has arrived to guarantee eternal life. Those who survive the Covid-19 pandemic today will succumb to something else tomorrow. But till that moment comes, we fight to live.
This energy for life demands a humane spirit that compels consideration for the other as much as concern for the self. Those who are not impressed by the spiritual might be persuaded by the practical. The face of Armageddon is an invisible germ, a virus travelling through contact and floating through the air, wielding a pitiless scythe which kills across our self-created social compartments of class, creed, language, geography or wealth. Our best weapons are care for the afflicted, compassion for those who suffer, and ceaseless, intensified application of scientific knowledge against disease. Millions have displayed the selfless heroism of frontline warriors; and yet there are those who turn misery into an opportunity for exploitation. Even science becomes impotent if trampled by greed. We criticised the colonial British for hoarding and profiteering during a famine. We described their famines as man-made disasters. Is hoarding and profiteering during a pandemic any better? Makeshift ambulances charged ten times their normal cost to carry the ill; the price of oxygen became ghoulish. The list is long and depressing. Some Delhi brokers even put a place in the queue outside a crematorium on sale. Victims cooperated, for panic is another pandemic.
Any existential crisis brings faith to the fore of collective consciousness. Religion may be the one true ideology of Indians, although those who cannot distinguish between religion and religiosity will never understand the philosophy of India, best encapsulated by Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, Ishwar-Allah tero naam, sabko sanmati de Bhagwan (Your name is Ishwar and Allah; give everyone guidance, Lord); or in Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s famous dictum, Jåto måt, tåto påth (There are as many ways to God as there are views). Indians believe in their own faith and respect the faith of the other. What leaves them perplexed is atheism.
Prayer is their balm through any difficulty. Indians work hard when they have to; they pray because they want to. In life, prayer is hope; in death prayer is solace.
Death is a nuanced concept in religion; speculation about its meaning has generated guide books about divinity. Every religion refutes the finality of death; for the faithful, death is not the door to uncertainty but a passage to a better life. Religion is the comfort food of death.
This can lead to a few hazardous questions: If the afterlife is so beauteous why waste time on this earth? Such a proposition would make us murderers of babies. What we accept instead is that by some mysterious decision of the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent divine, we have been allotted a time span in a bodily manifestation, and it is our duty to bear the consequences without ambiguity.
Even in a pestilence where the divine arbitrarily decimates its own creation, we must become crusaders in the defence of life. We may be helpless, but we cannot afford to be hopeless. Our objective may be merely delay, because if this pandemic does not get us today some loose part in that engineering miracle called the body will get us tomorrow. But we must battle remorselessly for each day’s existence.
Have we ever thought of poverty as a co-morbidity? The biggest killer may be poverty, in which the body gets just enough to survive but not enough to protect
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Sorrow may be the best evidence of a higher consciousness. Sorrow regenerates the human spirit in a way joy cannot, for you can deal with sorrow only through strength of character.
An old companion of our family, a gardener who has now retired to his village in Uttar Pradesh, telephoned my wife this past week with a description of escalating fear in forgotten India. He mentioned a 20-year-old woman living in the hut next door who had died of fever in just two days. He summed up the injustice in a sentence: She was not even married. She had died before her time. Her destiny had cheated her.
The establishmentarians, secured by the privilege of wealth, power or influence, have the wherewithal to find shelter in this virus storm, whether in barricaded islands or through damage-control mechanisms, always sharp enough to disguise their self-interest as public service. The underprivileged and the impoverished are another story.
Have we ever thought of poverty as a co-morbidity? The term has become part of every language in just a single year, so we know its surface meaning. Doctors check a Covid patient’s heart for weakness, lungs for tuberculosis or tobacco, liver for fat or alcohol. But the biggest killer may be poverty, a state in which the body gets just enough to survive but not enough to protect. Malnutrition is on the list of co-morbidities delineated by the World Health Organization, but is it part of our collective consciousness? The honest answer is: No. The well-fed comfort themselves with the notion that the poor are better off than they have ever been, quite forgetting that they are far, far better off than they have ever been. The poor know a harsh truth: their lives are less valuable. If they accept this, it is only because they think that in a crisis they will not be abandoned. But if they get convinced that death came of negligence, they will remember.
There is no public discourse yet on a dangerous potential consequence of a rising death toll in the still-silent villages outside our fragile, semi-skeletal health system: Will it affect the people’s faith in democracy?
I do not know the answer, and suspect no one else knows either; but surely the time has come to ask the question. If governance fails to protect economically marginalised lives, then the credibility of the system starts to crumble. The rich cannot escape the pestilence, but will evade it with fewer casualties. The middle classes will channel their frustration through some electoral volcano. The poor, who have faced death and trauma, as the individual instinct for survival momentarily outweighs even an emotion as powerful as love, will erupt. If there is rage across rural India, the fire this time could touch institutions as well as individuals.
The Indian people are not tempted by hard political or cultural ideology, as so many ideologues have discovered. They prefer democracy because it promises multi-dimensional freedom without the dogmatic rigidity of a manifesto. Their touchstone is governance. What happens if governance does not deliver? Urban statistics have been fearsome, but cities have eventually found delayed if not immediate remedies.
Urban statistics have been fearsome, but cities have eventually found delayed if not immediate remedies. Think about the land without statistics. That land is rural India
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Think about the land without statistics. That land is rural India.
Before despair, there is always prayer. Time is a continuum in Hindu philosophy, uninhibited by beginning or end; the decay of the body is only a transition to another form of life, a comma in the divine scheme of things. Hindus seek salvation through the cycles of reincarnation, and cosmic calm through Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the creator, the preserver and the one who transforms. Om is the sound of creation, Shanti is the cosmic light, pure and serene.
The Christian addresses “Our Father, who art in Heaven”, whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom is eternal, whose will is absolute, whose presence is eternal. There is gratitude for the years spent on earth, confidence that the soul has entered the care of Jesus, and comfort in the knowledge that death leads to afterlife.
Sikhs recite the psalm of peace composed by the fifth Guru Arjan Dev, and acknowledge death as a natural process of the divine order; life is aavana-jaavana, a coming and going, on the way to unity with the Lord from whom we came.
The Muslim prayer, as the body makes its last journey and the soul its first one, is: Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (We belong to Allah, and to Him shall we return). Allah has sent us to save one another. The Quran says: Whosoever saves the life of one person earns the merit of one who has saved the life of humankind. On the Day of Judgment, God will have a question: What did you do with the time that was gifted to you?
We spend time. What do we get in return? If the answer is nothing, then the day becomes a drift and the night a shouting match between forbidden memories and haunting fears. When time wraps up its quota, no one wastes too much sentiment. Any passing sadness lies interred in an unopened album or, these days, a lost cloud.
Jean-Paul Sartre thought hell was other people, which is logical if you are rational, reductionist and atheist. The rest of us need community. Community is the circumference of our daily life, and it is this community of family, friends, neighbours and associates which carries an individual to the cemetery or the crematorium. We can search for final peace with help from the verse of Maulana Rumi: When you see my corpse carried out, do not lament, do not say goodbye, for this sunset is a dawn. In the meantime, the fight goes on.