Ten days ago, I posted on social media a few photographs of the cremation of a Covid-19 victim at the Nigambodh Ghat electric crematorium in northern Delhi. The comments my post evoked were surprising and unsettling. Quite a few comments from close friends were the refrain: ‘Wow! Be careful Parul.’ One response asked, with genuine banality, ‘What possessed you to photograph a random death of someone you don’t know?’
Another person asked me, with evident hostility, ‘Do you expect us to believe that you actually went to the crematorium to take this photograph?’
The incredible bravery of crematorium workers walking with glazed eyes and the frozen rigour of the odd mourners define the new default ritual of a Covid-related death
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Death can be a tragic sight, and the rites of death in India are invariably strident theatrics or solemn bemusement. In public, we project our grief like an advertisement striving for recognition. But a coronavirus victim’s death is nothing like the above. It is a requiem for the forsaken. The putrid air in the large hall where the electric cremation furnaces are housed is sinister and the portent, not of an afterlife, but of a threat.
To view bodies wrapped in slithery white and blue plastic arriving in a van, almost like an Amazon delivery, then being loaded clinically on a handcart, wheeled and upturned on a moving escalator like baggage at an airport check-in, before a push and a shove into a blazing conflagration, can churn your stomach and paralyse your mind. Not only is it a lonely death.
Bodies wrapped in slithery plastic arrive in a van, like an Amazon delivery, then loaded clinically on a handcart, upturned on an escalator, before a push into the conflagration
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It is an unforgivable death. The senselessness of having your breath suddenly become still because of a ridiculous witch virus out of a dark fairy tale called Corona.
The incredible bravery of crematorium workers walking with red, glazed eyes and the frozen rigour of the odd mourners who dared to come to Nigambodh define the new default ritual of a Covid death. I am not clear about what took me on a lockdown afternoon to photograph the last journey of a person who died of Covid-19, someone I did not know. I do not know whether my showing of this reality is a travesty or sacrilege or homage. More than any other place or event or person that I have photographed till date, these shots of human tragedy in the new age of distancing confront me every day with endless doubts and questions to which I do not have answers.