All media is filled with the news of death. All social media timelines are overwhelmed with accounts of suffering, pain and loss. Pictures of pyres burning that are splashed across front pages and captured by drones have developed the power to instantly dispatch across miles, to our very private corner, the smell of burning flesh caught in thick rolls of plastic.

When there was a bandh or a riot in the neighbourhood, for decades agitationists and arsonists lit up automobile tyres to signal the obstruction of life. It was the thick rubber fumes that was always a sign of trouble.

That was the metaphor. Now, the entire nation seems to be in some sort of a death riot and thick fumes are all over. This smell has come back, although COVID flattens olfactory attributes.

The pungency of this smell plays out like a memory in the mind – a memory of a catastrophe or an apocalypse that you either did not believe existed or were blissfully unaware of. COVID – not the virus, per se, but the social consequences that we are now witness to – is about making the mind a graveyard.

Lockdowns, containment areas, isolation, quarantines, ICUs and breathing machines, everything manufactures a silence in the dead of afternoon that as you stretch your ears across streets to hear of human existence, assurance and hope, all you hear is your own anxious breathing.

There has never been another time in our lifetimes when breathing created such guilt and such pyrrhic celebration, simultaneously. That is the capture of loneliness.

In normal situations (now the challenge is to define ‘normality’) people accept death; however unfair and cruel, they absorb its reality. Cultures have various templates to teach people to accept death. That is essentially why there are such elaborate rituals.

There is an engagement and conversation created with the lifeless for a few hours or days. The lifeless is accorded the last hurrahs of living – a bath, a good dress, a deep prayer, food to carry for his or her onward journey, best aromas, finest flowers, and in some cultures, there is music and dancing too.

Even after the burial or cremation, the rituals extend to weeks and months, and finally find a fixture on the annual calendar. These, anthropologically, become markers of civilisational memory. They are results of cultural workings for ages.

They are sacred not for a religious reason but for the human mind to acquaint with death and move on. Bereavement and grieving in our cultures pass through various stages of acceptance. The ultimate endeavour of all cultures, it appears, is to establish the finality of death.

This is where the pandemic becomes cruel. It denies that essential finality to death. People cannot see the faces of their departed blood relatives and friends. They cannot perform rituals the way their ancestors have passed it on to them.

If someone were a Hindu, they cannot smear ash or vermillion on the forehead or use turmeric. They cannot place grains on the mouth of the dead; they cannot light a lamp; they cannot bathe and dress them up for the final journey. Similar intimate acts in the final farewell hour are part of all faiths.

Covid-infected bodies are just wrapped in plastic sheets. The saddest pictures are those of people performing last rites wearing PPU kits and circumambulating ambulances in which the body of the relative is lying on a metal stretcher. This is bound to affect people.

These leave deep scars in the psyche of people that no antibiotics, steroids, vitamin supplements or vaccines can handle. It will be curious to watch in the post-pandemic period how all this will subtly realign human relationships.

Even in a non-pandemic context, when people give away the bodies of their dead to hospitals and medical research, this problem of finality to death occurs. But then, there is a larger motivation and social purpose that the family has defined for itself that comes as a small compensation, but still the cultural hole remains. It has been a personal experience.

After we gave away my father’s body to a medical college, for a couple of years I paid regular visits to the anatomy museum because I thought a particular thumb kept in a formalin jar belonged to him. The closure never came.

If it was difficult for me, who had surrendered to reason and science, for my mother, who was religious, this final treatment of her husband’s body must have been an act of immeasurable pain that she never learned to articulate. Her closure too never came.

In our cultural context, death is never verbalised. There is no elaborate articulation around it. There are only rituals. Therefore, what we see are mostly obituary notices, not obituary narratives like in the Western newspapers. There are no eulogies written either.

Our rituals speak louder, which Covid has now robbed. Elegies anyway are a dead genre. Daily obituaries in The New York Times or The Guardian, or on the last page of the weekly Economist have a literary flair. Our obituaries are reserved for only the politically famous. Power determines everything, not an appreciation and understanding of another human life.

Last fortnight, a 90-year-old I knew had left an obituary for himself. It was not a Covid death. It read: “Not many people know that I was a drug addict. The drug was a creation of my own illusion—an overwhelming confidence and optimism that things do change for the better. [I had] this delusion and now I am taking the extreme step.

I will face the situation squarely. Malice towards none, charity towards all… No anger, no hatred, no grudge, no ill-will, and no place for an archaeologist in my mind. Lastly, to be truthful I have to say that I despise a few persons living and dead.” Covid deaths offer no such contradictions or reflections. They never end.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author and can be contacted at sugataraju@gmail.com)

Originally published in The New Indian Express


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