To honour our dead, we must remember the horror of the COVID-19 second wave

What we found shocking was how no one seemed to be doing what has always been a demarcating feature of shattering grief—searching for words to express it. So omnipresent was death, and so ubiquitous its communication from all around, that everyone acquired its second-hand language. Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS
06 June, 2021

“She left me at 6 pm last evening,” the text from a dear friend popped up on one of our phones. The friend was referring to her mother. What struck us was the measured language used, despite the wave of grief. These were sober words, like those of writers and journalists used to reporting the death of others. This language is precise, and no one should have it on the ready. No one should expect unexpected grief. No one should live a life where they already have the language for grief when it arrives.

In April, India was hit by a second wave of COVID-19 so strong that we may need new words to truly express its horror. Tsunami does not cut it for they tend to retreat sooner. What we found shocking was how, amid the sudden death of family and friends, no one seemed to be doing what has always been a demarcating feature of shattering grief—searching for words to express it. So omnipresent was death, and so ubiquitous its communication from all around, that everyone acquired its second-hand language. It’s the marker of this tragedy that each one of us subconsciously picked up the exact language to talk about it.

However, the impact of grief was not dampened by this. Grief was still all-consuming. The friend who lost her mother after a continuous 36-hour decline in her oxygen levels was still as devastated. She still had to walk the rooms of their home, collecting her mother’s items in a bag. The hairbrush she used merely hours ago, strands of hair still coiled around it, the lipstick collection, her sarees in the closet, her smell on the pillowcase, the fold of the sheet and the sagging of the mattress from where she last lay, the leftovers in refrigerator from the last meal she half ate—all of these my dear friend still had to remove. Then once removed, stare at the emptiness left behind. Nothing prepares you for a death, nothing can prepare you for the death of your mother.

 We are reminded of another calamity nearly two hundred years ago. Back in the 1840s, the Irish were ravaged by a potato famine. Help was scarce, and nearly a million people died. Across an ocean from them were a different set of people suffering their own tragedy. The Choctaws—an indigenous tribe in the United States—were being forcibly relocated by the government. They were forced into migrating to Oklahoma in a journey so perilous it earned the sobriquet, “the Trail of Tears.” But even during their own tribulations, when the Choctaws heard of the Irish fate, they did something truly unimaginable—they took up a donation drive and sent $170 to help the Irish. More than 170 years later, Irish communities are donating generously to a fund-raiser for indigenous communities in the United States impacted by COVID-19. The drive has raised over $7 million. According to a report in the New York Times, the organisers said that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” came from Irish donors. The donors said that they were simply repaying the debt. They remembered.

History is memory. We remember genocides so that we do not let them happen again. We remember the feeling of burning skin upon touching a hot stove as a child so that we do not do it again. If you forget, you are bound to repeat. We must remember. When you walk through the empty rooms of your home, remember those who used to live there too. When the other side of the bed remains cold and sheets uncrumpled, remember. The faces that will not peek around the door, the voices that will not call out from another room.

And remember the strangers who looked out for you in the fog of this war. Remember the doctors and nurses who risked breathing in the disease in the wards that turned into trenches, not resting for even a moment, for months at end, to save just one more life. Remember the unknown phone numbers on chat groups that you called, searching for precious oxygen cylinders. The apparitions that materialized over the internet telling you that they have found a hospital bed for the love of your life. Remember that when this government, this “system,” refused to recognise you as such, there were still those who remembered you were a human being. When you had nowhere left to turn, they turned to you. Like the Irish, remember.

We know what we are asking will not always be good for you. Your own welfare suggests that you move on from this anguish you feel today—that you render it merely as a memory and only recall it in parts and flashes, to let it dissipate. But we are asking you to bottle it into a lighting rage. To let it forever occupy that empty seat at the dining table, the empty side of the bed, the empty spot on the scooter, the empty space in the closet, the emptiness in your heart. It may make life remain as unbearable as it feels today. But we are asking this of you because that’s what will make life more bearable for the people that follow us—our children, those whom you are lying to about where mother has gone, or why grandpa will not come back from the hospital, or worse, those children who do not even have anyone left to lie to them. Our children need us to suffer our pain actively so that we can save them from suffering similarly.

When this apocalypse ebbs, it will surely be followed by a disinformation campaign aimed at obfuscating the prime minister Narendra Modi’s complicity in this. When that happens, remember that this crisis is not a result of things getting out of hand despite best efforts. It’s a result of no efforts having been made. How did he—a proclaimed visionary—ignore multiple warnings from scientists in India and abroad of the severity of the incoming second wave? The answer is obvious—he did not care.

Modi allowed the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand for days despite the onset of the second wave. He gloated about the crowd size in West Bengal election rallies—not before, but during the crisis. He was not ignoring the reality of COVID and deaths; he seemed to be encouraging gatherings that could worsen the spread of COVID-19.

While Modi deserves criminal culpability for this, we may have to be content with the 2024 general election, and each and every election before and after that comes in our lifetime. That’s the only thing that matters to him and his ilk and that is therefore the only way to deliver justice upon them.

Do not let the murder of your loved ones go unpunished. Do not fall for the gossamer of “achhe din,”—good days—the silvery illusion of the grandeur that will accompany a “Hindu rashtra,” or Hindu nation. You gave the man seven years and all he has given you is streets and rivers filled with the dead bodies. Tomorrow, when there’s another crisis, he will build another mandir. But you must remember, the dead don’t go to temples. They remain dead. Our homes and hearts remain empty. To keep ourselves from more emptiness, we must remember. To honour our dead, we must remember.