Having lived outside India for years, I am used to adjusting my brain and body clock often. Day light savings, summertime, wintertime, I am always adjusting to the time dictated to me However, more recently, I am only tuned into one thing – the India time zone.
Daily, I become wide awake in the middle of night, at two or is it four? In fact, it has been a month since I slept well. I suddenly think of someone out there gasping for air and I shoot out of my bed here, in cold sweat, struggling to breath. Now that I am wake, I follow up on the news – what is happening with oxygen supply in India, whether the 13-year-old who caught the virus from his uncle survived or what happened to the new-born who lost his parents to Covid within days of his birth. About the Uber driver who waited to make sure an old lady in distress was admitted in the hospital and then followed up with her daughter the next day to check that she was alive and comfortable. And then the young woman entrepreneur who motivated so many other youngsters but lost her own good fight. She was just 31 years old!
The other day we farewelled a dear friend.
I had spoken to her the week before about publishing my short stories. They will be out in just two months I told her. She had read all the stories I had written and had kept me going through moments of self-doubt and lethargy.
I know you are writing more. Promise me you will send them when you finish. I would love to be part of your journey she said.
We signed off promising to be in touch.
That weekend she went into intensive care. Two days later she died. I thought of the images of bodies in Delhi, shrouded in white, waiting for their turn to be burnt with no family around, no dignity nor form or prayer, just another discounted statistic.
What will happen to her? I shuddered to think.
My friend, will you just fade away into nothingness without giving us an opportunity to even look at you, to acknowledge the amazing role you played in our lives and the paths you showed all of us with your wisdom and wit?
Hunkered in their houses, cowed down by lockdowns, weighed down with grief and responsibilities, friends pulled off something little short of a miracle.
A dignified farewell for my friend.
Covered in gentle mauve, decorated with ribbons, my friend’s coffin was laid out on the bare ground, waiting to be interred in a serene resting place in Delhi – no hugs, no holding hands, no last peek at her face. My friend’s daughter stood tall and brave in her fever ridden state and prayed for her mother from the confines of her bedroom, while a Parsi priest read prayers from his home. Together we watched, emotionally joined through a WhatsApp call, observing our friend being buried with grace and dignity in the allocated space in a peaceful garden with birds whistling and the breeze gently swaying the goldmohur branches, showering fiery orange petals on her coffin.
Two kind young men, strangers to my friend and to all of us until 48 hours ago, held a smartphone for us to view her coffin properly. They then arranged flowers on her grave under careful directions from my friend’s daughter. Keep the flowers just the way Ma used to do for grandma, she said. More at the side of the head and the legs.
One of the young men read a Christian prayer. We too chanted our mantras and poems to help our friend journey along to a calmer, more peaceful realm.
The first wave did not affect us that much. We had felt sorry that our lifestyle had been affected. No more café or pub visits. No more jogging on the beach or movies in the drive in. We got over this forced social ‘distancing and baked and cooked, danced, and socialised, wrote and published just like the rest of the world. Mainly the middle class. We temporarily forgot the misery imposed on us and soaked it all in with a moral turpitude that surprised us.
And then the first wave receded and with it our memories, promises and doubts. We called ourselves ‘resilient’ and patted our backs for our ability to have ‘survived’ against odds. We did not realise then that the odds against us had only now started. The first wave had receded tactically only to return as a tsunami a second time.
It is now right here, mowing through lives and livelihoods not sparing anyone. There is a recurrent theme of loss, of parents, grandparents, children, cousins, aunts, friends, nephews, neighbours, strangers… the list goes on. No one has been spared. Not a single household in India. ‘For most educated middle-class Indians, this kind of hopelessness is a new experience. This is a privileged group where almost everyone ‘knows someone’. Except this time even people with vast networks found themselves unable to manage a cylinder of oxygen.’
A young woman tweeted this.
“I write because I cannot speak. Yesterday, I rubbed sandal paste, honey and ghee on my husband’s handsome face. Then I lit his funeral pyre. He was 40 years old. A gem of a person loved by many. He made a difference through his work. Death is only of the body.”
Like my friend, the woman’s husband too will no longer speak to her nor send forwards and photos in the middle of the night to beat her boredom.
My friend is not there to read my half-baked novella nor my rambling memoir and tell me to complete it and get it published. I have all the time in the world to procrastinate.
Because all I am left with is the deafening sound of silence!