Updated: May 16, 2021 8:22:43 am
Consider the macabre sight that greeted the residents of Buxar in Bihar one fine May day. Villagers spotted close to a hundred half-burnt, swollen corpses washing ashore of the Ganges. Presumably of Covid victims, they had floated in from Uttar Pradesh where they were unceremoniously dumped in the water, due to a lack of options.
The disturbing visual imagery of dead bodies in a river making a surprise entrance is straight out of a Stephen King novel. Or, belongs in the weird illogicality of nightmares. In a nation losing a war, the combination of superstition and poverty provides a naturally grisly ending — one that the worthy Mr King would wholeheartedly approve of.
Last year, the virus had a distant quality about it; of being an issue for someone five times removed. We had Zoom parties.
These days the uneasy shadow of death envelops each one of us like an invisible halo. Now, Zoom cremations are commonplace. One is left internalising the 16th century English clergyman John Dunne’s wry observation, maybe even a warning: For whom the bell tolls? It tolls for thee. Centuries ago, the clanging of church bells before funerals was a gentle reminder of our impermanence. Interpreted another way, one sees, no matter how disparate our worlds, divided by religion and class, we have more in common than we realise. Our ends are exactly the same.
It’s a thought that always crosses my mind on every visit to a crematorium, fairly regularly these past five years. Is this it? After all the petty melodramas and travails of life, you end up amidst wooden logs while onlookers watch a pandit recite chants they don’t understand.
The bane of Covid, however, has been the gutting isolation post bereavement. The chautha gives friends and family a chance to show they care. The 13-day mourning period gives us permission to express grief and honour the life of the deceased. So, in a god-fearing population where respecting the dead is the norm, this crude, medieval touch of cremation and immersion in UP feels especially barbaric. It’s a clear indication that all systems have collapsed.
Unfortunately, there is no benchmark by which we may weigh our individual traumas or indeed, those of our communities at this harrowing time. There is the surreal reality of calmly sitting in front of my TV and watching the terrified reactions of people spooked by the drifting dead, human beings who were summarily discarded, like flotsam and jetsam. They met the beastly fates that befall the doomed heroes of horror movies: cruelly ignored while alive and ruthlessly caricatured in death.
There appears to be a vast chasm between my life and theirs, but is there really? The superficial differences of geography and status mean nothing to Covid. The desperation we witnessed in Delhi last month is tearing through the rest of India. It was unimaginable that people could suffocate waiting for oxygen in the Capital. But it will be harder to shake off the memory of a slew of corpses dramatically splayed across the landscape.
Perhaps it takes news that reads like a creepy ghost story to shift the focus on those who expected very little of life. The climax, of the Mystery of the Dead Bodies as it could be called, suggests a melancholic half existence before an agonising end.
Every human loss right now is a recording of this time, a true story slipping away. Not knowing threatens our perception of what’s real. Enough myth, enough conjecture, let us demand the answers even as they fill us with dread.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 16, 2021 under the title ‘An agonising end in the river’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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