Notes from Grief-istan

Trigger warning: Distressing country.

(Photo: Reuters)

Helplessness. If you’ve grown up in a middle-class family in India, your worst nightmare can probably be encapsulated in that one word. It’s an eventuality you work hard to ward off. You pursue college degrees. You chase well-paying jobs. You say, “Oh, we are not like them now, we’re better off!”

You think you’ve given yourself Teflon-level protection against ever feeling helpless at whatever life throws you. Until one day you realise, that despite everything, you’re utterly, desperately hopeless.

That’s how I felt in the second week of April, when my mother came down with a fairly strong bout of COVID. Everything was scarce. Like many, many families in Delhi that week, we scrambled to get medicines, oximeters, and food. I was infected too. But more than the virus, it was helplessness that ate at me.

I would look at desperate SOS calls on Twitter from families for ICU beds, and think “what if that’s me tomorrow?” Selfishly, I would examine the information of a patient for a detail that would reassure me. Was the person older? Did they have co-morbidities? Did they start treatment late? More often than not, there was no reassurance. The only reason I was on this side of an SOS tweet was…luck. When I made calls to get an ICU bed for a colleague of my father’s while my mother was still sick, I still had some faith in my privilege. “Of course, we will get a bed somewhere.” I couldn’t. The next day, I monitored SPO2 symptoms of the whole family like a hawk.

Of course, I am extremely privileged. Like this tweet correctly pointed out, the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis was also terrible. It was tempered for us, by our privilege. But that’s another thing about the nightmare of helplessness; you don’t really feel it until it hits home

~~

“How much grief can one take?” I was attending a Zoom funeral. My cousin’s mother-in-law had passed away. By this time, our family was in the clear, COVID-wise. Our country, not really.

SOS calls on social media were not dissipating; the charts showing COVID cases were not dipping. Every hour, there was the unthinkable to comprehend. People dying because oxygen in hospitals…ran out. People dying because there were no hospital beds. COVID orphans entering our everyday lexicon. SOS tweets asking for leads on crematoriums, because all crematoriums in Delhi had run out of space.

Every day, Mom, Dad and I would sit for our morning tea and talk of who had passed away, who was critical and who had just tested positive. We’d discuss the sheer heartlessness of the government – a PM who refused to address the country’s biggest crisis since Independence, a home minister who was nowhere to be seen, and a government machinery more intent on “image” than destruction. Then, we’d remember our doctor’s advice to watch our blood pressure, and say “let’s talk of other things.”

I thought my thick skin had graduated to what I call, Rhinoceros-Level. (A career in journalism meant I was already at Elephant-Level, to be fair.) So, by the time I attended that Zoom-funeral, I thought I was going to be…okay. As okay as person living through World War II, I mean.

The Zoom funeral was, predictably, dystopic. A bunch of squares on a screen trying to replace the solace of a ritual of mourning. Turns out there’s wise logic in the way we mourn. To hug, to cry, to talk of the deceased, to feel like you’re not alone in your grief – humans need mourning rituals. Otherwise, how else can you reckon with the void that someone who dies leaves behind? When people are dying without dignity in life, or death, how else do you find the courage to move on? You need a shoulder to wail; you need someone to say “Hum aapke saath hai.”

The Zoom funeral ended. It was a weekday. I’d taken leave for an hour from work, and I Slack-ed my colleagues saying, “Hey, I am back.” I got up to make tea. My phone buzzed.

It was a group video call from three of my friends. I picked up. They told me that one of my closest friends in the world – the nicest guy you’d ever meet – was no more.

“How much more grief can one take?”

~~

“I love this stupid country too much to leave. This is home.”

Whenever I have the “it’s better to settle abroad” debate with friends, this is my closing argument. Do I have a shot at a better life abroad? Yes. Will I be able to research and write without being an anxious wreck all the time? Yes. Is it time to say that fascism has sunk India? Yes – but I love this stupid country and I’d rather work for this country, than anywhere else.

Last week I thought, well, I’m an idiot for thinking that. See, on any given day, there at least five things that are happening in India that are justifiable reasons to leave. (If, you can, of course.) The one that pushed me over was one video.

“My mother will die.”

A man begs police officers to not take away an oxygen cylinder from a hospital in Agra. He had arranged a cylinder for his mother. The hospital was reportedly out of oxygen. Those who shot the video say that the police took away the cylinder for a “VIP.” The man is on his knees, begging.

Turns out, the man was a boy. 22-year-old Anmol Goyal. His mother died two hours after the video was shot. As happens in India, the police ordered an inquiry. And the story ended.

I can’t get the video out of my head. A man begs for his mother’s life, because his government failed him. He tries to become “atmanirbhar,” and exhausts his money to buy an oxygen cylinder that will save his mother. (Something that in any land that calls itself a country should not be something that people beg for.) The police take it away, because as always, the rich must be saved. And the heartlessness of two men – who regardless of their uniform – walk away from a desperate man.

The video broke — still breaks — my faith in this country. Is a country like this even worth loving? Worth fighting for?

~~

“Could you write a letter of hope?”

In a bid to do something, I start a fundraiser. You donate, and I will write a letter for you. A man asks me to write a letter of hope to his girlfriend. I say “Sure.” But after staring at a blank Word doc for thirty minutes, I think of going back to him to ask, “Is there anything else I can write on?”

Because I don’t know how to dig up hope anymore. Every day, it feels like the crevices where hope exists gets tinier, and tinier. We’re all jolting around in our grief, and we don’t know where to look for a blue sky. Or, if a blue sky even exists.

I text a friend. When I recovered and felt more like myself, I’d started helping out with COVID relief. This friend was there to tell me how. I thought surely, she with all her work, would know where to find hope. She said, “I don’t know, dost.”

I found some glimmers of hope in personal stories on social media. Strangers staying up till 2 am making calls to help someone they don’t know. The relentless, and extraordinary courage of doctors, nurses, and cremation workers. But these glimmers of hope don’t hold up to the avalanche of despair. Bodies being dumped in the Ganga. The horrors of vaccine inequity…everywhere.

I was ready to abandon the letter of hope. Until, a koel sang for, what felt like, fifteen minutes on a branch outside my window. As stupidly romantic that sounds, it’s true. The koel sang, and I suddenly realized my insignificance. Humans are just tiny specks on a gigantic timeline of Earth’s history. The koel – or whatever manifestation of nature you choose to be in awe of – is a reminder that history is long. Things will get better – even if as I type this my instinct is to say “No, they won’t.”

Hope, then, is what we have to hold on to. Somehow. I wrote the letter eventually, and I ended it with a line I am, somehow, holding on to.

“Hope is each other.”

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That’s it from me for this week.

I hope you, and your family are well, and safe. I am afraid I don’t have any more words to offer. As always, I would love to hear from you.

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I will write again, soon.