By Sritama Bhattacharyya
We come together as a society to either celebrate or mourn. That’s the template. Then there are anomalies, like protests. This one, however, is about mourning, or the lack thereof. This is also about the way the Coronavirus pandemic had affected the death rituals of a woman whose life, compared to the number of lives the virus untimely took worldwide, would probably amount to nothing (she died of natural causes), but for the writer of this article, that life mattered, the death rituals mattered and so did the mourning.
I lost my grandmother amidst WHO’s declaration of the COVID19-caused pandemic. She was eighty-one. I was on my invigilation duty when she turned stiff and blue. By the time I saw the message my father had left for me, the rigor-mortis had set in. We had to wait for a couple of hours for the doctors to arrive and remove her pacemaker. A few hours more for the cornea removal– she had donated her eyes a few years back.
Manju– my thamma– was a refugee from Bangladesh, a country on which the identity of East Pakistan was enforced at the time she was crossing the border with her baby sister, baby brother, two elder brothers and an ailing father. Manju had accomplished nothing on paper that her granddaughter could frame, no one cared to document her aspirations and I never got around to asking her about the same. Death, more than anything, makes us regret the silences that we have chosen. Perhaps we do not so much choose our silences as they happen to us.
On the day she died, her sister couldn’t return from Jaipur, her elder brother had the symptoms of common cold and hence, was asked by the family physician to stay at home. The grief for the first few hours was unbearable. But we adapted. It grew lesser and lesser in proportion as more people turned up– mostly neighbours. Conversations shifted from the lifeless to the ones living under threat. My grandfather, who is ninety-two, started asking everyone present in the room to sanitize their hands. A bottle of sanitizer started making the rounds, reminding everyone who appeared to pay their respect to the dead of the disease that worked its way into our lives.
Anxieties of living had only ended for the dead. Amidst the numbers that the attendees were quoting of people affected in different countries, someone quipped how alcohol consumption is the only available precaution. Someone else chuckled. Someone suggested home remedies. Someone talked about hoarding food and the possibility of an artificial famine. Death united a community that otherwise wouldn’t have come together. It made strangers confidantes. Or was it the virus?
I have tried imagining myself in trying situations. I have imagined myself mourning for everyone I have ever cared about. It’s not that uncommon, I believe. And when I had to mourn for the woman I have spent twenty-five years with, living in the same house, it was nothing like the way I imagined. The living were not just there to mourn the loss of life, but also to share the collective anxiety of living exposed to COVID19. Soon, we found out that we can’t host a funeral ceremony as gatherings are prohibited.
Manju–the only theist in my family– couldn’t be given a proper farewell. We had to mourn her loss with a knackered heart in ways that were available to us. We come together as a society not only in our grief or celebrations but also through our collective angst of being threatened by a force greater than us. I believe she would have understood why we couldn’t perform a few rituals if she was around.
Sritama is a High School teacher and a Research Scholar.