Natural Death in the Time of Corona

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.

5 thoughts on “Natural Death in the Time of Corona

  • March 21, 2020 at 8:20 am

    I’m very sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. All I can do is to remain available if you need any thing. Thus please feel free to call me or drop me a message whenever you feel like 🙂 And Please stop. Don’t read further. Read below section after a month or so. The next section I wrote for the readers of this article.

    “Perhaps we do not so much choose our silences as they happen to us.”
    I’m feeling little uncomfortable here. I may be very wrong. So your opinion is welcomed.

    I feel we always have option either A or “not A”. But sometimes we all are “weak” to make the choice.
    Or our Ego comes in. Or we want to avoid the responsibility of making the choice. Or we know that option A is right but that is not in our interest so we don’t chose A. Or as a human limitation we fail to gauge the consequences of choosing A and not choosing A. Example say IAS working under corrupt minister. People not practising social isolation. Fire preparation of building.
    I’m saying I’m not comfortable with – “they happen to us.”
    I’m more inclined towards accepting the responsibility that it happened because I chose silence or I didn’t chose silence.
    Definitely I’m afraid. I’m uncertain about choice A. Thus I delayed decision making. But delaying decision making is also a decision. By deferring it I’m making a choice.
    And people who accept this are more strong. They know that they will be held responsible whether they chose A or not chose A. Thus they take a decision irrespective of right or wrong.

    Also I’m no exception. I have also done the same thing in past and I might do the same thing in future. Thats my weakness. But at last I will have to accept whatever happened to me irrespective of good or bad my choice was responsible for it. Definitely there were other external things that impacted the outcome. But it doesn’t just happened to me.

    Just in the previous line She wrote : “Death, more than anything, makes us regret the silences that we have chosen.”
    At the end anyway I will feel like that I choose silence and then I will regret it.
    Better I learn from my past mistakes and make a choice. And there is nothing wrong in changing our choices. We all commit mistakes and learn.

    I wrote this because I wanted people to feel that responsibility of choosing and not choosing. When you are given an option, you take it. Please don’t leave it on time. Time will decide.
    If anyone of you differ from this opinion. I respect that as well. Smile 🙂

    • March 25, 2020 at 7:10 am

      @Rishi Ranjan Singh
      You are making a mistake here, confusing genres. This is not an argument-based essay, this is a memoir. If you have a habit of reading literature, you will know that you can find many sentences like this in literature, sentences that are factually unsound when taken too literally — in a book by any author, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, you name it. “Literal” and “literary” are not the same thing. Literary language is the language of emotions, which has its own logic: synthetic, not analytic.
      For example, as you rightly point out, Sritama makes two contradictory statements here, one after another. But you didn’t recognise she does it deliberately. It means something. “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.” Now take these two sentences and synthesize their meanings. What results? That we choose our silences but at the same time do not choose them. Yes, a paradox. Which means, simply, “we choose our silences unconsciously.” Now, you may ask, why not write it like this, in a simple sentence? Why complicate matters, use a paradox? This is the difference between an argument-based essay and a piece of literature. Literature evokes our emotions, using literary devices. Paradox is such a literary device.
      We all choose silences unconsciously, I’m sure even you have done so, at some juncture in your life. Taking responsibility is a good thing, but as psychoanalysis has taught us, it’s impossible to take responsibility for the unconscious. Some things will always escape the grasp of our consciousness.

      • March 25, 2020 at 10:27 am

        Well that makes lot of sense. Thanks for putting your time to explain me this. Actually my ignorance comes from the fact that I don’t read any literature. In fact I used to hate literature in childhood. Jokingly – why poet/poetess/ or any other gender doesn’t say the thing that he, she or they want to say to us. Why they want us to roam around and interpret what they are saying? 😀

        Well ideally I would love to make the choices in my life so that at the end I can blame only myself. But you rightly pointed out that it’s impossible to take responsibility for the unconscious.
        Because of my own bias towards the first approach. I would like to develop/improve my consciousness level. So that my unconscious decision is reduced if not eliminated. Also I feel that it should not become a slippery slope. Because then you start pushing lot of decision to unconscious. Your weakness start to take over you rather than you taking control of your weakness. Example [I’m very bad at giving examples] : Several player eat whatever they think is right for them. But Virat Kohli maintains his diet. Now I’m not asking everyone should be Virat Kohli its their choice. As a personal bias – I want to be in control of my diet decisions rather than simply eating whatever I want. Excuses like Food was not available. I didn’t had any option. I don’t want to give excuse for my bad health. – Its just my opinion/preference.

        Sritama once mentioned that you are one of her favourite writer. Indeed you explained it really well. I truly believe that I will get to learn a lot from you. If I ever get a chance a chance to meet you I will be really very happy. I would love to learn from you about all these nitty gritties of the literature. Thanks Man for putting that effort. 🙂

        • March 25, 2020 at 10:33 am

          P.S. : It may not be evident from my reply. So to summarise – I do agree with your statements around unconscious decision. I do agree with “Some things will always escape the grasp of our consciousness.”
          What I’m saying is – as a personal preference I will work on myself and see If I can reduce unconscious decisions.

  • March 25, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    I heartily agree with that, and to my understanding, nowhere does this piece of writing oppose it.
    Well, in a word, poets and writers believe human relations can be far more complex than an IAS officer’s decisions or a cricketer’s diet plans, and so those relations require a different mode of treatment and expression. If life appears simpler to you, you are free to disagree, of course. But that doesn’t mean literature promotes weakness; on the contrary, reading and writing literature are some of the best ways of working on our unconscious, as you rightly think we should. You might know writing is part of psychological therapy.
    If you are interested in this debate between rationalism and literature, John Stuart Mill’s childhood and the impact of Wordsworth on his early life might be relevant.
    It’s a pleasure to know you heard about me, Rishi. Thanks 🙂


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