For nearly five minutes after I called her, neither could speak. I could hear her suckle sobs for her mother who could be put on a ventilator at any moment. I was crying as well, wishing I was in Delhi hugging her.
I have lost friends and relatives to diseases and accidents. My father came within minutes of dying a decade ago. I am thus no stranger to grief. Yet this grief that has seeped into my bones now, in which I feel adrift at sea, can’t concentrate on anything, am afraid of more bad news every time the phone rings… this huge void in my heart is new. It scares me.
And who is this woman I shed tears for that night? She’s the mother of a woman I dated long ago and who since has become one of my best friends. She’s practically a stranger, an aunt I’ve talked to only a few times on the phone, met only once - a month before the pandemic in Feb 2020 when I stayed three days in her house.
I watched how shy and conscious she was with visiting guests and relatives, meticulous with how she kept the house. I heard her and my friend giggling on things not remotely funny in the middle of the night as they shared a bed because I was given her room for those days.
As I imagined her on a ventilator, the doctors doing their best for her – I thought about the life of this 71-year-old woman who I know only in bits, yet pieces representative enough to tell me who she is.
She’s the youngest sibling in her family, a single mother who raised her two children on her own after she lost her husband when her oldest daughter – my friend – was barely six. She never dated or remarried because she did not want another to compete for the love she wanted to give to her kids.
She – the Sardarni whose family was from Peshawar in Pakistan – and who heard horror stories of Partition, had her own horror story unfold during the Sikh genocide of 1984. In February 2020 my friend showed me the house they hid in back then. She’s a woman who has refused to go on any trip beyond a few days because she has to take care of her 99-year-old mother.
She’s a woman of quiet fortitude who seems ordinary at a simple glance diluted as her bravery is by the stretch of time. But concentrate the many key moments from her life and a portrait of a resilient, strong Indian woman emerges, one who has fought and survived insurmountable odds to firmly love those that she did.
How can that strong banyan that has shaded hordes of weary travelers across time, be felled by, what was the word the Delhi High Court used – a ‘Tsunami’ of COVID that has swept across the country?
Last year besides two acquaintances I lost to the pandemic, the six degrees of separation between me and death held strong. It was always the friend of a friend of a friend who succumbed. This year almost everyone I know has someone in their family who has died in April. While all the central and state governments claim sanctity of the COVID data they share, horrifying images from all the corners of the nation, and the deaths in the life of almost everyone I know all over the country, tell a different story.
The biggest secret of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 hidden for nearly a century is that an estimated 12 to 40 million Indians - the most in the world – perished. Nearly 5% of Indians are said to have been wiped out then and my mother told me that a few in her family, in the easternmost corner of the NorthEast of India, had also succumbed to it.
The secret of this COVID19 pandemic is that it won’t be any different. India, if the numbers were counted accurately - e.g. hundreds of thousands of deaths from pneumonia caused by COVID in the last year were written out of COVID statistics - it’ll perhaps emerge that even in this pandemic India lost the most lives in the world. My country for a century – like that Bono song - seems to be caught in a moment it can’t get out of.
Lying about data is beneficial only when the one lying about it, quietly works to mitigate the effects of the actual data. If the one fudging data begins believing its lies, starts celebrating based upon those false numbers, that is a recipe for disaster. Don’t those idiots know that, unlike humans, viruses come vaccinated against propaganda?
But I, and everyone else who state the obvious facts about COVID deaths, could be booked for sedition in a country more concerned about image management than life management. I am scared, but not about this. I am scared of losing more people to these avoidable deaths than I already have.
It broke my heart when in that same call my crying friend said her mother will become a mere statistic. Isn’t it always the case that the death of a dear one is a Promethean tragedy but of others a mere statistic. Who will collect those statistics into the innumerable heart-breaking tragedies they conceal in my nation that has become a crematorium – a country where the proof of crimes of a self-congratulating, complacent government is being burnt by the tens of thousands every day.
I realise now that I wasn’t crying for my friend or her mother. I was crying for myself, for the sense of the fragile security that has been robbed from me once again, for my incapacity to do much against this larceny besides a few phone calls and commiserations. I am in mourning for those dead bits of me that are burning atop each of those thousands of pyres in my dying country.
I tell my friend her mother is not a statistic. That she will live and be remembered. That is the least those of us who eventually survive, can and must do. Perhaps in letting the dead not become mere statistics, there’s justice against their untimely demise.
Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)