make plans, don’t we? Dinner plans, holiday plans, life plans. We don’t usually plan against death. Or, indeed, against the upsetting of our plans for ourselves. Plan Bs are also just more of the same—plans that will allow us to envision success or indulgence or celebration or growth in a particular direction. Some of us even have plan Cs and Ds. Few of us have the heart to plan permanent farewells to the people we love, or indeed, to our own recognisable selves.
In all innocence, the poet
(Mirza Ghalib) asks—
Maut ka ek din mu’ayan hai/ Neend kyun raat bhar nahin aati
The day of death is preordained / Why do I lie awake all night?
As if he didn’t know! The thought that death is sure to come for us is not what keeps us awake at night. It is not knowing whether we will be able to survive and acquit ourselves well in the time that is given to us. It is being afraid of wasting time, and of losing the people we love, or failing to give them the best version of ourselves while we can. What keeps us awake is grief, regret, and plans for salvaging and restoring something while we may.
What do you do, though, now that all plans are off? All hopes are replaced by the one hope that you will survive, and so will your beloveds, and hope is all you have because cure there is none. The novel coronavirus has stripped us down to the basics—food, shelter, clothing, including masks, gloves, shoes. Ambitions and acquisitions from two months ago feel hollow in confinement. That smart linen jacket, all that jewellery in the locker, that colleague you were jealous of, that invitation you were so thrilled about, that destination wedding. At this point, a wedding at the registrar’s office with ten people in attendance seems like an impossibility.
Because you believe that this is temporary, you try out a few recipes and post pictures online. Or you look for courses online, so you can spruce up your CV. There will be new jobs to apply to. This has to end—in six weeks, or eighteen months max, right? You are telling yourself to be patient. So many others have it so much worse. For all the tedium, you’d rather not venture out. Every time you hear of an infection in your neighbourhood, you shudder. It is the worst possible outcome.
Being cut off from everyone you love and trust, breathless and frightened and not even the touch of a hand on your forehead. If you die, it is one of the worst deaths. Your family will not be allowed to touch you one last time. Strangers might carry your bier and lower you into the grave, or onto the pyre. The prospect of such an eventuality is too heavy to hold on to for longer than a second. I cannot hold it myself. When I read stories about elderly couples in Italy, possibly infected by Covid-19, choosing to not even call the hospital but simply waiting for death in each other’s company, I can understand. Better that than the other.
These days, whenever I see a death announcement on my social media feed, I feel sorrier than I would have than at any other time. It is a horrible time to be among the bereaved. Children, grandchildren, nieces—how will they cope, cut off from each other and from the sense of closure that funeral practices bring?
We have always needed to touch or watch over the bodies of departed kin. Mourning is built into human civilisation, perhaps even into our natural instincts. Chimpanzee mothers are known to keep grooming dead children. Monkeys and apes also participate in certain kind of mourning rituals. So do other mammals like elephants and dolphins. Human beings have used their tools, their distinct and expanding ability with language, craft, and narrative and spatial imagination to give shape and meaning to grief. In various parts of the world, we have evidence of cairns to signify burial. Prehistoric humans had felt the need to stack stones so the dead were remembered and the doing of it was perhaps a way to process grief. With time, rituals and memorials got more complex, including the creation of urns, mausoleums, steles, pyramids and embalming. Lengthy journeys were undertaken to a river or to the sea to immerse the ashes of someone cremated. Lavish feasts were hosted and animals sacrificed.
When people drop their guard, Yama takes over…or sometimes a man playacting the god of death reminds Calcuttans of the consequences.
Behind all funerary efforts and expenses is the urgent need to confront the loss of someone with whom you had (and continue to have) a unique relationship. You acknowledge the person not just as blood and flesh but as someone who was at the centre of a distinct web of relationships, with a distinct place in this world. The food, the sharing of memories, the travel helped the bereaved move past the fact of a death and into the continuum of life.
During a pandemic, however, the last rites do not permit gathering and rallying around. Old friends won’t be sending floral tributes, or condolence cards. There will be no hugs. Grief will hover in the air. Like the virus itself, it might cling to your breath, hair, clothes, the undersides of your shoes.
Yet, grief is not an event. It can’t be cancelled, or even postponed. It has to be worked through, performed, acknowledged. Traditional rituals might be performed at a later date. In the meantime, we must learn to fall back upon the adaptability that has helped our species weather all storms. If physical distance is the crisis, we must devise new ways to share memories so we can recover something of the self that is lost along with the death of a beloved person who helped raise us, nourished us, or otherwise made us who we are. Perhaps it will mean writing poetry. Or donating food instead of hosting feasts at home. Perhaps it will mean feeding the birds that come to our balconies, or leaving food out for stray animals. Perhaps it will mean singing elegies. Perhaps it will mean working on family histories, or sorting through old photo albums, or finding lost connections every day for ten days or forty.
Storytelling, singing and sharing food have always been integral to grieving and recovering. These have also been integral to joy, as at births and weddings. Many people are chafing too at not being able to share joy in tangible ways. The significant thing about celebrations, grieving, or even a long convalescence is that these bring routines to a pause; something changes. You didn’t just carry on as usual after a major event. You found some way to welcome someone new into your life; you struggled to let go of someone else as respectfully as possible; you tried to get better and perhaps made plans about what kind of life you wanted. This, at least, is still possible.
Perhaps, by the end of this pandemic—or even through it—we will have to throw out all our assumptions. We might have to grieve for some of them: the ease with which we shook hands with strangers, and even danced with them; the group hugs; the long-distance relationships we thought were entirely feasible and sustainable with weekend catch-ups. We might have to reflect too: the insane proximity of ritual dancing in tiny spaces with fake dim lighting when there was the great wide-open outdoors with natural dim starlight and moonlight; the pressure to hug someone you don’t like, yet simply because everyone else seems to hug and kiss everyone else. We might have to decide whether we want to live close enough to people we claim to love so that we don’t have to go into quarantine every time we feel like meeting them, and whether or not we want to bury or cremate them ourselves. And whether we will have enough beloveds in the neighbourhood to share a feast with, whenever we feel the need to host one.
(Views are personal)
The Mumbai-based author writes essays, reportage, stories, poems and plays