The burning pyres and people running desperately to save lives, invoke grief and anger, but the answer lies in formation a strong national character
Last week, a close friend rang up, pleading for help in procuring a vital medicine for his Covid-afflicted mother. After almost eight hours, we managed a dose for her. A couple of days back, I received a message from him that "she left us in the morning". My friend owns an established company and has worked hard to give himself and his family a good life. But his mother passed away because nowhere in this national capital of a country that calls itself the pharmacy of the world, could he find that one medicine in time that could have saved her. Today his wife called frantically to inform that he himself is now fighting for life.
The view from my window is one of quiet greenery with a soft wind that competes with the lonely hoot of a train engine from a nearby railway station. Inside, TV screens serve a non-stop barrage of deaths reported from renowned hospitals, burning pyres and families running from one end of the city to another, clutching phone numbers and addresses to find medicines, oxygen and hospital beds for near and dear ones.
Grief doesn't give you the luxury of being angry though anger comes easy when you see bodies bundled in white sheets being carried away to funerals from hospitals whose high patient-care costs did not somehow include back-up oxygen for ICUs lest it upsets their bottom lines.
People do not occupy ICU beds because they want to die, they do so because they want to live. Yet death is not a stranger here — indeed it is a frequent visitor. The families with loved ones in ICUs at least have the satisfaction of knowing that they and the hospital did their best. Some years back the calm environment of an ICU relieved my mother of much pain and prepared us for her eventual peaceful passing away at home. But today the same ICUs in some hospitals have become killing fields; how does one fathom the grief and the desperation of someone helplessly watching a family member die gasping for breath because a basic life-saving item like oxygen has run out? The one place you thought was your last hope has suddenly itself run out of life.
Under each faceless shroud is a human being who was a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a colleague, and a spouse to someone. The pandemic is a catastrophe that provides easy fodder for breaking news and political one-upmanship but the real tragedy has visited the families deprived of the catharsis of bidding a dignified farewell to a loved one. One worthy gentleman remarked, perhaps in a badly mistimed and misplaced sense, of showing urgency for the present as the dead don't come back. But they do — in each living moment of the ones they leave behind. They come back each time we remember them. They come back even when we forget them.
Yes, it's easy to be angry. The problem is that one doesn't know where to direct it. As the tsunami of misfortune hit our cocooned middle and upper-class homes and swept away the fragile and fickle castles of hope built on the soft sands of an ephemeral victory, we have reasons to be angry but angry with whom?
The Government has long been the whipping boy for every misfortune that befalls this country. Over the years we have become accustomed to point an accusing finger at the government whenever things go wrong because it is easy and convenient to do so. The systems are broken, the bureaucrats are corrupt and the Institutions have been compromised — the list of charges grows longer by the day in content if not in substance. It's true that at the end of the day, democracy demands performance and delivery, and failing that, accountability from those we have elected to positions of great responsibilities. The only measure of a caring government is the welfare of its citizens. When that doesn't happen there is legitimate cause for questions to be asked which need not be seen as hostile dissent. But as thousands of homes and families are shattered and we shine the light on ourselves, the sight that emerges is not so edifying. As citizens, we have seldom raised our voice in unison or developed a national character that rises above hyperbole and partisan interests.
Yes, there are systematic flaws but somewhere in all this, our national flaws are also exposed brutally. At the first sign of a shortage, we line up, irrespective of our social or economic status, to hoard liquor, grocery, medicines and even oxygen. It's every man for himself. We are a nation where, in a time of crisis, those who can, will grab what they can get, by whatever means they can. Thus, while the rich will, amongst other things, charter planes to safer lands, the rest will fight it out for scarce resources. And chaos will prevail as it has tragic consequences for the rest. It's the survival of the richest and the most privileged. For the rest, it's a gamble of how far your wits and your will can take you.
This is not the New India we want to leave behind for coming generations. We are a country that worships money and glamour, and crass aggressiveness and boorish behaviour on the cricket pitch is touted as representative of a new India. There is perhaps hope yet to change our national character as we see ward boys, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, crematorium workers, delivery boys, lower constabulary do the heavy lifting at great personal risk. I hope the new India will be represented by them and by other common citizens. In the gloom of tragedy, maybe a new light will pierce through our collective national conscience.
A country that has fought wars is used to unmarked graves for soldiers in far off battlefields. This battle is at our doorsteps and yet the graves and the smoke from the burning pyres are lonely, forlorn and so far away.
Views expressed are personal