Strangers as pallbearers: Death and grief in lockdown

Images that are both heart-warming and heart-breaking, emerge from all over the nation as strangers from different religions and backgrounds come together to perform last rites- the cycle of life and death continues as we learn to mourn in isolation.

Rampukar Pandit breaks down on Nizamuddin Bridge, New Delhi- May 11, 2020.      Photo Credits: Atul Yadav, PTI

My 90-year-old grandmother passed away a few days ago, 1700 kilometres away in Punjab. I do not know who shouldered her body on her last journey. Maybe some neighbours stepped in, maybe it was complete strangers sharing the burden with my father in silent communion. I did not get a chance to ask, afraid somehow, that I could be asking the same question again as my grandfather also battles for his life in intensive care. Death, funerals, and grieving rituals are elaborate and defined in most religions. Perhaps the distinct methodology of grieving, lets us operate and navigate our sadness with the support of our families and community. Our new reality in a national lockdown has thrown this process out of the window.

The haunting image of Rampukar Pandit has become the face of our unprocessed grief. His infant son died in Begusarai, 1200 kilometres away, while he was helplessly trying to reach home from Delhi. The distraught 38-year-old told reporters from PTI, “I pleaded to the police to let me go home but no one helped. One policeman even said, ‘Will your son become alive if you go back home? This is lockdown, you can’t move’. Will a father not want to go home and even mourn the death of his son with his family?”

If the inhumanity and injustice of being held apart from your loved ones could be articulated, I would write about the many migrant workers grieving, mourning, painfully walking hundreds of kilometres, and I would exhaust all the words in the world- yet fail to capture even a fraction of their stories. The lockdown which was to serve us in saving lives, is destroying everything about those lives we held dear- be it social interactions, celebrations, collective grief, or employment. How do we continue to justify the need to create a humanitarian crisis in order to avert a medical one? Would our broken systems and broken governance only care about its people if there were an election around the corner?

While one simple Google search yields stories of Muslim neighbours helping in the funeral processions of Hindus from Mumbai, Bhopal, Indore, Hyderabad, Jaipur, and more, at the other end, Hindu families arrange Iftar meals for stranded Kashmiri Muslims in West Bengal. Though the COVID-19 crisis has been relentlessly communalized by various media outlets as well as political authorities, grief and isolation are tying people together despite propaganda- connecting them in primal, human ways.

As we ferry Indians from abroad back to India with the Vande Bharat Mission, people like Rampukar Pandit will never reach their homes in time. Some will die before they reach their destination, and no COVID-tracker will count their deaths as our ministers will continue to deny the crisis, much like Union Minister Piyush Goyal claiming that no one has died of starvation during the lockdown.

Informal tallies suggest number of deaths of migrant workers walking on the roads to be 134 as on May 17, 2020. The actual figures may be much higher and may continue climbing as the lockdown extends further. We may never see the actual statistics, and even if we do, we haven’t learnt to mourn statistics, we have no concept of grieving faceless deaths, and hence, to the delight of political powers, we will forget.

We depend on sorting our grief into neat boxes of goodbyes, and funeral rituals. Now that we cannot rely on reaching our loved ones in time for the last few moments of interaction, or witnessing the last journey of their mortal remains, we need to find a new world order of grieving to encompass those we cannot be with physically. I have not asked my father who helped him carry my grandmother’s arthi. Maybe, I will never be able to ask, secure only in knowing that these were human beings who stepped forward to help in a world that seems so disconnected and disjointed- that strangers standing by our side as we grieve, is enough humanity, for now.


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