Three years ago, it was during the last days in April that the season’s first Kalbaishakhi – gusts of thunder, storm and rain – broke into the sultry summer evening in Kolkata, just as it did this year. I remember the rains came late on that Sunday evening at the end of April 2020, stopping what had become our routine walk during that hour. Suddenly that night after dinner, past 10 pm, my husband – Hari Vasudevan – impulsively decided to go alone on his walk. With his usual gusto, he finished his brisk round of our Salt Lake block and returned before we knew it. The next morning he mentioned that he was down with fever. We thought it must be a passing bout caused by his night walk in the light drizzle.
Those were still early Covid times and we in India were marking the completion of the first month of a harsh and complete lockdown. As we watched the televised plight of the long walk home of the migrant workers, and heard account after account of people deprived of their daily wage and food, Hari and I regularly reflected on the class privilege that kept our family well-provisioned, well-serviced and safely ensconced at home. Equipped with our masks and hand sanitisers, the two of us would walk in the late evenings around an eerily empty neighbourhood, greeted mainly by our local pack of dogs in different lanes, with wafts of phone conversations floating out of verandas and the once-in-a-while sight of an ambulance in front of a house that would bring a shiver of anxiety.
Till today, I have never stopped asking myself – when Hari fell sick, why did our alarm bells not go off immediately? Why were we as a family so unsuspecting of the horror that lay ahead? The fever never left him over the coming days. He went to see his nearby general physician on the fourth day, went on a course of antibiotics, had chest X-rays and blood tests done that came clear, leaving us with the doctor’s reassurance that there was no need yet for Covid testing. It was only on the seventh day, when coughing, a sense of chest constriction and tremendous weakness hit him, that he himself along with our daughter began the frantic search for facilities of home testing by private laboratories, none of which were yet available in Kolkata. Hari by now was convinced that he had Covid – I know this from later reading his cryptic phone and e-mail messages to his close friends – and I am consumed by guilt thinking how I was still living in a strange state of denial.
On May 4, 2020, on the advice of a Delhi doctor friend, we took him first to the Apollo’s Fever and Cough clinic, where a CT scan of the chest showed up clear signs of Covid-induced pneumonia. I can still hear the doctor’s sombre voice urging his immediate move to a Covid-care hospital, and the ground beginning to shake and break under my feet. It was again our social and professional privilege that we had the highest of contacts in the city. There was no dearth of well-placed friends who rushed to our aid and ensured within the next few hours that Hari could be admitted to an ICCU bed at the largest private hospital Covid unit then available at AMRI Salt Lake. The rest was destiny.
As the dusk set in, we moved Hari in our own car over the short distance from Apollo to AMRI. He was stoical when I broke the news to him; he wanted something to eat because he had not been given anything during the eight hours he was at Apollo; but there was not a morsel of food we could give him while he sat in the car and I waited in the footpath outside the hospital, waiting for a bed to be allocated to him. It was 9 pm when I stood outside watching him being wheeled into the elevator, being taken to the sixth floor to bed number 2612. I never saw him on that bed, but that number refuses to leave me. Did I have a sense then that I would never see him again? I don’t think my mind was functioning at all. He heard my voice for the last time when I called at 11 pm to find out if he had given something to eat – he could not speak, so I will never know, but I would like to believe he was given a hot bowl of soup before he was put on a ventilator. That belief is all I have to hold on to when I look back on that sleepless night. Neither Hari’s nor my consent was taken before such a critical intervention. Even this most routine of medical norms was thrown aside in the panic that had set in amongst doctors fighting this scourge.
The next five days are a blur in my mind. In a zombie-like state, our family grappled with medical reports about prone ventilation and cytokine storm, desperately chased drugs like Remdesivir that were not on the market after a trial run, or heard about how plasma therapy could act as a wonder cure. Later, we would know that none of these could eventually save lives from this killer virus. We were told that it was sheer biological chance that an energetic 68 year old, with none of the co-morbidities of his age (contrary to the media reports of the time) succumbed so rapidly. It must be the same biological luck that preserved me and our daughter from contamination despite our closest proximity to him. We could not even tell him that we were safe.
Hari passed away after midnight on May 9 – 12:40 am, says his hospital certificate. I was not called to the hospital, even if only to stand outside the ICCU ward, as his end neared. Nor did it once occur to me in the days before to ask for a last video call. I now think that must have been Hari’s way of sparing us the horror of seeing him on life support tubes. But fate was unsparing to him. The most large-hearted of persons, who had held friends and family together across cities, countries and generations, died an utterly lonely death, and went on his last journey with no loved one by his side.
All our social connections could not ensure that at least one of us could attend his cremation on the Dhapa grounds of the city. The top ranks of the West Bengal Swasthya Bhavan had cleared permission for one person in PPE gear to attend his last rites. But his close friend and colleague, who took my place in following his hearse in a car, was turned away from the Dhapa crossing on the Bypass by the Kolkata Police, saying that they would lose their jobs if he followed them to the cremation spot. As many of my fellow sufferers would know, Covid death management, like Covid treatment, was in its worst mess during that first wave. The three main units of the government, the health department, the municipal corporation and the police, were each caught up in their own often contending sets of rules, and all concerns about ensuring the basic rights of patients’ families were thrown to the winds.
I hardly need to reiterate that there is nothing exceptional in my bitter story of Covid bereavement. Our helplessness and trauma reverberated across thousands and thousands of families that were similarly ripped apart by the raging virus across the world, across my county, across my state and my city. During the two worst Covid years, the media was spilling with stories like mine and many that were far worse. The second wave mercilessly took away the young and healthy as much as the old and the infirm, claimed the well-healed as much as the poor, leaving us with the haunting images of mass pyres burning and corpses left floating in the river.
It is still impossible to fathom the full ramifications of the horrors wreaked by Covid and the death trails it left behind in its first and second waves in India. Each of these Covid deaths remained deeply, intractable personal, especially so under the conditions of enforced isolation and lockdown. There was no community of shared grief; instead there was only fear and stigma that left those afflicted and their families inconsolably alone. While each state government fudged the numbers of Covid deaths in varying degrees, each grieving family was left counting their own losses amidst this meaningless game of statistics and lies. It was a time like none other in our collective lifetime, and it was a time that transformed us irreversibly as social beings. And this is the hard truth that we must confront again and again, even as we know we have left the worst behind.
Is it not time, as the world around me is demanding, to set aside these harsh memories and move forward? Is there anything to be gained in reopening these wounds and reliving those darkest days of our lives? After all, our governments have declared – and we as a society have risen in chorus with this claim – that we have won the war against Covid, that we must take our “revenge” against this monster by reclaiming our pre-Covid lives of travel, consumption, fun and festivities with full gusto. Sure, the virus in its continuous mutations has by now lost its death sting; the success of Covid vaccinations has made medical history, and we have all had to pick up the threads of where we left off to gradually move on. But let us not fool ourselves about who conquered whom. In this popular analogy of war, it is Covid that vanquished us all, brought down administrations to their knees, left hospital infrastructures crumbling, broke the backs of the heroic warrior teams of doctors, nurses, health-workers, ambulance drivers and funerary staff, and stripped the dead of all dignity and compassion.
Let us recognise the dangers and insensitivities of this official declaration of victory, and keep digging up all that it wishes to sweep under the carpet. It is the same game of the falsification and erasure of histories, past and present, that we are seeing all around us. What is being played out every day in school syllabi and educational curricula is also at work vis-à-vis the debacle of Covid. It is a deliberate project of fostering a national public amnesia, where the history of the pandemic will be in part wished away like the Mughal past, and in part actively rewritten like the history of the state-sponsored destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and or the pogrom against Muslims in post-Godhra Gujarat.
Now, more than ever before, is the time for reckoning with the individual and collective horrors of our Covid times. This is what has compelled me to drag out into the public a deeply personal story of loss, whose turn of events has haunted me every day since that fateful week of May 2020. This essay may well read like a personal rant. But its main point is not about the apportioning of blame and allegations of hurt. It is more about a personal act of catharsis, to face up to my own sense of culpability and put myself through the trial of a blow by blow account of our collective failure to save Hari.
Sure, one can pile on the grudges of the time that will never go fully go away – whether it be against the family doctor who let us down and never once contacted us thereafter, or the head of our local police station who treated me as nothing short of a prisoner (despite the fact that I had tested Covid negative) in barring me from going to the hospital to say my last farewell to Hari or to receive his ashes some days later. But to go down that lane is counter-productive. Anger, in this case, depletes and debilitates; grief, on the other hand, creates a new strength and resolve. What is centrally at stake for me is a stubborn refusal to forget and to let go of grief. That is the very least we owe those who never lived to see the world after Covid.
The oft-quoted lines of Milan Kundera take on a new urgency in this fresh “struggle of memory against forgetting” – where each act of insistent remembrance can become as much of a personal as a public gesture to counter official amnesia, to commemorate each life that could not be saved, to honour each person who gave their all in this fight, and to stand in solidarity with each bereaved family.
Tapati Guha Thakurta is Honorary Professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.