Where dying is a way of life

A Delhiite’s tryst with devil

The burning fires singed my eyes and face. The billowing smoke shut out visibility allowing just blurred windows in instalments. That it was almost twilight made matters worse. Still, through the mist, I could make out about four rows, with 10 to 12 pyres alight. Of course, there was no geometric precision as flames rose in gaps too. I was there trying to locate my father. Tears were flowing from my eyes; owing to the soot, not for my father. His quota had dried long back.

Earlier, I gave my father’s body to the makeshift operator of the makeshift crematoria, which could have been a car park, a playground or any open space. I along with two relatives, handed over the long wrapper and just to be safe, I unzipped it neck level to ensure it was the same man who gave birth to me. The operator looked at the papers given by the hospital, kept one copy for himself, as if it mattered, and along with a helper, took delivery of the package, like it had arrived from Amazon. I was told it should take anywhere between two to four hours for the cremation, given the queue and varying combustion durations of human remains. Someone was supposed to point out my father’s pyre and would eventually hand over the handful.

The waiting time and place were the stuff of horror movies and surprisingly an eerie silence prevailed, broken only by the crackling of wood and the constant poking of the good Samaritans working night and day at a deadly job, converting and pouring corpses into cups of all shapes. I might even forget my father, but not this day.

There was a delay of about an hour owing to lack of wood and at last a man came and pointed at a stack. I made a request to go near for a simple religious ritual but was denied permission for my own safety. My dad took his time, using up every piece of wood afforded to him. After more than an hour, the same man brought me a plastic cover (I had forgotten to take the standard vessel in my haste) and I accepted it with due reverence. But doubts prevailed! What if the ashes of my father’s predecessor at the pyre had got mixed? For that matter, was it really my father’s ashes, given that I have only the word of the crematoria to go with? And yes, a certificate, if you are lucky! Well, one can never really be, er, dead certain!

A rewind of the last couple of days would reveal a harrowing tale that thousands share with me. But it is all familiar stuff inundating all media: breathless patients, of people running around for hospital beds, bodies on streets, lack of oxygen cylinders, life-saving medicines and critical facilities, overworked doctors and healthcare workers, distraught relatives, and resultant violence et al. And it is my fate that I happened to be a denizen of this cursed Capital of India. Even in normal days, Delhi has never been my favourite city. There is something inherently morbid about it.

What can you say of a city whose only or most famous ‘tourist attractions’ are Mausoleums, tombs and samadhis. When foreign leaders visit this City of the Dead, there is a huge demand for wreaths and a lot of diplomatic time is wasted in paying the mandatory respects.

Small wonder Delhi, the Capital, has become the showpiece of all that is wrong with India’s handling of the Second Wave. In fact, there was no handling at all. All the noise is just in the last few days when the official daily numbers had already crossed 2 lakhs. Recently, the Madras HC had commented that the EC officials should be hanged for murder for allowing election campaigns without following Covid norms. One is tempted to ask if it would apply to north and its netas who were proud of the crowds.

The gross insensitivity apart, the criminal incompetence, leadership failure and petty political bickerings have cost the nation incalculable lives and livelihoods. If India survives this catastrophe, it would be in spite of our rulers and owing to its relentless Covid warriors and external charity.

A stark and startling fact is the fudging of figures by the authorities. My father is now just a statistic. But I doubt if his death has been accounted. I know he is dead; But I am not sure he is dead, officially. I am yet to obtain a certificate from the crematoria, though I have one from the hospital. A reliable report with proper, verifiable data claims that in a survey of about 8 crematoria, close to 1200 deaths have not been reported on a single day. Bureaucratic ambiguity and dubious classification of Covid deaths underplay the real figure.

There is a separate category called ‘suspected’, whatever it means. Those who die at home of Covid too are out of the roaster. Many die on the road itself, before reaching the hospital. And there are millions of villages, Data scientists claim, that are not even a dot on the Covid map.

So, as I sat waiting for my father’s ashes and watching those burning bodies, my mind was not exactly in a spiritual and reflective realm; Numbed by wretched politicos, rendered helpless despite quite a few wads in the pocket, pushed into hopelessness by the absence of even basic facilities in a supposedly ‘emerging economy’, insatiable greed of those drafted to be in service and my human senses and sensibilities evaporating in the relentless heat, I lapsed into a study of morbid numbers. About fifty pyres an hour; multiplying by 20 hours (4 hours for clearing, rest etc) would about be 1000 per day. And that is just here. Who knows how many more are there? It just does not add up.

But no point picking your head over it. After all, at the end of the day, what is needed is a showel, not a calculator or computer. One can count corpses; but how do you count ashes?