Many intensities of grief change from shade to shade. The agony of the vigil shades into the helplessness of watching the slow fading away of a loved one’s life and the loneliness of a perpetual absence.
A son gasps for breath in the hollow of his mother’s lap as she tries to fold him into the rhythms of her own breathing in a futile bid to hold him to her life.
In a hospital ward that echoes with the many sounds with which life heralds the arrival of death, a doctor sobs helplessly as she tries to stop the bleeding away of life from the bodies that have been entrusted to her care.
Another son stands outside a crematorium trying to shape the face of his dead father out of the smoke that rises from many burning pyres.
In a makeshift graveyard, a daughter searches for the mound of mud that marks the uniqueness of her father’s life.
In another world, politicians continue to play their parts on shaky stages. They move from role to role, from speech to speech, from costume to costume.
Audiences listening to them are mesmerised by their rhetoric of hate, their promises of future utopias. And, their plans for creating a nation for those who belong, their laws to exterminate those who they have demarcated, with the concurrence of their listeners, as those who do not belong.
For people intoxicated with the fervour of religion, the politicians display blueprints of monuments to be built on the rubble of violence and destruction. The demagogues script their words to seep into the secret fears and longings of their listeners and shape themselves as the saviours of the people.
Politicians gleefully coronate themselves as kings as the frenzied mobs cheer them on.
But the smoke from a world that has turned into a crematorium enters these theatres of endless self-dramatisation, and the actors and audience are forced outside those tenuous enclosures.
The politicians have been on the stage for so long that they have forgotten to speak out of script. The dying are all around them. The systems through which life is sustained and kept in working order have collapsed.
Grief like a cloud of smoke chokes the living.
Maybe, for a brief moment, the elected rulers have a blinding insight into the inadequacy of the scripts that have spoken for them and through them. But they have been actors for too long. The edifice of their power is propped by the theatrics that over sustained and long years of performance have become inscribed into the quotidian practices of being of an entire people.
As the stench of dying, decomposing, burning corpses spreads among their mesmerised audience, the props of the politicians’ theatres collapse. They have promised the people, intoxicated by the frenzied chants of priests and charlatans, a grand temple, and mammoth idols.
However, from death and disease has emerged a new architecture of sacrality and a new conception of the divine. The sacral architecture of temples and mosques has been redrawn and assigned to hospitals. The epiphany of our common human vulnerability to death and disease has privileged the knowledge of the doctor over the ritual expertise of the priest.
We grapple with the new knowledge of our shared humanity and recognise the worth of those who are indispensable to our common struggle for survival— The doctor who struggles to understand the etiology of this new epidemic. The nurse who manages the recalcitrance of the diseased body. The drivers who ferry the sick and the dead and the equipment needed to save lives. The stranger who helps us push the wheelchair up the aisle of the hospital. The fellow survivor who smiles across the hospital bed. The grieving who become companions in the shared experience of loss. All of them are those who people our world and ease the unbearable loneliness of suffering in this devastating pandemic of grief.
As we stumble through this pandemic we struggle to make new sense of our lives, we form fragile bonds of support and concern, and sculpt new understandings of divinity. We are estranged from the rhetoric that once explained us to ourselves as members of a community, a caste, a religion, a class, a nation.
We are dismantled by the irrevocability of deaths that need not have happened.
We are puzzled by the incommensurate gap between the familiar habits of our existence and the absences that cannot be accommodated into them.
And when this passes we will have to learn a difficult new language to shape our links to each other in our shared vulnerability and shared responsibility to each other. We will have to come together with a renewed sense of humanity and humane living.
Grief has forced upon us the responsibility of struggling for a radical renewal of our world.
(Professor Parinitha Shetty teaches English in the Department of English, Mangalore University, Karnataka. The views expressed are personal.)