For those who have not lived through the 1947 Partition riots and the Bengal Famine of 1943, the summer of 2021 when the coronavirus tore through India was the most calamitous nation-wide tumult of our lifetimes.

It was a time of heart-wrenching suffering, helpless fear and uncertainty. Everything you needed to save the lives of loved ones was suddenly in impossibly short supply – hospital beds, oxygen, essential medicines, vaccines, intensive care units and ambulances. Black markets thrived and even the price of wood for funerals and priests’ prayers spiralled.

People died in hospital corridors or parking lots, sometimes in intensive care units, choking to death because there was no oxygen. Smoke from burning bodies clouded the skies for days on end as funeral pyres spilled out onto pavements and parks in cities and towns across the country. Anonymous bodies were lowered into crowded mass graves. Rotting bodies were washed ashore on river banks, half eaten by dogs and fish.

It was also a time of profound loneliness, a time when you died alone, your corpse was dispatched alone, you were left to mourn alone.

An unspoken fear

Then it waned, for many months, as suddenly as it started. The country re-opened and cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, Metro trains crammed the streets again. People returned to work. Masks and closed schools were merciless reminders that the nightmare could recur. An unspoken fear hung in the air like opaque, clammy smog on a freezing winter night.

Questions lingered: Will the tempest stir once more? Will we be struck again? Will the storm savage us even more than the last time? We were struggling for answers even as the third wave of Covid-19 had begun.

But already, political leaders claimed in Parliament and from election pulpits that there was never any oxygen shortage during the second wave, that the numbers of those who died were much lower than the apocalyptic estimates of scientists and statisticians, that we are breaking all global records in vaccinating our people, that the government had responded splendidly to protect its people.

If people had suffered a little – a little, maybe – it was the fault of the virus and of people themselves for irresponsibly letting their guard down.

After the pandemic ends – and one day it must end – as the years pass and generations move on, how will we remember its rampage, especially the turmoil, dread and loss left in the trail of the second wave? Our wounds today run so deep and spread so far. Will they fester far beyond the possibilities of healing in a single lifetime?

Will there be rage? Where will people allocate responsibility and culpability? Will they accept the official chargesheet that laid all blame on the wily virus and the people? Or will they recognise that they reaped the poisonous harvest they themselves had sowed: of electing governments spectacularly bereft of both competence and concern? Leaders who displayed no remorse, accepted no blame and made no plans to prepare the country for the next onslaught. Leaders preoccupied, even in this time of calamity, in managing optics instead of solutions, of toppling opposition state governments and winning elections, of encouraging mega-religious gatherings as long as these were of Hindus and of further stoking hate.

Will people see that they were abandoned by the state when they needed it most? Will they see that the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetimes was caused by leaders with a pathological lack of compassion?

‘Humanity is dying in Delhi’

Balbir Singh was alarmed when his son Sagar’s oxygen saturation level fell to 60, when it should have been at least 95. He desperately called government helplines and doctors, but no one replied. He called for ambulances but none were ready to come to his home. It was an autorickshaw driver who came to his aid.

He drove to six hospitals in Delhi, hugging his 27-year-old son, but there were no beds anywhere. “They wouldn’t let me enter any of the hospitals,” he sobbed to a reporter of the Irish Times. “I had to watch my son die in my arms, he couldn’t breathe anymore. All he needed was a little oxygen, and nobody would give it to him. Such a young boy.”

The next morning, Singh was in the Seemapuri crematorium which was spilling over with corpses. He piled blocks of wood over the body of his son, again in tears. “I have never had to set alight a pyre by myself before,” he told the Irish Times. “He was supposed to light mine.” The crematorium caretaker embraced him and helped light the pyre.

Balbir Singh broke out into a wail and many strangers in the crematorium joined him in his weeping. Another ambulance arrived with four more bodies. Forty pyres burned simultaneously. “This is not just human beings dying, it’s more than that,” the caretaker lamented, reported the newspaper. “Humanity is dying in Delhi right now.”

The “untouchable” Dom caste has for centuries carried and burned corpses – a task considered profoundly polluting in the Hindu religious order – in the cremation grounds in Varanasi. Varanasi, sacred to Hindus, is the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many devout Hindus believe it is auspicious to breathe their last in Varanasi, credited to be the oldest city in the world, renowned for its bathing ghats and temples on the banks of the revered river Ganga. Even in normal times, its cremation grounds are crowded and busy.

But Vishwanath Chaudhary, the raja (or head) of the Doms of Varanasi, told the Financial Times, “Our family has been traditionally involved in managing the crematoriums for generations. No one has ever seen anything like this. [Last year even after the pandemic hit us, during the first wave, it] was nothing like what we are witnessing this time. The situation is horrific.”

A hundred bodies were being bundled in for cremation each day, compared to 15 last year. “At such times,” he observed, “humanity is often lost.” Wood for so many pyres has become scarce, leading to soaring prices.

Naomi Barton of The Wire provided a frightening, graphic picture of the chaos of five cremation grounds in Delhi. She spoke of “ambulances bringing new bodies run[ning] over ashes left by pyres that have been set up on the pathways for lack of space”. She described these sites of rigid, ritualised and cruel caste restrictions upended and thrown into temporary anarchy by the pulls and lures of the marketplace amid the rush of bodies.

There are two kinds of workers in a cremation ground in normal times, each playing their ritually-assigned role in obedience to the strictly-segmented Hindu caste order: the pandits or Brahmin priests who recite prayers, and the sevadaars of the “lowest castes” – mainly the Valmikis in Delhi, who carry corpses and lay out the firewood for cremation. As Barton observed wryly, one cares for the souls of the dead, the other the bodies, and neither can transgress these lines.

But as the traffic of corpses clogged crematoriums, there were not enough priests. Priests raised their fees manifold, and young Brahmins, sometimes in jeans and tattoos, played this role as harried, grumbling families were left with no choice. The ranks of sewadaars swelled and young men of other castes – even one Muslim – gathered at crematoriums to undertake this ritually most polluting task of handling corpses because the lockdown had left them without work.

Barton found that some sevadaars proxied as lower-charging priests, with jumbled recitations of mantras that tradition only permits Brahmins to recite. The rush of corpses momentarily upturned the millennia-old hierarchies and taboos that regulate the rituals and commerce surrounding the disposal of death.

The pandits competed bitterly with the “interlopers” for all the tasks that had been their age-old monopoly. A priest, for instance, spotted a “low-caste” man picking out the bones of a cremated body: these are immersed later by grieving families in a holy river. He thrashed him twice across the back of his knees with a log. The priest would have charged the family at least three times more for the same task. A sevadaar spoke with irony: we are all eating laash ka khana, or food from the dead.

But despite their bitter competition, they shared some of the same vulnerabilities. In all but one crematorium, no pandit or sevadaar had been vaccinated and none had any protective gear, Barton reported. They were forced to work from dawn late into the night.

The families mostly endured the extortion and breakdown of caste rules in a resigned fashion. Sanjay Chauhan, cremating his father, told Barton, “There aren’t any pandits here. You just call for whoever you can find to come.”

Barton described the indignity of hurriedly and haphazardly prepared pyres in which the clothes of women burned and their bodies were exposed: a son watching in horror as the fire bares one side of the upper half of his mother’s torso.

Vimal Kapoor took his mother’s body to a cremation ground in Varanasi. What he encountered there, he told the BBC, was a “lashon ka dher” – a pile of bodies: “I have never seen anything like that before. Wherever you look, you see ambulances and bodies.”

It usually took queues of 15-20 minutes for bodies get to the pyres. Now, it could take six hours. The price of wood for the pyres had spiralled three times. The situation, he said, was “bhayavah” – frightening.

“I have seen too many people dying in ambulances,” Kapoor told the BBC. “Hospitals are turning away patients because there are no beds, chemists have run out of essential Covid drugs, and oxygen is in short supply.”

The virus, in the second round, had penetrated deep into the countryside. Imran Ahmed, a local activist from Ballia’s Sikanderpur in Uttar Pradesh, who struggled mostly in vain to help people get oxygen, said to, “People are dropping dead like flies.” People “develop a fever and then all of a sudden they are gasping for breath, but there is no oxygen anywhere,” he said.

The Sikanderpur community health centre caters to 200 surrounding villages, but testing was halted a month earlier, with no explanation. About 200-250 patients came in each day, 90% of whom had Covid-like symptoms. Those requiring oxygen – around eight to 10 a day – would be referred to the district hospital.

In Sitapur’s Babupurwa village, Shivakant Pal’s mother Ramdevi, 42, had been running a fever since April 20, but on the morning of April 20, she was struggling to breathe. Ramdevi’s oxygen saturation level fell to a dangerous 35. The doctors at the local private hospital directed them to the district hospital. Pal took his mother in an autorickshaw for the 30-km journey in the blazing sun. There, Pal counted 72 beds with one oxygen cylinder.

His mother did not even survive the evening. “During the time we were there, at least five people died apart from my mother in the hospital, all of whom had come looking for oxygen,” said Pal to “I saw with my own eyes.” But the district reported zero Covid-19 deaths that day, because no one was tested.

Conditions in the capital city of Lucknow were equally calamitous. The BBC reported on the condition of Sushil Kumar Srivastava: “Photographed sitting in his car, strapped to an oxygen cylinder while his desperate family drove him from one hospital to another. By the time they found a bed for him, it was too late.”

A woman fills a form to get a hospital bed for her relative who needs treatment for the coronavirus, at the Covid-19 Integrated Control and Command Centre in Lucknow, on April 20. Credit: Pawan Kumar/ Reuters

In Gujarat, crematoriums in the cities of Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar and Ahmedabad were running 24x7 with three to four times more bodies than normal, according to a report by Al Jazeera.

Prashant Kabrawala, who helps run a crematorium in Surat, told the channel that he had never seen so many bodies coming in to be cremated, not even during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1994 and floods in 2006.

The overuse took its toll on the infrastructure of the crematoriums. The iron frames in a Surat crematorium “melted because there was no time to let the furnaces cool”, he told Al Jazeera. The chimney of an electric furnace in Ahmedabad “cracked and collapsed”.

In Lucknow, crematoriums ran out of wood and social media was full of photographs of electric rickshaws bearing firewood for cremations. Family members were given tokens and had to wait for up to 12 hours. One crematorium began burning bodies in a neighbouring park. In Ghaziabad, grieving families waited for hours with bodies wrapped in shrouds lying on pavements.

“The sky had turned orange near the crematorium,” a photojournalist from Lucknow told the BBC. “I still get chills thinking about it.”

The story was the same at burial grounds. The Wire found graveyards in Ahmedabad grappling with a shortage of space. Zubair Pathan, a lawyer who was recently elected as a municipal corporator from Juhapara in Ahmedabad, said, “Earlier we used to get 13-15 bodies in a month. Today we are getting this number in a day. People are digging 15 hours daily. Labourers have returned to their villages, so we have to mobilise local volunteers for digging. Sometimes we encounter live ants and not fully-decomposed limbs.”

There were not enough people to dig the graves, so families had to wait six hours for their turn. In many burial grounds, gravediggers busied themselves digging under the hot sun before anyone approached them, to reduce the waiting time for bereaved relatives.

The manager of two burial grounds in Juhapara told The Wire that tradition requires waiting at least two-and-a half-years before recycling a grave space. Now, they were burying people at six-feet depth, although there were recent graves at the same spot at ten feet. Some graves were so shallow that the reporter could see the wood of some coffins already.

The Catholic church in Ahmedabad found a religiously unorthodox solution to the space crisis. It announced that in these extraordinary conditions, families could cremate their dead and that would not be a violation of the Catholic Canon Law. The managers of the graveyard built what they called “niches” in a portion of the graveyard: concrete boxes in a wall. Here, ashes of the dead are preserved by the family (unlike in the Hindu faith, in which the ashes must be immersed in holy water).

A Covid-19 patient being buried in Ahmedabad in April. Credit: PTI

The Parsi leadership also advocated the cremation of their dead at this time, rather than the traditional rites of passage in which bodies are offered to vultures and other scavenging birds, or left to naturally decay in the Tower of Silence. But orthodox Parsis opposed this accommodation.

Ervad Dr Khushroo Ghadiali, from the Anjuman Vakil Addran in Ahmedabad, told The Wire, “Keeping with the times, the community has strictly adhered to government guidelines. It is painful of course, but we must do what is practical in these extraordinary times. Our population is already so little world over, every death worries me.”

Al Jazeera and AFP painted a melancholy picture of the Jadid Qabristan Ahle cemetery in Delhi where 11 bodies arrived within three hours. By sunset, 20 bodies were under the earth. “At this rate, I will run out of space in three or four days,” a gravedigger said.

Corpses were wrapped in white body bags or inexpensive wood coffins. “Sobbing women watch from their closed car windows next to the flashing lights of an ambulance as a yellow digger (wearing protective gear) fills up the graves with the dry brown and grey soil,” AFP reported.

Meanwhile, the gravedigger told the agency of something that had never happened before. Two days earlier, a man came to request his place in line for the burial for his mother, because doctors had given up. “It’s unreal,” he told AFP. “I never thought I’d see the day where I’d have a request for starting the funeral formalities of a living person.”

But perhaps nothing encapsulates the horror of the second wave more than the swollen, half-eaten, half-decayed corpses that washed up on the banks of the holy river Ganga. The BBC reported bodies floating and washed ashore, or buried in shallow mounds on the river bank, from Buxar in Bihar, and in Ghazipur, Kannauj, Ballia, Kanpur, Unnao and Prayagraj the river bed is dotted with shallow graves. Macabre videos and photos showed crows and feral dogs devouring the human bodies that were buried or had floated ashore.

An embarrassed state administration claimed these were only part of a tradition and the media was unnecessarily sensationalising the floating bodies. It is true that while cremation is the mainstream religiously-sanctioned practice to dispose of the bodies of the dead, there are communities that practice “jal pravah” – immersing the bodies of children, unmarried girls and women and those who lost their lives due to infectious diseases or snake bites.

As the BBC reported, families “wrap the body in white muslin and push it into the water. Sometimes, the bodies are tied to stones to ensure they remain submerged, but as many are floated without weights”. It is true that corpses can be found floating in the Ganga also during normal times. But the floating bodies and those buried in shallow riverside graves were of an entirely different scale.

Some local residents and journalists explained the horrific developments to BBC Hindi. Firewood fell scarce and the cost of cremations spiralled beyond what poor families could afford, leaving some with no option but to put the bodies of loved ones who died of the coronavirus directly into the river.

“Private hospitals are looting people,” a villager, Chandra Mohan, told the BBC. “Common people are not left with money to pay a priest and spend more on cremation at the river bank. They are asking Rs 2,000 just to get the corpse out of the ambulance. The river has become their last recourse so people are immersing corpses in the river.”

The Wire agreed: “Rural parts of India not only have more rudimentary healthcare, but are now also running short of wood for traditional Hindu cremations.” Even in the national capital, New Delhi, many people who died from Covid-19 “are abandoned by their relatives after cremation, leaving volunteers to wash the ashes, pray over them, and then take them to scatter into the river in the holy city of Haridwar, 180km (110 miles) away”.

These truly are “lives from which even death escapes without a trace”.

Sand graves marked with cloth covers and bamboo sticks at Phaphamau ghat in Prayagraj. Credit: Reuters

The floating bodies in the Ganga in 2021 stirred terrifying memories of more than a hundred years ago, when in 1918 the devastating second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic claimed the highest global toll in India. Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi, (1896-1961), widely known as Nirala, wote in his memoirs of the river Ganga as “swollen with dead bodies”. He lost many members of his family, including his wife, but there was no money for firewood then, as there is none again, over a century later, in a country that threw off its colonial chains.

“It is heartbreaking,” a journalist in Prayagraj told the BBC. “All these people were someone’s son, daughter, brother, father and mother. They deserved some respect in death. But they have not even become part of the statistics – they died unknown and were buried unknown.”

In Srikakulum in Andhra Pradesh, a woman died in hospital after her oxygen saturation level dipped dangerously. Her son and son-in-law tried to take her body home in the autorickshaw they had hired, but the driver refused, The Hans India reported. The men desperately tried to hire an ambulance, but this also failed. In the end, they propped her body upright between them on their motorcycle, and drove to their village 15 km away.

A video showing the men explain their situation to a policeman went viral. An American epidemiologist who shared the video said it was “probably the saddest thing” he had seen so far in the pandemic.

A photographer in Bhopal told the BBC of something even sadder, something he said he will never forget all his life. He was standing outside a crowded crematorium, taking pictures. A man came to him, asking him to take a picture of the smoke emanating from an electric furnace.

I could not even see the body before it was cremated, he lamented. This smoke from the furnace will be my only last memory.

“He said the smoke represented his mother,” the photographer said. “It’s the most heartbreaking thing I have ever heard.”

Read the other parts of the “Tsunami of suffering” series here.

The author is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow, Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies and convenes the Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign to fight hate crime with solidarity and atonement.