The second wave of the pandemic in India brought death, destruction, and despair at an unimaginable scale. Death and indignity spread to the streets. As people kept hiding in their homes, or in hideouts, the street became a site to behold. The street turned into a theatre – an epic theatre – of our times. It made things visible in the vilest ways. While indignity unfolded on the streets, mourning could not find its place. At least mourning could have repented for the apathy that filled us with indignity.

Despite its actual physical absence, mourning became the ambience of the day and night. It was looming at large, along with the fear of the virus. It was something that one could not have held together in the absence of the collective, in isolation. Life was cut short, breath was cut short, grieving was cut in half, and mourning was cut short completely. Humanity was peeled from its own body in moments and layers like an onion.

While death itself was unbearable, death with indignity is a burden that will be carried in our memories of the pandemic in the future. What would we remember when we remember Covid-19? Naked bodies lying on the streets; the authorities removing the shrouds from the dead; the image of a woman supplying air to her gasping husband in an auto; un-cremated corpses – lying in wait for a pyre – kept in bags and concealed because of the fear of contamination. These have become the defining images of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What could be a worse feeling than to feel we have failed the dying? We could not provide them with flowers, incense, and firewood. Thus, the spectral utterance against authority, “what can you do to me now” (I am dead), doesn’t work. It causes indignity even in death. It kills the dead. It enslaves hope in a dream. It can curtail mourning. Pragya Tiwari’s report sums up these indignities:

Dead bodies of coronavirus patients are left unattended on hospital floors, corridors, or even under hospital beds – naked. Others lie in mortuaries for days and arrive stacked up in hearses before they are cremated. In one case, the dead body of a man suspected to have died of COVID-19 was taken for post mortem in a garbage truck, and in another, health workers were caught on video dumping a corpse in an open ditch. In one of the most horrifying cases to come to light, the dead body of an 82-year-old woman who died from the virus lay rotting for eight days in a toilet cubicle in the hospital where she was being treated before being discovered.  

Such treatment of the dead shows the end of humanity. But it also brings the body and thinking to the edge, on the barricades. In the absence of collectivity and solidarity, mourning spread on faces like makeup on corpses. It could not hold you; it did not cry with you. It did not lend you a shoulder. The tears dried in the eyes; feelings, in the heart. Humanity lost its sense in the absence of touch. Not allowed to speak to their neighbours, the walls were wailing without a sound.

What could be a more heart-wrenching scene than crying but not being able to touch and calm each other? You could not hold their hand; you couldn’t press their fingers. You couldn’t hug. You couldn’t lean on the body of your beloved. You couldn’t kiss the head of the dead. Families were falling in their own eyes after failing to give a dignified departure to the dead. Gary BB Coleman was still singing in the distance:

The sky is crying
Can you see the tears roll down the streets
I’ve been looking for my baby
And I’ve been wondering where can she be.  

In this situation of unspeakable hell, some locations were speaking too loudly. Those sites were turning into scenarios. In the absence of documents, they carried the collective memory of the catastrophe. The first scenario was emerging from hospitals where patients were dying without oxygen. The second scenario was emerging from crematoriums. There were bodies and fire all around. The one who survived was burning in anger and grief, and the one who was dead was burning without wood. One body was coming after another as there was no end to it. Bodies were spilling out from the graveyard, crematoriums were falling short, firewood was getting over, and iron furnaces were melting like hearts. The cities were under lockdown, and the corpses had jammed the crematorium.

Though the scenes came from the pandemic, they were also scenarios of curtailment. It also says that the necropolitical state can bring a pandemic any day by exposing people to death. The third scenario was emerging from the banks of the rivers in North India, where dead bodies were floating like dead fishes on the surface. They spread for miles. Reuters shot an image of the dead bodies lying on the banks of the rivers. It showed hundreds of bodies, covered with saffron cloth, spread for miles. Separated by bamboo sticks, the bodies looked like artwork – the bodywork of the fascists.

The second wave of the pandemic left millions dead. Millions stood aghast: helpless, horrified, and humiliated. Who would have thought that a crime against humanity could be organised in such a cool and composed manner? Who would have thought that a crime against humanity could be managed in such a magnanimous way that the nation’s monument and the bodies of the masses would be in a mound together in this brand new India?

When the roads were empty, and the cities were turning into ghost towns, the rivers and drains were floating with bodies as dead fish float on ponds after being poisoned. The dead were silently walking in the dark and sealing their bodies in the sand so that the nation’s image would not be sullied. Death and destruction were expected in the pandemic, but not the humanitarian crisis of exodus that unfolded in front of us. The tragedy was expected, but not the nakedness. The meaning of life and death became meaningless, and the Aristotelian tragedy lost its plot against the Indian authoritarian ploy as neither the nation nor the king was ready to mourn, and the chorus kept singing the king’s praises.

How many deaths will you count? How many deaths will you mourn? How many bodies will you bury? And how many bodies will you burn? Not one, or ten, but millions have died. While the sources remain mum, some said one million. Some said five million. Some said more. We will never know the numbers. The leader said that it was the invisible enemy. It seems, therefore, that death has to be invisible or invisibilised. The number is true to the spirit of a crime against humanity or a genocide. A genocide becomes genocidal in a true sense when we cannot count the number of deaths; when bodies pile on bodies; when bodies lay in potholes; when the dead appear from everywhere like ghosts; when bodies disappear from everywhere like the Holocaust; when the dead fill the mortuaries; when the dead fall from the ambulances as signs of a last protest; when the dead lose not only life, but also their dignity in the end. We cannot describe it in any other way but as a genocide and a crime against humanity.

Excerpted with permission from Body on the Barricades: Life, Art, and Resistance in Contemporary India, Brahma Prakash, LeftWord.