It is some seven months since the pandemic began to lock up my life in unforeseen ways. One was living in a lockdown to begin with, and in the following months, one learnt to live with a physical fear of pathogens, with a social void because of the physical absence of friends, with the steady sound of ambulance sirens and statistics about death and with the news of livelihoods and lives being lost on a scale unprecedented in independent India.
It is not that I had not heard of a pandemic before 2020 but till now, my awareness of it had been largely academic. As someone interested in questions of history and memory, I knew about the paradox of the last pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed some 50 million people but was a disease event that came to be described by medical historians as “forgotten” because it did not become part of our conscious culture until its centenary two years ago.
In fact, that pandemic was usually seen as part of a larger story, with the problems that were a consequence of it remaining the focus of attention, rather than the deadly influenza itself.
That is certainly true about how the flu figured in one of the books I have written – Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization Was Discovered (2005).
Discovering a civilisation
Among those who died because of that pandemic was a scholar who has a special place in my heart. He was an Italian called Luigi Pio Tessitori who had excavated what we now recognise to be a Harappan city at Kalibangan before the big excavations in the 1920s at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa which led to the discovery of the Harappan Civilisation.
In fact, I am convinced that the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation, announced in 1924, was one may well been made some five years earlier if it had not been for the flu pandemic.
This is because when Tessitori excavated Kalibangan in 1918, he found seals with what we recognise to be Harappan writing on them, among a wealth of other objects. Even though he realised that this was an extraordinary discovery, he soon had to leave for Italy because his mother was ill.
By the time he reached, she had passed away. He decided to stay for some months at home and during that time, he shared this discovery with George Grierson, the director of the Linguistic Survey of India and someone who was a mentor of sorts to Tessitori.
Grierson was of the opinion that he should get the permission of the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, John Marshall, and publish photographs of the seals in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland which was read by prominent linguists and script scholars of that time who would be able to identify the writing on them. Tessitori, it seems, intended to do just that and surely, if he had contacted Marshall, it would have taken Marshall no time to realise that the Kalibangan seals were the same as those found at Harappa some fifty years earlier.
Marshall would also have understood that this was a culture – stretching from Punjab to Rajasthan – that till then had not been imagined in relation to ancient India.
But on the way back to India, Tessitori contracted the Spanish flu on board the ship that he travelled on and developed double pneumonia by the time he came back to Bikaner, where he died within a couple of weeks. He was buried in Bikaner and the knowledge that he had discovered seals of the same type as had earlier been found at Harappa also came to be buried with him.
That was some hundred years ago. It was some 12 years (1931) after this that my father, Inderjit, was born and my mother, Ajit, a little later (1934). Like me, they too had no direct experience of a pandemic. My mother, though, did remember her own mother speaking of living and surviving the bubonic plague.
The family left their home in Anandpur in Punjab and camped in tents at Kiratpur, not far from there. The entire family with cooks and others moved there, camping near a large water body. Even while medical facilities then were much worse than now, the entire family did survive the plague.
The Covid-19 times
So, what has the Covid pandemic meant for my parents? I got a sense of this because they began to live with us a couple of months after the lockdown was announced. To begin with, they insisted on continuing their brave yet fragile independent life even as my mother turned 86 in April.
But soon, the big challenge for them was to combat the loneliness that descended on them. They could neither go out nor could their children and friends come to visit them. Worse was to follow. My mother fell down and hurt herself, which is when she and my father decided to shift in with us.
My father – while living with us – spent a lot of time listening to Sufi music and kirtan and telling me about what should be done when he died. It was a kind of conversation that he had never had with me. I can only imagine that it was pandemic-driven, with so many people who he knew or had heard of dying during this time.
My father wanted his cremated relics to be taken to his native place Kiratpur, to be put into the waters of the “sarovar” at Patalpuri Sahib Gurudwara there. But, in the present situation, he did not know if that travel would be possible. He also wanted to make sure that my mother shifted in permanently with us in case he passed away before her.
And as a practicing Sikh, he was especially keen that the books they had at home in the room where they said their prayers and read the Guru Granth Sahib should be given to a gurudwara which had some teaching institution attached to it so that they could be used. He wanted a ceremony afterwards in his memory at the Defence Colony Gurudwara with an excellent langar at the end.
I kept telling my father that the pandemic would pass and that he would live to see things normalise again. But looking back, I realise that he had some sixth sense about what could happen in the near future.
In fact, the one song that he kept mentioning to me, and one that he loved, underlined this sense of imminent departure. It was the famous Punjabi folk song Dachi Waleya Mor Muhar Ve that has the Sufi poetry of Bulleh Shah woven into it. As he explained, there was a double entendre in the words Dachi waleya mor muhar ve, Sohni waley lai chal nal ve. It was a woman asking the camel rider “Dachi waleya” to turn and come back and take her along with him. And these words also simultaneously evoked the desire for departure, with the singer beseeching her keeper to take her away with him from this world.
After a few weeks, my mother had somewhat recovered. A sense of restlessness had crept into my father who was keen to go back to their home. Little did we know that he would die a few days after going back there, almost as if he wanted to be in his own beloved space before he departed.
We still do not know what caused his sudden death. He was declared a Covid suspect case at one hospital without being tested and within a few hours, after reaching a second hospital, his heart and lungs failed him.
So, the pandemic, personally speaking, for my mother, has meant the loss of the man she had lived with for more than 60 years. The loss of a spouse, in turn, led to a loss of her own home. It now lies locked up because she lives with us.
She spends some hours there every week, as she tries to sort out what they had put together over the years, from papers and personal belongings to memories imprinted in photographs and mementoes from various places visited.
How has my mother coped with this huge void that the pandemic brought upon her life? It is a rare experience to see how spiritually she has handled matters. When she looks back at her life with my father, she remembers clearly the context in which they began their marriage.
Among her precious belongings was a printed copy of what is called Sikhiyan (which means education in Punjabi) that was read at the time of her marriage on September 17, 1956. It provides a glimpse into what was expected of a girl when she entered her new home. The first paragraph underlines that Ajit – my mother – would leave the home of her father and the warmth of the love of her mother, with life-changing completely. The crucial opening line is: “Ajit aaj tu jaana e ke Jeevan nun paltaana hai” (Ajit, you have to go today and from now on, entirely alter your life).
My mother, evidently, was brought up to believe in her destiny being one of change, with married life marking the beginning of other kinds of changes in her lifetime. So, she has dealt with matters by taking a long view of events.
Coping with pain
I am not a believer. What strikes me is how a pandemic is viewed by her in the line of other disasters where there is a common savior – in the form of a belief in god. When I told her about the enormous admiration I had for her coping abilities, her reply was that it was all because of her god’s hand over her head – “babaji di mehr hai” she says. His blessings had made this transition bearable and simple.
She herself never dwells on the fact that possibly my father was a victim of Covid-19 or the challenges of living with each other in old age. Which then raises the question: is there something that is positive about forgetting? It reminds me of In Praise of Forgetting by David Rieff which talks about the possibility of people coping with death and trauma by trying to forget the pain of separation, by focusing on what is positive and celebratory.
My father would be happy to know, if he could, that his ashes were indeed taken by my brother and sister to Kiratpur, notwithstanding the pandemic and that the holy books so lovingly kept over the years in my parents home were also donated to a suitable gurudwara. The Defence Colony gurudwara kirtan and langar cannot take place because of Covid-19. That is a closure that still waits its turn.
Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor of History at Ashoka University.