India’s spectacle of mass death – the iconography of funeral pyres – is the pandemic’s defining leitmotif. Beyond proximate suffering, will they, over the long term, be mobilised as public narratives and political symbols?

The Covid-19 pandemic brings to our awareness inconvenient truths that we strenuously deny. Our lives are predicated on a certain mastery and predictability. The coronavirus reminds us – through normal life’s suspension, and the randomness of who falls in its wake – that such control is illusory.

As the pandemic disrupts our existential sense of longevity, it also undermines faith in common projects. This is because life, at a granular or collective level, requires meaning. It needs, above all to be explicable: to be accounted for and understood. Death is insurrectionary because it interrupts the stable verities to which we commit.

Conjuring up the nation

In India, the pandemic’s mass deaths vex such meaning-making at two levels. First, there is the nation. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist project constantly contrives its primordial origins and everlasting nature. This is why the current government assiduously builds edifices which visually conjure the nation.

Witness Prime Minister Modi’s consecration of the Ram temple’s construction on the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya. Or the urgent prioritisation of the grandiose Central Vista project in New Delhi. They are respectively the origins and endpoint of the nation-as-eternal. One marks the putative birth of the national self; the other projects it into this millennium. Both subsume the plurality and contest which mark India’s social and political life. By erasing Mughal and British traces, by dismantling their material remains, the Hindu nation becomes all there was and ever will be.

Second, there is the state. The Indian state, a rational-bureaucratic machine, seeks legitimacy through claims to efficiency. India’s post-Independence state trumpeted its capacity to foster life through technocratic development. Recent interventions – such as Aadhar’s biometrics protocol – were justified accordingly. Yet in a country where the state was bafflingly sluggish to put in vaccine orders; where government hospitals have run out of oxygen; and where administrators facilitated mass gatherings and electoral rallies, such legitimacy has evaporated.

This is where the troubling spectacle of death comes in. The immensity of dying can politically stabilise when deaths occur for the nation. But they can politically destabilise when deaths occur because of the state.

In terms of the nation, death is explicable when people are sacrificed for a larger cause. Societies may consent to killing their own for a higher purpose – national liberation, placating deities – if it underwrites collective continuity. But Hindu nationalists cannot engineer the image of endless corpses on flaming pyres towards a sublime cause. What angers and estranges many is that these deaths are for naught; they serve nothing, they lie outside the sanctity of the nation. No Shaheed Diwas will commemorate their passing; no Braveheart salutation will be made.

In terms of the state, we have witnessed claims to world-class prowess and competence become sad comedy. The state’s efficiency is most manifest in how effortfully it deflects and denies responsibility. Clandestine dumping of bodies and impromptu crematoria show a state – far from prolonging population vitality – hapless in even enabling dignified death.

Crumbling privilege

A striking aspect of Delhi’s recent Covid-19 surge was the public desperation of those who make their lives explicable with the scaffolding of money, influence and aukaat or social standing. That people living in posh colonies and knowing IAS officers as school chums could not secure a hospital bed instantly dissolved the fictions we live by. Accustomed to gratification and deference, seduced by India-rising boasts, death was found to be what it usually is: indiscriminate and indifferent.

So we are left with the inexplicability of all these corpses. Why are the massed bodies burning in crematoria so discomfiting and ghoulish? Think of the formats through which pandemic funerals are conducted. The tokens given to grieving relatives to wait their turn. The hassled queues into which one is sequestered. The rectilinear grids into which corpses are laid out. The grubby bribes requested for quicker handling. The relay of skinned substance into spectral smoke via Whatsapp video.

These experiences from ashy fields frustrate our capacity to elevate death beyond the ordinary. Haste, fear, and jockeying truncate the time of grief and disrupt the rhythm of ritual. They do not extricate death from – and instead embed death within – everyday habits and routines. It is as if proximate loss is a subset of our usual lives in an anonymous, mass society.

Mourning loved ones seems like waiting in a food court, airport queue, or government office. The funeral pyres are laid out neatly like our city plots. We watch our flesh and blood incinerating on an app sitting on our couch. These deaths resemble other parts of our life; that very resemblance frustrates an accounting, makes them inexplicable.

As Nandagopal Menon notes, the spectacle of funeral pyres is politically potent and potentially subversive. Yet for now, these deaths cannot be folded into a narrative of sacrifice for the nation. Nor has the resentment at administrative culpability condensed into a causal narrative that they were because of the state.

Decades ago, Charles Malamoud, the brilliant French Indologist, noted fire’s centrality in making and unmaking the ancient Indian world. Fire can purify and legitimate. But it is inherently transformative, reconstituting what existed before. Wood burning, matter dancing, bodies decomposing: the inescapable truth of evanescence.

Fire transmutes that which is solid and present – our fictions and our selves – into something residual. It is in this sense that India’s mass funeral pyres might trouble authorities. The BJP’s “total” aspirations – the nation’s essence meshed with the state’s machinery – reach for perpetuity. Yet fire, more than any argument or analysis, bluntly tells us: what is will not always be.

Ajay Gandhi is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Leiden University