Sound carries long distances in the clear air of the Himalaya. These last weeks, as I lay awake much of the night in knots of anxiety about friends and relatives in the big cities, I could hear hoarse coughs – pausing, coughing again – in the house down the hill.
The oldest son had insisted on going to a wedding in Haldwani, 80 kilometres away. He came back and within days his extended family of ten had fever. They kept the coughs as quiet as possible. Nobody stepped outside other than two of the children who were seen every day struggling back from the market with groceries.
Two weeks later, after dodging the virus for a whole year, I started showing symptoms. It began with an inexplicable stomach upset, developed into fever, sore throat, body ache. I had never seriously thought anyone in my family would become infected.
We live an isolated life in Ranikhet, seeing few people. Our house is surrounded by forest, and the sense of solitude is intense. On the horizon, we can see the Trishul and Panchachuli. The first feverish night, unable to sleep from the body ache, I remembered the Mahabharata story of the Panchachuli: the five peaks represent the “chulhas” at which the Pandava brothers cooked their last meals before going on to the other world. This proximity to heaven’s doorway began seeming ominous rather than scenic.
Given the lack of health facilities, if you are very ill in Ranikhet you have one foot firmly wedged in heaven’s door. There is a very basic public hospital here and a military hospital which is too superior to allow ordinary folk. The army was kind enough to put up a notice at its hospital allowing ill civilians to “register” themselves there; the guaranteed absence of beds was implicit. What would we do if we were infected and critical? Through the past year we had repeatedly pushed this worry away.
Like most of the middle class, the thought that we might ever be desperate enough to need a government hospital had not crossed our minds. As the Columbia public health scholar Kavita Sivaramakrishnan pointed out in a recent interview, India has, right from the liberalising 1990s, neglected the unglamorous drudgery of public health. Being middle-class Indian has been synonymous with access to elite healthcare, and public hospitals were hellholes meant for the poor.
It took a pandemic to turn the middle classes into the marginalised, scrambling for medicines, beds, oxygen. Would the outrage against Mr Modi have been as vehement if his actions had not resulted in the affluent feeling as hapless as those they have always been able to keep at a distance?
Next door to me is Nina, an ASHA, a frontline healthworker. For Rs 5,000 a month, which often remains unpaid for long stretches, her job is to keep track of pregnant women and infants. With hardly any doctors here, Nina and her colleagues are now fielding crisis calls and shepherding people through vaccinations at the Civil Hospital. Her phone rings all the time.
One night a woman called to say her husband could not breathe. What should she do? Unequipped for such eventualities, Nina told the woman to call 108 (an ambulance service) and get to the nearest covid hospital in Almora, about 45 km distant. That meant two hours on winding hill roads for the critically ill man. The hospital reported his death the next day. His family were not allowed to see his body.
Stoicism and superstition
Deaths have multiplied in Ranikhet, a town so tiny it is almost a village, where everyone knows everyone else. There is a mysterious rise in the number of people who have been told they have “typhoid” – an illness all but unknown here until recently. It causes high fever, vomiting, lasting weakness. Few actually get tested for Covid, but if you do test positive you are given a Covid Kit.
It looks like a cruel reshaping of long-gone school picnic packs, each with its soggy samosa and gooey cake. You get a ziplock bag filled with pills: Azithromycin, Ivermectin, Crocin, Zinc, Vitamin C and D, surgical masks. It is touching how heroic the tiny local health service is, like the Dutch boy who sought to stop a flood by plugging a leak in a dyke with his fingers.
When the Covid Kit doesn’t do the job, the local hospital sends patients to Almora. The reason my coughing neighbours downslope are keeping their illness secret is that they fear being carted off too. Few return from there.
You might think people in Ranikhet would by now be furious with the state. That they would ask why regions such as ours have hardly any undismal hospitals. That they would blame the government for religious festivals and electioneering during a pandemic. But they don’t, in part because the young seeking jobs here see the state as their avenue to a lifelong sinecure, and in part because they see no alternative to Mr Modi. Their response is stoicism, fatalism, and superstition.
Abandoned by governments since living memory, most have no expectations of it. Catastrophe of some variety is the everyday norm, this one is merely surprisingly severe. They understand that the underlying virus is the criminal Indian state: it will provide neither education nor public health. We all now know we must find our own resources. In cities there might be Whatsapp and Twitter networks for oxygen and plasma; in villages still sunk in large-scale illiteracy and poverty, people rely on herbal teas and prayers.
Prayers especially. And at the apex of the Himalayan Olympus is Mr Modi. Like many gods, he is two-headed, seen as both divine and human. His immense and implacable power, combined with his finger-wagging injunctions about yoga and children’s examinations, make him the family patriarch who is also the nation’s saviour, a god too big to fail. With his new, bountiful hirsuteness, gleaming skin, flowing robes, and yoga-toned body, he cultivates the swag of the sages in the Mahabharata. He is Dara Singh as Hindu godman.
And yet since Mr Modi speaks the crude Hindi of the streets and his much-publicised background is humble, the impoverished population here can relate to him. He gives them hope – that in India’s unshakeably caste-ridden and unequal society one of their number broke away to become god despite his lack of English and formal education. That he is building himself a palace in the midst of death and devastation is not surprising. It is what godmen and emperors do.
Breathing the dead
Within a day of my infection one friend had sent over an oximeter and lunch. “You aren’t alone, things will be fine,” she messaged, “we are all here… we will get through this.” Another let herself in quietly one afternoon and left a box of home-baked cake on our table. Prescriptions, breathing exercises, monitoring calls poured in from friends and relatives.
Throughout the pandemic it is people who have helped each other – strangers, friends – giant networks have formed overnight to deal with complex crises. Citizens have stepped in for the absent state. We have kept each other afloat.
In the hours I could stay awake I read again Carol Shields’s wise and reflective novel, Unless. “It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now,” the novel opens. And as the narrator tries to make sense of her grief, she wonders if it isn’t possible “to think that goodness, or virtue if you like, could be a wave or particle of energy?”
If it were not a tangible particle of energy animating vast numbers of people, how would we have survived what we are going through? Not one of us has been left untouched. From Delhi, reports are coming in of winds bearing wood ash – it is in the air now, because of the thousands of cremations. They are breathing the dead.
The furnaces burn without stopping, rivers are flowing with corpses. Trees in foliage-deficient cities are being felled for funeral pyres. I scroll down my contacts list and phone people to find out if they are still alive. I dread reading the news.
In Ranikhet, the cremation ground is a steep walk down a slope. You reach a hump with a temple and a couple of benches. The man who runs the place is, oddly, a Bengali like me who came to these mountains from Kolkata long ago. He has the air of a wild recluse and performs cremations on the bank of the tiny stream that runs past the temple.
The narrow bank by the stream accommodates only one pyre at a time. That has always sufficed. It’s a peaceful spot, idyllic despite its grim purpose. There is blue sky above, clean air, pine forest all around. No shortage: miles of resinous wood for people to burn.