Death is alive.
On Friday night, a phone call from my brother told me my father was dead: he had had a massive heart attack and he died on his way to hospital.
As we discussed how and what to tell my mother and my sister-in-law, who is still very weak while recovering from Corona, our other big concern was his cremation. "I can't find any space", Bhaiyya tells me, "what are we going to do?" I tell him I will try to help, perhaps my network of contacts as a former journalist will come through.
I can't take the body home, is his response, the hospital is saying it has to go straight to the crematorium from the mortuary. Why? He didn't have corona. It doesn't matter he says, I am being told we can't take that chance, they (the hospital) have 'packed' the body.
The next day, through a network of cousins, we get a slot to perform the last rites in a back-of-beyond crematorium I had never heard of.
At the hospital, an overworked, brusque lady at the counter is preparing paperwork. Was he Covid positive? No, we don't think so. She waits and then says, "I will put in Covid negative, that will be better for you". We are thankful. The wait for the ambulance and the body begins. As the rickety Maruti van, converted into a much-in-demand ambulance arrives, I wonder how they ferry patients in it. I am hesitant to put my dead father in it for his last journey but there is no choice, nothing else is available. The men who brought my father to the van are looking on expectantly, one of my cousins jumps in to pay him. There's a cost to everything.
As the ambulance parks at the crematorium, we don't know what to do, how do we move my father out of the ambulance? An old man shuffles up to us and points to some bamboo structures. "You have to use those, he says, "Go pick it up yourself, there is no one to do all this now". My brother, husband and cousins go to pick it up, and find it is broken, so they get busy with rope and bamboo shards to piece together a makeshift stretcher. I look around - the open parking lot has been converted into a crematorium. An old woman is picking up ashes, there is still smoke on the pyre, but she can't wait, they need the space for more bodies coming in. If you are bringing a family member who died of Covid, you are not even allowed inside; drop off the body, leave, it will be cremated. That's it.
The old woman has picked up as much as she could and it is time for us to take my father for his last puja.
As we shift the body from the ambulance, the pandit asks us to unwrap the body; it is an indignity I hope no one ever goes through. Yes, he is dead, but the task of ripping off the tightly-bound sheets, taking off the bandages used to secure him to the stretcher - how will I reconcile this with what he should have got and deserves? In India, deaths, births, marriages have always been community affairs; everyone gets together to help, but we are all alone. If things were normal, my father would have come home for the last time, he would have been cleaned and dressed and met his family who would have had the chance to say their goodbyes.
In front of me, a young man all by himself is conducting the last rites of someone close to him, he looks around helplessly to get someone to help him carry the body.
It is a surreal scene: masks, PPE suits, face shields and small groups of twos and threes, huddled together, trying to get through this most difficult of rituals.
The platform supports 12 pyres at one time. "Sir ji, all of them have to be burnt together." "Why?" I point to other platforms. "Use those?" "No", reply the workers, "because there are so many bodies coming in every day, we have developed a method. Burning all of them together ensures best utilization of space. If I burn three, the other three can't be used till the fire on these dies down, so please wait."
In about an hour, the 12 pyres all have takers.
After an hour, we are told it's done.
Everyday, the grief of people losing loved ones swells. At this time, what we know is this: it is Death which is alive.
(Manika Raikwar Ahirwal is former Managing Editor, NDTV.)
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