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AN INCANTATION FOR LIFE AND DEATH UNDER INDIAN FASCISM

Like everything else, the government has privatised loss. The state bargains with death and leaves citizens to bleed while business deals are made with the fallen bodies. 

CW: Coronavirus, death, communal riots

By Rohitha Naraharisetty

The long and short of it is that, in this country, in the company of death, I am running out of space for the emotions that demand space to play out. If grief is a play in five acts, if anger explodes, if empathy is boundless and courage is what we must grope for amid overwhelming fear, where do they go when every day we shrink into ourselves? 

Before the pandemic, briefly, there was a nationwide stir and I was a part of it. One body politic. It was to reclaim citizenship from the hands of a government elected five years prior, in a country that is just over seven decades old—a little younger than my grandfather, who spent a lifetime in the ancestral occupation of raising crops for this country’s many mouths. After the pandemic, as I receded inward and proximity and touch became inflammable and virulent, my political subjectivity converged from my surroundings and into my very organ systems. We were many political bodies. Not all of us survived. 

Last September, my cousin died suddenly of coronavirus in a small town in Southern India. Her sickness was harvested for profit by a hospital that kept our love and her life tethered hopelessly to each other. Her death took place in the purgatory between two hospitals refusing to sign off on her body. As if she was less dead that way. As if it was not the coronavirus that killed her. As if it didn’t matter what we witnessed. She did not figure into the official death toll. She is buried in an unmarked site near the childhood home where we grew up together. This is where she wanted to be, even as its familiarity undergoes slow erosion. 

In another city, I held space for my mother while she silently wept for her beloved niece. We didn’t watch the news that night, the numbers would not carry her anyway. Dinner was picked at in silence. I went through the motions until later that night when I found a picture of her and mourned alone. There was no funeral to be had. She was in the ground before anyone—even her mother—got to see her one last time. 

A few days later, the first hospital called the family to ask for the remaining payment.

A few months earlier, the government’s policy body, NITI Aayog, proposed to privatise district hospitals such as that one. Still, when the pandemic hit in full, the Prime Minister asked citizens for contributions to the PM CARES fund, which was created separately from the existing relief fund. To date, there is no word on how the money has been used. The private hospitals, meanwhile, call the families of the recently dead asking for payment in the midst of their bereavement.

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My homecoming in December to the village of our grandparents was one that happened while the largest protest in history was taking place at the national capital, in response to this government having passed laws that hand farming over to the free market, devastating livelihoods of workers and effectively giving over entire lands to big corporations

The house here is missing a wall. When my grandfather returns from the fields after having inspected his crop; he holds me, his only remaining granddaughter, close. We say nothing about her. Not even when my uncle arrives, looking like he is swollen from the grief that holds him. Nobody knows what to say to him, so we say nothing. Too much time has lapsed to weep together.

We sit in a circle and try to talk. Grandmother hesitantly brings up the new coronavirus strain from the UK. There are some nods and mumbles about how scary it all is. My cousin’s name is squiggled on the walls from when she wrote it as a child, in the excited throes of learning how to spell herself out. I steal a glance at it since nobody has spoken it out loud. The subject is quietly changed. The work of preserving her memory will come after we find it in ourselves to even say her name to each other. Right now, I am not sure when that will be.

The conversation settles on the farm laws, an orbit of reality that is now far enough from the nerve centre of our loss to be sought after during the weighted silences. It is often asked in this country why none of the farmers from the South, like my grandfather, go to protest. On my way to my grandparents’ house, giant hoardings of the Prime Minister’s face had greeted us in a town that previously only saw larger-than-life cutouts of movie stars and other idols of worship. It is the harvest season this time of the year. How does one leave the harvest behind and travel hundreds of miles north? And who will be left to slow the encroachment of the Prime Minister’s face upon the burial site we did not expect to have?

My grandfather’s anger about the laws which dramatically devalue his life’s work escapes him in the form of a few tame words, no more. Another anger that dwarfs this one looms large inside him, too great to even take shape into speech. Like everything else, the government has privatised loss. It is not the country’s problem if a family shatters. The PM said so himself when, in the name of aatmanirbhar (self-reliance), he has left his people to fend for themselves against a virus which ravaged all remaining will to withstand it. Perhaps this was what it was for. Leave citizens to bleed while the state makes business deals with their bodies. 

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New Internet rules have now democratized mass surveillance; citizens can now report one another for ‘anti-national’ content on social media. This was after it arrested a 21 year-old climate change activist for sedition because she edited a social media toolkit on how to help the ongoing farmers’ protests. If it is seditious to want to safeguard life, how much more seditious is it to rage against death?

There are only questions in the wake of everything. If my cousin’s lonely death took place while everybody is compelled by the strength of the state’s gravity to look away from everyone else; if their gaze is the state’s gaze, and if this gaze turns away from pain and toward castles in the sky made up of bones, did her death even take place? There is certainly no certificate of death with her name on it. If the Prime Minister says that our pandemic response is to be envied and the newspapers run headlines showing stunning recovery rates, as they did on that day, does our memory of how much we lost become overwritten? If the answer to suffering is a shroud to keep it out of sight, does the suffering itself die? Does the grief evaporate? Is the anger neutralized? Are we liberated from all feeling? 

And what of the joy that was once found here, amid the corn and rice fields and the old stone house that is now falling apart? How shall we hold these memories when the girl born here, of the soil, has returned to it at the precise moment when the soil has been sold?

We have come full circle, as a family and as a nation. My cousin celebrated her first birthday in the year 2002. Many of us gathered in the house in the village near the fields for the occasion. This was the year that a series of deadly riots took place in a state whose then Chief Minister sits in the capital today as the Prime Minister. It was also the year that a SARS epidemic began in the Guangdong province of China. She completed her nineteenth and last birthday in a hospital in 2020. This was the year that a series of deadly riots took place in the national capital. It was also the year of the SARS pandemic which swept the world. This time, she was alone. And when it took her, so were we, in a state which refuses to allow us to name what has happened. 

To remember, then, is everything. May our collective memory carry the joy we shared and the love we felt, our sisterhood and kinship, our blood and our history, our births and our deaths in this land; may it resist the marketplace, may it revolt against the fear that seeks to erase everything. 

Rohitha is an independent writer and researcher from India, working predominantly on feminist movements, peace and security. She can be found on Instagram @rohitha_97 and on Twitter @romimacaronii.

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