In this theatre of grief, bodies writhe and flail, appearing more alive in their last moments than we, the living, seem now. A final tumult behind the ribs, a churn and collapse of organs, the crescendo of medical machinery announcing their surrender, the last gasp more insistent and desperate for life than any, every atom of the body holding the fort for survival before stopping. The body has no name now; it is retrieved from within and clipped onto toe and tarpaulin. All living signifiers – nails painted in pink, a shirt dotted with coffee stains, a saree with the bright flower patterns, a wedding ring, a mole on the cheek, a dimple in the chin – about to be eternally lost. This body is not alone, it is sent to the pyre workers in assembly-line formation, who receive the sheathed plastic casings and set the sky alight, its glow unholy from the industrial furnace blazing below. The burial grounds swell as fresh bodies are heaped wholesale into the earth. The leaders, exeunt.
This is the manufacture of death. Bodies are snatched from their names, their person. In this economic model, saving lives doesn’t have a convincing business case. Those who remain are left to walk upon a scarcer, hollower, emptier world, clutching these names to their hearts. A name - the only sign of having loved and lost. The dead, now, un-exist. When we die now, we are not meant to be mourned. This new death gives no time to prepare; it allows no goodbyes. The dead are lumped together – bodies without names and their person, indistinguishable from one another – into a number, which itself is a lie. The dead are semantics. The dead are rhetoric. The dead are capital. The dead are anything and everything but people.
If you and I survive, we will be championed as triumphs against a raging disease that was sent to us by some enemy state, who is to be held responsible for all those who fell in its warpath. We will not be allowed to name this state of ours as the enemy.
How must we go on? Death makes for a good advertisement, reminding us to buy time before it runs out. The wily businessmen who wish to sell to us our own futures know this. Statesmen who trip over themselves to assist in this enterprise ensure that death is everywhere. Death becomes an everyday reminder of unsaid goodbyes, of the words stuck forever in throats that have been scraped raw by animalistic screams. We see and we hear and we feel death everywhere. We carry ourselves onwards to the next day. And the next. And the day after that. We cannot see much further than this. We are given only a few days at a time, and the clock is reset.
What becomes of life? Small acts of care are hazardous. Speech is contagious. Laughter is deadly. All touch must be wiped clean, thoroughly sanitized. Routine and familiarity are tossed into existential uncertainty, each movement pregnant with the possibility of death. To carry on with life every day is to keep death in mind. It is to record each trace left behind; keep a ledger of where you have been, whom you have seen, whom you have touched.
Is this permitted, by human nature, by cosmic order? Bloated corpses float listlessly in holy rivers for want of a final resting place. The air we breathe is collected and administered manually to a million sets of collapsing lungs. How much does one pay for a resting place? How does one afford air?
He stands upon our necks. His infernal priests deny us our lives. His right-hand man collects crowds by the fistful in his bloody hands, plays the salesman, leaves a trail of disease and death. His cronies sing his praises even as there are fewer and fewer to hear them.
In the absence of closure, there are questions. If these deaths are not carried out in full, can they be undone? Will we ever get them back? Will the elements of nature reassemble their bodies for us to borrow one more time, just for the last goodbye? Will the state release its chokehold over our sorrow? Will the state deal us a bargain? A vote for a resurrection?
The history of the Spanish Flu is in numerics. Never in stories. There are no stories to pass on. There are no mouths with the words to tell them. There are no ears with the fortitude to listen.
This regime’s machinery grinds words to dust, bodies to ash. It specialises in silence and silencing. It pillages and loots from the have-nots and lines the pockets of the haves. It sells people’s health in the marketplace. It asks for a mandate and then decimates the state which dares not give it one. It cuts off the air supply.
How can we make sense of what has happened?
What of the magnitude? What is a wave? We may turn to the book of the same name by Sonali Deraniyagala. In it, she describes the loss of her parents, her partner and her children in the course of a few moments, during the 2004 Tsunami when a tidal wave left her as the sole survivor in her family. This is what a wave is, is perhaps the best explanation for what this means. An annihilation of past, present, and future. There is only a vacuum in which individuals float, atomised, alone, unable to move along any spatio-temporal direction, unable to touch or feel. This wave is a paralysis of the soul. This wave is, however, deliberate. It is by design. We need not search for answers as to who or why. We know, but we cannot name it. To name him is to invite his gaze. It never leaves.
Then they came for dead. Niemöller’s poem has been invoked each time this state's gaze has fallen upon a comrade and disappeared them. What do those words mean for us now, as we find ourselves at the end of that poem? Where do we go from here?
How will an archive of the present respond to futurelessness? When Saidiya Hartman wrote of ‘the detritus of lives with which we have yet to attend, a past that has yet to be done, and the ongoing state of emergency in which black life remains in peril’, she showed us what this archive looks like and what its violence does to the future.
The dead cannot be eulogised in any way befitting the tragedy of what has happened. What can we say to them while we ourselves live suspended in limbo?
We may only borrow more words from another time and place. Toni Morrison said this for the dead of 9/11: "And I have nothing to give either - except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine: I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through the darkness of its knell.”
What can we say to ourselves?
Only this: there is a space, outside of the archive, outside of time, outside place, outside the state’s jurisdiction, outside the market’s invisible greedy hand, where the dead have gone. They are safely out of reach, never to be touched by these again. We’ll meet them there.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a writer.