I have a toddler and he has a cold. Last year, he and his brother played passing the parcel with a cold every day from November to February. I complained about it to everyone, looked sourly at both of them and followed the regimens dutifully but with great boredom. In February, their colds departed and I was left with one that lasted a month. At the second-last public event I went to, I was on stage feeling a cough at the back of my throat as sharply as a fishbone. I was nervous that the sight of a single cough on stage would cause the organiser, my friend Raghu, to call for emergency evacuation of the hall. I sat there feeling shifty and illicit. The very last public event I was supposed to go to, I didn’t. The cough was the same but the implications were much scarier.
Many months later, my younger son has his first cold since February and even writing about it seems like an invitation to bad luck. I am testing my bravado in prose. In practice, I have made khichdi spiked with ginger and turmeric. I have unboxed the steamer and bottles of tonic. I am selfishly hoping the world’s most wonderful paediatrician is back at work after a death in her extended family.
I am already thinking of how to keep the toddler occupied while we sit under a giant towel with the steamer—the plastic deity to whom we pray three times a day in cold season. In practice, I am jittery. Sure, sometimes a cold is just a cold. For most of this century, a cold has been just a cold. But early in the pandemic, I read about American children in the 1970s who got polio mere months before the vaccine was rolled out and had to live with the tragic knowledge that they had just missed the drug. While I read the news that the vaccine will come to India soon, I am also aware that our success with vaccination is shaky. As recently as January 2019, the government shockingly had to postpone the national polio vaccination drive because of a shortage of drugs. The last case of wild polio virus was detected in India as recently as 2011. And between 2011-16, 50 cases of vaccine-derived polio virus (VDPV) were spotted in India. So it wasn’t as if science had it easy before 2020.
All this year, I have been thinking about parts of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first instalment of her celebrated Tudor trilogy, when Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s brilliant right-hand man, loses his wife to the mysterious “sweating sickness”. She dies in the matter of a day. He works hard to protect his daughters but two years later he loses them to the next round of the epidemic still rampaging through England. Cromwell continues his life in court, marked forever by grief and by being able to see beyond the metaphorical veil.
In 2017, 63 infants died in a Gorakhpur hospital after the oxygen supply ran out in the neonatal ward. I remember my friend D, who works in rural Uttar Pradesh, weeping not just for those babies and their families but the dozens of young mothers she knows have lost their infants to ancient and avoidable illnesses. As she wept, she said, “They are expected to think of these deaths of their children as something that happens to everyone and move on.” The poor are not allowed trauma, only stoicism or numbness that has to masquerade as stoicism.
A friend who has had two deaths of young men in her family this year said to me on the phone: “Why is this happening to us. We are good people.” She truly is a good person and I frequently wish there was a time machine to go into and prevent the bloody wounds this year has brought to her life. She is also a believer who knows God is watching her virtuous actions and her vices. I wish I had answers to her question but that is a particular calculation that I have never been able to participate in. I am an atheist who envies those with faith for many reasons. But the reason I have envied them most for is their practice in contemplating suffering.
All religions teach you that life is full of suffering and there is no route on Google maps to avoid it or even speed up your journey. But does a life of religion in fact prepare you for terrible events in your life? It’s hard to tell from the outside. But in my imagination, people with religion are like those in permanent training for an inevitable race and better equipped than those of us who avoid thinking about it and are just shocked by the starting gun. We have been doing the spiritual equivalent of eating chips and watching TV, right?
So when she asked, why me, I wished I had something to say. The potential answer of faithless, news-reading fools like me is always, it could be worse. And that is an answer no one needs to hear. Who cares if someone else has it worse. But oddly, it is an answer that converges with the answer that the faithful also have: that you cannot escape suffering. And it is an answer that perhaps makes you think about the nature of someone else’s suffering.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.