This week one of the best men I have ever known sent me a DM. We have never been close but we are very fond of each other and lived through some difficult years together. But we had lost touch in the last decade. This week he told me about losing a parent and his siblings within six months of each other. It took me two days to stop crying. I was crying for him and crying for the relatively clueless young people we used to be. My wonderful friend’s tragedy was unrelated to covid-19 and preceded the wave of loss we are experiencing now. Right now, anything—a cough or a ring of the phone—could be the sound of your life changing forever.
If any of us ever believed that we are somehow our own unique selves, that our selves are not made up of the bits and bobs, dust, acid and love from our interactions with other people, then loss like the one we are experiencing now will change our minds. Without a chance to say goodbye, we are having to say goodbye to entire cities that live inside our heads.
The teacher who got you to love maths, a subject you had been failing till then. That other teacher who offered to pay your college fees. The aunt who seemed like no one’s aunt and had the blackest sense of humour you have encountered in all your years. The older sister who moved with you from school to school around central India as your father got transferred, so really she was your only childhood friend. A senior colleague who helped you when you were flailing (and trying to hide your misery) at your first job.
The man who worked in sales and kindly lied to you that of course he thought your book would do well. The cousin who baffled you by deciding to join the police—and also by being a foot taller than the rest of you. Your sister-in-law, who drove you mad every morning by pretending to call to gossip but really only because she couldn’t figure out what to make for lunch and wanted to pick your brain. Your friend’s extremely scary grandfather, whom you dodged for years but who on that one occasion told you an excellent PJ about girls. Your nephew’s classmate with the curly hair and a true gift for football. Your uncle with the ability to look well-dressed even in the middle of the night. The man you always, always, always thought was the one who had gotten away. And now he really had—unforgivably—gotten away from you.
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Who are you without these people—aggravating, demanding, surprising, helpful, flirtatious, ambitious, unreliable, kind—in your lives? Who are you without the stars of your favourite anecdotes? Who are you without the people who remember the anecdotes of your 20s? Nostalgia—laughing about the cut of your jeans or the now defunct potato chips brand—might be our favourite hobby but nostalgia is just a way of forgetting. Remembering is harder without the people who made you. Covid-19 is steadily making thousands of people refugees in their own lives, stranded in a foreign present without an ID.
And yet, as better, more thoughtful thinkers than I have pointed out—it isn’t the collapse of the system that is killing our friends and families. This is what the system has always been for most of the country. One in which your baby and your grandmother were deprived of oxygen—real and metaphorical—because you couldn’t afford to pay. Where you begged for a chance to be treated even on hospital floors and in corridors.
For most people in India, mourning has been a luxury. Entire cities of their minds have been destroyed over and over again and they barely ever get a chance to ask—who will remember me now? The opaque statistics of a high infant mortality rate meant generations of parents were told that they would never have a chance to remember the idiosyncrasies of their son or daughter. That their babies and their parents were replaceable because they were just numbers who didn’t deserve any better.
While we have been told the opposite, the truth is that governments are wholly replaceable and people are not. Even a year ago, some of us were hypnotised by our present and believed that we have individual selves that sprout like mushrooms after the rain. Even a year ago, we may have needed reminders. Not any more though.
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.
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