Sometime back in Jamia Millia Islamia, when I was pursuing my bachelor’s, I read a story in the University library about a man who was looking for dry wood to perform the last rites of his father. Dry wood was indispensable but in grave scarcity, due to incessant rains over the past many days. After an exhaustive search, the man, at last, succeeded in his pursuit of securing the firewood, and in that very moment, he felt a short burst of ecstatic relief.
A few moments later, his happiness was taken over by guilt. The man felt guilty for feeling happy, even if for a fleeting moment, while his father’s lifeless body was lying in the hospital for the past two days. The story was set up in a remote Indian village in the 1940s.
Many years later, in the 21st century and in some of the largest cities of India, a lot of people and their families had to go through a similar feeling. One fine morning, we woke up to panic and fear imposed on us by an abominable disease, Covid-19. Many major cities of the country slipped into chaos. There were endless queues for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, for medicines and last for cremation and burials.
In Delhi, the second wave of the pandemic probably left not even a single family untouched, directly or indirectly. And I was one among the many unfortunate ones. In the month of April, I found myself as a part of the ongoing dystopian scenario. Two people close to me were infected with Covid — a very close friend and my uncle.
My uncle arrived in Delhi from Bihar on April 7, the week that witnessed the onset of the second wave. He had to catch a flight to Dubai and probably caught the infection during the flight. I quarantined him in one of the rooms of our apartment and followed all precautions and medicines prescribed by a doctor friend of my uncle.
Initially, he had no symptoms, and by the time his condition deteriorated, Delhi was already into a conundrum. After a nightmarish search of 36 hours, we were able to shift him to a hospital in Faridabad at an exorbitant charge. My relief was short-lived though. The very next day, I found myself in the same nightmarish loop.
A friend of mine who was tested positive a few days ago was in need of hospitalisation, but this time, Delhi’s hospitals and social groups had no answer to our desperate calls. Luckily, with the timely help from a few other friends, she got a bed in the Aligarh Muslim University hospital, 135 km from Delhi. We travelled the distance in the middle of the night with ambulance charges five times more than the normal rate.
The day my friend got discharged from the hospital, my uncle breathed his last. Within a span of two hours, I received both the news: one left me devastated, while the other relieved, if not happy. I felt sorrow and joy at the same time. I don’t know if there is any word for that kind of an emotion in any language of this world, but I am sure it was not guilt.
In the story I mentioned earlier, readers are not told by the author about the circumstances of the death of the protagonist’s father or the efforts put forth by the protagonist or his friends and family members to save his father’s life. He could have felt anything or he could have felt nothing, like Mr Meursault of Camus’s The Outsider.
Many in Delhi and other Indian cities have faced much worse than I have. There were news reports about people who have lost more than one family member to Covid. But when the system collapsed around us, people came out of their house and their comfort zones to help complete strangers.
We are lost, devastated, but we are not guilty.