The crematorium in Kolkata, India, where I last laid hands on my mother’s body is now overwhelmed with bodies.
On March 16, 2016, I woke up at 6 a.m. My iPhone was illuminated with WhatsApp messages and missed calls from friends in India, and the number of messages let me know even before I’d read them: Something terrible had happened. A few weeks earlier, I had been in India for a month taking care of my mother, who had been ill and bedridden. I’d placed her in a rehabilitation home while I returned to work in hopes that when she became better, I would bring her to the United States.
But waking up to my phone abuzz, I knew what all the messages said: My mother was dead.
I jumped on the Internet, bought a ticket for that night and flew to Kolkata to perform last rites. I didn’t eat meat; I didn’t bathe; I wore white on the plane. When I arrived in Kolkata, I traveled to the hospital and a hearse arrived.
Upon arrival at the crematorium, a priest directed me to perform shraddha with holy water, rice and fire as I recited Sanskrit prayers. There were two furnaces and only one other body was waiting to be burned. I did not have to wait long for my mother’s turn. When I finished the ceremony, I helped workers lift my mother up onto an iron bed as the gates to the furnace opened; the men pushed her in. My mother was gone.
Later, a man handed me her umbilicus, still warm and wrapped in terra cotta. I was told the belly button doesn’t burn the way the rest of the body does, that it remains impenetrable; they wrapped it in thick, wet clay so I could carry it to the Ganges and throw it in. I drove to the Ganges, and I raised my hand to throw my mother into the sacred river. Her navel arched across the midnight sky, and began its descent into peace.
Today, I sit in my apartment in Massachusetts, where nearly 55 percent of people have gotten their first shot. I am fully vaccinated. I scroll through Facebook and Twitter and see images of crematoriums in Delhi overwhelmed with dead bodies from India’s apocalyptic coronavirus crisis. Because of the Indian government’s absolute failure and vaccine apartheid, only 1.6 percent of India’s population has been vaccinated.
I am filled with guilt. Thousands of miles away, my friends and family are living in fear of catching the virus from the sheer act of breathing. Those I love most are losing those they love most. They are staying home, because if they were to catch the virus, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen to save them. Even going to get vaccinated is an extreme risk.
The stark contrast of privilege here and my childhood home has never been more palpable.
The country is reporting more than 350,000 new cases of covid-19 every day. The government claims that the death toll has reached over 200,000, but that is a vast underestimate of the actual number of deaths.
When I think of all the people whose family members and friends are dying right outside hospitals, the number of bodies growing such that the crematoriums don’t have enough room, I realize how lucky I am to have been able to say goodbye to my mother. Right now in India, there is barely any room to perform last rites, no lingering with the ones you love and honoring them. How many people are able to take their loved one’s navel, travel to the Ganges and throw it into the river to give them peace? I don’t know.
As writer Arundhati Roy eloquently narrates in the Guardian, when the elite of India are begging for oxygen, no one is spared. Medical goods are not the only things that are for sale; there is even “a surcharge for a priest who agrees to say the final prayers.” The same prayers that cost me so little. Everything that is a fundamental right is in demand, and there are no supplies to provide.
Many of us in the diaspora are plagued with survivor’s guilt. As we call family every day, anxiously waiting to hear the latest, we are aware of the different worlds we are living in. I walk my dogs near a hospital that does not have a line of cars or ambulances with people dying as they wait to see a doctor. Friends talk about what they’ll do now that they’ve been vaccinated, where they will go, who they will see. The other day, I was on my porch and saw a burst of smoke that mushroomed up through the sky. Smoke in the sky is so rare here, I ran to see what was burning. A home was on fire. There were seven firetrucks and 12 firefighters at the scene, and the blaze was put out in one hour. Everyone in the house was safe.
But the smoke from burning bodies in the badly hit cities in India isn’t from one burst of flame. The sky is dark, not from homes or possessions on fire, but friends and relatives. It’s not just a shortage of oxygen that is suffocating the country; it’s the smoke from many bodies burning at once.
But there is absolute loss in this world of differences. I am so privileged to live in Massachusetts, to be vaccinated, to have friends around who ponder better and better days. I am privileged to only have to see smoke light up a small part of the sky for a mere hour. I am lucky I was able to travel to see my mother and get the closure that comes from being able to honor and memorialize the dead. My heart aches for those who are losing loved ones far away. There have been so many losses in this pandemic; the weight of what’s happening in India feels like the worst of it. And it is.
Now, here, where I sit, people can commemorate those we have had to say goodbye to. That is one of the biggest privileges of all.