An Indian abroad: ‘My mind is a graveyard of the living’

‘I’m seeing the world around me return to normalcy slowly but steadily, while my own country is burning down.’

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

A stray screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation shared on Twitter cracked open my heart. Until then, I had been watching the mayhem in India in a daze.

“Being thousands of kms away from her during her last moments, all I wished for was her to read these messages,” read the tweet by a woman named Isha. The screenshot was a one-way conversation with her mother who had not seen most of what her daughter had written: that she missed her every moment, she thought she was a fighter, she was sure she would get better and return home, that she would buy her a nice saree and a beautiful watch. A pair of blue ticks, however, stood at the end of one line: “Love you.”

In fiction, when a tragedy overtakes a character, your heart breaks with hers. After all, you have invested your emotions in the person and her life. But projection is as much at play here as empathy. Without knowing it, you cry because you are confronted with the question: What if a similar tragedy overtakes me?

Isha’s is not a tragedy that concludes with the last page of a book or the end credits of a film. It hit home because, like her, I too am thousands of kilometres away from my mother. What Isha lived through is the embodiment of anxiety that keeps many of us who live abroad awake at night even in the best of times: the snap of the umbilical cord that stretches across oceans and archipelagos to connect us to everything and everyone we hold dear in our motherland.

But these are not the best of times. Those of us scattered across the world are being hit by unrelenting currents of grief and guilt as we watch from afar the ruinous second wave of COVID-19 swallow our country. When reality surpasses the imagination and language is no longer capacious enough to express its horrors, there is no way to reconcile with being physically cut off from those who might need us.

On the eve of my mother’s 60th birthday in the first week of May, she delivered sombre updates over a video call. A cousin and her elderly parents had tested positive. A nephew’s friend had died four months after he had a baby.

My mother did not know this person, but when she heard of his death, she said she came unravelled. “Why should the young die? How can the old make peace with themselves?” she asked.

The day after her birthday she spoke of more senseless deaths: A 13-year-old cousin of a friend. A woman from her origami group, and her husband. A few minutes later, my mother called again to tell me that her aunt had been rushed to the ICU, her oxygen saturation levels had suddenly dropped to 66. She died a few days later.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Every day, calls and messages bring news of calamity and death. I don’t know a single person who has not experienced loss. What is happening is beyond any regular descriptors of horror. Nouns and verbs are unable to contain its magnanimity. When oxygen literally runs out, how can metaphors fit?

Just as I was finishing this essay, a friend messaged to say that her friend who had given birth two days after testing positive had died. Her condition had worsened after the delivery and her lungs collapsed. She was 34. “Heart aches, and you really don’t feel the point in much. Life is not going to be the same. I have been feeling this way for a while now and it’s only getting more and more apparent,” she wrote. My friend lives in the United States and had recently spent several days in a cauldron of anxiety, watching on Facetime her 92-year-old grandmother in India deal with, and slowly recover from, the virus.

No response seems commensurate to the suffering and devastation. No words feel adequate to describe, say, the video clip in which a man who has procured an oxygen cylinder for his mother falls at the feet of policemen who snatch it from him, to give it to someone else. No tongue can speak of a photo in which an old man bends over his wife’s wrapped-up corpse to stick a bindi on her forehead. No sentient being can articulate how it is to be swept by a stupid powerlessness when a post appears on your social media feed requesting lactating women to donate milk to a newborn whose mother has just passed away.

How to explain the rage and despair as you see people carry bodies of loved ones in their arms, on scooters, on top of their cars? As footpaths and parking lots turn into crematoriums, as the unremitting smoke from the pyres forms a dense cloud over a city that has long struggled to breathe?

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Every morning these last few days, I’ve been waking up to these words: India, vaccines, hospitals, oxygen, India, deaths, beds, strain, virus, variant, India, India, COVID, surge, India… They drift in from the living room where my husband catches up on the news. Before he can ask me if I slept well, I ask him: What are they saying about India? He often shakes his head and says, “the same” as though I believe that things will have changed overnight.

One day he said India had been put on the red list by the United Kingdom, where we live. It would be very hard for me as an Indian citizen, to go home if I wanted, and then to return. But grief knows no borders. Watching this carnage from a place where the air is currently thick with freedom, latitude and joy has been among my most disruptive experiences as an expatriate.

My friend Rahul who lives in the United States recently echoed my thoughts in a succinct tweet: “It’s never been more gut-wrenching as an NRI [non-resident Indian]. I’m seeing the world around me return to normalcy slowly but steadily, while my own country is burning down. Should I be grateful? Should I feel guilty? Should I be fearful? Should I grieve? And how do I do all of this together?”

One of the most incapacitating fears of anyone who lives in a different part of the globe resides in that slim (or giant) sliver of time when one is asleep. What if we snoozed through something cataclysmic?

I formed a habit seven years ago when I first left India to counter the temporal disjuncture of time zones. Whenever I look at the clock, my head involuntarily begins to make additions and subtractions depending on the place I am in. My body could be anywhere in the world, but my heart tries to align with home.

For the last few weeks, my body is the only thing that has been in Edinburgh, a city I moved to eight months ago. It eats, sleeps, moves and breathes on autopilot. Whatever else I am made up of is 4,500 miles and an ocean away.

A few days ago, I woke up at 4am, my heart hammering in my chest. I had managed a few hours of disturbed sleep dunned by images of all that I had seen on my computer that day: pyres and wailing people outside hospitals. It was 8.30am in India when my eyes opened.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Since then, I have been waking up from similar nightmares around the time when morning arrives back home. I think of my mother shuffling around the house. I imagine the music of birds in my housing complex in Mumbai. I am reminded of the mugginess of the summer air. I recall a pre-pandemic ecosystem buzzing with life.

But now I know that vicinity to be different, and it is not an unfamiliar mood I must conjure out of thin air. Last year, I was in Mumbai for the first six months of the pandemic. The entire city had shrunk to the sights and sounds from my window: a big playground with a few trees, crows on the sill, and a kingfisher that flew in at the same time every day. These are the images that lull me back to sleep.

But on many nights, a rapid montage of the departed flashes in my head – people I have known or those I have seen on the news.

My mind is also a graveyard of the living, of loved ones I may or may not meet again.

Sometimes it is a raging machinegun pointed at targets: The bloviating prime minister who delivers vacuous bromides, holds massive political rallies maskless, and wants to build a palace for himself from the ashes of the dead. The health minister who peddles mumbo jumbo in the name of science. The home minister who shows no concern for anything but power. The solicitor general who calls citizens crybabies. The leadership that ignored all warnings of the dangers of a second wave and prematurely declared victory over COVID-19.

In the middle of the night, I am also haunted by a string of questions. Is the regime letting people die so that nobody is left to dissent? Will my city ever look the same again when I am able to return? The market shopkeepers I exchange pleasantries with, the neighbour who offers a cup of filter coffee when I drop in unannounced, the gardener, the tailor, the vegetable vendor, the scores of friendly acquaintances and relatives who have populated my existence – will I see them again? My family and friends – will they all come out alive?

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

My part of the world, meanwhile, is springing back to life. After more than four months of lockdown, Edinburgh, like the rest of the UK, is slowly returning to an incipient normalcy. Infections and deaths have plummeted. Hospitals are breathing again.

Chairs have come out of homes where friends sit, chat, laugh, eat and drink together. Parks are flooded with sunbathing dogs and humans. Shops and establishments have put up signs saying, “welcome back, we’ve missed you”. People are back in pubs, restaurants and cafés. The government is encouraging us to shop at our favourite places, eat at our favourite joints. Go for a staycation, vacation even, they say.

Days are long now, between spring and summer. Flowering trees pack the streets almost teasingly. There is so much life all around. Such abundance of life. It seems wrong.

Outside my window, cherry blooms have formed a baby pink tapestry on the ground over which the sun gently glides; inside, my devices reveal a rolling record of obituaries and desperate pleas for ventilators, oxygen, hospital beds. Which one of my worlds is real? The one where I now feel cramped, or the other where everyone I have ever known or loved is closer to dying than I am?

After several days of non-stop doom and gloom scrolling, I stepped out to meet friends one weekend. We visited a part of town in the north of Edinburgh I had never been to. Leith was a major port for trade in Scotland in the 18th century. Today, it is a vibrant, hipster zone with bars and restaurants by the water. The neighbourhood is by the coast of the Firth of Forth, an estuary of several Scottish rivers, that meets the North Sea.

I thought of my port city by the Arabian Sea – once a collection of islands leased by the British Crown to the East India Company. Not far from Mumbai is another city I call home – Pune, where the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer is. Looking at the signs of normality around me, I was reminded that it was India that supplied COVID vaccines to the UK, as well as to other parts of the world, while facing a massive internal shortage. A quarter of the UK’s population was fully vaccinated at the time of writing this. But while the UK has sent aid to India, it is yet to back waivers on vaccine patents.

That Saturday in Leith, indoor and outdoor spaces rang with chatter and laughter. There were long queues outside street-side eateries. It seemed like we had been transported to a post-pandemic era.

Except the pandemic is not over until it is over everywhere. More than 400,000 daily infections are being recorded in India, and nearly 4,000 lives are taken every day. And these are just official figures. One million people are estimated to die by August. And yet, there is no other place I would rather be. If home must go up in flames, I want to be ash.

But for now, I must stay away. Distance should not matter at this point. I must use it to bargain with the universe: I will keep myself far, far away from the people I love if you promise to keep them safe, healthy and alive. Alive. Alive. Alive. Like Edinburgh in spring. So incongruously alive.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The theatre of suffering in India feels personal, prolonged, monumental. The one second after I open my eyes in the morning is perhaps the only moment I feel some sense of calm these days, before reality hits. After that, the minutes and hours just weave into each other and get wiped out by grief for people I don’t know.

And yet the kindness of strangers offers a ray of optimism. How does a thank you even suffice to express gratitude to a rickshaw driver who ferries seriously ill patients? Or a stranger who offers a ride on his scooter to a man who is carrying his dying father? Or to crematorium and sanitation workers who keep going in a system that has forever oppressed them? Or to those amplifying posts on social media, verifying leads for oxygen, doing the work of the government, carrying the guilt of their survival on their shoulders?

One evening, as I was numbly watching stories on Instagram, I discovered a video where a little boy was smiling at the camera. Greedy for cheer, I clicked on the post.

Seated at a dining table Ishaan sang Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, unaware perhaps of the import of the lyrics, as his father played the guitar. Those two-odd minutes brought a wave of joy so pure that I watched the video on loop. As the world around him fell apart, the sweet boy in his sweet pyjamas radiated a small strain of healing.

The joy was short-lived, though, and I broke down thinking of all the people I had lost in my life, all the people I would lose without ever seeing them again. Wordless sadness spilled from the depths of my fully functional lungs which I was using to sing with Ishaan, while millions of my people were literally dying for air.

After a few minutes, I went back to the video, as I now do at least once every day. When nothing makes sense, it helps to cling to hope.

Source: Al Jazeera