Covid Crisis in India: The Death of Pradeep Bhattacharya

‘Why shouldn’t there be a rebellion against the government?’ my uncle asked in a Facebook post. A few days later he died of Covid in New Delhi.

A man sitting on a kerbstone. He is middle aged with a long beard and wears an oxygen mask.

In his last photograph he is seen sitting on a kerbstone at a Delhi hospital Foto: Atish Aman

We seemed to have been trapped in a blizzard of numbers. In addition to following the upsurge of COVID cases in India and the steady increment in daily mortality figures, we were trying to keep an eye on the West Bengal assembly election results, which were being announced on that day.

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The number of seats, the number of votes, the number needed for full majority… Then there were the dozens of phone numbers, of oxygen suppliers and hospitals, that we had been receiving every few minutes and trying to call. ‚The number you are calling is currently busy…‘

Later that night, the only numbers that preoccupied us were the blood oxygen saturation levels of my uncle, who was struggling with COVID-induced pneumonia at Delhi’s LNJP Hospital. The sequence went something like this: 85, 60, 50, 45, 70… That final blip, from 45 to 70, raised our hopes. But I think my uncle, a rationalist by temperament, would have known, even in his diminished state, that 45 to 70 was no improvement at all. The next health bulletin said 40.

There was the usual information blackout at night. We had to wait until the morning for an update on my uncle’s health. His daughter reached the hospital’s help desk early the next day. She was told that the scheduled video call with her father would soon be arranged. A couple of hours later, I received the news that my uncle had passed away. He had died the previous night, at 11.30 p.m. Before I could understand what was happening, the body was on its way to the crematorium. No one could attend the funeral.

It’s impossible to mourn such a death—because mourning has to end some day, and because this kind of sudden erasure somehow feels different from death. The grief that ensues after such a pointless cutting-short of life—not just the fact that it happened, but the manner in which it happened—is infinite. It never attains closure, not least because the dead can’t even be properly memorialized.

Infinities of grief

The COVID deaths of the past few weeks have plunged our society, and particularly my city, Delhi, into such depthless infinities of grief that I don’t think we can ever emerge from this crisis. Even if the political leaders directly responsible for it—including Prime Minister Narendra Modi—are brought to book. Even if the large-scale fraud and mismanagement besetting our health-care and bureaucratic institutions are set right. Even if no one else dies gasping for air inside a hospital ward. Nothing can reverse the damage that has already been done.

I don’t know if my uncle could have been saved. But I know it for a fact that not enough was done to save him. When his SpO2 levels first dropped, he was hooked to an oxygen cylinder and rushed to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in east Delhi, only to find the hospital gates barricaded. He waited out on the streets for four to five hours—with the ambulance meter running and the oxygen supply rapidly dwindling—and was then taken to LNJP.

By sheer luck, an oxygen-supported bed was arranged for him at LNJP. But, as he soon pointed out over the phone to his daughter, there was a conspicuous shortage of medical staff in the ward (a much-ignored aspect of the current crisis). The supply of medical oxygen, too, seemed to be dangerously fluctuating. One morning, we found that he had been kept off oxygen for three to four hours. This was when his condition took a turn for the worse.

Not enough was done by the hospital administration to establish a clear line of communication with the patient’s family. On one day, my uncle’s daughter got a call from his phone, but what she heard on the other end was a stranger’s voice. The man said that he was a doctor at LNJP and asked her to urgently arrange an ICU bed with ventilator for her father at some other hospital. At LNJP, he informed, all the ventilators were taken. This doctor could never be traced and was never heard from again. A thousand phone calls later, we got to know that my uncle’s name was on the waiting list for ventilator beds.

On the night of his death, owing to whatever cruel logic of medical triage, he was still on the waiting list. Most likely, at that stage even a ventilator would not have saved his life. Still, all this could have been clearly conveyed to the family. At the very least, the report of his death could have been sent to his daughter at night, rather than revealed in an offhand manner at the help desk the following morning.

Overburdened and helpless

I am certain that there’s nothing unusual about this particular case. I have spent the past few weeks reading and hearing reports of similar insensitivity and neglect. And I am privy to the point of view of the front-line staff as well (my mother is a nurse in a COVID hospital), seeing how overburdened and helpless and vulnerable each one of them is feeling. In any case, my intention is not to find someone to blame. At this stage, I am doing the only thing that’s left for me to do: learning to mourn the old-fashioned way, through remembrance.

Memory has a role to play here. Pradeep Bhattacharya, my uncle—Fufa, as I called him—was central to some of my earliest memories. These memories go so far back in time that I don’ t have any real recollections associated with them. What I have instead is something more substantial: a visual record in the form of the many photographs Fufa took of me as a toddler. He himself developed these photos in a darkroom.

I am told that when I was born—at the same hospital Fufa breathed his last in—he greeted my arrival in this world by presenting to my parents a cake that had 'Welcome Tintin’ written on it. Tintin was the provisional name he had come up with—possibly because I resembled the comic-book character in what I imagine to be my expression of wide-eyed wonderment. If I remember correctly, we still have the photograph of that cake.

Fufa was my only bond with that long-forgotten part of my childhood. Every time I met him over the past decade or so, he would invariably take me to those innocent years, and tease me with anecdotes that portrayed me—deservedly, I am sure—as a foolish little bungler. 'Kyun, bahut phudak rahe ho miyan? (You have put on such airs!) I have known you since you were this small,’ he would say and perform his mimicry routine of me as an eight-year-old, crying and demanding, with a puerile sense of entitlement, to be carried home. Nobody else in my immediate circle remembers me as that kid, or at least nobody has instant access to those memories. Fufa, the chronicler of my childhood, was the only bridge to that phase of my life which is now forever lost to me.

He was also the first person in my social circle I wanted to write about. During our conversations—and it was mostly just him talking throughout as I listened, attempting to get a word in edgeways—I would take mental notes, saying to myself, 'I must remember this, I must write it down.’ And I did write it down. Many years ago, he offered an unforgettable metaphor to explain how Marx’s ideas were different from Hegel’s. He said, 'Hegel was standing upside down; Marx turned him the right way up.’

He was his own master

Fufa was a teacher of Marxism. Yet he never regarded Marxist theory with any degree of academic detachment. Indeed, enacting those ideas in his own life, as best he could, was among his many projects. For him, the personal was the political, and one manifestation of that Marxist 'self-realization’ was his fierce, uncompromising individualism.

As Marx wrote, 'A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself.’ Throughout his life, Fufa owed his existence to no man but himself. Perhaps for this reason, he abided by a kind of renunciatory ethos, rejecting most of the comforts of life, refusing to participate in any form of self-advancement.

Perhaps for this reason, he never got around to putting together a 'body of work’. His decades-long collection of photographs remains largely unseen. He never bothered to share his lectures or published articles with anyone. The work he did in creating a syndicated science page for Indian newspapers, possibly the first and only such endeavour in India, is now forgotten. The radio play he made on one of Premchand’s stories has vanished from the airwaves.

Until around a generation ago, it was possible in this country to choose to live on one’s own terms. To choose a life of respectable, austere poverty over vulgar consumerism; eccentricity over the norm; individual expression over herd sentiment. Fufa was an embodiment of that alternative style of living. But he and his ilk were increasingly marginalized in the 'New India’, to the extent that they woke up one day and realized that they had lost all social and political relevance. They realized that they were utterly helpless against the forces of the market.

Over the last few years, I saw very little of him. We had grown apart, partly because I was myself busy surrendering to some of those forces, giving in to middle-class comforts and careerist ways, effectively suppressing my urge to drift and dream, taking the path opposite to the one he had taken. I sometimes wonder if this was because I didn’t want to end up like him. Or maybe because I understood that I didn’t have his moral courage, something that kept him going.

The other thing that kept him going was talking. More than anything else, he liked to talk and, as was often the case, argue—always loudly, with conviction and animation. When I remember him, I first hear his voice, with its booming clarity, resonating across a distance. He almost always spoke at the top of his voice. And his appearance—particularly that heavy beard, more Tolstoy than Tagore—added more weight to the voice.

Victims of the government

The last I heard from him was a few months ago. He spoke about the pandemic and said that it was important that we not let it dominate our intellectual life: 'We have to think about other things too. The minds of a lot of people have just shrunk, you see. They have become too introverted. What we need in these times is for people to reach out and talk to others.’

Social media was one of the tools he used to reach out, to keep himself sane, to vent his anger. His last Facebook post, from 22 April, reads, 'When a good-for-nothing, remorseless and evil government crosses all limits of indecency, why shouldn’t there be a rebellion?’ He would have enjoyed the Bengal election results, I remember thinking on the day of his death. He would have relished the humiliating loss suffered by the BJP in the state he had his roots in. But he had already joined the ranks of the thousands of victims of the BJP government, helpless and speechless in their suffocation.

In his last photograph, taken by his son, he is seen sitting on a kerbstone at a Delhi hospital, breathing through a mask. An oxygen cylinder is on his left, and on his right is an old shopping bag that says 'Reliance Trends’. (That symbolism of the shopping bag is what I find particularly disturbing—how it militated against everything he stood for.) The bag is filled with the things he carried, the things he thought he would need for his hospital stay. He has a disoriented, weary look on his face—the look of someone who is trying to make sense of the world and has nothing left to say.

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Vineet Gill lebt und arbeitet in Delhi als Autor und Lektor.

Vineet Gill is a Delhi-based writer and editor.

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