Collaborations with the Dead

Of Wood, Dirt, and Oxygen

In the winter of 1942-43, a young man, age twenty-five, was driving a car (and I wish I knew the color and model) with running boards on either side (that I’d been told) on a chilly and foggy north Bengal night. The road has long since vanished, covered by tarmacadam to connect the bridges where the river crossings only had ferry boats. The now-70 miles from Calcutta to Krishnanagar, was probably double that in those days.  The night fog split unevenly by blackened half-moon headlights (wartime protocol) shone on a stick-thin man leaning against the one-story building in front of the gas (they were petrol in India) pumps. His upper body was covered with a thin shawl around his shoulders, a dhoti for his lower half and a visibly raggedy shirt and bare feet. The barefoot man was Panchanan Das. The driver of the car was my father. They stayed together for the rest of my father’s life, forty-one years.

Their story is a separate one. I tell you this because it was Panchananda’s (I used the honorific of elder brother with him, even though he was probably my father’s age) flight from his famine-ridden village that was one small story of millions (2-3 million died in that famine) that I heard when I was growing up. He told me of the dead on the streets of Calcutta, literally, corpses of migrants. My parents told me of small families begging, house-to-house, for the water drained from boiled rice. This was the Bengal Famine of 1943, which came about through a combination of reasons ---endemic rural poverty and indebtedness, failure of a crop cycle, usurious and rabid dispossession of belongings by greedy moneylenders and the diversion first of food supplies for the British war effort and then the destruction of rice supplies to thwart the progress of oncoming Japanese forces in neighboring countries and the northeast borders. People perished. Was there enough ground for them to be cremated? Was there enough ground for them to be buried? Was there enough wood for the funeral pyres. Did the bodies lie outside the crematoriums?

We have answers to what’s happening with the dead and dying today in India. We don’t need for young sons and daughters to remember. We will remember. How can we forget? Every day, every hour we have images, static and otherwise, chronicling the hideousness of death and dying. Susan Sontag said that photographs are “an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” (On Photography).  And what about words?

Words when angled together, similar to modern-day camera angles for a photograph, when they “go beyond the formal railway line of a sentence” (Virginia Woolf) creates pictures that shimmer at the edges (thank you, Joan Didion). Below are two prose pieces---shimmering, glowing, red-hot in condemnation of what we are witnessing. Both writers are young Indian women who publish frequently on Instagram.

Reprinted here by kind permission of the authors.   

  I

The Eighth Hell (By Tasneem Khan)

Beneath the seven hells is another, more real than any myth.

Here, the saint kills and the satan mourns.

Here, God is the most willful atheist.

Here, there is no inferno, only a hellhole of cold ignorance.

Beneath the seven hells is another, more real than any myth.

Here, death is easy, it is the decaying that kills.

Here, joy beget guilt begets sorrow begets pain.

Here, sleep must come, only if it is eternal.

Beneath the seven hells is another, more real than any myth,

 open your eyes, it is here, it is here.”

(The writer adds for the readers but not as part of the poem: In Islam, those who die from a plague are shahid —martyr. Interestingly the word also denotes the meaning “witness.”

This is for them. The martyrs who witnessed everything, who died at the hands of wicked ignorance. They will have their share of justice. One day, for sure.”)

     II

Where Will You Bury Your Dead? (By Alolika A. Dutta)

Where will you bury your dead?

When the crematoriums and temples

are filled with ours, where will you bury yours?

When death finds you, where will you seek refuge

in this country filled with lovers of those you killed?

When disease runs its course, what will you tell

the child who no longer remembers his mother’s face?

When the temples open for worship, how will you

look at god, or rather, how will god look at you?