Living through India’s pandemic: ‘Oxygen is the new currency’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When the second wave began, we woke each day with a premonition of dread and as the days passed, and the toll climbed, taking our family members, our friends, our acquaintances and colleagues, the dread became ever present, like the dead, who took up residence in our hearts. Then came the fear, which crippled us even when the fever did not. We thought ourselves lucky if we did not fall ill, knowing it was only a matter of time before it would be us on the pavement outside a crowded, underfunded hospital, begging for a bed from the overwhelmed orderlies and nurses.

People spoke in metaphors. They spoke of apocalypse and its bearded saffron-clad horsemen, of inferno and the pyres of hell that burned in parking lots, in open fields, in the streets adjoining graveyards and crematoria. They spoke of life during wartime. But instead of air raid sirens we heard ambulances, day and night. There were curfews and lockdowns and shortages. There were hoarders and black marketers. Oxygen and medicine became the new currency. The cries of the stricken appeared on our social feeds, asking for a cylinder of oxygen, a vial of remdesivir, a hospital bed, home remedies, any kind of advice or solace. And it was on social media that we found help, and if not help then sympathy. We found others who shared the nightmare to which we woke. Strangers stepped forward to set up their own networks of rescue, beyond bureaucracy, religion and politics, complete strangers who cooked for the sick and checked up on them, who spent entire days arranging a bed or medication, who found care for the small children orphaned overnight. This miracle began in a matter of days, just as soon as we understood that those we had elected to protect us had failed us at the time of our greatest need.

Since the pandemic began, some of us have looked to our prime minister for comfort. He was our guru, in his immaculate wardrobe and shaped beard, whose shining image looked down on us from billboards and newspaper advertisements. We waited, hoping for a word of understanding, some acknowledgment of our grief. In thrall to his magnetism, to the aura of wisdom and invulnerability that surrounded him like a halo, we believed in him most when he spoke, with his arms opened wide as if to embrace the entire nation, as if he would take upon himself our suffering. But when an announcement did arrive it was to tell the people of West Bengal that they would receive the vaccine for free if they voted for him. (An election he went on to lose.) Otherwise he rarely addressed the nation. If he did, it was to tell us that religious gatherings would continue because we had defeated the virus, an achievement only we had accomplished, because we were Indians, exceptional, the pharmacists and inventors of the world, not heroes but superheroes. His voice was his charisma; when he spoke we believed.

But many among us had lost their faith. If this was a war then the crimes of our leaders were war crimes and they should be tried accordingly, they said. These voices were branded anti-national, even as they called out the robed chief minister of our most populous state, whose response to those begging for oxygen was to threaten to take away their property; and the home minister who campaigned while the disease raged; the health minister who said the nation’s vaccine rollout was the fastest in the world when it was among the slowest, and assured us there was no reason to be afraid because the virus was not so virulent among Indians and, besides, we had one of the lowest fatality rates in the world; the solicitor general who called us crybabies when our capital city asked for oxygen. These men took their cue from the prime minister, whose bloated ego, monumental vanity and lack of empathy, they said, was unforgivable negligence. We let them talk. The faithless do not know that our true power is not the belief that we hold a special place in history; it is our talent for forgetfulness. In three years, when the next elections take place, we will have forgotten our anguish and our dead. Our memory is shallow, contingent, buyable. We will return our leaders to power.

• Jeet Thayil’s Names of the Women is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.