Firewood: Processing COVID in India From Afar

Cremation grounds in India (Image unrelated to ongoing currents events in India)
Cremation grounds in India (Image unrelated to ongoing currents events in India)

I was fully vaccinated in March 2021.

In the third week of April, I was planning to fly to India to check on my mother and extended family. My sister was in line for her second shot of the Covishield vaccine against COVID-19. We were excited to celebrate April birthdays and Mother’s day after 2 years. My bags were packed.

India, the second most populated country in the world with over 1.3 billion Indians seemed to have a decent handle on the pandemic. The world watched the initial twenty-day lockdown in India, followed by the mass exodus of migrant workers. Perhaps innate immunity to tropical diseases was helping Indians against COVID. Was the blistering heat not conducive to viral proliferation? Was the COVID-19 strain in India less infectious?

The Serum Institute of India was gearing up for vaccines for domestic and international use. Before Indian citizens were vaccinated, Indian vaccines were exported out of the country. Indian government and citizens were confident of their innate immunity. Steeped in a false sense of bravado, India reopened for business in early 2021. Unmasked gatherings, cricket matches, political rallies, and weddings continued while the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 was raging in a vulnerable unvaccinated population.

Meanwhile, the weeks-long Hindu Pilgrimage congregation in Haridwar (Kumbh Mela) was not canceled. This year Hanuman Jayanti was on 26-27th of April the night of the pink full moon (Chaitra Purnima). This holy dip in the Ganga (Shahi Snan) was considered to be very auspicious. Many devotees tested positive and spread the disease in crowded trains and buses and to their contacts back home. The infectious curve changed from a plateau to a wall. The health care system was overwhelmed. Hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen, medicines. Meanwhile, there was an acute vaccine shortage, and hurdles in getting the vaccine.

My friends and family members are not fully vaccinated to date. So many innocent lives were lost! Fires burnt nonstop. In the first wave, it took five months for the 98,000 a day caseload to about 10,000 a day. This time, the peak is much higher and the downward trend of the second wave could be prolonged. The only hope is to raise herd immunity by mass vaccinations.

I composed two poems, out of my anguish. My idea is not to criticize. I am trying to process the trauma in my community. My poems document our complex human frailty. 

******

 Firewood

“I will make such a wonderful India…” @Narendra Modi 4/11/18 

Maskless. He addressed them. 

Rows upon rows, their

brains steeped in fervor. 

They cheered and rallied, then

thronged on the shores of a 

weary Ganges, sullying her body

of water. Over and over again.

Inviting Lord Yama to extinguish

their breath. 

 

He came with a vengeance. 

Coronavirus vanquished thousands. 

Breathless, their bodies crumpled on

the streets. 

No oxygen. No vaccine. No potion. 

No healers. No chant. No mantra.

No yantra. No tantra. No soothsayer. 

No friend or family member 

could save them from their own folly.

 

They burnt in communal fires in 

parking lots. The stench of death 

smearing the khadi shawl of 

Mother India. She wept

and rued their misguided deeds.

The pandemic raged on, 

mindless of caste, creed, age, gender 

or status. Even the mighty were 

snuffed out. 

 

But who will be held accountable

for cremating those innocent souls 

who died without rupees for firewood? 

*****

Flying Monkey Moon

The moon maiden was full

and deliciously pink 

A bit pompous, 

A butter macaroon, freshly baked 

Double pink peony daydream. 

Cumulus cloud carpet

Covered the midnight sky.

Sweet salutations were whispered

She smiled and lowered her veil.

 

Millions gathered on the bank of

the Holy Ganges to take a religious

dip with the Moon and floating diyas

The last day of the Kumbh was 

specially ordained to wash away 

their sins. Coronavirus raged in 

homes, hotels, sky scrapers and 

hovels. Hospitals were out of beds, 

doctors, nurses and life support ran dry.

Fires burned day and night in open 

crematoriums. Mortals chanted the 

Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for protection.

Hanuman opened his eyes and flew

across the heavens. He thought,

they only remember me on

my birthday. 

*****

I do not want to criticize the government, their policies, or the people who helped spread this scourge.

I am very worried. I am one of the millions who do not know when they’ll be able to see their dear ones – parents, daughter, son, grandson, brother, sister.

In the interim, I keep watching the news, donate money for COVID relief, pray to Hanuman every day.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

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