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Home > 2021 > Of floating dead bodies and imperial edifices | Sukumaran C.V.

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 23, New Delhi, May 22, 2021

Of floating dead bodies and imperial edifices | Sukumaran C.V.

Saturday 22 May 2021, by Sukumaran C.V.

It was in Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I have seen a graphic description of floating dead bodies of the Indians: "...at the entrance to the vast Bay of Bengal, we occasionally saw corpses floating on the surface. These were the dead of Indian towns, carried out to the sea by the Ganges. The vultures, the only undertakers in that country, had not been able to devour them completely. However, the sharks could be relied upon to finish that grisly task." (Part II, Chapter 1—The Indian Ocean).

In the evening of 10th May, Malayalam TV Channels reported that hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating in Ganga, but I could not believe it until I saw the main news in The Hindu on the next day: "Bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims found floating in Ganga". Of course, ’the hundreds’ of dead bodies the TV Channels saying was exaggeration, but dead bodies were found floating in Ganga. It was true! Does India become incredible because of such unimaginable things happen here? People are falling dead without having oxygen and the cremation grounds in the national capital is working 24×7 and the dead bodies are lying in queue to be put on pyers and set fire. And in this same capital city, Central Vista works are going on with warning boards displaying "No Photography; No Video Recording"!! Really incredible; or rather incredibly incredible.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was written in 1870, and such practices of throwing the dead bodies into Ganga might have been common in India then as the people were too poor under the alien rule to decently bury the dead. As the Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal and it might have been a mightier river a century and half ago than it is today, the dead bodies must have been washed into the sea and used to be visible for the sailers as Jules Verne’s characters Captain Nemo and the crew of the imaginary submarine Nautilus see them floating around when they entered the Bay of Bengal. But to read in 2021 about floating dead bodies of our fellow citizens that are bloated because they must have been in water for atleast 5-7 days is unimaginable and harrowing.

The Covid-19 pandemic, in its second wave with the different Avatars of the virusthe strains called the Indian variant, and the A P variant with N440K mutation is wreaking havoc in India and the pyers on cremation grounds across the country have been burning 24×7 for over a month now. India is now virtually a country on fire; a country of burning pyers; a country of floating dead bodies.

It has become so because, the rulers of India, both the State and Central governments, have miserably failed to learn the modus operandi of the viral outbreaks in wave after wave, and to equip themselves in advance. We humans can kill all animals indiscriminately forgetting the fact that biodiversity is the thing that enables the humans to exist on earth. But the humans with all their guns and bombs and violence are quite helpless when microscopic pathogens like the novel coronavirus start infecting and killing them. Exactly a century ago, the Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people in the world. It eliminated so much people in three or four waves from 1918 to 1920. The second wave of the Spanish flu was more lethal than the first wave and the third wave was more deadly than the first, but not as deadly as the second. Instead of having insights from the history of the Spanish flu and making preparations to encounter the second wave of the Covid-19, the government(s) in India declared victory over the virus even before the virus has begun its real attack, and the result is what we see around usa nation cremating its dead 24×7.

When this grisly tragedy is being enacted all around us, when the bodies of our fellow citizens are burning and floating; our rulers, obsessed with grandeur like the ancient kings and emperors, are building palace-like edifices in Delhi, demolishing the National Museum and the National Archives Annexe etc! Everything that needs meticulous planning and immense expertise—the demonetisation, the lockdown and now the demolition of the National Museum and other buildings to make way for new buildings as planned in the Central Vista project—is being done in our country in a haphazard manner with theatrics and according to the whims and fancies of the ruler(s). Where will the artefacts of the National Museum be kept and will all the artefacts removed from there be returned back? "There are valid concerns about the conservation of the collections housed at these centres (National Museum of India, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, National Archives Annexe). Relocation of the treasures at the National Museum, archival records at the National Archives and manuscript holdings at the IGNCA can be an extremely challenging task even during ordinary times. It is a complex operation that requires detailed planning and expertise. Such changes around premier institutions take place only after wide consultations in any part of the world, and certainly not in the opaque and cavalier manner as is being planned here." (Artless and heartless, The Hindu, 17-05-2021).

Showmanship was a salient feature of the ancient and medieval times when kings and emperors ruled. To see that in the democratically elected rulers is simply ridiculous and catastrophic. Their imperious obsession with grandeur reminds me of P B Shelley’s small but powerful poem Ozymandias in which the poet shows what happens to rulers obsessed with grandeur:

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
A shattered visage lies....
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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