Death in the time of Corona


Death is a democratic leveller that does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the weak, between men, and women and children, between the Hindu and the Muslim. Shoma A. Chatterji writes how this has been amply illustrated through the deaths of some of the famous people during the pandemic.

Death is the most definite answer to any questions on life or beyond life. Death hounds us all during a pandemic, a natural calamity, a war or an industrial accident like the one that happened in Andhra Pradesh recently. But what happens when a celebrity dies during a lockdown initiated by this intriguing and very scary pandemic called Covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) or Corona?.

Death and the rituals around it, never mind which faith the person belongs to, the very intense emotions of grieving and lamenting over a person his family will never set eyes again does not have any poetry or music around it. It is just too brutal, cruel and real from which there is no escape.

Too many famous personalities passed yonder during the lockdown and none of them, except one, died due to the disease that has forced us all into a small cocoon of the home. Their families, in deep distress, could hardly grieve which means that the very reality of death is being culturally redefined. “Social distancing” one of the most important rules to prevent the spread of the pandemic, means that a wife cannot weep close to her husband’s body as touching is no longer infra dig. So, when internationally renowned footballer P.K. Banerjee passed away at the age of 82 in a Kolkata Nursing Home, his two daughters sent out a condolence message informing all who knew him or were his fans, to refrain from attending the very restricted funeral ceremony. The earlier arrangement for 150 persons to attend with special permission from the Kolkata Police, was brought down to ten close family members. While it is true that the person who passed away had moved to another world, beyond his family and his friends and his fans, for the immediate family, this must have spelt an emotional shock that reached beyond pure grief. Due to the COVID-19 scare, his funeral was conducted in a low-key manner and his body was not taken to the maidan clubs where he spent most of his life as player and coach. “My father was a socially-responsible human being and in such a time of crisis we cannot just ignore the lockdown appeal made by the head of the state and country,” Paula, his daughter, said.

Passing away in isolation

One of the most famous lady editors of two Indian magazines, namely Gulshan Ewing, passed away in isolation in a London care home at the age of 92. She was the outstanding editor of Eve’s Weekly, a woman’s magazine with a wide circulation which was the nurturing nest for many latter-day woman journalists helped in their career by Mrs. Ewing. She also edited a film fortnightly from the same publishing house called Star & Style which, like its “sister” also created film journalists who made a name for themselves later on when the two magazines closed down.

Writes Meher Castelino, journalist-turned-model-turned beauty queen, “Gulshan Ewing was decades before her time. The subjects that the present day magazines cover were visualised by her along with fashion features years ago. For me, Gulshan Ewing will always be the ultimate editor who had elegance, style, grace and above all a personality, which was not only friendly warm and memorable but also unforgettable.”

She migrated with her British-Indian husband Guy Ewing to UK a little after the two magazines closed down. She withdrew from journalism completely and led a peaceful life. But her death was far from a peaceful one. She lived in a care home in London’s Richmond, following coronavirus-related complications on April 18. But her daughter Anjali Ewing said that the family received the news only 24 hours after she had passed away. Why? Is it because she was an Indian? As per media reports, Indians and South Asians are not being taken proper care of in the UK. Her daughter’s grief had turned to anger when she was informed so late about her mother’s demise.

Over her illustrious and very successful career that spanned three decades, Ms Ewing interviewed Hollywood legends like Gregory Peck and Cary Grant, many politicians, members of the royalty, and other such eminent personalities across the world. According to the Daily Mail report, she even enjoyed a glamorous life in her native city of Mumbai, where she was quite known in celebrity circles.

Her daughter had to plead with health officials and send out tweets to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for her mother to be tested for COVID-19 and receive the necessary treatment. In an interview, “For more than a week we had no confirmation that my mother was affected by the coronavirus, and this just added to our worry. And when we eventually got it, she had already passed away. It was a case of too little, too late”. This is one more picture of death and grief and loss during a pandemic when practically the whole world is in lockdown.

Death a democratic leveller

Irrfan Khan’s story is very sad. He was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer and shifted to London for treatment around 2018. He came back with a clean chit from the doctors and had all but readied himself to face the camera. Just when we all felt that he was back to his cheerful and healthy self, disaster struck and he passed away a few days after he had addressed the press in absentia. His wife of 30 years and two sons are left to mourn this irreparable loss just when the man had met with great success in his career almost after struggling for two decades though he had a degree in Drama from the National School of Drama (NSD). The immediate family and Vishaal Bharadwaj, a director who was very fond of him attended the funeral. But in complete isolation. What kind of death is this? What kind of mourning? The complete flooding of the media with clips of films he had acted in, song sequences from his films, his very aggressive and active participation in a panel discussion where he officially and publicly gave up his family name “Khan” because he wanted to free himself from any communal or religious appendage telecast again and again, intensified the grief of his immediate family with two very young boys, Babil and Ayan. He was only 53 and had so much more to give to the film industry. His wife, Sutapa Sikder, could hardly find words to express the vacuum he has left behind for her to live with. This is no ordinary grief though no grief is “ordinary.” This is death when touching is not allowed, when close friends, associates, brothers and sisters who live in other cities, and cannot come down as the transport system is also in lockdown, is something the wife and children must live with for the rest of their lives.

In a very unethical gesture, we saw a video clip on a social networking site showing Rishi Kapoor smiling away and joking while a young paramedical, a man, sang a Hindi film song in camera. Kapoor stretched out a hand to bless the boy. But we think this was in very bad taste when we know that a man is about to pass on to the other world. Is that grieving? Or, is that a clip to be stored as a memoir by the boy to show his wife and children on the morrow? He was not even wearing a mask inside the hospital. How did the hospital staff permit him to do this? But as I have been saying again and again, Rishi Kapoor, who passed away of complications resulting from cancer, died right in the middle of a complete lockdown. His only daughter Riddhima, tried her best to fly down from Delhi but could not as flights were closed. What does a daughter feel if she cannot attend her father’s last rites because of reasons beyond her control?

As they grapple with grief, family members of a person who died from the Covid-19 are also facing a logistical issue: lack of private transport or ambulances to ferry the body to the crematorium amid the current lockdown. Rules on the lockdown specify that attendance at funerals should be as low as possible, with only close relatives and friends attending. Not more than 10 people. But as even private ambulances don’t have permission to ply, families of the deceased have no means to reach the crematorium for the last rites.

Death is a democratic leveller, an equalliser that does not distinguish between rich and poor, between the powerful and the weak, between men, and women and children, between the Hindu and the Muslim and during this massive pandemic, this has been amply illustrated through the deaths of these famous people.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.