By Atreyee Majumder
We sit at our computers day after day watching the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold across India, especially in cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai. We drink our morning chai and retweet cries for help. Medicines, ICU beds, oxygen cylinders, oxygen refills of empty cylinders, supply of empty cylinders, space in crematoriums, breast milk for orphaned babies feature among the list of needs to be met urgently for those in distress. I am one of those that are trying to live out the sliver of luxury of living in healthy homes and having our groceries delivered at our doorstep. I get out for a morning walk at 6.30 am and try to take in some fresh air before the crowds come out. And then I get on my computer to watch, mutely, the spectacle of Other People’s Suffering.
This essay is not about the macabre spectacle of the pandemic that is unfolding in India. This essay is about the daily position of mute witnessing of Other People’s Suffering that constitutes our current rhythms. My parents and husband ask me to shut the internet as it is contributing to the growing turbulence within me. But watching Other People’s Suffering has become almost an addiction now. It’s almost like staying up to watch an additional episode of a gripping, dystopian TV show. I pass on some relevant information to persons who reach out (usually on Whatsapp) to me for help or requests to amplify their social media pleas. I worry that my passing on of some information did not help them at all, or it was too late by the time they got hold of the information, and generally, that I couldn’t do much. Watching the newsfeed on Twitter and Instagram are the only ways I can be in this surreal moment. This moment is split between my abortive attempts at doing some work, eating, sleeping, and getting stuck in the cascade of morbid news of newsfeeds. Bollywood artists are saying ‘Be positive, we are in this together’ while holidaying in Maldives. People are getting angrier at that. The insensitivity of the Bollywood star is reprehensible. But what about us, who are sitting at our computers, dutifully trying to amplify pleas for help and forcefully participate in the catastrophe whose morality we don’t quite understand? If I had to grab, loot, steal an oxygen cylinder to save my loved one, I would readily to so. But when I am watching from my computer, I moralise about the lack of coordination and demands of ethical distribution of oxygen in Delhi and elsewhere. What is the ethic of catastrophe? Does our everyday bourgeois morality of protecting ourselves while expressing grief for those suffering, still apply? Does a desperate moment not call for a desperate morality?
I talk to my therapist about whether it is actually possible to grieve a mass death – masses whose pyres are pictures of important testimony to the failures of the ‘system’. But we didn’t know those people, we cannot begin to imagine their pain. So why pretend? My therapist is a bit taken aback that I am expressing desperate anger and almost no grief. I do not know how to grieve for large numbers of people whose names and oximeter readings are but routine information on my Twitterfeed. Grief is a sacred emotion. I must not compare my fear that the same fate may descend upon me and my family, to grief. It is not grief. It is fear and paranoia that misfortune of another might visit us, and guilt that today it is someone else’s turn to suffer. It is not grief. Ask the person who lost a loved one at the doors of a hospital gasping for oxygen, what being the limits of the morality of the usual, feels like. You and I are not there, we are not running around from pillar to post looking for a hospital bed. You and I are, at the most, making some phone calls. Where from do we get this audacity to equate our feelings of fear to their feeling of desperate grief?
I am reminded of Sontag’s analysis of the routine absorption of Other People’s Suffering (mostly in the context of war footage from countries far away from America) by the newspaper-reading American bourgeois subject. She writes, channelling Virginia Woolf, in Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag 2003):
Who are the “we” at whom such shock-pictures are aimed? That “we” would include not just the sympathizers of a smallish nation or a stateless people fighting for its life, but-a far larger constituency-those only nominally concerned about some nasty war taking place in another country. The photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.
Sontag is angry at war photographs. She shows that looking at them and consuming them with one’s morning coffee insulates people from actually considering the order of the ‘more real’. But I am not angry at the photos of oxygen-desperation and cremation-smoke that our newspapers are abuzz with currently. Journalists are doing important work through such photographs of exposing state apathy. I am only interested in considering my own numb respect for those that are suffering, my absolute inability to call this feeling ‘grief’.
Catastrophe calls for appealing to the big picture. Just like we are demanding that governments should have had the long-term impact of the first wave in their mind, and arranged for oxygen supply in anticipation of the second wave. Just like that we must return to the big picture of what it means to be ‘I’ in the context of the breakdown of all safety nets. The ‘I’ exists as a machine of a fragile ego that is constantly preoccupied with one’s own survival, the Bhagavad Gita reminds us. If you take away this concern for the projection of one’s survival and by implication that of one’s safety-nets (family, kin, friends) that propel one’s well-being, the ‘I’ is a useless philosophical instrument. My spectacular attempt at feeling grief through witnessing of Other People’s Suffering is ultimately a part of my survival trajectory – the only preoccupation of the ‘I’. More ambulances ring past my window. I sit at my desk and convulse from this feeling that is not grief. The catastrophe calls for a breakdown of our emotional vocabulary.
Mascaro, Juan. 1962. The Bhagavad Gita. London, UK: Penguin Classics.
Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York, NY: Picador Books.
Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist. She teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
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