It’s 1 pm on Friday, the day Delhi would report 348 Covid fatalities, and I am outside the emergency ward of the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, the state government’s largest Covid treatment facility. A signboard on the premises declares the grim situation in big red letters – Beds Available: Nil.
A young woman sees my press card and walks over. Her sister was admitted three days ago, she says, and she and her brother-in-law have been waiting outside since. Why are they waiting, I ask, they won’t be allowed in to see her? “In case she needs anything,” she replies. “What if they run out of oxygen and we have to get it for her at a moment's notice?”
Suddenly, a cry rings out and then there’s wailing. I turn to see a woman and her husband exit the gates of the hospital. The man is holding his phone to his ear with one hand and with the other keeping his distraught wife from falling down. He makes her sit on the pavement and almost forces her to have a sip of water.
She takes the phone from her husband and, in between sobs, cries out, “Bring back my mother, I want her. How will I tell my father? She is dead, my mother is dead. Aunty, I’m broken. I don’t understand what is happening.”
“I’m broken. I don’t understand what is happening,” she repeats over and over, mostly to herself. Perhaps to convince herself of what has abruptly befallen her. A photojournalist tries to capture her grief, but her husband stands in the way. The journalist persists from afar until an LNJP guard intervenes. He tells the journalist, “Let them grieve in peace. Go stand behind the police barricade.”
Time feels sluggish.
Relatives wait, statue-like, for news of their loved ones battling for life inside, while a constant stream of ambulances, scooters and cars rush in and out of the gates. For ambulance drivers in particular there isn’t a moment to catch breath as they zip in and out. Relatives of incoming patients are in a rush too but all those who emerge from the emergency walk at a laboured pace.
Most of the people around are on their cellphones. Some are making calls recounting the loss of a friend or family member, others are watching videos or listening to music. Everyone is either reliving grief or trying, at least for a moment, to escape it.
In a pandemic characterised by isolation, there is no dearth of human touch. Family members hold each other, letting go only to occasionally spray sanitiser on their hands.
I head over to the Maulana Azad Medical College mortuary, over a kilometre away, where bodies from the LNJP Hospital are taken. On the way, I notice a wedding celebration in Mir Dard Lane Residential Complex. The celebration and joy of the wedding feels out of place, to say the least.
At the mortuary, silence hangs heavy, punctuated only by waiting relatives breaking into muffled cries and workers shouting out names of the deceased whose bodies are ready to be taken for burial or cremation.
A man who has lost his wife is waiting for his son who has gone inside the mortuary to check if the paperwork to take the body is ready. She was in her mid-50s and had been admitted in the LNJP Hospital a week earlier with low oxygen saturation. What was her name? “What is the point of that now?” he replies. “She is gone.”
An ambulance driver walks over to console the man. He tells him to stay strong for his son and believe that there was nothing more he could have done to save his wife from a disease with no cure. The man nods, but does not look up.
The son comes out and tells his father they have to return for the body at 8 am the next day. “We will get the body only by 6 pm and the cremation will not happen until midnight because of the queue at Nigambodh Ghat. It is not auspicious to cremate at night so the officials inside said to come tomorrow morning,” he explains.
Relatives wait to receive the bodies of their loved ones at the mortuary.
Then, I see Kajal Kamat’s family.
Kajal, 18, was admitted to the LNJP a week ago after three days in the ICU of Pt Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital. Her uncle, Inder Kamat, says she had difficulty breathing and no other symptoms of Covid. She did not suffer from any existing ailments either, he adds.
“After three days at Madan Mohan Hospital the doctors there told us to shift her here, probably because they were running out of oxygen, though I’m not sure,” Inder says. “We didn’t ask a lot of questions. We admitted her a week ago. Through the week we would get updates from the doctors and we even spoke to her a few times on video call. Some days were better than others. This morning also the doctors called us on video and we saw that she couldn’t breathe. A few hours later they called again, to tell us she was no more. I still can’t believe it.”
The family came to the mortuary at noon, but it isn’t until 4 pm that Kajal’s name is called out. The family, 10 of them, go in and wheel out her body.
“Babu wake up,” Kajal’s mother screams. “She will get up, make her wake up.”
It takes most of the accompanying relatives to keep her on her feet.
As the people assembled outside the mortuary watch silently, Anil Kamat, Kajal’s father, forces his inconsolable wife into an auto with the other women of the family. Inder turns to me and says, “Kajal is gone, but it is her mother who is dead. How will she live? It is especially difficult to console women, that's why we don't take them to the shamshan ghat.”
After the paperwork at the mortuary is sorted, the men in the family call two autos to take them to the Nigambodh Ghat for cremation.
Twenty minutes later, they are at the crematorium’s registration office, in the process of deciding whether to do a wood or CNG cremation.
Manoj Kamat, Anil’s brother, heads towards the wood cremation ground to see if there is a space for Kajal. He walks past the two areas dedicated for cremating Covid victims and towards the Yamuna bank where the pyres burn.
Manoj stands still for a while before heading down the stairs to ask a priest if there’s space. The priest says if Manoj can arrange the wood and get the papers ready from the office, he may be able to make space for Kajal’s pyre on the river bank. However, the priest warns, the queue for the wood is very long.
Manoj is on his way back to the registration office to tell Anil what the priest told him when he gets a call. When it ends, he tells me, “They have decided to go with the CNG option. The office says there are no slots available for a wood cremation until after midnight.”
Back at the office, Anil tells me a fight has broken out inside. The relatives of the deceased are frustrated that their papers aren’t getting processed faster. I ask if he has been allotted a slot for CNG cremation. The allocations will only begin after 8 pm, he says. “Until then the ambulance cannot come inside the gate,” he adds, softly. “We have to wait.”
Anil and his relatives walk around the ghat, pausing, processing what is happening. Anil stops whenever he sees an unattended body or when a body is being pulled out of an ambulance.
After a while, he heads out to the ambulance carrying his daughter’s body. He notices that it has moved away from where he left it and asks the driver why. The driver says Kajal’s body is not in that ambulance.
A wave of panic comes over the family as they peer into the ambulance, straining to read the names on the bodies inside. After a few minutes they find that Kajal’s body was shifted to another ambulance while they were inside the ghat. Anil won’t let the ambulance out of his sight again.
I ask Inder where Kajal’s mother is. “We will bring the women later, when we know our slot,” he says. Another family member, also named Anil, looks up at the fumes rising from the incinerator and asks if they carry the virus. Before I can answer, Inder says, “Whatever had to spread has already spread. It's in people’s minds now. We won’t forget. I’ll wash off the smell of the ashes from my hair but I will never forget.”
All pictures by Supriti David.