I looked from Peepal to Pilkhan to Neem: the place resounding with bird calls and flights amongst the leaves. And I finally wondered, hands in gloves, face hidden from the world, whether a loved one’s death could also mean his attainment of peace. If the falling of the tree could mean the growth of new ones in the peace of the forest
To deal with death when everyone is thinking about death is like trying to listen to one’s thoughts in a room full of clanging drums.
During the times of covid, I lost my grandfather.
The thing about grandparents is that they wear death on their shoulders. They have a gentleness of manner that comes from knowing their days are numbered. They talk about death every day, like it’s an old friend. They have a casualness towards it—and private jokes for it—which we younger ones can’t muster the courage for. Still, the passing of an old grandparent feels like the falling of a tree.
The earth shakes. You feel the tremors in the bones; no amount of preparation can prepare you for actual death.
As he passed—another fallen warrior to lost and silent epidemics with cancer—I wondered whether I could hug my grandmother. The times of covid do not allow for small luxuries of touch. Just a few of us were huddled in a room, all wearing masks, using sanitizer, as we looked at each other and tried to comfort each other without actual human touch. Even fewer of us were to go to the cemetery for the final rites – just twenty, a number shorn cruelly by a global pandemic that spared neither the young nor the old.
As we walked in the solemn June heat, crying within our masks, the ghat seemed as grieving as ever. The ghat workers have had to carry on with their tasks without the luxury of leave. They deal with the dead every day, they also deal with the dead due to covid. They haul wood, they work in the electric crematorium, they console people, they say mantras, they sprinkle gangajal, while they may inwardly be quaking with a fear for their lives. We have celebrated army men, policemen, and medical personnel, but we should also celebrate those who keep working so that our dead can find dignity after passing.
I was dizzy from the heat of the funeral pyres, the mask suffocating me, our tightly knit group communicating with just eyes and gestures. The ash from another pyre coated the air; the only succour was the fact that the extreme heat would probably be killing all viruses and bacteria.
When we can’t make sense of the world – we turn to the universe. We look at the sky, and ask, why did this happen? Is there sense in the nonsensical, some meaning in this chaos? Is it right that a loved member of the community had to pass on at a time when he cannot be properly mourned, when the family cannot gather in a flock?
Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat stretches on the banks of the Yamuna. It almost seems like the river is remembered only at the beginning and the close; at birth and at death. Each time I have visited the Ghat, I have been shaken with loss, benumbed by the heat and crowds, besmirched by a shared sorrow.
This time, there were fewer people. Death walked alongside us in ways more than one; we were all scared of a virus. With less people around me, I noticed more. Like all great ghats and places of community importance, the place is full of memory. And the trees were giants.
I was looking for water, and the heat was sapping me. I saw a tree up ahead, and I walked towards it. It was a giant Pilkhan. The Pilkhan is from the Peepal tree family. It grows into a tall, broad tree, and its roots hang in a way that the tree looks like it has a head full of hair. The glossy leaves pump the surrounding area with air. A mature Pilkhan looks like an entity: a thinking old man with dreadlocks. A village elder, giving dignity to the surroundings just by being there.
The size of the Pilkhan was amazing. Because at the ghat, trees grow undisturbed, attaining both age and size.
Standing under that tree on that hot day, I gained some composure. As we trapped ourselves in masks and thought of death, life and clean air was granted by giants like this one. In our fight against covid and respiratory ailments, clean air is an important ally. And the soldier in that fight is a tree, and not just any tree, but native, large trees with broad leaves and a full evapotranspiration schedule.
I looked from Peepal to Pilkhan to Neem: the place resounding with bird calls and flights amongst the leaves. And I finally wondered, hands in gloves, face hidden from the world, whether a loved one’s death could also mean his attainment of peace. If the falling of the tree could mean the growth of new ones in the peace of the forest.