A conversation on death and loss

Syed Badrul Ahsan | Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Fear of sudden departure stalks us. In these two years-plus which have gone by since the coronavirus pandemic made its way into our lives, life has been lived precariously. Or it has slipped precipitously. Those of us who have survived, so far, are not sure we will live tomorrow.

The transience of life, the feeling that all beauty is fleeting, has taken hold of us. Last week, when a friend in Dhaka let me know that she and her husband were down with covid (despite two vaccines and a booster to boot), it was once again a resurgence of fear. Another couple, having gone through covid infection and survived and now armed with vaccines and boosters, came down with covid again.

There are people who will inform you that a new attack of covid, once you have had the booster, will not be fatal. Maybe they are right, but can you be sure? Death is an idea we cannot wish away. At a personal level, I have kept communing with the dead --- through taking long, gloomy walks in cemeteries in England and Wales, in graveyards in Dhaka, at Arlington and in my village.

I go looking for the graves of friends who died long ago; I stand in homage before the resting places of politicians who ought to have lived; I sit beside the graves of my parents and the many in our clan who have passed on, especially in these past two years.

And such linking up with the dead changes perceptions. Death is no more an idea we speak of in poetry or are reminded of in our religious rituals. It is a reality we are part of at this point in time and space. Five million-plus people have succumbed to the pandemic. That is a big number. But, wait. Now we have the World Health Organisation telling us that the casualty figures could be much higher, that no fewer than fifteen million have perished in the covid onslaught.

Those images of coffins being hurriedly lowered into graves, of the dead subjected to collective cremation, of shroud-draped men and women silently and swiftly placed in the earth by a handful of people anxious to save themselves from the virus are truths which have redefined life for us.

I sit by the window on a rain-filled day, the mind in me making its way to that distant cemetery where lie buried the two sisters and a brother-in-law of Shopna, adear friend. Covid took them away within a space of six days. Back in March 2020, covid felled Humayun, an ebullient friend in London --- and that was a time when a whole world lay subdued in a maze of confusion about the nature of the malady.

Vaccines were in the future, and the pandemic meanwhile went on sending people to their sudden graves. My friends Khokon and Jahangir, who went to university with me, died when they should have lived. We learned later that another friend and classmate, Fuad Abdullah, had journeyed to the world beyond mortal life.

All these deaths give life a rude shake, for those of us who have remained alive. My brother, his spouse and two children survived the pandemic in Dhaka, which nevertheless keeps me riveted to the question of whether they are in normal, fine form now. A beloved cousin, a baby in terms of age, passed into the grave a few months ago. Another cousin stepped off a train on his way back home to his village. He could not make it, for life simply deserted him at the local railway station.

My sister-in-law, determined to triumph against covid without vaccines, eventually succumbed to it and today rests for all time in a graveyard in Mirpur. An acquaintance in his mid-fifties, convinced that the coronavirus was a conspiracy shaped by bad men, refused to have his elderly mother and his sisters take the vaccine. And, of course, he did not take it himself.

In the end, all four were assaulted by covid. The mother went to her grave; and the son spent months in hospital. A well-known homeopath in Dhaka told my wife a few weeks ago that he had not taken the vaccine because his research had shown that vaccines were not effective against the virus!

My uncles have died in these two years without knowing they had covid. A cough, a rise in temperature, a fall in olfactory ability were not enough to convince them they needed to go for medical check-ups in good time.

Death has been relentless. Our friend Raj Roy, full of life and laughter, suddenly fell silent on an October day in Calcutta. The life of the young son of my friend, the scholar Kanan Purkayastha, came to an unexpected end in Cambridge a few weeks ago. And I do not forget the suddenness with which Mohammad Badrul Ahsan, the brilliant writer and columnist, died on a February night two years ago.

The angels of death have behaved brutally in these two years.  We have lost the scholars Anisuzzaman and Shamsuzzaman Khan and Habibullah Shirazee. The Nazrul scholar Rafiqul Islam was till the other day proffering advice laced with dollops of wisdom to us. He is not there anymore.

It is painful to think that my good friend Kabori, themishtimeye of our movie world, will not be around for me speak to and exchange humour with anymore.Furee Bhai and Lutful Haq Bhai, men dedicated to journalism and with whom it was my privilege to work, will not be there when next I walk into the Jatiyo Press Club for a reunion with friends and colleagues.

Abul Hasnat Bhai, journalist and man of letters, is now heartbreaking memory. Raushunazzaman Bhai does not live any more. Neither do so many others I once shared ideas and laughter and banter with in newspaper offices.

Covid as also the natural laws of mortality have upended life for all of us. On the day Sandhya Mukherjee breathed her last in Calcutta, my dear friend, the educationist and music enthusiast Najma Yeasmeen Haque, died quietly in Dhaka. Her effusive reflections on books and indeed writing yet ring in my ears.

"Death says, 'I row the boat of life'". That was Rabindranath.

In these past two years, the boat has been rowed faster than ever before. Graveyards have been claiming larger territory, cremations have demanded increasing quantities of sandalwood.

In the woodlands of fleeting time, it is an endless dirge we sing in the shadows cast by the trees. ***


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