“When breath becomes air…”

Reflections on death and its messengers

You that seek what life is in death

Now find it air that once was breath.

New names unknown, old names gone:

Till time ends bodies, but souls none.

               Reader! then make time which you be,

               But steps to your eternity.   

                                               Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica 83”.

Sirajudaulah Chitrakar’s painting of the world burdened with the Corona Virus and death, 2020

We are now inundated with news of deaths – of family, friends, colleagues, friends of friends, and acquaintances who we did not quite know when they were living and have just got to know as they passed away, not to mention the millions unnamed and unknown whose funerals we witness on television. Covid-19 has taken over our lives and reigns over the news of deaths that we encounter every day. The devastation all around leaves us numb, sometimes a helpless raging rears its head and then withdraws into a heaviness of unshed tears. We have lost many, too many. The numbers unimaginable. Perhaps because the mind struggles to comprehend something that was unconceivable before – before the virus when life was what we now call “normal”. But there are other demands that we are now subjected to. Social media demands and also offers us the opportunity to respond to announcements of death with a swiftness that is unparalleled. But then this unprecedented crisis offers us no parallels from the past. None of us have experienced so many deaths of near and dear ones in so short a time. None of us can draw on learnings from earlier experiences. On the other hand, social media demands quick reactions – so we make hasty announcements of deaths, hurriedly offer condolences and some make abrupt proclamations of “moving on” – perhaps because it is too embarrassing to pause and too agonizing to reflect on death. There have been disasters and deaths earlier too, but not on this scale and never so terrifying. And yet, is it our struggle of comprehending the scale of our present crisis that has inured us to the news of death and desensitized us to the ways in which we receive and communicate such news? Or are our feelings distorted and damaged because of the speed of communication? The swiftness with which news travels on the wings of social media enslaves us and feeds our instinct for competition – making us yearn to be first to share bad news, be the first to post our reaction, without offering ourselves a chance to think of offering time and space to those grieving the death of a dear one. Our predicament is nurtured by a strange creature within us which is intoxicated by information and speed but woefully unskilled in dealing with human tragedy. The pandemic has caught us unawares. It came abruptly, before we could train ourselves in communicating in kinder ways on social media. News of death was communicated very differently in the past and while I shall revisit a few of my oral history interviews, I shall also speak here from experience.

My grandfather died in 1971, in the very hospital he had once worked in. I recall touching my grandfather’s body and because it was still warm, racing in the corridor to call the doctor who had just announced to us the news of his death. The doctor had indulged me, he returned to examine the body once more then shook his head and said to me sadly bowing his head, “Your grandfather has gone, my girl. There is nothing I can do.” I still remember with gratitude the doctor whose name I no longer recall for this kindness.

I was sent home to communicate the news of his death to my aunt and uncle who were visiting us that week. They were waiting anxiously. This was the first time I was given the task of communicating the news of a death. I was 13 years old. As I made my way home, I witnessed a procession of cycle rickshaws, empty of passengers, their drivers with bent heads making their way to the hospital. I saw some of them refuse people who wanted a ride. This was a group that came home to my grandfather regularly for medicine and he treated them, advised them, giving them free medicines and scolding them sharply if they ever offered to pay his princely fee of one rupee. I remember observing them as they made their way to the hospital, some acknowledged me sadly, but we did not speak. I worried about how I would convey this news. The death had left me numb.

When I reached home, I did not have to tell my aunt anything; she reached out and hugged me. We wept. Then she surprised me by saying that she knew he was gone around 4.30 pm. “Because the dog went to every corner of the house and wept.” She described it as a very human gesture: “He kept hitting his head on the wall and crying.” That’s how she knew. I need not have worried about being the bearer of bad news, our dog, Tiger, had taken that responsibility on my behalf.

As I grew older, I noticed that there was a way in which news of death was communicated in our culture – it was gentle and at the same time very practical. Since custom required fires in the kitchen be put out till the body had been cremated, news of death that arrived in the mail or by telegram would often be withheld until the family had eaten their meal. I learnt this was a common convention. My friend, who was from North India told us about how the convention in their part was to tear one corner of the postcard or Inland letter if it conveyed bad news – almost like a warning that this letter was the harbinger of bad news. According to my friend, if her grandmother received such a letter, she would tie it to the end of her dupatta and focus on serving the next meal to the entire family. Only after that, would she open the letter and weep publicly for the person who had passed away. To a young adult this seemed hypocritical. Honesty was about expressing the emotions you felt; the difficulties of delivering news with honesty that verged on the brutal not caring for children and elderly people, escaped us at that point.    

My earliest oral history interviews were done with scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The Institute was founded by Homi Bhabha in 1945. Bhabha died tragically in an air crash even as his beloved Institute turned twenty-one years old. His sudden and untimely death had left the scientists who worked with him speechless. A number of oral history interviews I did with them, went over the day that they received the news as if still trying to make sense of it all through the re-telling. Dr. Ramani, the renowned computer scientist vividly recalled that day. It was 24th January 1966. Although it was a Monday, Ramani remembers being in the East Canteen of the Institute that was following a holiday schedule. Usually on holidays, the registrar, Mr. N.R. Puthran would typically arrive at the East Canteen in his shorts. Ramani noticed he was not in shorts but formally dressed in trousers. On being asked if anything was wrong, Puthran broke the news, “Ramani, Bhabha’s flight is reported overdue, and we are afraid that it might have crashed” – possibly because Puthran who had worked closely with Dr. Bhabha could not believe the news himself, or perhaps because he wished to soften the blow, or maybe he wanted to strip this stunning news of all sensationalist effect. Ramani remembers feeling as though “the world was crashing around me! It was a great loss – a personal loss – because Dr. Bhabha was a father figure.” When I interviewed, Dr. J.J. Bhabha, Homi Bhabha’s younger brother, I found it difficult to ask about the air crash; when he did tell me, he recounted the disbelief he felt at that moment: “When the call came to break the news about the air crash – I could only say, “No! No! – I refused to believe it. My wife, Betty, rushed to the telephone and it took over from me.” As if this was not difficult enough, J.J. Bhabha had the challenging task of breaking the news to Meherbai, their mother. Too upset to speak, he accompanied his wife upstairs to their mother’s room and let his wife break the news. Despite the jolt that the news gave him, J.J. Bhabha was concerned for his mother and could not even begin to imagine the grief this news would bring her.

This concern for Dr. Bhabha’s mother was shared by the scientists who worked with Dr. Bhabha and to my surprise, shared too by the workshop staff of the institute some of whom went to meet his mother to convey their condolences after they heard the news on the radio. Incredulous, grieving, they gathered at the house on Little Gibbs Road but returned without meeting her that day as the house was crowded. Suresh Sawant worked at the TIFR workshop and he met Meherbai after a while to offer his condolences. Meherbai told him, “Homi told me he would return soon this time, now he will never come back.” Sawant recalled too how the dog stopped eating as he mourned for his master and slowly became weak and died. I remember our dog’s instinctive response to my grandfather’s death – almost as if he had sensed if before the news was brought home. My interviewee, Suresh Sawant, had walked that dog as a child since his father used to work in the Bhabha household. Maybe he had his own reasons for recalling the dog but what he returned to in the interview was the dog’s intuitive sense of his master’s death. It struck me that at moments of bereavement, recounting the grief expressed by animals perhaps enable mourners to cope with inconsolable sadness. 

Death and grief are two themes that come up in my 2013 interview my mother, Pranati Choudhury. I was curious about her experience of World War II as well as Indian Independence that came two years after the war ended. But the skeins of memory are always tangled and I realize that any mention of the Second World War pulls to the surface memories of the great famine of 1943. My mother recalled the Bengal Famine in great detail. She lived at that time in Calcutta (now Kolkata). “People would come begging for ‘rice water’ – Ma, ektu phyan dao [ Ma, give us some rice water]. We too did not eat on some days. Whenever rice was available, one of the elders would go and get some and only then they would cook. People would come begging and some died of starvation on the streets too. Such sights I have seen. Then it became dangerous to stay on in Calcutta and we moved to my grandfather’s house in Nagar.” Maybe it is the compelling image of starving people begging on the streets for “rice water” that skews the chronology of events as they happened. The Japanese had started bombing Calcutta on 20 December 1942. My mother, who was twelve years old at the time, had left for the village of Nagar in Faridpur District in East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) in 1942. The date is further confirmed by events I am about to describe. My mother witnessed the Bengal Famine a year later, but her memory gave events a different sequence.

Nagar was the home of my mother’s maternal grandfather Jatindramohan Roy (1876-1945) who had written Dhakar Itihas (“The History of Dhaka”) in 1912. Jatindramohan was passionate about history though never professionally trained as a historian. He had worked in Calcutta from a very young age in order to support the extended family. His father, Durgamohan Roy, had passed away while he was still in college. Jatindramohan never graduated from college and began working in Calcutta. He finally retired in 1937 at the age of sixty-one. During the war he stationed himself at the village where his daughter, my grandmother, Induprova, widowed some years back, arrived from Calcutta, with her three children. Jatindramohan’s brother, Manindramohan, worked in Burma as a geologist. He had sent his wife and his children on the Flying Fortress Bomber plane that was leaving Burma for India on 11 March 1942. He managed to send his wife and three of his children, his eldest son, Dipankar (Dipu) was tall for his age and it was hard to convince the authorities that he was only fourteen. So Dipankar stayed back with his father and accompanied by Satyesh Chandra Bhattacharya (Master-moshai) who used to tutor the children, they began the long journey to India. In the village, Jatindramohan waited eagerly for the arrival of his brother. He bought live fish and kept them in a small tank, because his brother would love that. He got snacks and all the stuff that his brother liked and stored them away. He had sets of clothes washed and ready – so his brother and the boy could change into them soon after they arrived. “Their clothes will be in quite a bad state after the long journey on foot” – he would explain. My mother describes the large trunk in which her grandfather stored all the things he collected for his brother. They all waited for him to arrive. His wife and the other children had landed in Asansol and had made their way to Calcutta by train. [Interview by Dilip Choudhury with the geologist and writer, Sankarshan Roy (Manindramohan’s second son), , “Priya lekhaker mukhomukhi” , [“Face to face with my favourite writer”] Gyan Bichitra, 2010. ]

Then came the day in May 1942, when they saw the village head coming towards their house, followed by a procession of weeping villagers, announcing to all those who stood outside their homes: “Dipu nihata, Monindra ahata” (“Dipu is killed. Manindra is injured.”) My mother says that the scene remains etched in her memory even after seventy years – the village head bringing a community of mourners, trying his best to shield her grandfather from this cruel blow – the loss of a young nephew and the apprehension of death of a much-loved brother. As my mother recalls, her grandfather’s brother and his son had crossed over into India when Japanese bombed that area in North East India. They had taken refuge in make-shift trenches but the bomb instantly killed Dipankar and injured his father. “There was a man we called Master-moshai – a teacher who was also with them. He told us about this later. They had to leave the dead boy behind. Master-moshai brought my grandfather’s brother to a hospital in Calcutta but he did not survive. My grandfather kept on asking us – ‘What are they saying?’ Then he froze, stone-like. The head man waited and after my grandfather woke from his trance-like state, he delivered the news of his brother’s death to him. He was weeping as he spoke and the neighbours and all the villagers who had accompanied him were crying too.”

As the writer, Sankarshan Roy (my mother’s cousin who had been sent from Burma to the village earlier) recounts, his father, Manindramohan was not injured too seriously when the Japanese bombed Imphal on 10th May 1942, but the delay in seeking treatment in order to come to Calcutta proved fatal and he died of tetanus infection in the hospital in Calcutta. How had they conveyed the news to Manindramohan’s wife, I had wondered. My mother said, “We heard that she was told the same thing – that her son had died and her husband was injured. She was in Calcutta and she went rushing to the hospital to see her injured husband and found out the truth: that he had died. Grief left her stunned – she had lost a son and her husband. She was ill for a long time. They brought her to Nagar from Calcutta. We were there.” There in the village, surrounded by a caring community, she regained her strength slowly.

As I revisit my interview with my mother, I realize that the village head man had delivered the news with great compassion. He had brought a with him a throng of villagers who came not as mere witnesses but as a community who participated in the grief, mourning with the family. The news of death, as our present crisis has shown us, can make us feel powerless and involuntarily draw out the mute spectator in us. The virus has made it impossible to visit our loved ones or neighbours to offer any form of consolation when death claims a life. Separated and distanced from human contact, have we unwittingly become voyeurs of another’s grief instead of becoming compassionate participants, grieving with the family? Perhaps the speed at which news is now delivered through a quick share over social media turns the news of death into information for consumption leaving no time to gather a community of mourners, no time even to reflect on the repercussions that our casual act of sharing such news in the form of a general announcement might have on a family that is broken with sorrow, wretchedly trying to survive by pulling together what is left. As the sheer volume of bad news overwhelms social media, we see a desperate rush to masquerade a dressed-up face as a brave one. Perhaps because we have no inner resources with which to deal with the destruction of life all around us.

Sirajudaulah Chitrakar’s painting of deaths during the pandemic, 2020.

Recording oral histories with those who witnessed World War II as children, specifically the battles on the Eastern Front also known as the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexeivich shows us how as adult survivors they found memories of the war unbearable to revisit. Anya Pavlova who was nine years old at the time, and now works as a cook, ends her recollection saying:

“Mama never once took me to the military museum. One time she saw me looking at a newspaper with     photographs of people who had been shot – she took it away and scolded me.

To this day there isn’t a single book about the war in our house. And I have been living without Mama for a long time now.” [Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories, English translation, Penguin, 2019].

Writing this blogpost at a time when more than 3.26 lakhs have died in India because of Covid-19, I have often wondered how we will, should we be among those who survive the pandemic, recall these terrifying times? Will we too turn away from all reminders of these times that left us locked up indoors, diminished by grief even as we were unable to offer comfort to friends, relatives and neighbours who had lost their loved ones? Will we remember the kindness of doctors and healthcare workers – their capacities stretched beyond human limits, bowing their heads to deliver the news, their exhaustion and helplessness concealed by their PPEs? Will we recall with horror the dead heaped on dead with skies lit up by burning pyres? Or will we turn away from such recollections determined to ‘move on’ because ‘life must go on’ like the many platitudes expressed in social media posts? Or shall we look back on this as a time when we were so hollowed out inside that we could only hear echoes of our humanness inviting us to relearn the things that matter most in the face of destruction? Telling us that the lessons of compassion, thoughtfulness and empathy are the only learnings we need to live humanely before breath becomes air.

Indira Chowdhury

Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian based in India.

3 thoughts on ““When breath becomes air…”

  1. So relevant a piece of musings – social media is indeed a place of instant reactions, but I believe most reactions are not mechanical, though expressions like RIPs to a news of death, abound.


  2. You are right Indira, our reaction to death or the news of it is much less humane these days. Now how much of that is due to the enormous volume of these or more realistic and rational view people tend to take now, is something I am not qualified to comment on.
    The piece shines quite brightly primarily due to your brilliant writing skill. Your journey into the past to fish out related events, dropping an occasional anecdote without ever leaving the main theme make the reading even more pleasurable.
    Want to read more, Indira!


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