Australian author pens elegy for the people of India

By Sean Doyle
Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti on Unsplash

As the pandemic cripples the Subcontinent, the Australian author of a recent India-based travel memoir laments the plight of his ‘existential home’

Sean Doyle

Former sisters of Empire, Australia and India share a lot. There’s the hackneyed ‘Commonwealth, cricket and curry’; there’s also the English language, the legal and the political system. And until Covid struck, Indians constituted the largest cohort migrating to our shores. That’s a lot of points of connection, our gutted tertiary sector and underdeveloped trade ties notwithstanding.

It’s nice to celebrate these bonds with our remarkable neighbour across the eponymous waters, but right now India can’t breathe. Follow the news, if you dare: thousands are dying there every day, week after week. An entire nation, almost one-fifth of the human race—soon to overtake China as the most populous country—is caught in a Covid chokehold.

I love India. I have visited many times since my first trip in 1984, and the Subcontinent has a special place in my heart. When my elder daughter, Anna, finished high school, she and I went there for two months. I wrote a book about it. Our trip was an Alt-Schoolies of sorts, a rite of passage in a way the annual backward-looking piss-up and shag-fest on the Gold Coast can never be. It was also an attempt to give Anna what India has given me: exposure to another reality with very different values to the West (especially in pre-Internet times) and an expanded frame to look at the world through. She has since said the trip has made her stronger—the ideal outcome!

India has become my existential and spiritual home—it’s where I feel most alive in the world. I need the place: it’s a part of me and, when it’s off-limits, so is that part of me. I’m not myself. I would have spent a few months there this last Indian winter if not for the virus. As is clear now, those gentle, festive months—adorned with weddings and religious celebrations—were merely a lull between tsunamis of devastation, the second far worse than the first.

I say ‘follow the news’. I’ve been doing so these past weeks with increasing alarm and despair, and some days I just can’t bring myself to. I lack the fortitude to confront the tragedy. That’s my luxury, my privilege: I can look away. I know those streets where people are dying, gasping with ruined lungs for one more breath of that filthy air, one more moment of life. I’ve known a few Indian hospitals too, and I can clearly picture what’s unfolding there, what I read about. I don’t watch any footage from India now—that’s a step too far. I read articles; often even the accompanying photo/s are too much for me. And I consume Indian fiction, such as The White Tiger. The film is mostly good, like the book, and it depicts a brutal society. But the story’s cruel amorality feels like a primary-school panto compared to what’s happening on the ground now.

I was about to compare India’s nightmare to a slow-motion car crash, but that won’t do the job. We’re talking about 1.4 billion human beings! A better analogy: it’s as if the entire Subcontinent is gradually sinking into a swamp of toxic quicksand, oxygen replaced by mud. The weak are taken quickly; the stronger last a bit longer …

I know about breathlessness too. Yes, like many Aussies, I’ve had some scary moments in the surf: dumped in a big swell, the next wave upon you before you’ve drawn breath, the need to keep your shape, not panic. But that’s not what I mean. I mean lungs in crisis. After smoking roll-your-own tobacco for just shy of 40 years, I bought some Chop-Chop (‘wholesale’ tobacco) a while back. Before long I had a wracking cough, and shortly thereafter I could hardly breathe. I was in extremis. My wife—her emotions bouncing from frustration with me for having brought this on myself, to concern to support—drove me to the Emergency Dept. Picture me in the back of the car on my hands and knees like a sick animal, trying to optimise my breathing but actually getting no more air than as if through a crushed, sodden straw. She pulled up, I hobbled, doubled over, the few metres to Reception. I moved like a geriatric; I was 55. The instant the receptionist saw me, she urgently called for a wheelchair. Within two minutes I had a bed, oxygen up my nose, precious breath again. I then took steroids for a few weeks to increase my lung capacity. I haven’t had a cigarette since, and never will again.

That breathlessness instilled in me pure, blind terror—more so than anything else I’ve experienced. Christian hymns speak of God as ‘the breath of life’, but breath is life. When I needed it, I got precisely what tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of Indians are being denied as I write: lifesaving treatment. There are no beds, no oxygen. The stories are tragic, the images heartbreaking: desperate tweets plead for oxygen for a fading loved one—‘Will pay handsomely!!!’ A Delhi schoolteacher and his sick mother race from one hospital to the next in an auto-rickshaw, in search of a bed and treatment. She dies in his arms en route to some far-flung clinic a hospital staffer said might have a bed available. Multiply such scenes by 270,000—the death toll at the time of writing.

How did we get here? The reasons are many and important: a chronically underfunded health ‘care’ system; criminally polluted cities; a generally poor diet; widespread obesity (really); crowded living spaces; cultural accelerants such as a communal, proximate way of life, facilitating the spread of all illness; and multiple failures by the authorities. (Smoking is not really a factor: it’s rare now.) These issues are, as I say, important, but not now. Now, all that matters is preserving life.

The West has responded with massive shipments of medical, especially oxygen-related equipment and supplies. But it has acted too late. So have I: in April I sent money to Dani, a friend in Varanasi. I’m not proud of that—I should have done so much earlier. He relies on foreigners like me for his income, so he’s had little to none for months. He has a wife and two kids. He helped me when I was there, and he will again when I return; I help him now. I hope he and his family get what they need.

Other friends there are managing, just. When the apocalypse hit, Murty—a retired Professor of English Literature—and his extended family decamped to a bio-secure (so far as that’s possible anywhere, particularly in India) facility in Lucknow. Arun, a hotelier in Varanasi, saw his income dry up. He sent staff home, but those from interstate (e.g. Bihar) were stuck due to closed borders. Arun let them stay until the borders re-opened. Two friends in Calcutta, Prem and Tiwari, have opened and closed their businesses—a bookstore and restaurant, respectively—as the virus waxes and wanes. They’re hanging on by their fingernails. Both have family members with Covid.

The horror builds upon itself, its scale evermore Himalayan. Yet, amidst it all, I still find room for me, me and my pathetic Western entitlement about what I want and when I can get it. When can I return? I need to believe it won’t be too long. Late one night, gripped by a desperation all my own, I check case numbers in Varanasi. They’re bad, but not as bad as many other cities. I take heart and make a plan: fly into Calcutta from somewhere safe like Singapore, change planes and fly straight to Varanasi—and stay there. I tell myself this will be possible when the vaccines are fully rolled out, when there’s more herd immunity, when the virus has mutated into something weaker … my optimism, my delusion lasts until I see the headlines next morning.

When it again becomes feasible, I’d like to take small groups to India. (I know, but I can’t let go of that future.) I want to keep doing what I did with Anna: share my love for that pulsating, intoxicating culture. Our trip wasn’t long ago, but it happened in a different world. I have to believe I will again walk the streets of Calcutta and Varanasi, those streets I love, scene of so many rich and powerful moments in my life. To lose that would be like losing a limb. I fret awhile … then go about my day in our lucky land. Meantime, a few thousand more Indians breathe their last. The mystic says it, the street enacts it: life is death. We bear witness, an exercise at once crucial and gapingly impotent.

These feelings of helplessness and impotence in the face of the Indian apocalypse, my rage at the abuses of power—whereby the few implement malevolent agendas that make everything worse for the many—are no different from the emotions most of us feel about our glorious planet, our Great Mother spiralling down to dark places we never wanted it to go to and whence it may never return. As the days fall from us, we find solace and joy where we can. But just outside the door, in the shadows cast by our comforting light, India lies prone, in extremis, choking to death.

Here on our sparkling shores, most of us enjoy affluence and options. Many still struggle to find the light. Spare a thought, and maybe a dollar, for the Indian people: with little affluence and no options at all, they are—in a metaphorical echo of imperial subjugation—victims once more of murderous forces beyond their control.

Sean Doyle is the author of Night Train to Varanasi: India with my Daughter, Bad Apple Press, 2021

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