xbn .
Shuvaprasanna, "Vaitarani." Permsisions provided by artist.
The Brink

“There is Grief, There is Death…”: Mourning in the Wake of COVID-19

In Conversation: Dipesh Chakrabarty and Alapan Bandyopadhyay, with an introduction by Milinda Banerjee. Translation by Milinda Banerjee and Sreyoshi Bose.

This dialogue between Dipesh Chakrabarty and Alapan Bandyopadhyay translated by Milinda Banerjee and Sreyoshi Bose appears in the newest issue of Political Theology (23.3). Articles by Vassilios Paipais on transimmance, Petre Maican on people with disabilites in Romania, and Diego D’Angelo on Roberto Esposito’s thought also appear. The issue concludes with a roundtable discussion on Miguel Vatter’s Divine Democracy: Political Theology after Carl Schmitt with responses from Sofia Näsström, Lee Ward, Montserrat Herrero, Vassilios Paipais, Julie E. Cooper, and Agata Bielik-Robson. Miguel Vatter then responds to his readers.

On 18 July 2021, the Bengali web portal Prohor hosted a dialogue between Dipesh Chakrabarty, the historian and a member of the former Subaltern Studies collective, based at the University of Chicago, and Alapan Bandyopadhyay, former Chief Secretary of the Indian state of West Bengal, and currently Chief Advisor to the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The discussion was titled “Achhe Duhkha, Achhe Mrityu” – the phrase, which translates as “there is grief, there is death”, taken from a song by the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The line in the song, however, ends asserting tabu ananta jage, “and yet the infinite remains awake”.

In India, the dialogue has for centuries been the classic vehicle of philosophy. From the earliest Upanishads and Buddhist texts, composed in the first millennium BCE, to the writings of nineteenth and twentieth century social reformers and politicians like Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – the dialogue has been central to political, social, ethical reflection. From the very beginning, alongside elite men, we find women and other subaltern actors as participants: Gargi Vachaknavi and Raikva figure powerfully in the Upanishads.

The philosophical dialogue textually incarnated real public sphere disputes. With the advent of print in colonial India, such debates were often rapidly published. The Rajavamshis, a large peasant community of eastern India, offer a classic case. Actual assembly dialogues between Rajavamshi community members – about combating caste-class exploitation through political mobilization – appeared annually in print. Behind Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s (1880-1932) Sultana’s Dream – cast as a dialogue between women who dismantle patriarchy to build a feminist utopia – one can identify real conversations in Indian feminist circles. It is perhaps difficult to imagine democracy in India without the epistemic form of the dialogue.

The dialogue anticipates and embodies democratic assembly. It also wrestles with death. In the Katha Upanishad (late first millennium BCE), the young boy Nachiketa speaks to Yama, the god who personifies death. In a fit of anger, Nachiketa’s father had offered his son to Death, but the boy learns from  the god the philosophy that assures beings about the soul’s immortality. Socrates’ dialogues while confronting death have their counterpart in the battlefield dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna that constitutes the Gita. In late-nineteeth-century Bengal, Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s (1847-1912) Bishad Sindhu transubstantiates popular Muslim lamentation-dialogues about the Karbala massacre, into a novel about anti-colonial freedom. Confrontation with death produces philosophy – impels action.

Such traditions of thinking about mortality and mourning resurfaced in India in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The piece below is emblematic in the way it references the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata – first composed in Sanskrit in the late 1st millennium BCE, and later recreated across Indian languages over the next two millennia – as well as Sophocles’ fifth-century BCE play Antigone. The piece equally invokes Islamic Muharram lamentations and the Hindu shraddha and tarpana forms of offering oblations to the departed. These rituals too are poetic dialogues – between the living and the dead.

In the wake of the pandemic, modern society reawakens to the ephemerality of life. Technology-fuelled optimism about the predictability of life stands in crisis. As in the age of Nachiketa, self-knowledge must now be wrestled anew in dialogue with Death. The dead haunt us to self-awareness. Absence sublates – negates and transcends – into presence. Talking to the dead, writing for the dead – funeral orations, eulogies, choral lamentations – here are archaic rites of catharsis. To speak is to unforget Being – to recover the beingness of beings from oblivion. Vaitarani – the Indian counterpart of the Greek Styx and Norse Gjöll, Indo-European rivers that separate the realms of the living and the dead – is rafted over through words and tunes. We owe this coin to the deceased – Charon’s obol; the parer kori described in Bengali songs, paid to the river’s ferryman. The community unites in ensuring the wayfarer’s safe fording.

Shuvaprasanna, “Vaitarani.”

We sing about and to the ancestors in solidarity with others. In grieving, we win a chance to transcend bourgeois atomization, live again in the collective, place duty to others above individual profit. Where capital disaggregates, mourning invites to assembly. Where capital commodifies, mourning mandates veneration of beings. Where money-work forces an abbreviation of grief, mourning-work impels beings into action responsive and responsible to others. In gathering the living with those-on-the-other-shore, the democratic community overcomes isolation and alienation. Within a capitalist globe where this-worldly exchange value rules supreme, mourning is always potentially anti-capitalist, promising other-world values.

Historians once saw the cult of the dead as foundational to the birth of family and state – Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89) is exemplary. The conversation below demonstrates how centrally death and mourning have shaped kinship, society, polity in eastern India. This is an edited and condensed version of the online dialogue – the Bengali original has been published by Anushtup from Kolkata in February 2022. The paintings by Subhaprasanna Bhattacharjee were created for the Bengali text. They are reproduced here with the publisher’s permission.

D: There is something that I have not really experienced, Alapan, but you have, and it might be a good place to start this conversation. You have lost near and dear ones in the pandemic and so have I. But what makes it different for you is the fact that because of your role in the government, you have seen a larger picture of the devastations caused by the pandemic. I know that you have witnessed similar catastrophes unleashed by Cyclone Yaas as well. Is it possible to connect the experience of losing one’s relatives with the experience of witnessing and working through collective loss and death?

A: Dipesh, on the one hand, there was personal grief, and on the other, amidst collective mourning, I had certain public duties, state responsibilities. How I felt in attempting to unite these two things, is something I have never spoken about till now. I felt at the very beginning that I had to restrain my personal grief – particularly during the peak of Covid, when I was Chief Secretary, a role with critical responsibilities. One wrong decision could lead to loss of lives. A little lack of attention could mean lapses in the healthcare system. My brother passed away; my nephew, my sister’s son,  passed away: both untimely. My sister was shattered. My mother, broken down with grief, passed away soon after. But I felt that I could not give license to my personal grief. People have asked me how I could still continue to do my job. I thought that if I neglect my state duties, that may result in more Covid deaths. If I felt this, what could I do but restrain my personal grief?

Sister Nivedita wrote an extraordinary story, “The Judgement Seat of Vikramaditya.” A shepherd boy becomes a dispenser of justice, when seated on the buried throne of Vikramaditya, the virtuous king of ancient Indian legend. I felt that I too had to perform my duty, just as the shepherd boy felt the weight of the seat of justice. The Ramayana tells us how a squirrel threw sand into the ocean to help the prince Rama build a bridge across the sea to Lanka, and defeat its demon  king Ravana. I thought that I too, like the squirrel, should pay my tribute to the collective. My father would understand this from heaven. My mother understood it too, and told me. I assumed that my brother would understand; my sister too understands. If a doctor knows that a life depends on him because only he knows how to perform a particular surgery, would he not do it despite personal sorrow?

D: Beautifully explained. There is a history of public-private distinction in what you said. Or, an official-personal distinction. You had a duty as Chief Secretary – from that standpoint, you saw your grief as personal, and did not want that to hinder your public role. I was reminded of an incident narrated by the Bengali littérateur Ramendra Sundar Tribedi. A meeting of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad took place at Rabindranath Tagore’s house. Afterwards, Ramendra Sundar asked Rabindranath, “how is your daughter today?” Rabindranath replied, “she has left us this morning,” and went his way. Despite his daughter’s death, he had participated in the public meeting. This particular expression of grief – which does not obstruct action [karma] or duty – this sensibility is that of an educated, modern, person. Buddhadeva Bose observes: “tai pavitra, ja vyaktigata”[that is sacred, which is personal]. Do you think that class division shapes this social expression of mourning, this culture of grief?

A: Of course! Buddhadeva Bose relates privacy or individualism to sacredness. He is a poet from the thirties: in those interwar years, the high-caste Hindu Bengali bhadralok gentry was in crisis. Creeping into his consciousness were small-town vernacular worlds, the upsurge of Muslims and Dalits. In response, bhadraloks carved out a high-culture-oriented aristocratic ethos, a form of salon culture, coalesced around poems and poetry journals – withdrawn from collectivist politics. This intensified with the elections following the Government of India Act of 1935, and especially the rise of agrarian Muslim leaders like Fazlul Huq. Hence the belief that whatever is personal is sacred, and whatever is sacred is personal. This mentality continued into the Cold War era. Buddhadeva Bose would argue: art is for art’s sake. The collective appeared as the enemy of poetry, as totalitarian. But, in fact, it has always been a continuum between the individual and the public. There can be no strict demarcation between the private-personal and the public.

After my brother’s death, I did the work of the collective; and many wondered how. I wrote about my brother; and many wondered why. I imagine the death of Meghnad, Ravana’s son. In the Ramayana, Ravana seized his sword right away and set out to kill his enemies – trying to overcome grief through action. In the Mahabharata, Abhimanyu, a sixteen-year old boy, was killed in an unfair battle, and his grieving father Arjuna vows to kill Jayadratha, instrumental in Abhimanyu’s death, the very next day, to extinguish his sorrow. It does not take much time to move from mourning to action, from private to public, from sorrow to rage, from lamentation to vengeance. Against the urbane, genteel, nuclearized, atomized construction of grief, stands the great and ancient grief. One yearns to spread this grief across the firmament. Arjuna desires to kill Jayadratha by the next sunset. Ravana thinks of killing Rama at once to demonstrate the essence of mourning.

Shuvaprasanna, “Ravana.”

In my childhood, I had a friend, Tapan. A few months after his death, I was returning from hostel in Kolkata to my home in a colliery town. Tapan’s mother was cooking – her grief had ebbed with time – but on seeing me, she burst into a loud cry that resounded across the colliery. Did she feel like crying at that particular moment? I think that she needed to tell everyone that she was releasing her tears into the sky.

Aristocratic personal grief is an upper class phenomenon. There is no individualized grief in the corpses strewn across the battlefield of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. The grief of the exiled migrant labourers during the pandemic, of the corpses of Covid victims floating on the river Ganga – these exemplify collective grief. Mourning sometimes assumes the form of tarpana offerings and eulogy of ancestors; at other moments, it manifests through war and militarism; sometimes, in the midst of intense pain, it may even assume a personal form. But to disregard these various forms, to think of grief as merely personal, is to reduce a grand sensibility.

D: That is true. When we express our feelings in language – from falling in love to our sense of beauty, from our sorrow to our bodily pain (Wittgenstein discusses this) – we create a social relationship; we express ourselves through it.

The historian Ranajit Guha wrote beautifully about the aged matriarch Gandhari’s lamentation after the Mahabharata war. We have witnessed lamentation in our own families. You must have seen there an impossible animal [jantab] sorrow – the writhing of a grieving mother. A feeling is being expressed not just through words, but through the entire body. There must be deep connection and disconnection between language and this physical sensation. We grasp language. We share the same language, but the feelings, for example of love, are unique.

When you wrote about your brother Anjan after he passed away, I read the article and emailed you, not only because of the news of his passing, but because your writing had touched me. Then you wrote about your mother, and again while writing about Anjan, you wrote about small towns, about relationships in small towns and in big cities. You transcended grief here; you veiled your bodily pain by language; you gave your sorrow a generally comprehensible form. So, keeping aside the issue of sacredness, we turn to poetry, to drama, to articulate our grief. Through language or through silence, we put a bridle on the neck of our physical, almost animal, grief.

The issue of class division comes up again. In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon punishes Polynices by declaring that he will not be buried – his naked corpse will be devoured by dogs and vultures. I think of Sunil Janah’s photographs. During the Bengal Famine of 1943, corpses lay on the streets, torn apart by dogs. When man is torn apart by dogs, jackals, vultures, there has been a fall of humanity. Reading Antigone, one realizes that when a human being has not been mourned through a funeral, he has not received a social death. He has been cast outside society. During the pandemic, so many people died, who did not receive funerary rites. They remained as statistics.

Shuvaprasanna, “Polynices.”

You were referring to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are heroic epics, about heroism. But individuals also experience this passage from grief to wrath, from sorrow to vengeance. Renato Rosaldo, an anthropologist from California, wrote about the rage he experienced on losing his wife. But he was no Kshatriya hero; he could not behead someone. But he felt the same fury.

Grief can manifest as religion, as in Muharram. It may take political form, even the form of the state. However, those who do not have access to this social language, who do not write, who are poor, what about their grief? No one sees their grief. This has happened repeatedly during the pandemic, particularly during the second wave. This unspoken grief was present in the corpses washed up by the Ganga. This is a crisis similar to that in Antigone.

A: Dipesh, when we experience an animal sensation of love, fear or grief, then this can be partly expressed through poetry or music.  But how do we relate it to the language of prose, of society, of history? Is there not an intrinsic separation between deep personal feelings and social language?

In case of my brother, I felt that he sacrificed his life through a desire for human recognition. He had just become the editor of the news channel 24 Ghanta. He was navigating the political maelstrom around the West Bengal elections. He went and met people across West Bengal, to make sense of people’s politics – exposing himself to Covid. A small town boy thus gave up his life to get recognition from the metropolis. I wanted to narrate this iconic effort of his through my prose – translating biological grief into social language.

My mother would sometimes complain that, in a patriarchal society like ours, I had not celebrated her as much as I had my father – that I had not appreciated enough her role in our lives, her character and virtues. I had often commemmorated my father, especially after he passed away a year and half ago. After my mother passed away, I felt that if I did not commemmorate her, she might carry that grievance with her, even to the river Vaitarani. I had heard of the vrishotsarga shraddha in my childhood, a majestic funerary rite – traditionally involving the freeing of a bull. Mother had once instructed me to perform a vrishotsarga shraddha for her. The ceremony is a grand social catharsis of grief. I felt that what I write should be like a vrishotsarga shraddha.

Antigone tried to secure an honourable funeral for her brother, whose corpse Creon had abandoned as food for birds and animals. I too felt that I had to honour my brother, offer a libation to my mother. Let this oblation be there on the bank of the Vaitarani – I wanted my society to join in this eulogy.

As you said, this is all class-based. Many people die silently, unlamented, unaided, by society. The state’s responsibility assumes significance here. Not even one person should die because of shortage of hospital beds or oxygen. As my brother and nephew were dying – my nephew’s wife ran through the streets of Delhi looking for oxygen, finally getting this at the langar of a Sikh gurdwara – I had vowed that a similar situation of people running for oxygen should never arise in Kolkata. So there was a convergence between my duty to my brother and my nephew, and my duty to the state – which, in a democracy, is the duty to reach out to the last man.

D: This transformation of mourning into politics has occurred in the epics as well. Warriors promise vengeance. Even today, grief is often accompanied by politics of revenge.

A: Whether it is the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad or the Odyssey, these epics emerge through the encounters between family, community, society, and state. Creon sought to place the state and rule of law above various primordial loyalties. Later, natural law would be considered superior to state law. Various forms of mourning are born at these social interstices.

Since we are accustomed nowadays to nuclearized urban families, we wonder as to what extent mourning should be oriented around the personal, the familial, or the state. But the pandemic is disintegrating these definitions. People cannot attend the funeral rites of their loved ones – they have to entrust this responsibility to the state or to some impersonal institutions. A difference is emerging between personal mourning and the work of mourning carried out by the state.

Simultaneously, many people are transcending their personal selves in the call of duty. Doctors and nurses are labouring in extraordinary ways. I see a revival of public-spiritedness – people extending their hands towards one another. Someone who could not attend his father’s funeral, is extending help to others. Grief has sometimes transformed into acts of public weal.

D: Just as mourning has a history, so does death. From the medical sciences, we have learnt what is biological death. A French historian narrates how previously, Christian priests would announce a death; later, this became a doctor’s job. Earlier, death was a transformation of life. It was believed that humans would remain – in another form. A dear friend and fellow historian, Tanika Sarkar, whom I call Muniya, would often tell me “you have this one life and you live it only once”. But my grandmother would probably disagree – she would say, there is more than one life. As a child, I saw séances organized by my family. We were amazed by a book, Maraner Pare [On the Other Side of Death], written by Swami Abhedananda. It had illustrations of souls. Humans have often wondered whether death is the end, or whether there is something beyond.

We often read the epics and seek connections with our democratic life. Democracy signifies that we little people are also little heroes – those whom historians call “agents”. The agent of history is really the democratic form of the hero. I can be an agent even if I am a peasant, a poor man. Hence, just as Arjuna’s grief transforms into desire for revenge, so does the grief of the multitudes transform into resistance, vengeance. This too is politics, mediating between the epics and democratic life.

In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud stated that we should lament and get out of grief. Freud wanted to avoid melancholia, what we call depression today. But Derrida suggests that we cannot escape grief like this. The one we mourn, enters me, expands me. I continue to speak to them in my mind thoughout my life. Anjan keeps returning to you, as do your parents. In contrast to Freud, Derrida suggests that mourning expands our self – makes the other reside in us. And this conversation with the other continues.

Derrida notes that at a certain moment in life we realize that we do not know who among us will depart first. Either I will see your death first, or you mine. This too is an aspect of modernity. So many friends ageing together – in the eighteenth century, this would not have been common. Alongside joy, this ageing-together invites a long shadow of grief. As if my mind mourns in advance. Grief follows me like a shadow – in the form of fear, anxiety, truth. I may not see the people around me tomorrow, or they may not see me. One lives with uncertainty.

Last year, towards the beginning of the pandemic, a historian friend of mine passed away in the matter of a week. His wife emailed me that she had taken him to the hospital, but did not see him ever again. He was cremated by the state and the police. Where is the closure here? Freud may have urged us to seek closure and move on, but as Derrida writes, we do not end things. As long as I live, the deceased live in me, broadening the field of my mind. Those who once were, live there now. My conversations with them continue. And the grief that is not yet, that which only exists as an anxiety, a possible presence, which casts a shadow on my mind – that too expands me.

(A member of the audience then posed a question on transgenerational grief.)

D: It is possible to consider here the elegies sung by the charan poets and bhats, the itinerant minstrels and bards of Rajasthan. We could consider Muharram too as transgenerational grief.

A: Our mourning about the the Partition of India is also transgenerational grief. We have not yet fully understood how the Partition has wounded us, transformed our worldviews. Sunil Gangopadhyay had a brilliant poem on the destruction of the Senate Hall of the University of Calcutta. He says there that we are children of an era that finds joy in destruction. Up to the 1940s, poets in Bengal wrote with firm convictions. Since the 1950s, there was growing bohemianism; defiance of norms – poets spoke of sex instead of love, rage instead of affection, destruction rather than stability. At the root was the Partition of Bengal of 1947. I was reading a piece by the Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari today. People have asked him as to why his writings do not demonstrate ample sympathy for patriotism – why he sounds too internationalist. He responds that someone who has been robbed of his country, cannot easily demonstrate patriotism. A man from Barishal in East Bengal, he is a refugee now.

Transgenerational grief shapes our nationalism and internationalism, our love for land, our love for the hearth-goddess [Bastulakshmi], our friendship, sexuality, anger.

D: Indeed, with Partition, Bengali Hindus lost their compass. In a Freudian sense, our “work of mourning” is not yet over – we are still grieving. This is indeed transgenerational grief.

We have a question from Arka Deb. He says that in villages, when a mother loses her child, she often cries in tune. Does grief find in tune the language of the collective? At least in Bengal?

A: Yes, I agree that the collective finds in melody, in tune, its finest language. In Bengal, our poetry acts as a substitute for our history. Our music becomes a substitute for all other languages.

D: I agree, and am reminded of marsiya music. Arka spoke of a primal tune – crying in tune, howling. I have seen this at home, particularly among women. In his reading of Antigone, Hegel says that Creon upheld the law of man, and Antigone the law of woman – mourning fell within the domain of the law of woman.

In my childhood, in our Tollygunge home, women of the family would cry in tune, even my mother, who had a Master’s degree in Bengali. That cry had an animal form, but it also had words. Women of the neighbourhood would join the women of our family – words would coalesce. They would sing of their grief; they would help each other to cry; everyone’s grief would come together. They would urge each other to cry, so that healing could happen.

Shuvaprasanna, “Mourning Women.”

In contrast, I remember two incidents from my college life. When Muniya’s father, Amal Bhattacharji, died, her mother Sukumari Bhattacharji held Muniya’s hands and said “now we have to be strong.” When my friend Jayashri Deb lost her father, I saw her mother sit absolutely still. The women of the neighbourhood tried to get her to cry. But she resisted their efforts. As a child, I thought that my mother’s mourning was not urbane enough. Perhaps I was wrong. But there seems to be a conflict between this urban civilization and our so-called animal dimension.

Another form of collective mourning emerged during the anti-colonial Khilafat movement of the 1910s-20s – a procession carrying the corpse of a person, especially one killed by the state. Strife would break out over whether the corpse should belong to the state, the party, or the multitudes. In the 1960s, with the rise of left militancy, small brick altars to commemmorate martyrs [shahid vedi] were built across Calcutta neighbourhoods. The names of the deceased would sometimes be written there. This politics of martyrdom is basically an Islamic concept. Hindus did not have a concept of martyrdom earlier – though there was a model of sacrificing [bali] oneself for the motherland, prevalent at least since the 1900s. Even today, when people are killed by the police during a political movement, we witness a political expression of mourning. We studied these as part of subaltern history – how a corpse becomes political – a field of battle between the state and the multitudes.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!