Dispatch

Mourning in India

Thanks to social media, grief has become collective—even as the pandemic has made it a lonely affair.

By , a features writer at the Kashmir Walla.
Health workers arrange beds for COVID-19 patients at a care center in Amritsar, India, on May 9.
Health workers arrange beds for COVID-19 patients at a care center in Amritsar, India, on May 9. Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

NEW DELHI—In a dark, empty garage, Shantanu Tiwari laid a cloth sheet on the concrete floor. His legs shook as he put down a plastic sheet over the cloth. He couldn’t let his father lie on the dirt—not even in death. Upstairs, his mother, held in isolation, fought tears to catch a breath.

Raja Ram Tiwari, his father, had been dead for four hours. Shantanu, after placing the body on the sheets, sat beside it to seek an apology. He was desolate, he said, as he waited for the sun to rise on April 26 so he could take his father for cremation—as per Hindu rituals. He had checked a bit before, but the nearby cremation grounds had either run out of firewood or the exhausted workers had gone to sleep.

NEW DELHI—In a dark, empty garage, Shantanu Tiwari laid a cloth sheet on the concrete floor. His legs shook as he put down a plastic sheet over the cloth. He couldn’t let his father lie on the dirt—not even in death. Upstairs, his mother, held in isolation, fought tears to catch a breath.

Raja Ram Tiwari, his father, had been dead for four hours. Shantanu, after placing the body on the sheets, sat beside it to seek an apology. He was desolate, he said, as he waited for the sun to rise on April 26 so he could take his father for cremation—as per Hindu rituals. He had checked a bit before, but the nearby cremation grounds had either run out of firewood or the exhausted workers had gone to sleep.

“Crying was a luxury that I couldn’t afford,” he said. Instead, he recalled looking for a refrigerator in India’s capital, New Delhi, to preserve the body. He raised an SOS on Twitter and called everyone he knew, but nothing worked out. “I had no one around me to look at but my father’s body. I kept telling myself: ‘You can’t cry. You can’t cry.’”

Ten days since his father’s death, he still hasn’t.

In India, pyres and graves are now statistics: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has counted nearly 4,000 deaths a day, but others put the figure five or 10 times higher. Bloodless numbers have taken the place of traditional final rights. For Indians of many religions, mourning has typically been spread across two weeks, punctuated by gatherings of friends and families shouldering one another to grieve. The consoling presence of friendly faces is usually a reminder that not all is gone.

But now, distanced in death, that comfort is gone. Scores die outside of hospital gates after awaiting medical assistance, half-burnt bodies float in the Yamuna river, and those left must grieve alone. “This disease has ripped us apart,” Shantanu said. “My father always boasted that he knew thousands of people in Delhi. Yet a person like him was lying in the garage—alone.”


Death used to be a grand affair like big, fat weddings with tears rather than smiles. Wedding guest lists were often revisited in demise. I last met my elder cousin at her wedding four summers ago in the state of Rajasthan. Clad in a red bridal dress and heavy ornaments, she smiled, looking out at the gathering. But when her body was burnt in a village of Rajasthan by her 3-year-old son, the cremation ground was deserted. She had come home to Rajasthan a week before for younger brother’s marriage.

Her story isn’t uncommon. Despite rising COVID-19 cases, the Modi-led government not only avoided calling another lockdown, but it also decided to hold political rallies in five states and allowed millions of Hindus to gather in a festival, which became a superspreader event. These mass gatherings, coupled with deadly new mutations of the virus, pushed the infection—previously more prevalent in the cities—to the countryside. The rural health care system, neglected by subsequent governments, quickly collapsed.

Simple Sharma, eight months pregnant, had been taken to the district hospital for preterm labor. Just after the delivery, while the infant was moved to the intensive care unit, her own oxygen levels plummeted. “I begged [hospital authorities] to let me see her face for one last time, but they didn’t agree,” her younger sister. Saraswati, said. “We don’t know. … It happened so quickly. I never saw her. I still can’t believe she has died.”

Typically, Hindu custom is to dress a married woman as a bride when her bier is taken from her in-laws’ house. But Sharma never returned home. Instead, she was ferried directly to the crematorium, wrapped in plastic. The cremation ground staff, working with personal protective equipment, later collected the ashes, which are customarily immersed in a river, preferably the Ganges—450 miles away from her home. In Hinduism, the immersion helps the soul’s salvation.

But the crisis forced her entire family into quarantine. Sharma’s mother, unaware of the death, is currently battling COVID-19 at the same hospital. Now, her daughter’s ashes rest in a clay pot hung outside the house in her village, awaiting for the end of the pandemic to be released to the water.


Individuals may be prevented from putting up the usual spectacle of mourning, but the media has stepped in, with constant images of bodies piled up in crematoriums and shoes strewn near the hot ashes. Televised mourning has robbed India of any dignity in death.

Shantanu’s father never made it to the hospital. Although Shantanu was able to secure him a bed in the nearby state, “he just fell dead in the cab a few minutes after we boarded.” The government will never count him in COVID-19 fatalities.

At 2:30 a.m., after failing to find a refrigerator, Shantanu got ahold of an ambulance to take his father to the Ghazipur cremation ground. To his dreadful luck, the ambulance driver, tired of ferrying bodies, parked the vehicle outside the crematorium, awaiting sunrise.

For the rest of the night, Shantanu sat inside the ambulance near the body of his father. “It was the longest night,” he said. “No one could feel the helplessness I went through.” Yet the morning was only grimmer. At least 30 other families waited in a line “like a race to burn first,” Shantanu said. “My cousin stood in a long queue to get a death certificate, my father’s body was put on the roadside, and I had got a ticket in my hand for my father’s number of cremation.”

Preparing the body for cremation with a drop of Ganges water, Holy Basil, and other items is the very least of Hindu rituals. However, the urgency and chaos made even that task horrendously difficult. Often, ashes are mixed up with others. That’s why Shantanu prayed as his father was cremated. “I apologized to my father that I was not able to cremate him properly,” he said. “But I did all I could.”

He walked his way back home—alone. Heading straight to the washroom, he held a razor blade in his hands and shaved his head, another ritual in Hinduism believed to bring purification from death rites. The bigger battles awaited him, he said. “Now, I just have to make sure that the living survives.” And that has stopped Shantanu from traveling with his father’s last remains to the Ganges.

If not immersed in the river in time, according to some Hindu beliefs, the ashes hold back the soul’s journey to salvation.


COVID-19 has isolated families in grief, yet the mourning feels collective. To many like Shantanu, death is a hard reality “that doesn’t seem too far now.” Every day, Indians are losing someone to the pandemic. That pain is shared in texts, calls, and social media comments—trappings of modern life in a once booming India that now seem like traps indeed.

Social media’s tone stands in stark contrast to the first wave, when much of the tragedy was felt by the lower class. For instance, hundreds of laborers died in road accidents while walking back home because of the abrupt lockdown. But that didn’t get much attention. This time, Twitter, mostly used in India’s larger cities, has become the compendium of the upper class’s desperation as they fail to secure resources they expected to be available.

Four days after another person, Olina Banerji’s uncle, succumbed to COVID-19, she joined a Zoom video call with her family. It wasn’t for rituals, she said, “but to remember him in our happy ways, our memories. Just to find a shred of normalcy.”

Banerji wasn’t able to bid a real final goodbye as she was confined to her home in New Delhi. “There is a whole paraphernalia around grief that happens. We always had relatives to grief with. … The rituals are designed this way to delay the shock of death,” she said. “But we couldn’t do any of them. We couldn’t hold each other physically.”

A few minutes into the video call, Banerji’s family members sang her uncle’s favorite Hindi song. One of them talked about untimely goodbyes. “It was our moment of breakdown,” she said. “I’m heartbroken. I feel defeated. Every day is only worse, and I have this larger sense of loss for my country.”

Indeed, 1.3 billion people are fighting an exhausting battle against forgetfulness. Brief obituaries often pop up on social media feeds before disappearing. This sudden and cataclysmic break with the country’s traditions with death will be among the biggest challenges of this generation of Indians.

Yashraj Sharma is a features writer and assistant editor at the Kashmir Walla. He has written for Vice, Ozy, the National, and others. Twitter: @YashJournals