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On Funeral Pyres, Oxygen and The Right to Live

Oh, you know, talking about light and fluffy things

Hi, hi!

Yes, I know it’s been a while, but life was happening and it was a bit hard to concentrate on anything else but the fact that my birth country is in crisis, as is the country I live in, though we spend a lot of time pretending everyone is okay, we’re okay, you’re okay and what’s the problem?

The Crisis in India

Okay, yes, everyone’s talked about the B 1. 617 variant in India wreaking havoc among the general population since mid-April 2021.

What else is there to say? Here’s the deal—in the west, we run from one hot topic to the next. This weekend, Ms. Grande got married—it’s a hot topic, no one can think of anything else. And Nick Jonas was injured on set, which was also a hot topic. The news of people gasping for air in India is old news. But why do I keep talking about it? It’s because people need to understand that they aren’t cats. As in, every shiny object doesn’t need to be chased. The crisis caused by the complacency of the Indian government, the lax social distancing protocols leading to gatherings of thousands and millions of people for Kumbh Mela and political shenanigans in West Bengal led to the incubation of the B1. 617 variant that is now the cause of 50% of COVID-positive cases and 30% of deaths in the country. I’ll wait a bit as you absorb that information.

If this isn’t a humanitarian crisis, I don’t know what is. Is it more infectious? Yes, about 1.6X more. Is it more deadly? Not really—it would be smart of us not to gather, perhaps social distance, maybe mask up? Are the vaccines effective? Yes, they certainly show promising signs of curbing this double mutant. But did Indians heed any advice? No, oh no! Their Hindu-nationalist and fascist Prime Minister told them they had ‘defeated’ corona. We are invincible, they said. We are fearless, they said. Why should we? So yes, now the issue in India, while dire and in need of vaccines, isn’t dire because of the lack of vaccines. It’s the lack of oxygen for COVID+ patients. It’s the lack of hospital beds. It’s the rise of black market fake oxygen tanks. It’s the issue of people having to help neighbors bury or cremate their loved ones, because the Indian government has failed. The hospital and health care system has collapsed and the crisis is expected to peak next month—as I write this, my birth country has been in the throes of people dying, falling sick, neighborhoods in lockdown, and life uncertain for over one month and with no end in sight. 25M have been diagnosed as COVID+, 21.2M have recovered, 274K deaths, as per the JHU coronavirus count, and it’s pretty well reported that the numbers are inaccurate and grossly underrepresented.

Why Should America Care?

Sure, great question, capitalist. Besides this happening in the other side of the world, just know that the variant has traveled to the US. About 3% of COVID+ cases are the B 1. 617 variant. Since the vaccines do work on this variant, it would make sense for us not to gather, continue to social distance and perhaps ensure that the variant dies off if it cannot find a host. But no! We are Americans. We are brave. We are fearless. We jump in when no one else dares to. We are cowboys. We are heroism wrapped in the American flag. What do we do? What do you think we do? We, our own CDC tells us masks are not mandatory anymore. Social distancing is a cute distraction and certainly not necessary.

Why is this dangerous? Well, for one, if vaccines are that effective—which they are—then CDC should have shown that confidence end of last year when the vaccine rollout began. To call this communication whiplash is minimizing it. Second, the unvaccinated too shall roam free—in effect, affecting the immunocompromised and children under 12 who still can’t get vaccinated. How is this messaging hopeful? If we congregate, not social distance, remain maskless, much like India did the last two months, and with B1. 617 out there, what are the chances the US will experience such surges? Or is it that the variant won’t spread as much because we are more spread out? Time will tell. But also, this is exhausting—to be part of an experiment because a government—it doesn’t matter which country—decides to change course see ‘where we land’.

My 2c? Stay safe. Get vaccinated. Social distance. Mask up. Masking has stopped colds, very low flu cases this winter—it can be a way of life much like seat belts. Do I sound ominous, scared, worried? Yes! This has gone on for way too long only because we adults have been throwing temper tantrums about freedom, about being fearless, about our sovereign rights and all that means nothing if you’re dead. Get it? Mask up please. For the kids. For the immune-compromised. For all of us. Thank you.

Of course I wrote about this

Here it is. And the reason for me to talk about it as a scientist, as a bystander watching her birth country suffer is that this was so very avoidable. And yet. And yet. Everyone says in times of stress and trauma, one goes back to remembering the worst times. For me, it is the news of Baba dying and where I was at that moment when the phone rang. It’s hard wired in me. I mourn my father every day. This B1.617 crisis in India has reached that stage of PTSD for a lot of us immigrants living outside India. Loved ones in India are dying. Ambulances are scarce, black market rates have skyrocketed for such luxuries like vans, hearses, hospital beds, wood for funeral pyres. This is Mad Max levels of low. Delhi funeral grounds are starting makeshift pyres in parking lots of cremation grounds. There is no space. The rate of dead bodies arriving for cremation is too high, too unexpected.

But lately, the country has run out of fuel to cremate the dead—there isn’t enough wood left. Reports of cow dung patties have been circulating but lately, and yes, it’s macabre by Hindu funeral rituals-standards, but the dead are now being floated in the Ganges, not cremated. The crisis is making Hindus abandon their funeral rites.

I talk about it because I cannot stop.

Please Donate, If You Can

India needs help. Here are a few websites you could look at and donate if you’d like. Make sure you’re not donating to a religious-based organization or a group like PM Cares which has no transparency as to how the money will be used.

Now, Some Good Books

  • If you can, please check out Anjali Enjeti’s The Parted Earth (from Hub City Press) and her essay collection, Southbound (from UGA Press)—both released in the past few weeks. She’s an amazing author and activist and I learn from her every day.
  • I’ve been a fan of Sonia Faleiro’s for a while, and here’s the one I’m reading right now about Bombay’s dance bar culture and her three-year research on it in Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars
  • The YA book, The Marvelous Mirza Girls is looking quite attractive to me, I’ll let you know soon when I get my paws on it next time. Sheba Karim is an amazing writer and the title itself is mwah.
  • Another book on order is Gayatri Sethi’s debut call to action, Unbelonging—can’t wait to talk about it next time.

And to end…

Here’s me in my favorite bookstore in Ojai, the joy in my eyes tells you this is my happy place.

Thank you for letting me rant. Be well. Stay safe. Continue to mask up. Everyone around you will thank you for it.



Literary Representation

Dana Newman Literary Agency
1800 Avenue of the Stars, 12th Floor
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County 90067, USA

Publisher, "Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family"

University of Iowa Press
119 W. Park Road, 100 Kuhl House, Iowa City IA 52242-1000
Ph: 800-621-2736