Of Shrink-wrapped Bodies in the Holy River and Earthmoving Equipment
It was the time of the Spanish Flu. Indian soldiers returning from the killing fields of the First Great War—over a million fought for the British Empire—brought the pandemic home. Millions died; estimates run to five percent of the population. A failed monsoon in 1918, the first year and first wave of the pandemic, made things worse.
The rivers, including the Ganga, were swollen with bodies. “Clogged up”, it was officially said.
The greatest of all hunters, Jim Corbett, attributed the appearance of the Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, an outsize, old leopard that ruled the nights over a huge swathe of the lower Himalayas for eight long years, to the flu pandemic.
The hill people in those days stopped cremating the dead; live coal in the mouth of the deceased and giving up the corpse to a river was deemed sufficient amid the raging pandemic when firewood ran short and fear high.
This animal was reported in the press of almost all major nations; it was even brought up in the House of Commons. In 1926, Corbett killed it with a single rifle shot at the end of a night-long vigil in a tree. That shot—probably the single most famous one in the annals of shikar— came after years of fruitless tracking down this demonically clever big cat.
That tree still stands, near the town of Rudraprayag. Below it is a rather badly made bust of the great Corbett. The river, the Alaknanda just after accepting the Mandakini, gushes along, as it has for centuries. A tongue of dry beach at the hallowed confluence is a sacred cremation spot from where the ashes of the dead wash easily into the holiest of holy rivers, the Ganga.
A hundred years later, another pandemic and the Ganga clogged up with dead bodies again. They’ve shown up downstream, where the holy river slows down and widens in the middle-aged spread.
This time there are no coals in the mouths of the dead. This time there are sheets of polythene wrapping up the bodies in the ignominy of Covid.
Worse, this time there are photographs of this dread scene.
No leopard, no Corbett: there are dogs in the pictures, feeding on the bloated bodies of the dead.
There are burial grounds on the sandy banks of the river, rows of the unnamed, unknown. The last rites of the majority religion have been subverted by an infinitesimal virus.
The government has erected nets across the river to catch the bodies in one place. Earthmovers dip their jaws in the river to extract this unholy detritus.
The river gushes along.
In Gurgaon, the vaunted residential suburb south of the Capital, the pandemic seems to have ebbed. Beds are available at hospitals, as is oxygen. Pleas for help on social media have become less frequent.
The government says new infections are down, but the daily death toll remains high. The pandemic has raged and spilled out of cities into the countryside.
In the rural hinterland, there is very little by way of healthcare. Villages have contained themselves; the common refrain is that this summer has seen more deaths than the last decade. One village just outside my hometown of Rohtak, reported 25 deaths in a week. It was ‘contained’ by the state government. Inside, the fear turned residents to God; a massive communal prayer was organized to appeal directly to the heavens.
The pandemic has slipped across the digital divide; it now rages in the neglected interior.
We may never even know what really happened.