SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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Wave after Wave

by Dakshina Gammanpila

A weekend curfew was announced as case numbers and mercury climb, neither came as a surprise and a crystal ball was certainly not required. April is notoriously hot, no prizes there, and with religious festivals, weddings and electioneering rallies continuing the Covid case count was entirely predictable. As people gathered in their hundreds of thousands at Kumbh, the implications for Uttarakhand and for the nation has not only subsequently been seen, but felt.

The fall out of devastating proportions in the days and weeks ahead will have global impact on vaccine export, whether India can meet its contractual obligations, but also immunize its own vast populace. Cases are escalating exponentially; that phrase, alongside last year’s ‘unprecedented times’ or ‘R-Rates’, is as ubiquitous as Covid. Some say they are shocked, but clearly as basic mask wearing, handwashing and social distancing were eschewed, the writing was on the wall.

The weekend curfew, (as those of us who have been here before know only too well) was a precursor to the week of lockdown announced on Monday, but for the preceding 48 hours many might have been lulled into thinking otherwise. Glorious Saturday morning dawned quiet and calm. An American friend who lives around the corner sent a message that the AQI in Delhi was an incredible 30. Blue sky, vibrant blossom and an iridescent hummingbird hovered proclaiming a day of rest or at least hibernation. High above a lone kite wheeled sailing the thermals. All seemed well with the world. But then again that is the problem with living in bubbles, they are prone to burst.

In March 2020 I wrote about the plight of the daily wage earners and domestic help. The Covid crisis threw a spotlight on their precarious lives. To be displaced and lose everything, both livelihood and way of living then migrate back to rural villages taking a heavy burden and perhaps Covid, with you was a heinous choice for anyone to have to make. This year the threat is increased by India’s triple variant  (three strains of the virus having combined). The wave swells to tsunami-like proportions.

We have an almost cavalier use of the word wave. In a wave we sink, or swim, or surf. But for the most vulnerable in society the odds are unfairly and needlessly stacked. That has to change. We must acknowledge that fact unequivocally and accommodate it through legislation and action. Many of us are privileged to have education, financial safety nets, freedoms of all kinds. To exploit that privilege by exploiting or ignoring others is untenable and makes neither economic nor moral sense. Put starkly it is inhumane.

I spoke to friends from different nations and was taken aback by the fact that they were interested in the British royal family. Friends from Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, India and Turkey intended to watch the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, being broadcast that afternoon. The British monarchy holds sway, or at least affection, seemingly beyond the Commonwealth.

Touching footage of the royal marriage and coronation at Westminster Abbey was aired. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor became a wife at 21, a mother of the heir to the throne at 22, and Queen of Great Britain, the Commonwealth and Overseas territories Defender of the Faith, and Commander in Chief at the age 25.

The Duke had not wanted a state funeral at Westminster, London or Buckingham Palace, choosing instead Windsor, their weekend residence. The service was held at St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. St George, patron saint of England, commemorated on April 23rd, one week on from the funeral and two days following the Queen’s 95th birthday, her first as a widow, bereft of the man she called her ‘strength and stay’, standing by her side wave after royal wave. At a speech at a Mansion House dinner many years before the Duke, speaking on marriage, said that tolerance was an essential quality, not when times were good, but when the going got harder and the matrimonial terrain was perhaps less navigable.

Prince Philip’s titles and passions, causes and interests were alluded to by the vast media coverage. People who knew and worked with him spoke of his enthusiasm, diligence, punctuality, curiosity and also his physical vitality, well into old age.  Forging a role for himself as an adjunct, and perhaps antidote, to being the Queen’s consort. He had a distinguished career in the Navy, and could have risen to Sealord, emulating his Uncle Dickie. Uncle Dickie, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, had played a strategic role in the engagement of his nephew to the future Queen of England.

Princess Anne, the Duke’s only daughter, looked noticeably and understandably sorrowful. I couldn’t help but think of my own Father’s funeral, how I felt that he had gone too soon, Prince Philip by contrast had had a very long life. However, my Father’s very private funeral service was thronging with people; standing room only in the chapel. Having been head of the ICU at the county hospital, he touched many people’s lives and I have never seen so many doctors gathered in one place all emotional, some in tears. As is custom in the Buddhist tradition the family wore white. Due to Covid Prince Philip’s service was limited to 30, wearing black, their faces masked. I thought of the huge number of funerals taking place across India at cemeteries and crematoriums – preventable deaths, lives cut short, in sharp contrast to the pageantry on display.

The royal children (now grown up and grandparents) stood behind the Duke’s coffin, united by loss. Despite the pomp and privilege, and because of circumstance, they represented what they are – a family in grief. Not immune to the vicissitudes of life (or indeed Covid), far from it. No family can be completely inoculated against that, though some are insulated more than others. This royal family, open to losses, marriage break-ups, scandal, has lived life in the gaze of the public eye. No one who has lost a parent could fail to be moved by the funeral.

As if to demonstrate their solidarity with the nation during the pandemic and to set an example to the UK, as it emerges from lockdown, the family walked distanced behind the Duke’s body. Leading by example, the Queen seated with the Duchess of Cornwall in the Royal Rolls Royce wore a mask, yet her car followed the casket. Only in death was the Duke allowed to take the lead, for the first and last time. Royal protocol denotes that the Queen’s consort must walk two steps behind his wife.

Seeing the sad procession of Princes and one lone Princess (Anne) reminded me of seeing the princes, Harry and William, walk behind the body of their mother, aged 12 and 15. It was the Duke drawing from his own experience of losing members of his family in a plane crash when he was a  boy, who apparently said to his grandsons “If you don’t walk you will regret it for the rest of your lives’ adding “If you walk, I’ll walk with you”. And that in turn conjured the image of my own son, insisting on being one of the pallbearers, carrying my Father, his grandfather’s coffin, into the chapel at his funeral. He was 10 years old.

The Book of the preacher ecclesiastes which was read at the service alluded to the glory and terror of nature chimed with World Earth Day on April 22nd. My parents had been to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace many years ago when the entire royal family was there. Prince Philip had been an extremely keen gardener, my Father was too and would spend many hours in contemplation, away from the stresses and losses (and gains) experienced in the hospital. A few years ago, many of us would not be able to picture an Intensive Care Unit – sadly we can now.

In Delhi, the day before the funeral broadcast, the late afternoon sky brought wild wind and dust clouds. Rain, thunder and lightning ensued as if the weather itself had an announcement. I read that one of my favourite actors had died, her illness had not been shared with the public. She termed herself an ‘interpreter of stories’. She was much more. Prince Philip’s stay in hospital and heart surgery a month before his death was very much public knowledge. Helen McCory chose to keep her battle a private one. Her cancer was known only to those with whom she cared to share it. That she was 52, so young, with more of her brilliant career to give and life to live, makes her loss heartbreaking.

Waves rise and crest and eventually break. Legends, be they public, private or personal are immortal. The remains of a life in memory, legacy or genes passed down through the generations. What goes on behind closed doors. What people know or think they know.  We only ever have half the story of anyone, there is always so much more. That is true of all of us. 

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