In the nearly three years since the first reports of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, this new SARS variant has caused illness, death and division across the globe. Seems the stuff of speculative fiction is not as interesting to live in as it is to imagine in a novel or film. So, while the early months of the pandemic inspired a flood of lock down essays and memoirs (I was editing for a magazine at the time and it seemed endless), the topic has been one that often has to be raised cautiously as so many are simply determined to move on, content to accept a certain level of weekly death and disability as a price society has to be prepared to pay. However, as the virus continues to circulate, fill hospitals and kill, its greatest weapon seems to be its ability to deepen hostilities and inequities within communities and around the world.
Yet, if I hit a point of poetic saturation in the first year of Covid, I now find myself curious to see how this global phenomenon is being responded to at this point, more than two years in. Thus, The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha, newly released by Seagull Books, immediately caught my attention. Subtitled Reflections on the Pandemic through Photography, Performance and Public Culture, this is not a journal, a memoir or a clinical analysis, rather it is an extraordinarily thoughtful meditation on the depiction of illness, death and displacement, the expression of loss and grief, and the possible positive potential of the pandemic experience for the future. As a writer, cultural critic and dramaturg based in Kolkata, India, he does not concern himself with the details of the virus itself, epidemiology or the ongoing debates around vaccines. Instead he is interested in offering a personal response to “the turbulent state of a world that seems to have gone awry.” What sets this essay apart, then, are the questions Bharucha is led to ask and the resources he draws on in his exploration—he turns to photography, theatre, literature, dance and critical thought.
India famously reacted to the initial spread of Covid 19 in 2020 with a strict three month lock down that within hours had those with homes and some security retreating indoors, and forcing vast numbers of migrant workers to try to find a way back to their home villages across a country that had suddenly shut down. However, for Bharucha and his country, it is the second wave between April and October 2021, that struck as a harsh and heart-breaking demonstration of the ferocity of the disease which they had mistakenly fancied they had survived relatively unscathed. This book engages with four realities emerging from the crisis of this brutal wave of illness: death, grief, mourning and extinction.
The first section, “Photography in the Pandemic,” is primarily concerned with death. A number of communities and countries around the world experienced exceptionally high levels of infection and death in the early months of the pandemic, but much of it happened out of the sight of the general public. Streets were emptied and ICUs were closed to visitors, rendering the suffering invisible. Families said good-bye to loved ones over the internet. Refrigerated trucks backed up to hospitals were received as an abstracted image, and even expansive burial sites tended to blur with any number of other tragedies of nature or war. But the photographs coming out of India somehow seemed more real, more difficult to excuse as “fake.” Bharucha focuses on three striking, widely seen photographs: the image of two men sharing a bed in a public hospital, the tops of two oxygen cylinders just visible in the foreground; a photo of a man fleeing a cremation ground that looks more like a hellish scene of destruction than a place of funeral ritual; and a drone shot of bodies covered in saffron cloth lying on the shore of the Ganga, the final resting place of those too poor to afford cremation. The discussion of these iconic images calls on Barthes and Debord, contrasts the ordered depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak in Bombay and considers the question of ownership. Today corporations and media houses own and control the distribution of the depictions of war, famine and disease, but their human truth cannot be forgotten:
[W]e cannot deny that these images, many of them too searing in their impact to be witnessed in a dispassionate mode, represent real events. One may question their mode of representation and capitulations to sensationalism and voyeurism, but, at a purely empirical level, the two men lying in a hospital bed, the man running through a cremation ground, and even the most extreme image of dead bodies on the banks of the Ganga were not fictions.”
This first part also looks back to the great displacement of the first wave with an examination of the depiction of families making the long journeys home and the way these internal migrations were recorded and presented.
The second section of The Second Wave, “No Time to Mourn,” opens with a discussion of the interrelationship between grief and mourning, and an acknowledgement of the disruption of the critical ritual practices associated with death and dying. This was, of course, a widely experienced phenomenon, but in Hindu and Islamic traditions a physical connection with the body of the deceased is vitally important. Hospital death, fear of infection and the intense pressure on cremation and burial services left survivors unable to mourn and articulate their grief. Here again we see the power of photography with the inclusion of the image of Rampukar Pandit, a migrant worker making his way home from Delhi, learning that his infant son has died. Clutching his cellphone, his expression is one of absolute despair and it is impossible to look at him without feeling his pain. This single photograph speaks to the extraordinary grief and loss that, because grief is so often private, seems to have been scrubbed from so much of the discourse around the pandemic that aims to minimize its impact in many communities. But how can grief be expressed publicly in a meaningful way? Bharucha turns to several Euro/American efforts to capture grief though performance art before turning to literary and dramatic representations from Indian writers and artists. Helpfully, throughout this essay, he tries to chose material that can be readily accessed, in whole or in part, online. As well, detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography catalogues the academic, dramatic and related resources that he references.
It is with the final section, “Endings / Beginnings,” that The Second Wave moves beyond any pandemic themed essays I’ve encountered to date. Bharucha writes with passion and a cautious but hopeful optimism, as he explores how we might live after the pandemic, fully aware that an ending is, at the time of writing, still elusive and wanting to avoid the hopeless despair that the “seemingly endless postponement of ‘the end’” can fuel.
Instead, what comes to mind is ‘dark hope’, which is how Sanskritist and peace activist David Shulman has characterized the larger context of struggling for peace on the West Bank. It is this hope that shadows my reflections on the interstice between endings and beginnings which is the subject of this chapter.
He begins his analysis with the theatrical concept of “exit” and a discussion of the darkness and destruction at the end of the Mahabharata. He wonders what moment of time we might be entering, with the consideration of two possible modalities that could contribute to the shaping of a fatal end in our times—genocide and extinction—drawing on ancient and modern imagery and sources. The darkness is easy to imagine, given the record of human history on this planet, so where does the hope lie?
Bharucha proposes that within the possibility of destruction the possibility of rebirth or reinvention may be found. From here he embarks on a wide-ranging discussion, a sort of thinking out loud, that takes into account in his own Zoroastrian identity, then moves to the ethics of waiting with a look at Samuel Beckett’s most famous play and Gandhi’s message of restraint, admitting that waiting is not going to be an acceptable response to many who are tired of waiting and staying put. But, if the pandemic, which has most certainly arisen from an animal host, has taught us anything, he argues, it is “how intimately the animal world intersects with our own.” So the question then becomes one of how to inhabit the planet moving forward. Bharucha proposes that an answer might be found in an enhanced bodily awareness—stillness, movement and breath—explored in the context of dance, theatre, yoga, freediving and critical thought.
There is, of course, much more to this thoughtful book than I can begin to touch on in this review. It is ultimately a very personal journey tinged with sorrow, anger and a commitment to making sense of a global pandemic that has carved two years or more out of our “normal” existences, cost countless lives and left many more with serious lingering effects. The attention breath and breathlessness that closes out the essay is especially poignant in light of the rush for ventilators in the early stages of the pandemic and the scenes of lineups and desperate calls for oxygen canisters so ubiquitous as the second wave struck India. But a loss of breath is not strictly a feature of earlier variants, even if ICUs are not filled to capacity so much at this time. Talking to my thirty year-old daughter tonight, several weeks after her recovery from Covid, she admitted that her lungs are just not the same in a way she has never experienced before, and hers was not an unusually difficult bout. Those struggling with Long Covid are even more aware of how easily movement and breath can become strained, leaving them stranded on the cusp of an uncertain ending and an undefined beginning.
The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha is published by Seagull Books.