ERNAKULAM: Everyday lives of thousands of people have come to a grinding halt in Kerala, which has 37 active COVID-19, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, cases and over 40,000 under quarantine, one of India's highest figure for a state.
A death in a family could become a double whammy in this crisis--everybody knows about the virus, except the dead, and the shutdown that ensues could make it nearly impossible to carry out the funeral rites.
Anand Ramaswamy, a Dubai-based banker, who came home to Kerala's Kozhikode on 16 March under such trying times. His mother had died a day ago, and the funeral rites needed to be done for the next 13 days. But, not only is his city shut, he himself had to be in quarantine for the next 14 days, as mandated by the state.
"We were really, really concerned about what to do," Ramaswamy told Mint over the phone. "We have rites from 5th to 15th day from the date of death," he added.
But he managed to do the rites every day with the state's decentralised community-level task force, devised to lend a helping hand for those who are quarantined. Kerala has structured a three-member team in each village, comprising a village's elected representative, a public health worker and a police officer, for monitoring and assisting any need for those in home quarantine. In Ramaswamy's case, the police helped him purchase and delivered offerings needed for the funeral rites.
"When we reached home from Dubai, the health officials were already here educating us about the safety precautions needed. They had informed the neighbours to not visit the dead. Every day, they followed up with our needs, and asked about our health status. On Friday, we ran out of stock of the pooja material and we mentioned it to the police. Immediately, Mr Nizar from Kasaba police station went to the store and delivered the materials to our house," he said. Ramaswamy wrote a Facebook post on the same, it has since gone viral in Kerala.
"It was so positive and encouraging, everybody is so concerned both about our health and about our needs. Seven in my family are all quarantined, so it is impossible for us to carry out daily tasks that need to go out. But we wanted to do the rituals because that's the only thing we can do to honour the dead," he said. "We are thankful, and really surprised. Pleasantly surprised."
His experience also reflects on the state's cross-cultural bonding. In times where religious communities often clash against each other, neither Ramaswamy, nor Nizar bothered about each other's religion. In fact, since he could not step out to carry his mother to the funeral pyre, his close-friend Shareef did it for him.
Incidentally, the hometown Kozhikode is near evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims in terms of demography and has never really had a major riot in the last 100 years—a subject matter of a study for social scientist Ashutosh Varshney in his 2002 book 'Ethinic Conflict and Civil Society', who lauded the city's deep Hindu-Muslim civic integration. Nearly every business house, club, marriage, and other forms of social gathering would have a Hindu, and one not a Hindu, he noted.
"I was born and brought up in Kozhikode. Many of my friends are from the Muslim community. We have gone to umpteen marriages together and ate from a common plate. If Shareef was in a situation like mine, I would have done the same for him," said Ramaswamy.
In Ramaswamy's words, Kozhikode comes alive like the ordinary town of Oran in Albert Camus' novel 'Plague', also a story about a virus that spreads uncontrollably. "This whole thing is not about heroism," a Dr Rieux says in the novel. "It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency," he adds. When another character asks what decency is, the doctor replies. "Doing my job".