Legendary Assamese singer and lyricist Bhupen Hazarika borrowed the songOl' Man River by Black American singer and actor Paul Robeson, and wrote the famous O Ganga Behti Ho Kyon.
On your wide/mighty banks
That are home to countless people
In spite of hearing their anguished cries
so silently and unmindfully
Burha luit tumi
Oh you Old Luit
Burha Luit buwa kiyo?
How can you flow?
Robeson was speaking of the Mississippi in the original song, a commentary on the plight of Blacks in the rural American South. Hazarika, inspired by Robeson, sings the pains of India. Today, one could just replace the Mississippi for our Bagmati, and get the same sense of helplessness and despair. Our friends living around the Brahmaputra are dealing with even worse situations.
Death counts increase exponentially day by day, leaving us numb. People are flooding social media platforms with pleas for oxygen, ICU beds and Remdesivir. Villages across the country are reporting an exponential spread of the virus. Hospital systems across the country are overwhelmed, and health workers are exhausted; hospitals do not have the resources to handle more patients.
Pashupati Aryaghat, where Hindus cremate their dead bodies, is overcrowded, and has started cremating bodies on open grounds. Until last week, PM Oli was busy inaugurating projects, openly defying urgent pleas by his health ministry to avoid crowds and public events. He infamously urged people to ‘chew guava leaves and turmeric powder to get rid of the virus’ offering a hope so false that only this disaster could follow.
If you observe activities of the political ruling class and the opposition, you might imagine they are living on a different planet. Ruling CPN-UML is busy saving its seat of power in Kathmandu and in provinces at the expense of the people who suffer in them. The leaders may claim to have the best interests of the country at heart, but all current accounts appear able to claim the work of government without feeling the pain of the people. With rare exceptions, chief ministers and other high officials have not even bothered to meet up with hospital administrators and other health professionals even during this dire situation. What is leadership if not a call to act and care in the time of crisis?
In an abdication of practical responsibility, the federal government has delegated the authority of shutting down towns and cities to local administrations. Even shutting down schools in the midst of the pandemic was delayed, and then the decision was ultimately left to the local units. It feels that the Oli government is unable to make the critical connection between their lack of care and oversight and the mess that they have fostered and created.
The media and health professionals have been screaming the whole year to ‘build better health infrastructure’ for crises like we are witnessing now. But those at the highest levels of our government not only ignored such calls, but PM Oli declared that “one should sneeze, drink hot water and drive the virus away”--as if we know nothing of the nature of pandemic contagion or the precautions that surely must follow.
In the spirit of the elite, the government asserts that it is doing everything it can to help the people who will suffer a plight removed from the hallowed halls of power with the proof being the “billions” spent to save lives. Those in the government do not want to admit errors. Who can argue when the denial is thick and the government insists that ‘everything is under control’? We are the constituents, not the Prime Minister whose reason and logic refuses to include the realities of the very people he has been tasked to serve. We can only imagine that the view from Baluwatar is very different from what happens to ordinary people who now fearing hunger and joblessness, return to their villages. Already more than a half-a-million people have left Kathmandu in the wake of stricter and extended lockdowns.
Villages have always been our last refuge and our respite. No wonder it is our natural response woven into us by our culture, our history to return to the places that shaped and held us from the beginning. We know in our bones--whether it is the 2015 earthquakes, the 2015 blockade or this pandemic--that we must work together to protect one another and offer shelter and care. How can it be that our leaders who also share our same ancestry and collective memory of village life, refuse to lead and be governed by the ethos and compassion that has helped us endure for millenia? And what happens now, if our instinct to return cannot save us from the kind of medical care and intervention that only a rigorous empathetic government can provide?
While we make our pilgrimages to safety, the Bagmati, flowing by the Pashupatinath Temple, is busy washing away the ashes of mortal remains. Reflections of the countless burning funeral pyres may be too much for her, but she keeps flowing, “so silently and unmindfully/Oh you Old Bagmati/How can you flow?”