“To Hell and Back…”

A Poignant Account on Pandemic

Joydip Ghosal

To Hell and Back, Humans of Covid’ by Barkha Dutt, published by Juggernaut Books is a gripping book on India’s pandemic story, challenges and overwhelming tragedies. In this book she graphically narrated the pandemic episode through the accounts of the hapless lots whom she portrays in her coverage. She appeared as a chronicler of human stories during pandemic which wreaked havoc upon the lives of common people. This book did not merely highlight statistics. Rather it attempted to peel off the layers to unearth the catastrophic tragedies that were clear pointer towards institutional apathy and gross mismanagement. Though the author agreed that grief was a kind of sledgehammer which hollowed out the heart no matter whether you are a clerk or CEO it was the poor who had to bear the brunt. The way those who lived at the lower rung of economic access and margins of power experienced the catastrophe of pandemic is incomparable with the travails of well-off.

When she visited Kundli village in the district of Sonipat in Haryana she observed that women queued up at the main water lines to fill their bottles and buckets. It was estimated that women across India spend 150 million workdays carrying and fetching water. Industrial wastages had caused corrosion into underground soil. Contamination had also spread far and wide. The water was unusable and undrinkable. For drinking water they had to spend ten rupees per jug. When nationwide lockdown was enforced on 24 March 2020 economic activity had come to an abrupt halt. People living on subsistence wages found shelling out cash for water too much difficult and tougher. The author stressed upon the overarching learning that she got from the pandemic that the virus was anything but great equaliser. In a stratified society it exacerbated the existing inequalities and pawned new social orders coupled with new cleavages. There was assumption that the calamity had created a level playing field. It flattened out the ground for marginalised and filthy riches. But the author pointed out that there was no evidence to corroborate this grossly miscalculated assumption.

This book stressed that death did not eradicate that unbridgeable gap. It opened all the multiple layers of discrimination. In the Chilla Khadar village on the banks of Yamuna River people made a living by selling clusters of green shoots of Diclipetra to the wholesale mandis who used these shoots to tie clumps of okra, beans. They also caught fish for contractors who had licenses from Delhi government. For their labour they would get daily wages. But with the onset of lockdown both jobs had dried up. She spent time outside a community toilet in Dharavi to discover the slogans of hand-washing and hygiene had lost its meaning in an area where 8, 50,000 numbers of people used 8000 common toilets. She brought to the fore the stark fact that law enforcing officials often enforced theoretical elitism of public service advertisement in letter and spirit. But what value did it have in Dharavi where “anywhere between five and eight people lived cheek by jowl in confined, unventilated and tiny closed places?” She interspersed her writing with bitter truths. Two hundred thousand Indians die every year from drinking unsafe water. 38 million people suffer from illness due to waterborne diseases every year. Where 98 million households in India live in one room and 78 million live in two room houses.

She was unequivocal when she said that this pandemic had uncovered all the fissures in social structures. Healthcare, education. Journalism was no exception. One feels the honesty of her conviction when she discussed the modern trend in journalism which according to her made the journalists unimaginative, lazy and stale devoid of empathy. It caused disconnection with the audience.

The unprecedented images of summer of 2021 haunted the countrymen. Stacked up bodies on the banks of river Ganga in Uttar Pradesh horrified the nation. Undertakers in Madhya Pradesh were in utter quagmire because they ran out of woods. Bodies washed ashore in prime minister’s constituency. Author touched upon the heart wrenching aspects to make readers ponder whether since partition pandemic was the biggest human tragedy. During the second wave of partition political parties across spectrum were complicit with their participation in election. In her poignant writing style the author reminded people how Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee at the Madras High Court ‘tore at the institution’. During the first wave a vitriolic, poison filled anti- Muslim rhetoric was whipped up against Muslims related to Tablighi Jamat. The author did not mince words when she sharply pointed out that the condemnation of Haridwar event was perfunctory. The erstwhile chief minister of Uttarakhand Tirath Singh Rawat did not find similarities between Jamaat and Kumbh.

Ranveer worked as food delivery agent in Delhi. He hailed from Morena with a distance of 310 km. He walked to reach home. When he had to travel still 80 km to reach home he phoned his sister to complain about uneasiness. As this was the time of lockdown his family had to procure pass. But by the time they reached him he already breathed his last. This was just a small spec in that large sea of greater humanitarian crisis. In Siddhartnagar in Uttar Pradesh Preeti lost her parents Lallan Ram and Mena Kumari, both teachers, to the virus. In the middle of the pandemic they both were posted on election duties. They were not allowed any exemption. 15 years old school girl Jyoti made her father sit on a bicycle and rode 1500 km from Delhi to Darbhanga. Her father was a rickshaw driver and she was recuperating from knee surgery.

Barkha Dutt travelled 14 states during that time. This book is all about the people she met on the road covering pandemic for her digital media platform Mojo Story and documenting the common people’s resilience, camaraderie while fighting the scourge of corona virus. In this book she has tried to humanise the massive human tragedy of present time.

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Vol 56, No. 14, Oct 1 - 7, 2023