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IDEAS

A young poet in Mumbai offers a glimpse of India’s catastrophe

‘It does not feel like we have a government. We are on our own, and now we have to help each other.’

Shanawaz Shaikh sold his SUV to raise funds for a service to provide oxygen cylinders to needy people in Mumbai.
Shanawaz Shaikh sold his SUV to raise funds for a service to provide oxygen cylinders to needy people in Mumbai.INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images
The Mumbai-based poet and writer Alolika Dutta.
The Mumbai-based poet and writer Alolika Dutta.Alolika Dutta

“When I open my social media, my timeline is just people asking for help,” says Alolika Dutta, a poet and writer in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra state, where official COVID-19 cases hover near 1 million. “The second wave has really devastated the country. The virus is almost everywhere.”

Ideas reached Dutta at her home in the city of 20 million on India’s west coast. “I wrote this poem when I heard the news that public parks, temples, and dog crematoriums were being used to bury people,” Dutta says. “There was news of young children who had lost both parents to the second wave, and people were looking for adoption options for them. There was news of pets left abandoned after their owners died. And hospitals posted SOS messages on Twitter, pleading for oxygen cylinders, vaccines, and medicines, and saying they had called the government but that officials did not respond.

“It does not feel like we have a government. We are on our own, and now we have to help each other. While our prime minister, Narendra Modi, was campaigning for state elections in West Bengal and people were dying by the minute, young people were mobilizing to find oxygen cylinders for those who needed them. Then came news that in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, one in every two people was testing positive for the virus, all because our home and prime ministers were holding huge rallies even as COVID was ripping through the country. I have never witnessed such ignorance. This poem came to me within minutes. The last line came first and the rest just formed itself.”

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Where Will You Bury Your Dead?

For the powers that be.

Where will you bury your dead?

When the crematoriums and gardens

are filled with ours, where will you bury yours?

When death finds you, where will you seek refuge

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in this country filled with the lovers of those you killed?

When disease runs its course, what will you tell

the child who no longer remembers his mother’s face?

When the temples open for worship, how will you

look at god, or rather, how will god look at you?

Follow Alolika Dutta on Twitter @alolikadutt.