Culture Mulch Society

I can’t breathe

Twenty. That’s how many times George Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe,” while Derek Chauvin, the officer pressing his knee onto his neck reportedly said, “It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.” For those of us in second wave afflicted India these past few weeks, neither talk nor oxygen has been cheap. We have watched in growing horror at the paucity of oxygen, beds, ventilators and leave alone action, empathy from the state. And as ever, citizenry has stepped up, gathering information, food, money, often at great risk to health and safety and sometimes even freedom.

Pause for a second and see what this has come down to. Last time, this year, I wrote of the pandemic as a total social fact. And now this fact has come home, exposing to us the worst of humanity — greed, apathy, rapacity, and wilful oblivion. Alongside is also the best of humanity. In the midst of doomscrolling, I have watched so many patiently share and confirm resources, cook food, mobilise vehicles, oxygen, ambulances and mortuary vans and only speak very rarely of their own mental health and dwindling sanity.

Weight of mortality

Are we doomed to replay this dialectic over and over again? States fail, citizens step up. We speak about the heroism of ordinary folk that must be depended upon over and over again to pay cognizance to that to which everyone has a right — breath. And I think of the late neurosurgeon and writer, Paul Kalanithi, who in his book When Breath Becomes Air, asks, “If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?”

And we do have excess familiarity as of now. We know of so many who have died, we know not of so many who have died. A government official declared that knowing is not essential, for the dead won’t resurrect. What he forgot was the dead must be mourned, and that they need space, both physical and affective. For, a culture that does not make space for its dead or treat them with the cognizance they deserve is a culture that may have forgotten how to live.

Sepulchral culture

In the modernist city of Kassel, Germany, lies a museum for sepulchral culture. It bears little skeletal figurines, gravestones, tombs, tombstones, and ritualistic instruments meant to ease passage to other worlds. For those not in the know, a sepulchre is “a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.”

There are no sepulchral museums in India. But there has been evidence found of sepulchral urns at Adichanallur in South India, stone circles at Junapani in Nagpur and pit burials in Burzahoma, Kashmir. The Iron Age in these regions marks the beginning of the creation of separate areas for the dead.

Why this clambering for space, and this separation, I wonder. What is this nature of the uncanny body without life that haunts us, and must therefore be sent away un-numbered, un-counted, un-mourned? Once upon-a-long-non-Covid time ago, I remember walking into a mall in the U.S., and being confronted by the controversial exhibition Body Worlds (‘The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies’). Its claim to fame was the preservation and display of cadavers mummified and preserved through a process called Plastination. It displayed real human specimens, including whole bodies as well as organs. Counterintuitively, I was glued. Even as these cadavers had been sanitised and their innards exposed like so many laboratory specimens, I couldn’t help but remember that these machine-like objects once moved, and had the capacity for so much life, so much love, voice, thought, possibility, feeling, and action. The beauty of those bodies sans life was an uncanny reminder of bodies that we work so hard on when they are alive, and work so hard to forget once they lose life. Above all, we know mortality, but refuse it, in ourselves and in others.

Good death

Anthropologists of death have been interested in two main things. One, how does life persist? And two, what does it take to make death good? Last month, nearly a year after the fact, Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, was convicted of murdering African-American George Floyd. Many had worked hard recording, amplifying, and insisting on Floyd’s right to breathe before this came to pass. For once, mortality couldn’t be refused. Now perhaps, the mourning can begin.

What will it take for us? When will we be able to mourn?

Mathangi Krishnamurthy teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.


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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 6:31:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-cant-breathe/article34505210.ece

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