How people in Australia are grieving their loved ones in coronavirus-ravaged India

Sahil Nijhawan is still coming to terms with the sudden death of his father-in-law a week ago.

He was 62 and “relatively healthy”. But an adverse reaction to a coronavirus vaccine in India eventually saw his life cut short.

“It all happened so quickly. We were gobsmacked”, Mr Nijhawan told SBS News.

Mr Nijhawan, who is based in Melbourne, described the bond shared between his father-in-law and him as extremely close.

But it is the inability to be with his extended family at this time of grieving that pains him the most.

What should have been touching, final moments between a son and father-in-law were left, instead, to technology screens.

“The whole cremation process, we saw everything over the phone,” Mr Nijhawan said. 

“That was harder because when you see it on the phone, you have images in your head which stick there for life.”

In the throes of a coronavirus catastrophe, India has been recording thousands of new cases and deaths every day.

It has recorded more than 24 million infections and 260,000 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic, and the spread of the virus is showing little signs of slowing.

International borders remain closed, and while Australia’s contentious ban and criminalisation of travel from India ended early on Saturday, there are more than 9,000 Australians, permanent residents, and their immediate family members still seeking to return home.

The heartbreak of the forced distance between those mourning and those being mourned is one Hindu temples across Australia are softening.

Bhawna at the Kali Mata Mandir temple in Craigieburn

Hashela Kumarawansa/SBS News

The Kali Mata Mandir temple in the Melbourne suburb of Craigieburn is one of many holding vigils for the local Indian community who’ve been tragically impacted by the pandemic.

The services are vital for Hindus as a way of helping them lay their loved ones to rest.

“Whatever you get in your last moments of life and after death, we believe will help you in your next life with God”, priest Bhawna, who does not have a surname, said.

Bhawna – the only female Hindu priest in Australia – said she used to hold around one vigil every month. 

But just last weekend, she held 22 – many of them for people who have died of COVID-19.

The youngest person she’s held a vigil for was for someone’s nephew who died at just seven years of age.

Bhawna at the Kali Mata Mandir temple

Bhawna at the Kali Mata Mandir temple

SBS News

Bhawna said the distance between some mourners and their loved ones is impacting their ability to come to terms with reality.

“One of my friends lost her father, but she’s unable to accept it because she hasn’t seen him on his death bed,” she said.

“She says she doesn’t feel like he’s gone and thinks that when she goes back to India, he will be at the door waiting for her like he often does.” 

It’s a story temples in Sydney are also growing familiar with.

Vithyadaran Sarma, secretary of the Sri Karphaga Vinayakar temple in Homebush, said he has been inundated with requests for vigils.

“Every day I have nine to ten families calling,” Mr Sarma said.

“There are not enough priests to perform these rituals – but we are trying our best to give our respects to those people who have already lost their lives.”

Naveen Vishwabnath has lost his uncle to COVID-19.

Naveen Vishwabnath has lost his uncle to COVID-19.

SBS News/Abbie O’Brien

Naveen Vishwabnath says the death of his uncle in India is something he struggles to accept.

Already in the midst of grieving one family member, he received news his 94-year-old grandmother also has tested positive for the virus.

“She is like my mum and I feel really upset that I can’t go to India,” Mr Vishwabnath said.

Nevertheless, the power of prayer is proving instrumental for some who find themselves paralysed with grief.

Mr Nijhawan is currently preparing to hold a vigil for his father-in-law in Melbourne.

He feels crippled by his inability to do more to help his loved ones back in India. Many of his friends have contracted COVID-19 and he fears more might as well.

“If there’s a phone call at night from India, we all have shaky hands. We’ve got goosebumps picking up that call”, Mr Nijhawan said.

Mr Vishwabnath’s parents remain in Bangalore and his brother is in the United States.

He is in constant communication with them, but until international borders re-open and travel becomes safer, there is only one thing he said he feels he can do.

“I can’t do anything from here, I can only pray. That’s all I can do,” he said.

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