First Responder

The check-in marking her safe popped up some time after the WhatsApp commotion, the Twitter barrage and the rising panic of the New York Times reader updates.

And I thought about how I hadn’t expected her to be there, since she had left three times in the past ten years and the last time, when we were still together, she had said she was never going back.

And I sent her a perfectly appropriate “you okay?”, but she had blocked her read receipts so there was nothing to do except wait for a reply.

And that gave me an excuse to settle in to a well-rehearsed vigil as the story percolated through the information distributaries.

And I lost sight of her as the world observed that ritual conversion of voyeurism into exhibitionism, trading the choicest forwarded messages in the clearing house of concern. And waves of anxiety lapped gently on the shore while signal and noise argued to be the first off the boat. And I involved myself in the pageantry because authorship is the best form of control.

And I risked a few minutes of news television to take a swig out of the vitriol ration I had admeasured in this New Year’s resolutions – and which she would have approved of – but there was the same fuzzy and meagre footage on a dizzying loop on every channel, each scrambling towards a righteous vantage point to avoid talking about the banality of violence.

And I went deeper for more texture on the back-alley chat boards and in my politically segregated messenger groups. And a few of them looked up from the animus of their cockfighting and asked after her. And, upon their questioning, I felt that perverse pride of being personally connected and having a stronger claim at outrage.

And relying on untruthful Tripadvisor pictures of the now-dangerously-close resort we had once visited and careening from there to the incident site on Google Street View, I could not summon the right emotion. And it grew more pathetic as the internet slowed and the data eventually cached on the hard drive from which I had recently deleted all our photos together.

And the afternoon papers just about caught a late scoop on the identity of one of the bombers and of his relation to a locally-settled immigrant family of eight. And they all plead innocent disbelief. And the people she was most afraid of smirked and said “a mother always knows”.

And there were hasty fundraisers trying to get in ahead of empathy fatigue. And all of them included the same vague promises of promoting peace in the region. And over lunch, the cashier at the empty kebab restaurant hunched over his radio and gave me a nervous look which had something of a terminal sadness in it.

And the school kids who usually smiled at us while walking home couldn’t understand how the world of the adults had been hushed up by this game of online tag.

And the Pope said the typically sober and sensible thing.

And there were no gaffes in the President’s daily tweet.

And the markets held onto their breeches and shrugged off the sudden wet weight soaking the bottom of their well-hedged trouser cuffs. And some thought it an act of charity to bulk-buy goods of that geographic indication.

And in my bedroom, later that night I silenced the alerts but the erratic buzz of the battery was like an uncomfortable massage. And the breathers we took between episodes gave me just enough time to duck into the bathroom and play refresh the body count. And the morbid thrill began to flatten as more of the injured stayed alive.

And the headlines the next day were satisfyingly bold. And we were all inoculated by the editor’s sage opinion.

And our airport added extra security. And I half expected her mother to call and remind me to take the big car for her suitcases and get there early. And the one-way flights full of panicked tourists and privileged locals carried in their hastily packed bags a validation of the tactics deployed.

And they spread the embers of audacity and fear far asunder.

And I didn’t hear from her at all.

Not on the days after and not into the typically quick normalisation which followed.

And I felt something worse than indignity at this petty extension of her total withdrawal. And it was as if she were so far gone as to doubt my compassion. And when her friends didn’t respond to my group email with the disarmingly clever title ‘Ceasefire’, I knew it must be survivor guilt.

And so I didn’t talk of her then and changed the subject when this girlfriend of three relationships removed finally brought her up.

And honestly, I didn’t think about her again until the next holiday season, when I received an ad for “cheap flights to revisit my memories in the City of Smiles”. And I wondered if she got it too.

And a year without incident seemed time enough to heal.

And she would have explained to me how Easter fell on two entirely different dates over one consecutive year.

And when I logged on to her feed on the actual anniversary of the event, I saw that her profile had been turned into a memorial page because, of course she had rushed back to help, and had gotten caught in that second blast.

And the algorithm hadn’t thought to share any of the condolence notes with me.

And I didn’t know whether it was too late to offer a tear emoji so I chose the heart instead.

And no one had quarrelled with the original label “Marked Safe”.

And despite knowing her password, I left it there to fade because she hadn’t put it up for me.

Note: This piece was conceived after the Easter 2019 bomb attacks in Sri Lanka. The intent is to talk about the way we process tragedy on the online commons and how we seek to insulate ourselves with information. Although the circumstances are vastly different, we are all currently involved in a similar format profusion as we confront the global crisis of Covid19. To paraphrase from that wonderful client pitch in the TV show, Mad Men [and our behaviour online does often resemble a manic-compulsive Slidemaster show], “the carousel projector is a wheel we keep turning to take us back to a place where we can feel safe and loved“. Be well, take care and know that you are.

2 Comments

  1. Kitty

    This stunningly beautiful. Thank you soooo much for sharing it with me; I’m so glad I found it! You have a wonderful gift, and I hope you will share more of it. This poem flows so beautifully and, my, what a range of feelings it evokes. Masterful!

    Like

    1. amitabhnanda

      Thank you for the kind words, Kitty. We are all finally listening to “undreamt music”. And so often it sounds the wonderful echo of a chorus call [And I really should steer clear of alliteration]

      Like

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