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Hajurma died on the night of September 5. At 82, she had already spent many years in pain, suffering a host of health problems. But she’d always fought hard, always pulled through, even at times when hope seemed to be lost. Not too long ago, she’d come home after several weeks at the hospital battling yet another illness. In many ways, weak and fragile as she was, she had started to seem invincible in my mind.

It’s ironic to think that what finally got her was a mosquito.

Dengue had already put her son, my mama, in the hospital three days before we had to rush her there too. He was still in intensive care the night she died, and still there when she was cremated two days later. The night hajurma died, maiju, too, was diagnosed with the same virus and admitted to the hospital. 

I’d been in the ambulance when we brought hajurma to the hospital. I tried to make it seem like just another of her trips to get treatment, the kind she’d made countless times and always, always bounced back from. And three days later, I was beside her again, but this time in a hearse. I cried then.

It was a surreal week. The speed with which the disease had swooped down on my family had given us barely enough time to process anything properly, to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. Hardly had we dropped hajurma’s body at the morgue than we found ourselves discussing who would stay with mama and maiju at the hospital overnight. Just then, grieving felt like a privilege we couldn’t afford.

But, of course, grief eventually pushed its way past the walls. We all cried. I cried. Again. My mother and aunties cried. My sister – who’d been calm and collected when comforting our mothers – broke down when she saw hajurma being prepared for cremation, draped in her favorite pink saree. 

Hajurma, Tirtha Laxmi Tuladhar. Photo credit: Nepal Picture Library

Hajurba, who has Alzheimer’s and can’t recognize his own children on bad days, cried too, at first. The next day, he was angry. He’d made up conspiracies in his mind that the infection had been thrown into Nepal from across the border, and that the government and politicians knew all about it, but were staying mum. It’s all their fault, he kept saying. He’d lost his mother to an epidemic and now his wife, he said. These thoughts would run on a loop over and over again, blurring into one another, and then he would tear up. 

As all this was happening in one reality, in another, mama and maiju were still bed-ridden at the hospital. We hadn’t yet told mama that his mother had succumbed to the disease; we hadn’t even told him she had been in the same hospital as him. When he finally found out, the day after the cremation, he cried. He cried again when he saw me and sister. He said he had felt hajurma hug him the day before. Another relative had dreamt that hajurma and tarhimha hajurma – hajurma’s elder sister who had passed away a few months ago – had been holding hands and walking through the hospital on the night she died. This was before the relative had heard the news. Tarhimha hajurma had always said she’d be coming to get her sister if she died first.

When I told my mother that Dr Sanduk Ruit was also at the same hospital, stricken with dengue, she said that maybe hajurba had a point – not the conspiracy about our neighbors, but what he said about the government’s passivity. She said we needed to share the story, and alert as many people as we can to the dangers. 

I am not an expert. There are others who have the facts and who have been tirelessly spreading these, warning people, and I hope they continue to do so. I just want to remind everyone not to take this lightly. You need to be scared. The onus is on us to protect ourselves, we cannot wait for anyone else. 

Before this, epidemics had always been a distant phenomenon, something that happened to others, something I read or saw on the news. Something I felt I should photograph and document. But this time, it was my own family that was the story. If there’s one thing this week has done, it is to serve me a heavy reminder that behind each number and statistic in the papers, on TV, is an actual face, a life, a person who has taken care of you, hugged you to sleep when you were scared of ghans katne khurkera on TV, who has loved you. Even though I do not believe in heaven, I hope the two sisters are together, holding hands and sharing stories, wherever they are.

More information on dengue prevention and care available here.