MUMBAI — Watching his young children gleefully celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of colors, with his father in March, Shalabh Pradhan thought: "This is exactly why we moved back to India."
Pradhan, 42, is a human resources manager who has lived and worked all over the world — Kansas, Minnesota, Kuwait. He lost his mother 12 years ago and wanted to spend more time with his father, a retired defense scientist. So in 2018, Pradhan and his wife, Richa Srivastava, 40, a fashion retail buyer, relocated from the U.S. back to their native India. They settled first in the southern tech hub of Bengaluru and then moved north to be closer to their parents after the pandemic began.
"We came back, me and my wife, because [of] my dad and her dad. We thought, 'We will go back to India, and we will take care of them in their elder years,' " Pradhan says.
But they all had less time together than they'd hoped. This was the last Holi that Pradhan and Srivastava would celebrate with their fathers.
As India battles the world's biggest COVID-19 wave, the country has confirmed about 25.5 million cases and about 283,000 deaths. Experts say those numbers are likely a vast undercount. With only about 3% of people in India fully vaccinated, the population of 1.4 billion is nowhere near immunity — and India is likely to overtake the United States as the most-infected country in the world.
Buried in those statistics is the pain of families such as the Pradhans and Srivastavas, who, in the course of three days in April, lost two beloved fathers.
"Just take him away!"
About two weeks after Holi, Pradhan's 78-year-old father, Sudheer Kumar Pradhan, developed a dry cough. At the time, people weren't very alarmed about COVID-19, and his son didn't think much of it.
"He was healthy. His willpower was very strong," Pradhan recalls.
Cases, though, were rising. On April 11, the day Pradhan's father began coughing, India's Health Ministry confirmed 152,879 new coronavirus cases – up from record lows of around 10,000 a day in early February. Daily confirmed cases eventually would reach a peak of 414,188 on May 7.
In mid-April, India's news was dominated by state elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been holding huge rallies in West Bengal, a state his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was hoping to win again.
"They were not talking about this COVID second wave, that it's coming," Pradhan recalls. "They were not talking about precautions. They were not talking about symptoms. Nothing was there."
So Pradhan shrugged off his father's cough. But he did buy an oximeter to measure his father's blood oxygen levels just in case.
Three days later, his dad developed a fever. And on the next day, April 15, he fell as he tried to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
"I went and I picked him up, put him in the bed. It was alarming for me," Pradhan recalls. "So I checked his oxygen level. It was 87."
His dad was very sick. Pradhan rushed him to the hospital, but staff turned them away.
"The counter, where the reception is, he was not able to stand," he says. "The [hospital attendant] came and said, 'No, we cannot take him.' "
The hospital wouldn't admit Pradhan's father without proof of a positive coronavirus test. He'd had a test — but the results were delayed.
A second hospital also refused to admit him. Officials said the hospital was completely full. His father was clearly having trouble breathing, but staff refused to give him oxygen.
"He could barely walk, barely stand. They put a stretcher out and said, 'No, take him out!' " Pradhan tells NPR, his voice breaking. "It's difficult for me to remember those moments. Nobody was willing to help."
Srivastava says she can't get it out of her mind.
"They were like, 'Just take him! Keep him in the house, keep him wherever you want. Just take him away!' " she says. "I was just praying that day should pass. It was one of the worst days of our lives."
Pradhan and his cousins worked the phones. His brother Saurabh did, too, all the way from Chicago. They eventually found their father a bed at a third hospital. He was put on a ventilator.
But by then it was too late. On the evening of April 21, Pradhan's father died at age 78.
The hospital demanded that Pradhan pick up his father's body immediately, in the middle of the night — and pay the bill right away, too, including a separate charge for his bedsheets. The charges amounted to 250,000 rupees — more than $3,400. The hospital wouldn't release the body without full payment. Pradhan had to find a 24-hour ATM.
He cremated his father the next day, alone. No one was able to accompany him, out of fear of infection.
Pradhan's children, 7 and 9 years old, were stunned. They had just celebrated Holi with their grandfather.
"They were crying a lot," Pradhan says. "They just kept a photograph in front of them and kept crying."
The family performed Hindu rituals in Kanpur in honor of Pradhan's father. On the third day after his death, they drove to the house of Srivastava's parents, about two hours away, in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. They wanted to gather to grieve together.
But when they arrived, they found Srivastava's father, Sheo Prakash Srivastava, suffering from COVID-like symptoms: weakness, shortness of breath. His oxygen was low.
He died that night. There wasn't even time to hospitalize him.
"Everything happened so quick and so fast!" Srivastava recalls.
Doctors later told the family the cause of death was likely a blood clot. They tested him for the coronavirus. Two days after his death, the result came back positive.
The retired insurance officer was 71 and is survived by his wife and two daughters — and friends and neighbors who loved his company.
"He was very social. He used to sit downstairs with my neighbors. So people were flabbergasted. How come the person who was sitting there just four or five days before is now gone?" Srivastava says. "He just left all of us."
Remembering the patriarchs
In the weeks since the deaths of these two men, India has broken world records for confirmed daily coronavirus case numbers and deaths. Scientists suggest the wave may have peaked, though they're not sure because the virus is spreading in rural areas, where testing and medical care are inadequate. On Wednesday, India confirmed the highest single-day death toll (4,529) from COVID-19 anywhere in the world since the pandemic began.
Srivastava, her mother, Pradhan and their children have been isolating at home, grieving. Meanwhile, Pradhan tested positive for the coronavirus. He hadn't realized his own symptoms while so preoccupied with trying to save his father.
The family relives the trauma with every TV report about COVID-19 and India's collapsing health system. Unlike in mid-April, the virus now dominates the Indian news.
Srivastava and Pradhan aren't sure what they will do next. Right now they're just sorting through old photos of their fathers — at a family wedding, at the Statue of Liberty, playing with grandchildren.
"A lot of memories! That is why it hurts even more, because I keep on recalling those little things — how [my father] used to cut fruit for me. No one will ever cut fruit for me like that again," Srivastava says. "All of these small gestures."
Pradhan recently wrote a poem to mourn both of his parents:
Who should I tell that I am in pain? Whose shoulder do I cry on? Everyone forgets, you just remain in our memories.
He's trying to concentrate on memories from the past few months — their final Holi together — when the pandemic gave his family a precious opportunity to come closer before taking two loved ones away.
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report from Hyderabad, India.