Writing a tribute to someone you know should be an easy thing, but it also means facing the fact so difficult that you will never see that person again. And it is the same with Vivek Bendre, photographer for Frontline and The Hindu in the Mumbai office for 26 years. He died of COVID-related causes on the morning of April 25 at BKC’s jumbo covid care facility in Bandra.
A talented photographer, he started his career in an advertising agency but quickly left it to join it The Indian Express in 1991 where he covered the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 with some intense photographs. His former boss, Mukesh Parpiani, the chief photographer of The Indian Express, remembers Bendre as a person “always ready to rush for a report”. He joined The Hindu in 1995.
His first love for photography was sports, especially cricket. As the cricket season approaches, there is no assignment that would prevent him from covering the match. He was also president of the Mumbai News Photographers’ Association, where he was responsible for initiating social protection measures for his colleagues.
What is a well-led life one might ask? Good memories are an obvious answer, and for those who knew Bendre there was a glut of them. Over the course of his career he has covered many important events, one of which is the Narmada Dam saga where he and this journalist have worked closely together for many years.
When the Narmada was blocked, the course of the river became irregular. Locals used to warn visitors not to walk along the shores as the new currents had disrupted the ecology and crocodiles were known to get stuck in the silt on the shores. On a visit, Bendre decided to explore the rugged hilly countryside but disappeared for an ominous time. When forming a search team, the villagers used their more efficient “telegraph” system, calling out strange and endless voices. “Photograaaapher aahe ka,” they yoded up and down asking if anyone had spotted the photographer. A returning yodeling said he saw him descend towards the river. We started going up and down hills until we finally started the final descent to the Narmada. And there, half in the silt and half on a rock, like a very unsightly mermaid sat Bendre nursing a broken toe. The relief that he wasn’t in a crocodile’s belly was so great that we all forgave him for his ride and gladly supported him on our shoulders. Like any good journalist, he held his camera bag and we had to take it off his shoulder. Always professional, Bendre continued the mission and we shot a Narmada Jeevanshala, a children’s school, in Manibeli, one of the first villages to be blocked by roadblocks. As we returned in a small boat after sunset towards the gigantic Sardar Sarovar Dam, Bendre indulged in a gruesome humor of what would happen to us if the dam gates were open or the dam authorities spotted us. .
Bendre was due to retire next year. He had made the usual retirement plans. He had bought an apartment and said he and his wife intended to relax and travel after stopping work. He had married in his forties and shared a visibly loving relationship with his wife who was once a teacher. As a bachelor, Bendre had led a fairly carefree life and in some ways it had taken a toll on his health. His wife, Sadhana, was in charge of looking after him and for that he used to say, “My wife is my God.
For his wife, it is an eternal sadness that she agreed to let him be sent to the jumbo covid care center. But, she reasons, what choice was there when he said he was having trouble breathing. Like thousands of others, Sadhana faced the daily worry of not hearing from and contacting her husband. Entry to COVID hospitals and care facilities is prohibited for relatives, but it is difficult to accept the lack of information that loved ones are forced to endure once patients are admitted.
If we believe that there is one lesson to be learned from everything, it may be the following. Even in a crisis – no, especially in a crisis – hospitals need to have their social service staff on duty. They are the right arm of medical treatment. Contact with home and normalcy is a thin but strong thread that helps lift patients out of depression and hopelessness. For his family and friends, it is heartbreaking to think of the very social Bendre lying alone in a gigantic center with a few hundred patients around him and yet totally alone.