Vivek Bendre, photographer of ‘Frontline’ and ‘The Hindu’ in Mumbai, dies of COVID-related complications

Published : April 25, 2021 21:20 IST

Vivek Bendre.

To write a tribute to a person one knows should be an easy matter but it also means facing the oh-so-hard fact that one will never see this person again. And so it is with Vivek Bendre, photographer for Frontline and The Hindu in the Mumbai bureau for 26 years. He died of COVID-related causes on the morning of April 25 at the BKC jumbo covid care facility in Bandra.

A talented photographer, he started his career in an ad agency but soon left it to join 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 at The Indian Express, recalls Bendre as a person who was “always ready to rush for a news story”. He joined The Hindu in 1995.

His first love in photography was sports, particularly cricket. Come the cricket season there was no assignment that would tempt him away from covering the game. He was also president of the Mumbai News Photographers’ Association where he was responsible for initiating welfare measures for his colleagues.

What is a life well led one might ask? Good memories are an obvious answer, and for those who knew Bendre there was a surfeit of these. In his career he covered numerous significant news events, among them the saga of the dams on the Narmada where he and this reporter worked closely for many years.

When the Narmada was dammed, the course of the river became erratic. Locals used to warn visitors not to walk along the banks because the new currents had disrupted the ecology and crocodiles were known to find themselves stranded in the silt on the banks. On one visit, Bendre decided to explore the steep hilly countryside but disappeared for a disturbingly long time. As a search party was being formed, villagers used their more effective ‘telegraph’ system, calling in peculiar long-drawn-out voices. “Photograaaapher aahe ka”, they yodelled from hill top to hill top asking if anyone had spotted the photographer. One returning yodel said they had seen him descend towards the river. Tensely we started trekking up and down hills till at last we started the final descent to the Narmada. And there, half in silt and half on a rock, like a very ungainly mermaid sat Bendre nursing a broken toe. The relief that he was not in a crocodile’s belly was so great that we all forgave him his jaunt and willingly supported him across our shoulders. Like any good newsman he held on to his camera bag and we had to pry it off his shoulder. Ever the professional, Bendre continued the assignment and we shot a Narmada Jeevanshala, a children’s school, in Manibeli, one of the first villages to be marooned by the dams. As we made our way back in a tiny boat after sunset towards the gigantic Sardar Sarovar dam Bendre indulged in some ghoulish humour of what would happen to us if the dam gates were opened or if the dam authorities spotted us.

Bendre was due to retire next year. He had made the customary retirement plans. He had bought a flat and said he and his wife planned to relax and travel after he stopped working. He had married in his forties and shared an obviously loving relationship with his wife who used to be a teacher. As a bachelor, Bendre had led quite a careless life and in some ways this took a toll on his health. His wife, Sadhana, was responsible for nursing him back to good health and for this he used to say, “My wife is my God.”

For his wife, it is an everlasting sadness that she agreed to let him be sent to the jumbo covid care centre. But, she reasons, what choice was there when he said he had difficulty breathing. Like thousands of others, Sadhana faced the daily worry of there being no news and no contact with her husband. Entry to COVID hospitals and care facilities is barred to relatives, but it is difficult to accept the absence of information that relatives are forced to endure once patients are admitted there.

If one believes that there is a lesson to learn from everything then perhaps it is this. Even in a crisis – no, especially in a crisis – hospitals need to have their social service staff on duty. They are the right hand of medical treatment. Contact with home and normalcy is a slender but strong thread that helps pull patients out of depression and hopelessness. For his family and friends, it is heart wrenching to think of the very social Bendre lying alone in a jumbo centre with a few hundred patients around him and yet utterly alone.

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