After Eleven Years, Winter in Boston

As we flew out of India last March, I had a premonition we might not be able to return again the following January. We had little idea at that time how serious coronavirus was and how deeply and long it would impact our lives. Waiting for the plane to depart, our last night in Orchha occupied my thoughts. The town had gone into an abrupt lockdown, the temple closed its doors and the streets emptied. In a pool of streetlight, a small group of beggars sat outside the temple, while our new friend from the Indian military, volunteering with the temple priests, handed out dal and chapatis. The usual hubbub of pilgrims and street vendors had already disappeared into the quiet night. I took a last photograph and silently bid Orchha goodbye. The mood was decidedly melancholy. The next day, we were back in Delhi and franticly searching for a flight to Boston. had to let go of my fantasy of hiding out in the Himalayas, and we boarded one of the last flights out of India.

We returned home to a new reality of social distancing, mask wearing and grocery store queues. But spring was coming and the garden became our refuge. We nursed it back to life, planted anew and weeded. Gerard rebuilt the stone wall and leveled the paving stones.

We lingered over breakfast, drank chai in remembrance of India, and from time-to-time entertained friends sitting six feet apart on the patio.

While self-quarantining, I paced the empty alleys of the South End. Soon I felt confident to ride my bike in the empty streets of Boston and discovered new bike paths in and around the city: beside the Charles River and around the vast, now empty, university campuses of Northeastern and Boston.

When summer came, I could not longer go to Manchester by the Sea; the town had closed the beach to non-residents. Boston harbor became an option; I swam wary of pollution and keeping my head well out of the water. On a sunny weekday, more often than not I swam by myself, looking back toward the city and marveling at my secluded private lagoon. (On the weekend, the crowds arrived and I stayed home)

The social restrictions have not bothered me as much as others. The pandemic has helped me to rein in my restless nature and find a new contentment in a quieter life at home. I never really liked the using the telephone and now, with my hearing loss, I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing letters. Growing up in England, letter writing was expected and something always enjoyed. I lost touch with it through the convenience and universality of telephones. Social encounters, consisting of only one or two people at a time, are easier, although masks and social distancing exacerbate my hearing loss. With the deepening political chaos I’ve spent more time reading the news, national and international trying to make sense of the insanity. And now that winter’s arrived, I’ve taken up knitting again after a long hiatus.

Gerard, who never has a problem occupying his time, stays busy with projects: house repair, furniture refinishing…and painting pictures when he finds time. He’s recently completed two that I especially like. Now, he’s returning to a rewrite of his memoir during the cold dark winter months. He’s never at any loss for words on the telephone, but he misses socializing, whether a casual street encounter, or a prolonged coffee shop conversation with friends. Neither of us have suffered in isolation – fortunate we don’t have to go out to work, have a lovely house and each other for company.

India is never far from our thoughts. Back in March, Modi ordered India’s lockdown with less than four hours’ notice. “Forget what it is like stepping out of the house for 21 days. Stay at home and only stay at home,” he ordered. But he mentioned nothing specific about the daily-wage earners—mostly migrant workers—who make up 80% of India’s workforce. Factory hands, delivery boys, cooks, painters, rickshaw pullers, or vendors standing by the roadside, selling fruits and vegetables, chai and flowers. Migrant women are indispensable as maid servants for the middle and upper class; daily they arrive to wash clothes, sweep floors, cut vegetables and make chapatis. With the pandemic, their income, in an instant, disappeared. We’ve seen horrifying pictures of these migrant workers, fleeing the shutdown cities. With bags perched on their heads and children in their arms, walking down highways in a desperate attempt to return to their villages hundreds of miles away.

Meanwhile, back in Delhi, with few cars on the road, there is one silver lining: the sky has become clear and blue, something rarely seen in one of the most polluted cities in the world.

A crow flies near Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace in New Delhi, on April 2. Air quality has markedly improved in India’s capital since the country’s coronavirus lockdown began last month.

In the days following the shutdown, we heard stories of foreigners who didn’t get out in time. A friend sent us a video of some English tourists fleeing Varansi to make an evacuation flight in Dehi. The trip was far from smooth, the van driver fell asleep and went off the road, there was a long wait for another van, resulting in just missing their plane. I was envious of American friends, one a Krishna devotee, the other a travel guide, who were both able to remain in Himachal Pradesh. In the mountains, there’s been little evidence of covid. Two other old friends, have both become permanent residents in Auroville. Covid infections have stayed low and their lives seem to be continuing as normal within the confines of the community.

We’ve also kept in contact with our Indian friends. Their stories are quite different. Our hotel in Varanasi, Shiva Kashi, has been closed since March and Sanjiv, the manager, is trying to hang on until they can open again, probably not before next summer at the earliest. Shree Cafe is likewise closed. Santosh, his days freed up, is taking photographs of the shutdown city. Sadly, the demolition work from the Golden temple to the banks of the river still continues with a hideous pontoon mooring to offload tourists arriving by boat. His wife, Seema, has fed the stray dogs and cows on the street almost nightly and sponsors community youth activities – coaching football teams on the ghats, holding competitions.

Rajesh appears to be back at his bangle store near the Golden Temple (though we may be wrong) while still writing beautiful poems. In the photographs, few are wearing masks. In Orchha, our Kashmiri friends were forced to close their jewelry store, but couldn’t get a flight home to Srinagar. We’re still waiting for the final outcome. So many of the Indians we know rely on the now nonexistent tourist business. The Indian government is not issuing any tourist visas and this is unlikely to change as long as covid continues to surge.

Back in the US, the political mess has provided a constant distraction…or irritation. It’s felt like an emotional roller coaster. For a moment, I believed trump was going to leave the stage and he’d no longer dominate my mind with so much negativity. But that’s not trump; good news or bad news, he still continues to take center stage. After the storming of the Capitol, I feel America has deteriorated into a state of complete lawlessness — a banana republic. Wintering in India, we’ve missed recent inaugurations. In hill station, Ooty, we tried to watch Obama with a group of westerners but the TV had terrible reception. Four years ago, we happily ignored Trump’s sign-in as we sat on the beach in Agonda.

As Biden will be inaugurated in a virtual and low key ceremony, trump will orchestrate his ‘triumphant’ departure from a military air base in Maryland…but no one will be watching. It’s easy for me to compare his departure to that of Richard Nixon in 1974. But I like to think Nixon redeemed himself by having some remorse. He later admitted: “I let you down. I let the country down.” I can’t imagine trump will ever feel any similar responsibility.

At present, I’m on overload: too much trump, too much pandemic, too much distrust. Keeping our heads down, we hope for the best. Missing all of you that we will not see in India this winter, best wishes for health and happiness in 2021.

Another Festival in Vashisht

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Last year, we asked for an electric fire in the guest house. Now, we’re peeling off layers, wishing we hadn’t left our summer clothes in Delhi. The temperatures are unusually warm and the snow is rapidly melting, but still spectacularly beautiful here. Apple trees in bloom, wisteria, irises popping up everywhere. Kullu Valley is now much narrower than in Naggar, and the mountains higher. The craggy peaks seem to be within one’s reach.

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Compared with Naggar, Vashisht is a hustle and bustle of activity. Our timing was perfect to catch the religious festival again this year.  It was in full swing. Each village has its own god or goddess loosely translated into patron saint, but not really. During this festival, a few of the neighboring villages brought their deity to Vashisht to celebrate…we’re not sure what.

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Off and on, for the three days, one of the goddesses would be taken out and paraded through Vashisht, accompanied by horns and drums. In the evening there was line dancing (reminding us of the Berber dancing in the Atlas Mountains) and games including musical chairs and blind man’s bluff. (Did the British bring these games, or did they pick them up from here?) The last evening, the musicians played without a break for hours. I don’t know if the dancers were in a trance, but I think the musicians were.

The day after the festival the town returned its sleepy weekday routine. On the weekend, the Indian tourists will arrive in increasingly large numbers, now the temperatures are soaring well over 100F in Delhi.

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Our first walk out of town to a huge waterfall, we bumped into two women we kept running into in Naggar. They live in Vrindavan, where Krishna is said to have spent his childhood years. One is from the US, the other Leeds, England, and they’ve been in India for the past 17 years. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but when directly questioned, they’re Hari Krishna’s. We all thought it was a happy coincidence to meet each other again and they invited us to come to Vrindavan – one destination Gerard’s been contemplating for some time but for one reason or another, maybe because of the lack of accommodation, we haven’t included in our itinerary yet. They assured us of lodging and would be more than happy to show us all of the hidden temples that Vrindavan is known for. The two women had an aura of joy and contentment that was very obvious and we thoroughly enjoyed hearing their stories.

We also ran into for the second time an American our age, who has lived outside of the US for over 20 years. He’s also followed a spiritual path for more than 40 years and we found we have a lot in common. Peter now spends the winter in Auroville (the natural farming community associated with Sri Aurobindo) outside Pondicherry and comes to Vashisht for the summer.  Gerard was impressed that he’s able to live reasonably well in India on his social security check!

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One early morning, Peter led us on a new walk over to a neighboring village on the other side of the Beas river.

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Every twist and turn walking down the path, there’s a new vista. These mountains seem to be in constant flux without ever losing their presence. As Paul Brunton says in A Hermit in the Himalayas, “The fascination of finding nature in her wildest and grandest form never ceases. As an ancient Sanskrit poet says, ‘In a hundred ages of gods I cannot tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.’ Whatever one says about it, will never be an exaggeration.”

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Crossing the Beas on a rickety footbridge, we reached the old wooden houses, with decoratively painted doors.

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Down the river valley, through apple orchards, we came to Old Manali, which we had considered as an alternative to Vashisht. But after seeing the chillum smoking, chilled out crowd and all of the cheap knick-knack shops, Vashisht seems the best alternative.

Like our previous two destinations in Himachal Pradesh, this year has been a repeat of the last. It’s often said that you can never return, and with that in mind both of us had some reservation. But fortunately, in this case, we could return. Each stay was a continuation and expansion of the year before. Not to mention meeting up with old acquaintances, each village had more to reveal to us. This past month in HP has been a highlight of our four months in India and even though we’ve missed early spring in Boston, springtime in the Himalayas is also a beautiful season. Tomorrow, we will have to reluctantly pack our bags and return to Delhi with a final farewell to our family there.

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