Letters from India

From India we’ve received personal reports of the second wave of covid sweeping the county with a vengeance. Our family in Delhi has suffered tragic losses: first Bhushan’s brother-in-law, then Kamal’s older brother, and also a dear friend in Bangalore. Death is sometimes welcome, sometimes inevitable…and sometimes a complete shock. To suffer three losses within the family certainly falls under the heading of a shock. Shruti wrote, “We wish we could meet our loved ones and comfort each other.” We share the same desire.

From left, Swarn, Kamal, me, Bushan, Ravi

Our friend Rajiv was more fortunate. His partner, Marina, wrote from England that he caught covid while traveling from Gokarna via Delhi to the state of Uttarakhand. He’d already had one vaccination, and during the journey had five covid tests – all negative. He thought his cough was from traveling and climate change. Then he tested positive and was immediately put in hospital. With few cases in that state the hospitals were working as normal. Later, transferred to a “luxury” hotel, he was checked twice daily by a doctor, then released.

Meanwhile, in Varanasi, people have described the drastic situation. Covid is rampant and the sick are desperate for medical care and oxygen. A business owner complained people are dying due to the collapse of the medical system. “Money is useless; you cannot buy oxygen or a hospital bed. Every one is in the same condition for death…pray for us”

Another friend, a semi-professional photographer sent a link to a BBC News article: Covid in Varanasi: Anger rises as coronavirus rages in Modi’s constituency https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56969283 His photograph of the major cremation site beside the Ganges leads the article. “The prime minister and the chief minister have gone into hiding, abandoning Varanasi and its people to their own fate,” the article quotes.

Uschi, who we met many years ago, in Varanasi, also wrote in reference to the overloaded cremation sites and skyrocketing cost of wood. “Now the Ganges has become the graveyard of the Pandemic, for those who cannot afford to be cremated.” Their loved ones hope the Ganga will liberate their souls. Nets have been spread throughout her waters to capture the bodies.

Up in Himachal Pradesh it’s a different story, sparsely populated covid has not taken hold. Katinka, an English woman, has been in India throughout and stayed in Varanasi until covid started to rage. She retreated to HP where she’ll stay there for the foreseeable future.

Anita and Sulata, whom we met several years ago in Nagar, and later visited at their home in Vrindavan, are also now staying in the mountains and enjoying the quiet of lockdown.

“We have an abundance of nature, can go on hikes and treks and have a lot more freedom to move around.” Sulata wrote. But it’s not so good for the locals who rely on the tourist industry. Only essential stores are open and with no interstate buses running, Sulata feels marooned from the rest of the country. “It’s hard to really know what’s going on up here and there are no reliable Indian news sites.”

Anita in the mountains

At the other end of the subcontinent, Auroville has been in lockdown since the end of March, with strict sanitation, social distancing and quarantine for those returning from abroad. Officially, they declare no covid. Frederic, who’s been living there for the last five years, reported fifteen active cases mild or moderate, without need of oxygen. But no visiting tourists from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai means no opportunity to sell their products in the market. It also means locals are no longer needed to support the tourist trade. Frederic wrote of an Indian friend, a carpenter working in Auroville, who built Frederic’s furniture. He recently died of covid at 65. “He was tired of life after many years of hard work to feed his family and then the death of his son. But I will always remember his smile.” Frederic said.

In Auroville, taken by Frederic

A neighbor on our street took a luxury yoga tour in Rajasthan and made a personal connection with the guide. Now many in the group are sending money to the extended family to help them through this crisis. Likewise, Uschi, is organizing distribution of food to poor families in Varanasi. She has a wealth of contacts in the west through her yoga tours and export clothing business. Marooned in Germany with her son, Uschi is working with Rakesh, her business partner in Varanasi to distribute the care packages. 75$ provides basic food supplies for a month with a cash supplement for perishables. Hopefully, this will aid them from not falling into further poverty. So far been able to reach 800 families and plan to extend to 1,000. Rakesh takes a photo of everyone who has received a care package.

As the tragedy of India unfolds it deeply disturbs me. In the midst of so much suffering in our adopted country, thank God for those that we know who are making personal efforts to do what they can. The impact of covid in India affects me as if it were my own family….it is my adoptive family. I should have similar empathy for people in all countries suffering from this disease, but the strongest pull comes from India.

Snowdrops and Robins in the Early Spring

Just before dawn I hear birds singing. The robins and the cardinals are back, the cat birds will soon follow.  In the garden, clumps of snowdrops adorn the barren land, while the lilac is beginning to bud and the forsythia is about to pop. The winter wasn’t so arduous…no long periods of unrelenting cold, no stumbling over hard-packed sidewalk snow. Ironically, New England was more fortunate than Texas that suffered from an unprecedented cold spell that froze water lines and shut down the electrical grid. But in Boston, I was still able to ride my bike whenever the temperature was above 40F (4.5C). New England can surprise us with an April snowstorm. Twenty-four years ago on April Fools Day, we took occupancy of Wellington Street during a huge storm that brought down trees. Now the sun is higher in the sky and we’re definitely on the threshold of Spring.

We were offered the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine and only momentarily hesitated. Was J&J as effective as Pfizer or Moderna? Whatever, we’re happy to be done with it. The vaccination hasn’t made a huge impact to our lives; we still wear masks outside and haven’t gone out to eat. I feel a little more comfortable going grocery shopping and more willing to lean in toward the cashier to try and hear what she’s saying.

Our experience in Covid is typical, spending most of our time in the home. It’s given me a new appreciation for our comfortable house and the neighborhood, where we can still find the unexpected.

That said, both of us are looking forward to expanding our horizons.On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, we rode the subway to Revere and walked the beach. It felt great to feel the sand under our feet and smell the salt air. The amusement park neighboring the beach has long gone, replaced by tasteless high-rise condos. I suggested to Gerard we could move here and enjoy cheap ocean view property. He pretended not to hear.

With my limited hearing, scaled-down interaction during Covid has not been a sacrifice, and now I’m feeling apprehension about becoming socially engaged again. Gerard, of course, is ready to resume his chatty lifestyle talking to any and everybody on the street! His time, however, has been filled with rewriting his memoir. A friend, a published poet, has kindly taken the time to read and provide some major editorial suggestions, which he will incorporate.

I’m not a big fan of Zoom but it has enabled me to communicate with friends in a way I no longer can. An external speaker attached to the computer helps but perhaps more is the fact I can see faces without masks. Every two weeks, I participate in a zoom reading group organized by a local senior center. So far, every short story picked from the New Yorker has been thought-provoking. The news from England is two of my nieces are pregnant with scheduled deliveries the very same week of September! So I’m busy knitting again.

Even though we didn’t go to India this year, we’re staying in touch. Last September, India was overtaking the US to become the country with the highest covid caseload. Four months later, in February, numbers plummeted inexplicably. Has the prevalence of so many other diseases boosted Indian immune systems? As in other parts of the world, infections are now rising again, particularly in Mumbai and they’re poised for another lockdown. How quickly Covid could spread through a slum!

Over the years, I’ve read some excellent books giving focus to the Indian slums – City of Joy, Shantaram, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A recent novel, I recommend is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by a journalist, Deepa Anappara. She addresses the huge number of missing children – as many as 180 an hour. Her heart wrenching story is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy who lives in a slum, abutting the railway line. See NY Times book review Who Cares About a Missing Child? 2020/01/31/books/review/djinn-patrol-on-the-purple-line-deepa-anappara.html

Our friends in Varanasi and Himachal Pradesh post Facebook pictures making it look as if nothing has changed. There isn’t a mask in sight. But the economy has suffered a 24 per cent drop during the peak of the pandemic. The country remains closed to tourists. An English friend who managed to stay in Varanasi after the virus hit, recently traveled down to Gokarna, where she found twenty other westerners who like herself had decided not to leave India. For the risk they took, the benefit is they have the run of the beach.

In Delhi , the family tell us the major disruption has been farmer protests caused by Modi’s attempt to eliminate government subsidies. Four months ago, farmers, primarily from Punjab arrived on their tractors to clog the main strets of the capital.

Back in the US, politically things are quieter. The orange thug has left the stage…momentarily, but the immigration crisis on the Mexican border, the murder trial of George Floyd and conspiracy theorists continue to fuel the smouldering embers of discontent.

Looking out my kitchen window, watching our garden slowly come back to life, I feel optimistic.

Heading down the tarmac

Our first days in Orchha were carefree, enjoying the peaceful and friendly atmosphere. Then things began to change. The news filtered in slowly how serious the virus was in Europe. A German couple who we’d planned to share a car and driver with to visit Bundi in Rajasthan decided to cancel. The state authorities were making it difficult for tourists to enter. All the while, fewer and fewer tourists, foreign and Indian, were coming to Orchha.

Marion and Jorgen, concerned about their aging mothers, felt compelled to return to Germany early. We still wanted to go up to HP and wait it out in the mountains until May 2nd.

When we learned that not only was the palace no longer open to tourists but even the temple doors were closed to pilgrims and local worshippers, the writing was on the wall. It was painfully evident that we had grossly underestimated the seriousness of this disease. Suddenly, cars were driving around town, warning people over loudspeakers about Coronavirus. In India, the virus is considered a disease of foreigners or Indians who had been outside the country. Now, a few of the locals looked at us as if we were the virus walking down their street. It was time to leave.

Before we booked our railway tickets to Delhi, we made the time to visit my favorite place on the edge of town – a brook bordered by wheat fields and distant monuments. The only sounds were the trickle of water and birdsong and a cow munching grass. A moment of peace.

Back in town, the streets seemed quieter than usual, the traffic less. Hotels and restaurants were almost empty. How long can they stay open with no tourists or pilgrims? We said goodbye to our Kashmiri friends who were considering closing their jewelry shop early and heading back home.

Around the temple, closed but still lit up at night, we saw the poor and homeless sitting on the ground, still being fed by a few kind souls.

Sadly, we returned to an eerily quiet Delhi but with the good fortune of having family, Ravi and Swarn, in Gurgaon who were brave enough to host us for three days. We tried to keep our distance, staying mostly in our room, but by the end of our stay they were sitting and eating with us. Meanwhile, Marion and Jorgen were not so lucky, staying in a hotel in Paharagunj, Delhi where shops and restaurants were already closed and there was nothing to eat.

As soon as we arrived, our host said we should take the first available flight home. I was still attached to the idea of taking a bus and escaping to HP. Gerard took seriously the advice and easi;y convinced me we should go as soon as possible. We didn’t want to wear out our welcome. Unable to reach the online booking agency or airline to cancel our existing flight, we spent all afternoon trying to find a new flight home. Finally, Emirates via Dubai, with an eight hour layover was our best option. Landing in Newark we’d go through customs and screening, before flying up to Boston.

Wanting a walk, I persuaded Gerard to visit the nearby malls – one was closed, the other was almost empty, shopkeepers standing around idle. The few people out and about were mostly wearing masks. With news of the virus spreading, Modi was dominating the airwaves, talking firmly about restrictions including shutting down the metro in Delhi. That evening, we learned that Himachal Pradesh was not allowing tourists to enter any more. Without knowing it, we’d made the right decision. As of now there’s been no confirmed virus cases in less populated HP and maybe, with the shut down, it can stay that way. On the morning news, it was announced starting May 22nd, there will be no more international flights. Our flight was scheduled for the afternoon of the 21st. A narrow escape.

I was relieved to finally leave for the airport, well ahead of time. With long lines of equally anxious passengers, all wearing masks, we entered the fray. After hours of hanging around, as the plane went down the tarmac, Gerard counted over 50 planes lined up idle. A fellow passenger told us that Emirates was suspending all operations world wide starting now. We could be on their last international flight. During our layover in Dubai, we were amused to see groups of Asian passengers covered from head to toe like Hazmat workers…maybe they were the smart ones. We arrived in Newark to find our flight to Boston canceled but had no problem rebooking on one four hours later. There was no real screening…none in Newark or Boston…So now it’s up to us to self isolate for two weeks and take our temperatures daily. Our house sitters kindly shopped for us before they vacated and a good neighbor promises to leave food on the doorstep.

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Coronavirus, but not in Orchha

Our original plan was to stay in Orchha only a week and then move on the southern Rajasthan. But the state government of Rajasthan has gone crazy about coronavirus so we’re staying put until we go to the mountains. Not a hardship, it’s an easy place to be at this time of the year, the weather is perfect cool nights and warm days and pollution is relatively low. German friends, Marion and Jorgen, have arrived from Gokarna and we’re enjoying showing them around for the first time.

The historic town of Orchha and surrounding countryside has barely changed since we first visited in 2010. Each year we are surprised at the lack in growth of tourists. Tour groups still arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, and gone before the dust settles. This year, there are less but still a few.

Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.

Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.

However, change is in the air. Namaste Orchha, a three day conference/festival aimed at stimulating tourism, was winding up the day we arrived. More significantly, there’s a clean up campaign – similar to Varanasi. The open sewers running each side of the street are being closed up. The main road through town widened and resurfaced meaning the traffic just goes faster. The fronts of buildings beside the road that extended too far have been demolished and the exposed remaining interior of the vacated building is painted cream white! They’re continually upgrading in and around the palace, the major sites are illuminated at night and the fountain in front of the temple is spouting water for the first time.

Until now we’ve not mentioned Coronavirus to avoid feeding the media-driven paranoia. There are so many viruses in India that a reminder to wash your hands and not touch your face is good common sense. Western tourists are at an all time low, and, each day, India Times provides a news update on the spread of the virus. In a place as large and disorganized as India, you question the degree to which any estimate can be accurate. When we step out on the street, life is as normal in Orchha and we forget about the virus – or we almost do. Fortunately, we are in a small town with only a small tourist influx on a normal basis. But now that is changing. Everyone is talking about it and some are booking flights home early. India has become caught up in the global wave of hysteria.

Friends, Premgit and Sandhya, wrote with a horror story of arriving in a town in the Punjab where the Sikh festival of Urs was being celebrated. First, the hotel told them their reservation was canceled; they finally managed to get a room and settled in. The next morning, six fierce Sikh policemen barged into their room and told them they had to get out. There was no discussion – they had to go the train station and wait for twelve hours for a train to Delhi, where they booked a new flight back to the UK a couple of weeks earlier than planned. The tourist areas of Rajasthan are also in high alert. Tourists are being stopped at train stations and told to go to a local hospital and get a medical certificate before they’re allowed to stay. India Times published a photo of a hospital in Jaipur showed a long line of tourists waiting to to be certified. And just today, we read that India is in lockdown as regards flights in and out of the country. We have now canceled our next destination, Bundi, in Rajasthan, and are staying longer here in Orchha. We do not anticipate a problem in being in HP in the mountains where we plan to spend the month of April. First we must return to Delhi first to pick up our warm clothes from the family and catch the bus to Rewalsar.

We’re making a concerted effort not to get caught up in this over reaction. We can and firmly believe that whatever happens is supposed to happen. Both of us feel perfectly healthy. In this bizarre time, we wish everybody all the very best.

Khajuraho: Temples in a Garden

For years, we’ve passed by Khajuraho but never stopped. Too many tourists and touts. Uschi, a friend of ours in Varanasi, who organizes tours to the major sites including Khajuraho, strongly encouraged us to visit. She recommended us seeing the temples in their beautiful setting. We booked an expensive, by our standards, hotel for the occasion.

We took a sleeper train and arrived early in the morning. The hotel was two km. outside town, sitting in quiet countryside, the rooms white, clean and spacious (especially after our shoebox-sized room in Varanasi) and all with balconies overlooking a garden of palm and banana trees. After resting in luxury, we walked into town. A complex of six temples sits peacefully among manicured gardens, in an area cordoned off from traffic. The best time to visit is late afternoon when the sandstone temples look their best in the soft sunlight.

While waiting, we ate in a rooftop restaurant beneath a gigantic tree adorned with flowering vines. The cafe looked straight out on the temple complex and its lush manicured gardens. Sitting in such idyllic surroundings, leaves gently blowing in the breeze, we agreed that we’ve never been in a place quite like this in India.

Khajuraho’s Hindu and Jain temples were built around 1100 AD commissioned by the Rajput rulers of Chandela Dynasty. After the downfall of the Chandelas in the 13th century, the abandoned temples suffered some desecration by the Mogul conquerors but were protected by their remote location in dense forests. In 19th Century, a British surveyor rediscovered and excavated the site. We spent an absorbing two hours in the main temple complex.

Khajuraho is well known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the temple exteriors. However, only a few of the thousands of the exquisitely carved figures are erotic. Hardly worth a trip if that was your focus! Most depict idealized femininity and the men pale in comparison.

Various legends try to explain the sculptures. The most appealing to me was the story of beautiful Hemvati who was seduced by the Moon God while bathing in the moonlight in a pool in Benares. After conceiving a child, she cursed the God and ran into the forest to raise her illegitimate son alone. However, the Moon God promised her their son would grow up to become a great king. His word came true: the child was the first king in the Chandela dynasty. After Hemvati passed away, she appeared to her son in a dream, asking him to construct temples that would depict human passions.

The next day, we hired a rickshaw driver, hungry for our business with the obvious dearth of tourists to take us out of town.

We passed through a village to find another seven temples which we would never have found on our own. Driving down country lanes, it was money well spent.

An isolated temple amongst the lush wheat fields had a miraculous statue of Lord Shiva.

Our third day, we returned to our favorite restaurant under the tree and spent the afternoon sipping tea and looking again at the beautiful temples.

The guide books say you only need one day in Khajuraho but we’re glad we decided to spend longer in this picture perfect setting. Even the temperature cooperated: cool nights and warm clear days. We’re so glad we took Uschi’s advice!

Bansuri and Ayurveda

One night, we attended a very special event, a private ‘bansuri’ (bamboo flute) recital. Even though they were students, the intimate atmosphere made up for any possible lack of technique. For a minute, we thought we thought we’d entered Satyajit Ray’s film about musicians (the Bengali film producer from the ’50s). The music was not amplified, making it possible to hear the nuances of the tabla normally missed. But in my case, any hopes of being able to hear a flute were dashed because the bansuri played in the lower register.

Unable to participate in many conversations that Gerard has can leave me feeling on the periphery. Only if I’m in a quiet environment and speaking to a woman can I fully participate. When the frustration mounts, I’ve found the forty minute walk up the river to Assi Ghat is a tonic.

After so many years of walking the ghat, I still marvel at what a unique place Varanasi is. Growing up in Totnes on the River Dart, walking along the Charles River and many others, I feel my whole life I’ve been refreshed by rivers, but none that compare to the Ganges.

Last week, Sandhya and Premgit, an English couple we met four years ago here. He’s a photographer working with only black and white film and focusing on religious rituals in India. His wife, Sandhya, has a chronic respiratory condition and finds help here from an ayurvedic doctor. She persuaded me to join her. The doctor took my pulse, inspected my tongue, then prescribed some pills and four sessions of Sirodhara, a therapy to reduce stress. While lying on my back, for an hour, his assistant “gently” drizzled warm oil on to my forehead, from a brass vessel hanging overhead. All I know is, it was quite euphoric, incredibly relaxing and gave me a good night’s sleep afterwards. Problematic was trying to shampoo all the oil out of my hair!

We’ll be moving on soon. God willing, we’ll be back next year and hope not to see further destruction in our favorite city. A reassuring reminder: we’re told that throughout history, Varanasi has been destroyed and rebuilt a total of four times with Modi the cause of the fifth. On a lighter note, he managed to move the cows from the lanes of Varanasi, while the British Raj could not. But there’s still a few around!

Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.

On the beach in Karnataka

For nine years, Agonda in Goa was my beach destination. I loved it and even when the experience began to sour, I denied the undesirable changes and clung to what remained positive (the beach and the friends we’d made there). I don’t always know when to let go.

But now, we’ve found another beach with a long stretch of fine sand and clear water. The big plus for us is that Gokarna is not a tourist destination in the Goa style. There are the regulars that have been coming here for years, older hippie types, and of course, there’s the young Russians. They’re not looking for disco bars and karaoke. The other group of tourists are young Indians who flock here on weekends and don’t venture far up the beach. Huts and small restaurants border the sea front but don’t overwhelm it.

Quintessentially South Indian, Gokarna is a temple town, where pilgrims visit regularly. At the temple entrance, local women sell flowers for offerings.

Our guest house is at the upper end of the main street, where women sell vegetables in the early morning.

It can take twenty minutes to walk through the back lanes and fields but we don’t mind. It’s a good room, comfortable and colorfully painted, and stays cool. It also has a balcony among tall palm trees, just wide enough for my yoga practice (although the lure of the beach often outweighs yoga.)

By chance, I picked up a book left in the guesthouse, called Finding Yourself in the Kitchen, written by an American Buddhist nun. She encourages you to use the kitchen to practice mindfulness and reality acceptance. Right now, I’m enjoying being out of the kitchen, but I file it away to practice when I return. She writes with a levity and lack of self righteousness that encourages me to read what she has to say.

Friends, Marina and Rajiv

We’ve already met up with two couples we first befriended a few years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most mornings we join them for breakfast. Another friend, Oliver, a Belgian living in Devon, England is our senior and has been coming to India for many years. Also an artist, specializing in finely detailed pen and ink drawings. He has not bothered to join the digital revolution not having a cell phone or a computer. When we are back in Boston, he sends us beautiful handwritten letters. It’s amazing that he gets around India without being online.

One morning we met an interesting fellow who was born in Auroville, the community built on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. He left when he was seven, and after forty years, he’s now decided to move back. Over numerous cups of chai, he gave us his insight of the history of Auroville and the community today. We are particularly interested in his story because two good friends of ours now live there. He admitted that Auroville is turning into a retirement community. I was frustrated to miss out on most of what he said, but Gerard filled me in afterward. Still struggling with my hearing loss in crowded restaurants where ceiling fans, clattering dishes and echoing conversation are norms, but I’m still glad to be here.

Gerard had a surprise yesterday. The landlady met him on the stair with a severe look. What have I done now? Then her face broke into a broad smile and she said, Happy Birthday! Later over morning chai I couldn’t help telling our friends it was his birthday, and more well wishes.

In the evening, as we were about to leave for dinner, the landlady presented Gerard with eggless birthday cake.

Our landlady, Anand, and her husband

We sat with her husband and ate a slice. Later, after masala dosas for dinner, our friends treated Gerard to large scoops of rainbow colored ice cream. Not a bad way to celebrate 73. As Gerard has said, in spite of Modi/Trump/Iran/etc, life can be good.

A Cochlear on the Horizon

The beginning of July marked the first anniversary of my sudden hearing loss. A psychiatrist, who’s also deaf, cautioned it could take two years to fully adjust. She may well be right, and on a good day I feel I’m halfway there. Supportive friends encourage me to turn my misfortune into a positive, the challenges into opportunities. Good advice, but just how do you go about that?

My hearing loss has changed the way I try to communicate. Now that it takes more effort and I don’t have the luxury of idle chit chat, my conversations are more directed. They’re also more selective. I can no longer participate in my women’s group meeting in a cafe once a week, but instead I may meet individually from time to time. In actual fact, one-on-one conversations are usually more in depth than in the group setting.

With less hearing, my life might be simplified, but it’s not. People tell me I’m not missing anything. It’s easy for them to say. When I go into a store and can’t hear the shop attendant, that’s not easier. Going out for a meal with friends and being unable to participate in the conversation in the restaurant is discouraging. The few people I still have an ongoing relationship with are more valued because they have adapted to my new circumstance.

Periods of quiet are welcome and I enjoy my own company in a new way. I miss going to jazz and Indian music concerts with Gerard…though I must admit, sometimes, I wasn’t so engaged in the music and it was more of an endurance test to stay to the end! I’d like to say I’m less concerned with FOMO (fear of missing out), reminding myself it’s an illusion. There may be little to miss that is truly worthwhile.

I still have a way to go – constantly vigilant against the insistent roaring in my head goading me to rush; impatient when I can’t hear because there’s ambient noise and the other person doesn’t speak clearly, directly to my face. I get frustrated when I can’t hear what Gerard’s saying to me and he gets equally frustrated. But he still loves me. Always clumsy and accident prone, I’m now even worse. I still speed around on my bike. How can I be so careless when it’s so much more critical for me to be careful? As the neurologist told me, “There’s nothing wrong with your brain, you just need to pay attention!”

Reading is still my sanctuary and even more so now because it doesn’t require the effort of listening. Similarly, at the beach, I can still hear the waves and experience the same sense of focus the ocean’s always brought me. More important, a loss that I can do nothing to change has given me a new gratitude for my husband’s love, the beautiful house he’s created, the relatively easy life we have, and our health and wealth. Things I tended to take for granted.

Of course, I can still easily get derailed. Anticipating a scheduled appointment with a new specialist for a second opinion, I expected to get greater clarification, a new approach to my condition…perhaps even hope? Instead, I got the opposite. A new hearing test revealed I’d lost yet more hearing in one ear. Shocking news because girlfriends tell me my hearing seems better – but Gerard was not surprised. The loss continues in the lower frequencies. More blood clots in the small veins of my inner ear? The hearing specialist recommended a cochlear implant but I wasn’t prepared to make a decision. The next day we left for NYC to visit a good friend with terminal cancer. This helped put things back in perspective.

It took a couple of weeks for me to finally decide to go ahead with the implant. It’s quite different from a hearing aid. Electrodes are implanted right into the cochlea and directly stimulate the auditory nerve to provide ‘a sense of sound’. The receiver, looks like a hearing aid, sitting behind my ear. A totally implanted device is in the works, but not in time for me, sadly.

Success rates for cochlears have supposedly increased from 50% to 80% today. I have talked with/heard of several that have been successful. They say success depends a lot on expectation – you can’t hope for too much. The biggest risk for me is that my tinnitus will increase. In some cases, it’s reported to diminish, in other cases it becomes worse. You also lose whatever natural hearing you have in that ear, but since I only have 12% hearing on my left side, we’ve decided it’s worth all these risks. It may take up to three months to get used to the artificial hearing – voices can sound like quacking ducks at first! But it holds the promise of better word clarity and hearing music again. First step is an evaluation and then surgery will be scheduled. So, for now I must be patient.

Meanwhile, an interesting side development: alerted by a concerned friend, I found a press release online of a study sponsored by Yale, linking a common gut bacteria, roseburia intestinale, with my autoimmune disease, Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Research demonstrated that the normally healthy bacteria has gone berserk and triggered the antibodies that form an irritation in small vessels/veins, causing blood clots and, in my case, responsible for my hearing loss. Until now, no one knew what caused the antibodies. This study is the first real research into the disease and makes me feel no longer neglected by the medical world. Excited, I printed out the article and took it to my regular doctor. He just shrugged and said, “Early days…stay tuned.” Of course, he’s right; this kind of research can take years before it becomes accepted and used to create a cure. The only treatment for APS today is blood thinners which address the symptom and the not the disease itself.

We’re beginning to plan for India next January, but whether I’ll have a cochlear before or after the trip is still uncertain. Either way, I’m less apprehensive than a year ago, and looking forward to another adventure. With all its extremes, India still pulls but is always challenging. With a cochlear implant I may be able to hear again the unique sounds of India – its music, mosque calls, Buddhist chants…perhaps even barking dogs (which I didn’t miss last year!)