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.

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!

Nothing stays the same – even in Ancient Varanasi

Over our eleven years visiting Varanasi we’ve talked about change…slow, subtle changes in the ancient city and its people. Changes also that may be merely our own shifting perception. But this year, change is tangible and undeniable. At first impression the lanes and ghats were less crowded and cleaner. Tourism is down. Hotel managers and restaurant owners tell us business has declined by as much as 60%.

In addition to people, there’s far less cows and stray dogs in the lanes, meaning they’re cleaner. When we asked friends, they told us the animals were rounded up last fall and hauled out of the city. It’s part of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘clean up Varanasi’ campaign. Maybe the next initiative will include eliminating the speeding motorcycles with their ear-piercing horns, in the narrow lanes? The disappearance of the water buffalo on the ghat is also obvious. We’re told that most of them were owned by the Moslems.

There have been repairs made on the ghat, the first time in our memory. But most unsettling is the destruction around the Golden Temple; 340 buildings have already been torn down. Modi wants to clear space around the temple and make a corridor leading to the Burning Ghat. From our perspective the scheme is flawed from the start. Why take the oldest living city in the world and tear it apart? The lanes are now blocked from one end of the old city to the river by the bulldozing.

With Narenda Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister, he appears in his actions to be emboldened and particularly toward minorities. Gerard has asked numerous people for their opinion of not only the destruction around the Golden Temple, but Modi’s policies in general. The vast majority support the Prime Minister, and think it’s time to take a hard line on the troublemakers, namely, the Moslems. We have no idea if this is the national sentiment, but it appears to be here in Varanasi, Modi’s adopted city. Some of Central Government’s tactics in this, the largest democracy in the world, we find disturbing.

The day we arrived, we went over to visit our friend Santosh, who runs a restaurant and met up with our long time French friends there. I was just in time to accompany Santosh and family on a customary afternoon walk. Along the ghat there were frequent stops for chai, pizza and other treats, even though the food in his restaurant is the best in town! A few days later, we took an early morning walk up the ghat and back through the old city – or what’s left of it. Santosh treated us to a traditional winter drink – bright yellow and fragrant, the sweetened milk is whipped into a frothy concoction and served in clay pots

Our time here coincided with Shivratri (Shiva’s birthday) and Dhrupad Mela, a classical Indian music festival which goes into the early morning hours. Gerard attended all three nights but didn’t make it beyond midnight. I joined him twice and even though I couldn’t hear all the music, enjoyed the ambience.

On the last night, rain was forecast. Sure enough, the music had hardly begun when a sudden downpour caused everyone to move toward the stage and into the center away from the leaking edges of the tent. The sound system and lights sputtered but the musicians continued playing without interruption. Fortunately the tent held up better than a few years earlier, when a similar downpour drove away all but the most dedicated in the audience.

Again, we’ve met up with old friends and made a few new ones. Peter who we first met in HP visited with his partner Veronique for a few days. Tired of traveling, Peter has now settled in Auroville.

A surprise meeting was with Darcy, introduced to us by mutual friends from back home. Darcy came to Varanasi to practice yoga with a group. She lives just outside Boston and we enjoyed making the new connection.

Darcy finding us at Dhrupad Mela

Gerard enjoys sitting in the foyer of our hotel to chat with Sanjiv, a friend since he first became hotel manager nine years ago (we’ve been coming here longer). While there, he invariably meets other guests including an interesting young woman from Serbia coming here alone to practice her photography. Tomorrow, our friends Sandhya and Premgit, from the edge of Dartmoor, are arriving.

A Last glimpse and farewell to Varanasi

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On our last morning, we managed to get up early to walk on the ghat at first light. Late night concerts, sickness, or just pure laziness had prevented us from enjoying my favorite time in Varanasi. The sun just rising, the air cool and fresh, and lots of activity.  I was so pleased to be feeling well again and out on the ghats.

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Even though respiratory and intestinal infections are common in Varanasi, our small circle showed their concern and Sanjiv our, hotel manager, worried over us.  Over the years, he’s become friend and confidant, making it harder to say goodbye each year.

Old and new friends alike gave us a heartfelt farewell. I did a last errand through the neigbhorhood lane where the pharmacist, cookie lady, restaurant owner, travel agent all called out goodbye. Frederic came and ate with us, Helene and Remy dropped by our hotel as we were leaving and Premgit and Sandhya came to the door to see us off.

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More music and the back lanes

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The musical bonanza continued. Gerard went to three more concerts. One was a sitar player we knew called Shujaat Khan; it was the first time he’d seen him live. His playing was impeccable and his voice hauntingly beautiful. I was unable to go because of the usual intestinal malaise of Varanasi. Few who stay for any length of time avoid it.

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An Indian couple from Atlanta, Georgia sitting in the local teashop ask why we choose to come to Varanasi every year. Their comment about the city is the peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Hindus, not always the case in many parts of India. I’ve always found the presence of Moslems surprising because Varanasi is the most sacred Hindu city in the country, the birthplace of Shiva. But perhaps they’re right – there are at least five Mosques within sight of our hotel on the edge of the Moslem quarter and we’ve never witnessed a hint of a communal clash here. Sanjiv, our hotel manager, says although there is very little cross marriage, the communities depend upon each other for business.

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Our friend Katinka arrives at breakfast today saying she needs a new hotel because her bed has collapsed. This prompts the elderly French lady, to tell the story of when she stayed at the same hotel in the early 80s, the room boasted an impressive four poster bed although she had to make minor repairs each year. Then one year, when she came the bed was gone. What happened to the four poster? The landlord told the bizarre story of two Americans stashing money in the hollow of the bed, Little did they know, the bed also had termites. When they returned a month later to retrieve their money, it was half eaten by the ants. Enraged they smashed the bed.

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Once again, Gerard had the chance to walk the back lanes with two other photographers. They happened across a wedding in full throttle.  

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Later, stopping for the never-ending cup of chai

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with Santosh and Remy.

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Varanasi is a magnet for photographers and we’ve met our share on this visit. Frederic who is focused on photographing dance; our English friend Premgit has been photographing tribal devotion for many years, an Australian Kirran has spent the last couple of weeks photographing the dobi washermen on the Ganges. And yesterday we met an American living in Thailand, who focuses on youth and street photography. Both of us vacillate about being inspired and discouraged by these professional photographers.

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We hope this isn’t indicative of the state of spiritual endeavor in Varanasi!