In the summer of 2013, while I was away somewhere, Sochoe bought a Saint Bernard puppy, to add to our dwindling collection of dogs. We already had Shishi the Chi Wawa, Kalsang’s personal dog, Sochoe’s very dear Daisy, a medium size beagle look alike mongrel whom we all loved dearly, and a black dog called Traga, who wouldn’t let anyone touch him. We were talking about a new dog before I left, and I came back to Sangpo.
He was small then, well not so small for a three month old, but he grew fast. He was very smart and learned to open most doors, and got along with the other dogs. His gentle personality and endless patience with the many children who visited every year, earned him his name well (Sangpo means kind in Tibetan). His size terrified visitors who sometimes had to step over him to enter the house, and he had a deep bark that resounded in the night, but he never hurt anyone or anything. Even the monkeys, whom he distractedly chased when they got too cheeky, knew this. He was terrified of thunder, and would rush about the house in fits of terror, which was disquieting for everyone, especially since there are so many storms here. When he was younger, he would seek refuge on people’s lap, anyone, and once barged into the living room and installed his 60 kgs on one of our guests lap. I couldn’t resist a laugh, but no one else thought it was funny. Saint Bernards don’t live very long, but he was healthy, and in July, Sochoe pointed out how well he was aging. The monsoon brings strange ailments and he dwindled in a mere two weeks. It was a traumatic time, when we ferried him to vets in various places, none of whom managed to figure out what he had. He passed peacefully night before last and we buried him in the garden and all remember him fondly.
In March, I began to receive warnings that things were getting worse in India. The news was coming from outside, and as much as I looked around me, I couldn’t see it happening. The hospitals were not full and the ghats were not busy. No one I knew was sick. I always told myself and anyone else that death was not easy to hide in India, and from my terrace I could scan the horizon for a column of smoke by the river. So, like everyone else, I rode the myth that India must have escaped the terrible outbreaks that shook Europe and America, and our lives almost went back to normal.
Then, suddenly, it was upon us. All the images I had conjured over a year ago, on that fateful day when we went to the bazaar, looked at the comings and goings telling ourselves that the storm was imminent, were there. The hospitals were full, and nearly every acquaintance we knew in Delhi was either sick or someone in their family was. Every week brought news of someone close dying. There was no oxygen to be had and bodies were burning everywhere. On April 27, we decided to do our own lockdown and on May 7th, the whole area went under. Even going out for a drive in the countryside seemed a risky luxury and we stayed put.
All during that time, the vaccine rollout had begun. It went smoothly and efficiently for the two older age groups, but supplies ran out on May 1st, when the 18-45 phase began. The few doses that were delivered to Himachal State on May 17th sufficed for about 10% of the population and had to be obtained on the Internet. Tenor spent hours fishing on his phone, and finally got a spot for Sochoe and himself in two different places near Kangra, for the next day. We decided to make it into an outing and drove through the deserted towns with their shut down markets. The injections took a few minutes, they may have been scarce, but at least their distribution was organized. The recipients all looked techy and like Tenor must have spent hours on their phones to get their spots. We wondered what the computer illiterate, the majority of the state’s population, would do. Wait, I guessed, until supplies were ramped up.
We then drove on a bumpy road to the near top of a hill crowned by a mango grove that belonged to a local Maharaja. It was more like a forest, with guava trees, silk trees and the remnants of tea bushes. The trees were old, gnarled and majestic, and little unripe mangoes lay on the ground, intermittingly plopping down onto the forest floor, breaking the silence. We walked up a path past a mud house, and a few cows grazing until we got to a clearing with a little half-fallen house, with wooded shutters and a door closed by a chain and lock. There was a veranda with flat stones and the remnants of a fire, probably the cow herders. It was a perfect picnic spot and we unpacked our sandwiches and poured ourselves tea from our thermos. On the way back, we met an old man, the owner of the mud house, and he asked us if we had picked mangoes. We said they weren’t ripe yet, and he suggested we return in a month.
Here we are, entering the 29th week since the lockdown. The weeks rolled by, every Monday feeling like a new beginning, a fleeting illusion that Monday will last longer than it did last week, only to be overrun by the rest of the week rolling by. The passing of months is marked by haircuts, and I ordered proper scissors on Amazon. Saturday is the walk up to Mc Leod Ganj bazaar, a steep 2 km climb. It was hot at first, then drizzly, and now sunny again. We shop for vegetables, mangoes have come and gone, apples are the fruit of the month, accompanied by guavas and persimmons, a local novelty grown in the hills, and referred to as ‘Japan fruit’. The Kashmiri vegetable seller likes to show off his Tibetan, and sends Dechen to the back of the shop for the best choice.
The monsoon came and went. It enveloped the house in mist, bringing with it windless downpours that kept our clothes in a permanent state of floppy wetness. Norzin and Baby D ‘s cries over the proliferation of spiders, which they claimed were getting bigger and more numerous eventually caused an exodus from their room into Dechen’s. Scorpions joined in, and were taken more seriously. I found one lingering in the hallway late one night, trying to look small against the wall and had to plop a glass over it and evict it into the garden. It was about an inch and a half long, fat, and of mousy grey color. Yiga refers to them as crabs and everyone is careful to check their shoes. Outside, there are leeches, the first time I encounter them in my garden after 41 years. Kalsang remembers them from his Assam jungle days, when he first came to India, where they dropped off trees and were removed with salt. I came in one day with one in my pant leg and he found it hilarious.
Baby D asked Dechen to check the bathroom for spiders, and she came back with a grin, saying she needed help to remove a snake. It had peeked at her under the door, dark, thin and the length of a tall man. Sochoe, who can handle any creature, was called in and swung it into a wastepaper basket with the help of a broom. It made several attempts at escaping, its undulating body emerging out of the basket, only to be pushed back in and rushed into the garden.
Now the sun is here all day and the cicadas are screaming, crowding around the screen of windows at night, craving for light. They will die off, the final phase of their lives coming to an end with the coming of winter. We built a treehouse for the children, a solid metal and wood contraption around an enormous tree. The monkeys love it too.
Spring came and went, a rather cold one, then the thunderstorms. Today, the monsoon moved in, fog floating in from the plains bringing with it a thick, heavy rain that descends like lead. No wind. We are now where we hoped to be since the beginning: The state closed to outsiders, but open inside. Our town has taken on a new face, the small town it was 20 years ago, absent of tourists from the plains. People play cricket in the street, and friendly shopkeepers offer all kinds of takeaways. There is a profusion of vegetable sellers, all hotel owners turned to other occupations, who talk about their Israeli guests with a tinge of nostalgia.
Dechen said she didn’t want to miss out on revisiting her childhood haunts, something impossible in normal times due to the tourist traffic, and we do a weekly excursion to a beautiful spot. Last week it was to the Baghsu Nath water fall, where the children found clear pools to bathe in while we drank chai and made friends with the goats.Last week was birthday week, Yiga turned 3 on the 18th and Losel one two days later, on the 20th. We ordered a very fancy pink cake from Moonspeak, the owner went all over town looking for the strawberries. Losel had a blue cake from Woser Bakery and a display of matching cupcakes. We had balloons and toys that they will have to share. No one is going anywhere, for the moment at least, with China still closed. We don’t know how long this state of things will last, but we all feel safe here, with time in suspension. Knowing that nothing is up to us, waiting has a certain feel of comfort to it. Hope that India was being bypassed by covit-19 has now evaporated. Beyond Himachal’s borders, five hundred kilometers south in Delhi, hospitals are overflowing, and patients being turned away. Reading a Tibetan biography, we realize how people less than a century ago lived with the reality of epidemics, while we never considered they could also be part of ours.
Yesterday, Covit-19 came closer than ever with the death of a friend. Tendrol la was only a few years older than me, born in Tibet, raised in Switzerland. Our families had known each other for years and when our children were young, we would visit them in Switzerland. In the early 90’s Tendrol came to see us in India, and she told me she was quitting her job as a nurse and starting a project in Tibet, a hostel for orphans and children in need. We had in common this drive to do things that people admired but felt were risky and somewhat unreasonable. She began splitting her time between Tibet and Switzerland and within a few years, had built two thriving hostels, one in her husband Gyazur Lobsang Tsultrim’s area, Gyethang, and another near Lhasa, and had created a whole network of sponsors to support both. Sochoe and Dechen visited several times, and in 2018, Tendrol came to see us at Norden Camp with her husband and their son, Songtsen, who had settled in Gyethang and built his life and business there. Tendrol la was full of energy and we spent happy hours catching up.
Yesterday, a friend in Gyethang told us the news. She and Lobsang Tsultrim had both been ill in Switzerland, but she had not made it through. She was the younger and stronger one, another of this pandemic’s mysterious antics. I just wanted to remember her and let her family, her husband, and sons Songtsen and Gala, know that we are all thinking of her, of their loss, and the moments in our lives spent together.
The days slide by, Monday slipping into Tuesday, and suddenly the week is gone. We are now in our 7th week of lockdown. Tomorrow, the second round ends, and the third round, announced for two weeks, begins. We are considered an orange zone, so still no vehicles, and a curfew of sorts. The policemen are more relaxed, and some have become creative, donning extravagant robes to direct the covit-19, mostly pedestrian, traffic during the non-curfew hours. More shops are opening and yesterday, we found cheese. Around us, the weather is growing warmer, the cicadas and barbets louder, and the violent thunderstorms, precluders of the monsoon, more frequent. Mango season is here, we are getting increasingly creative in the kitchen, with Tenor making a whopping chocolate cake, and my trying my hand at smoothies and banana tea bread. The children are happy, finding new games, being artistic, inventing birthdays, and organizing treasure hunts.
On the news, we see the pandemic plateauing, people becoming restless, hopes for a vaccine rising, finger-pointing, and people still dying in frightful numbers. We feel safe in our little haven and in the back of our minds, wonder what will happen when it all starts again, not like before.
Our animal visitors are more rare, busy elsewhere in areas neglected by humans. For more than a month, we had an old macaque rhesus monkey visit our terrace every afternoon. He was small for his age and had a lame leg. He limped his way up, then found a peaceful spot to nap. If I came out, he would retreat into a corner and look at me in a pleading way. A few times, I gave him the leftover spoils of Losar, khapses, and he ate them leisurely. Then he stopped coming. The langurs didn’t show themselves for over a month, Each year, the Kachnar tree in our garden blooms, an explosion of exuberant white flowers tinged in pink. Everyone loves these flowers, more to eat than to look at, and in usual circumstances, I don’t get to see them in their full glory. The gardeners climb the tree to collect a sack or two and the langurs take care of the rest unless a hailstorm does away with them. This year I wondered if they would come and go undisturbed, but the day before yesterday, the langurs were back. From early morning, the ladies and babies feasted on the flowers, while the teenagers jumped about the terrace, upsetting the chairs. They took a noon nap in the trees, then spent the afternoon frolicking on the lawn before discovering the children’s plastic pool. It soon became like a waterhole in the jungle. By evening they were gone, and all was calm.
The birds are singing louder, the nights are quiet except for the dogs barking, the langurs have almost stopped coming, probably because they now have the whole town to themselves. Walking several kilometers for groceries and making lines is the new normal. The air is clear, there is more time to think, and though we are busy all day, there is a new calm, a ‘whatever comes, comes’ attitude. This is our life under lockdown, how we see it affecting us and our immediate environment, though we can imagine how the confinement of humans is affecting nature in the rest of the world.
On Earth Day, I think of Earth, and how she is getting a break, amazed at her capacity to rejuvenate and capitalize on the slightest retreat from our nefarious activities. I can’t help but reflect on our obnoxious behavior, fueled by arrogance and sense of entitlement. Let’s be honest; homo sapiens is a despicable, dangerous, and destructive creature. Those with a conscience may worry that we are ruining the earth, that we will be destroying it if we don’t change our ways, but no one can make the sacrifices to stop, not even slow down the huge machine that has been put in motion, as that would result in scraping the income of those at the top and deprive the ones at the bottom of basic necessities. And life goes on…until the limit is reached and Earth hits back. I feel we are presumptuous in thinking that Earth will let us destroy her. This is a losing battle, where we shouldn’t worry so much about Earth, she will take care of herself, but rather about the survival of our species. The pandemic may have changed the way we think, brought in new realities, new priorities, but when it is over, which may take some time, what will be the new normal? Will we go right back to where we were?
Earth not only deserves but commands respect. For Jews, Christians and Moslems, she is God, for Hindus, the Universe, for Buddhists, the law of cause and effect, for animists, Mother Earth. We cannot escape the reality that we are reaping what we sow, though we can redeem ourselves by reducing greed and acting smartly and selflessly. If we want to remain on this Earth, we need to show more empathy, compassion, and an understanding of the meaning of happiness.
My father was also an accomplished storyteller endowed with a prodigious memory. He was born in 1909 in Salonica, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, now Greece, and would sometimes tell me stories on Sundays, the only day I spent time with him. I loved hearing of his childhood and he reminisced his pranks and sibling rivalries, summer fun, the awful French school, but also the loss of his father, the fire that destroyed the city in 1917, and the near-famine they experienced thereafter. There were tales of companionship, adventure, endurance and privation but also of a loving family, all told to me in riveting detail.
In these days of pandemic where we are all at home, I thought the following story, depicting an incidence of cholera that took place in 1913, would be relevant. My father was only four, and his child’s view of the events offers a slice of life of a long-gone era tinged with present significance.
My first awareness of death came a few months after the takeover of Salonica by the Greeks, in 1913. It was difficult getting used to all the changes, and people were continually reminiscing about the good old ‘tiempo del Turco’, or Time of the Turks, under which the Sephardim community had been living for the past five hundred years. By this time, we had moved upstairs, to the middle floor of our building, with my Aunt Boulissa above and another family downstairs. One day, a member of that family became very ill. The doctor arrived, recognized the unmistakable signs of Cholera and called in the Greek sanitary services. Their reaction was swift, though we thought of it more as a calamity brought by the Greeks. They put us all in quarantine and brought in a string of gendarmes to watch over us day and night, making sure we didn’t leave the house.
There was but one way to get supplies and I enjoyed the process immensely. From a window, we would lower a hamper tied to a rope, with money inside. A bandanna covering their mouths, the pluckier greengrocers, leading donkeys saddled on both sides with baskets laden with victuals, would fill our hamper.
From the window, I could watch day after day, the sidewalk across the street being sprinkled with quicklime, poured out of a watering can. It was a whitish liquid that turned yellow after a time. The next day, it would be sprinkled with plain water until it recovered its pristine white color.
I was jubilant; I was no longer left alone with my mother all day long. Everybody stayed put at home, and it was like a holiday. I could not understand what it was all about as I had the word ‘calado’, down with a cold, mixed up with cholera. Father nervously rolled cigarettes, my brothers rehearsed their German lessons and my mother complained that the grocers took advantage of the situation by putting inferior goods into our hamper.
One morning, I discovered that the door leading downstairs to the cholera-stricken neighbor’s apartment had been left unlocked. From the landing, I caught sight of my little neighbor, Estrellica, who was chewing on something and, looking up at me said, “Do you want passicas, raisins? Come down, I’ve got a pocketful.” I climbed down and she gave me a handful. I had started eating them when I heard my mother’s imperious voice calling, “What are you doing downstairs? Get up here this minute! But what is this you are eating?” “They’re passicas, Mamica; Estrellica gave them to me.” Holding her cheeks with both hands, I heard her uttering a fearful “Oh, my God!” I thought that she was going to faint. Everyone came running and stared at me in consternation as the news of my escapade spread through the whole building like wildfire.
The passicas were soon thrown down the toilet and my hands were washed in alcohol. “All we needed was this rascal Maïrico making us all croak with cholera!” was the general outcry. Father kept his composure and firmly opposed the request of all our neighbors that I be closeted alone in a bedroom to await the outbreak of the dreaded disease. My mother, as any mother would, declared that she would not hesitate to be closeted with me if necessary.
From that moment on, I became an object of great curiosity. Ten times a day, family and upstairs neighbors would inquire if I felt any bellyache or dizziness. I had never been the center of such attention and to further boost my importance, I went from one to the other just to state that I felt no bellyache at all, nor had I had any dizzy spells; and I enjoyed watching them all raise their gaze to heaven.
Our neighbor died after a few days. Her body, soaked in quicklime, was removed by the special services. From the window, we watched the solitary hearse moving away.
As we enter the third week, 7:30 PM has become news time, when we switch on the BBC news and anxiously watch the developments that are unfolding beyond our gate. The pandemic is spreading at alarming rates in the whole world. We saw it appear, then catch on like a raging fire as it is in Italy, Spain and now the US. China is returning to normal, Yidam said it feels almost too normal, with everyone going about as if it never happened. Will it come back?
In India, the numbers are rising. Until two days ago, Himachal had still not gone beyond the original three cases, their families having been tested negative. There was talk of ending the lockdown on the 15th of April while keeping the state lines closed. A two-week quarantine is imposed on returning Himachal residents, pictures showing them lying listlessly on properly distanced cots in a barn, waiting… Now there are more cases, in another district, emanating from a Muzzamidin in Delhi group of Muslims who held a celebration last month and spread it among themselves then outside and beyond. All we can do is wait. The valley below us is silent, save for the few cars and bikes that circulate when the curfew is lifted. They are becoming scarce as petrol is now off-limits.
Police cars blow the occasional siren and blare our news no one can comprehend from handheld loudspeakers. Supplies are coming in fits and starts so that shopping is still possible. Arrests are made every day. People jumping the curfew, others selling goods at inflated prices, or smuggling items that had been discontinued “Do you want meat? Alcohol?” Tenor is approached as he races home like Cinderella before the last stroke of midnight. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, the police beating people trying to get into the shuddered liquor stores, and cigarettes are sold singly on the sly. We thought about all the alcoholics, smokers, and drug addicts whose supplies have been cut, of the meat-eaters who will miss their daily fix. We are almost vegan as cheese is only available in the upper parts of town, closed off to us. Some of our children have declared they are sick of our daily rations of rice and dal, and Jampel la and Tenor have been making pizza until the existing cheese supply runs out.
The biggest challenge with the children is screen time. Baby D’s online classes start early, especially with the difference with China time. Tibetan requires endless memorization that she finds challenging. Math demands writing out circles and squares spelled out in Tibetan and there is Chinese on top. Dechen remembers her own study of Tibetan as a child, and reflected on how strongly it is based on memorization. She hovers over Baby D like a Japanese mother, beaming when she gets a virtual star or a line of praise from her teachers thousands of miles away on the Tibetan Plateau. The day is punctuated with tears and tantrums. She worries about getting back. India is closed and now China. If China opens, but India doesn’t? Meanwhile, Yiga is fighting for attention, wanting to stick to Ama at all times. She only relents when put in front of the IPad. We have exhausted Peppa Pig, and now it is Baby Bushwing. Dechen limits it by getting Norzin and Baby D to play with her, and pays them in screen time. I play with her one hour, but yesterday couldn’t wrench her away from the screen, which resulted in a drama that lasted the rest of the morning. I spend an hour with Norzin each day, though more for quality time as she has gone back to her online classes with Andrew, who teaches her from LA. We read my father’s biography, events that took place a hundred years ago, with cholera quarantines, girls and chaperones, silent movies, arranged marriages, French and Italian schools, Turkish soldiers, and a raging fire that devastated the town of Salonica.
Further south, on the Indian plains where the heat will soon rise, horror is beginning to unfold. There was a four-hour notice before all local and regional transport closed down. Migrant workers, in the millions in cities like Delhi or Mumbai, were left jobless and unable to pay rent, with no options other than to walk home to their villages, hundreds of miles away. They took off on the traffic deserted roads saying the government had forgotten them, those nameless people whose labor keeps the cities ticking. Soup kitchens are building up, camps erected, and some transportation arranged, but the number who will fall through the cracks is doubtless in the thousands. They found the first case of the virus in the largest Mumbai slum, which is being cordoned off. I don’t even want to think about what will happen to those inside. Poverty and chaos lead to desperate measures that bypass regard for human life. In the meantime, bigotry is raising its ugly head, and rumors in Himachal are running that Muslims have brought the virus to Himachal, a predominantly Hindu state where the sale of beef is illegal.
In the world at large, the ripples caused by Covit-19 are growing, and with them the effects of faulty policies dictated by short term vision and greed. In our day and age, leaders, though they may be hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach, usually strive for an image of unity and rising above squabbles, encouraging the best in all. No longer. On one side of the world, we have a cockerel who convinces the poor that their interest lies in his favoring the rich and has brought vulgarity, bigotry, and divisiveness to the front lines. On the other, we have one who speaks for destroying the secular make up laid out by its founders, vital to the well-being of a nation that relies on a delicate balance between multiple ethnicities and religions.
I hope that people with the sense to rise above all that will prevail. It is not the time to blame and point at each other. We have a real enemy now, one common to us all, one we can’t see. We need unity and all the goodwill in the world to weed it out.
On the 21st, the borders to Himachal Pradesh’s borders closed. There were no declared cases as of yet, so I basked in the idea of isolation… within our beautiful state. I was holding a little class of five, with Norzin, and her friends Sangmo, Kunga and Rignam, whose schools had closed. It was a first for Norzin, who has been homeschooled all her life save for a short stint in the village school, to have more than two pupils in a class, and she loved it. We read books in English, played vocabulary games and talked about geography and Early Man. It was soon apparent that the regional border closure was a serious matter; parents going to neighboring Uttar Ranchal to pick up their children were turned back and no one was getting through. We spent the week shopping for more essentials and continued to stock on jam and coffee.
On Friday night, we heard two people in our district were confirmed positive one just down the hill, a Kotwali bazaar shop owner’s mother returning from Dubai. We decided to go into lockdown from the next day, and canceled all the usual visitors; nannies, cleaning woman, nurse, and the children coming for classes. That first day was strange, suddenly, it was just us, the extended family of twelve in two adjacent houses, and we readjusted with a feeling of duty, convinced this was the best we could do, and that we were lucky to live as we did. I began calling around, first my sisters in France and the UK and reconnected with elder cousins in various countries, then people around us. Tenor was deputed for the purchase of all perishable goods shopping and we made a run for the local general store to stock up on yogurt and dal. Sunday was to be a nationwide lockdown, from 6am to 9pm, interrupted by a mandatory cacophony of banging of pots and pans at 5 Pm, a show of solidarity to the medical workers. No one banged pots in our area, or we are too far from each other to hear it, but sarcastic remarks abounded, mixed with social media calls for providing them with protective equipment instead. Some rumors had it that this was a one time, 24-hour attempt at stopping the virus. We were relieved when it grew into a lockdown, and by the next morning we knew what we were in for; police on the roads, the hill we live on divided into sections, transportation to a standstill.
Within a day or two, we had turned inward, dividing all the house duties and keeping the children positively occupied. I realized that even after having greatly reduced my travel, how disconnected I was with my own environment and how much my mind had fixated on the outside, on matters that now gradually receded and appeared increasingly irrelevant. We organized ourselves for cooking and cleaning the house and dealing with waste. Baby D has her online school, Norzin classes with me and Yiga spent the first few days exploding in tantrums taking solace cuddling with Dechen or licking to bowl with the chocolate cake mix. We figured she was getting homesick, asking about her father, and enchanted by the cow that wandered into our garden. She must be missing the walks on the pasture with her nanny and her dzomo (yak/cow hybrid) that delivered milk from the source.
Three days ago, an elder Tibetan man coming from the US died of the virus in a Kangra hospital. The police complained that no one respected the norms and imposed a curfew. Now there will be lines for food during the few hours during which it is lifted, which defeats the purpose. In a way, I appreciate the precautions taken and hope they will stop the virus and avoid a possible disaster. The world stopping gives me a soothing feeling. We are lucky to be where we are, for the moment, though I think of all those who remain cramped in small spaces. We took it all from granted and this running everywhere finally is going nowhere and ruining the planet. Even here, the sweeping view from our terrace is clear again, just like it was twenty years ago.