They had closed the border to Himachal Pradesh that morning, March 16th, 2020, the morning we arrived, but planes were still flying into Kangra airport in Dharamshala. So the police, we heard, were letting some people in, turning some people back—though where were they supposed to go?—and spontaneously quarantining some people. Of course all this was just rumor and we had no idea what they were doing, and it had happened so fast that I doubted the police would have known what to do if they decided that we couldn’t pass the checkpoint. That was also the scary part. Would they simply take us to jail until they had answers?
We didn’t know where else in India to go, so we flew from Goa to the Tibetan Colony in Bir, Himachal Pradesh. This was the small Buddhist town in the foothills of the Himalayas where we were married in 2012.
India’s lockdown, the largest and one of the strictest and longest in the world—it’s still ongoing, as I write this in June, though now people are much more scared of the easing than they were of the restrictions—had not yet been formally declared.
WhatsApp messages from our expat friends in HP were shrill, contradictory and terrifying. First they shouted for us to come and then they ordered us not to come. The landlord we’d found had suggested flying into Dharamshala and then said maybe we’d better not try it, and then said okay you’re welcome if you can get through, and then another friend said no not to fly through Dharamshala but to go through Jalandhar, so sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Goa I changed our SpiceJet flight and told the landlord in Bir so that he could arrange the driver, and he wrote back and said no, that would force you to go through two or even three checkpoints instead of just one or two, better to come through Dharamshala.
But when we landed in Delhi there were messages both from friends in Bir and our landlord warning us not to come at all. But we’d taken off from Goa at midnight and it was nearing morning now, our son was asleep in his stroller, we were (unbelievably!) in a Starbucks and what was I going to tell my wife? That we should move into an airport near the hotel and try to fly home to the US? In just a few days the news there had grown worse than the news in India, we didn’t have tickets, we did not want to be boxed in with a bunch of unscreened people on an airplane, and we definitely didn’t need to be in those customs lines in London and New York.
We kept looking at our two-year-old like: we know we have to take care of you, but we don’t know what to do.
Amie kept saying, “We are so fucked.” Which was true, but perhaps not especially helpful.
And now it looked like we were not going to get into Bir.
There was a cop in the airport in Dharamshala, in a tan uniform with a rifle dangling casually off his shoulder. There are always cops and military personnel in the airports in India, and after a while you don’t really notice them, though they carry big guns and often look dangerous. I looked away from him as we got our bags and it seemed to me that he was also looking the other way. A nurse sat alone at a desk in a little wooden hut that looked like it had been built that morning, next to the baggage terminal, and again I looked away from her as she looked away from me. It occurred to me that they were humans, too, these frightening officials with the full strength of the government at their fingertips, and they were probably scared of the virus and almost as confused as we were.
Our driver was a rangy guy in his late twenties with a black bandanna for a mask and dark sunglasses. He looked precisely like a man who would be smuggling three tourists across district lines during the first fearful days of the coronavirus outbreak in India.
I asked him, as we hustled into the car outside the airport, “Police? Did you see any police on the way here?”
“Yes,” he said. He shook his head though, and I wondered if he had understood me. He seemed annoyed by the question.
When we’d been in the car for about an hour—it’s a curvy, bumpy, stomach-turning three-hour drive through the mountains and little roadside towns from Dharamshala to Bir—I asked him, “Have we passed the place where the police were?” He nodded, staring at the road.
“Did you hear that?” I turned to Amie. “Sounds like we are probably in the clear.”
She nodded and shrugged. I am the optimist in the family and she is the realist.
“We should call you James Bond,” I said, and I could see by the wrinkle in his temples he was smiling.
Then he said, “Haanji,” and gestured with his thumb. I saw the police as we rounded the turn. I thought, just keep driving, everybody play it cool, stare straight ahead, but they were already waving us over.
There were seven or eight cops in military khaki with machine guns slung over their shoulders. Five of them were underfed young kids, swallowed up by their oversized khaki uniforms, and obviously as frightened as we were, which is not what you want to see in teenagers with automatic weapons. The older ones had real cotton masks and the younger ones wore bandannas or scarves over their faces.
Another car was pulled over on the opposite side of the road but at our angle I couldn’t see into that car. I was curious whether they were white people or Indians, or perhaps even Chinese or Tibetans. If they were Chinese or Tibetans maybe the cops would focus on them and go easier on us.
It was sweltering in Goa when we headed for the airport but here in the Himalayas it was in the fifties, rainy and the wind was blowing. The driver had the window down for the cops. Amie and I were shivering. The baby was asleep under a cheap brown blanket that I’d stolen off the plane.
Two of the adult cops approached our car and the driver rolled down the window.
“Masks!” The cop shouted.
“I’m sorry. We have masks,” I said. I turned to Amie in the back. I was shaking. The driver had pulled the bandana down as the police approached and now slipped it back up over his face. “Do we have those masks?”
I hadn’t wanted us to wear our masks after we left the airport, because I thought they would make us look somehow guilty. Infected. Contagious. Dangerous. Amie had wanted to wear them for protection from the virus, and when I’d said we couldn’t catch the virus in the car, she gave the driver a deliberate stare. But she’d left it off out of kindness to me, or not wanting to get into it. (This was before the confusion over whether or not masks actually worked was resolved.)
One of our coronavirus patterns: in any given situation I’d try to do what I thought was expedient or polite, and she would do the sensible thing, worrying about the actual virus, and then I’d often undermine her efforts. It never occurred to me that maybe my wife knew better than I did, or that maybe doing the sensible thing was also generally both the expedient thing and the polite thing.
Amie nodded to me, said something comforting to our son—he didn’t seem frightened, but the air was tense—handed me a mask, which I put on, and put one on herself. The cop asked some questions in Hindi and I got our passports out. “We’ve been in India since January 2nd,” I said. Then I lied and said, “We were screened at the airport in Delhi. We have these papers—.” They had asked us to fill out a “Health Self-Declaration Form” at our hotel in Goa, a perfunctory piece of paper asking you to report whether or not you had showed any symptoms in the past thirty days, and where you were coming from. We had not told them Kerala, and instead wrote our original point of departure, Chennai. But my wife had very wisely insisted that we get copies of the self-declaration form before we travel, anticipating a situation like this one. “Indians love a form,” she said. “It’s utterly meaningless,” I said. “Who would report their own symptoms while checking into a hotel?” “Still,” she said.
I handed the forms and our passports to our driver, explaining that we had “A Clean Health Report,” and he handed them to the policeman. As the policeman walked away from the car he shouted at the other policemen (several of whom were teenagers) and waved the forms at them. He said loudly in English, “They were checked at the airport in Delhi.” He turned back to me and said again, “You were checked at the airport in Delhi?” And I said “Yes,” while our driver shouted back in Hindi. I was impressed that the driver had the nerve to shout at a policeman, though I also wondered if it was such a good idea.
The policeman returned to the car and handed us our health reports. Then he flipped through our passports while standing next to the car. “You’re from the US?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “We left the US to come here on December 31st, 2019.”
“You’ve been here since 2019,” he said. He handed us back our passports. “Okay,” he said, and added something in Hindi to the driver. The driver snorted and we drove off. And in another hour or so we were in the apartment in Bir, where we slept from noon until morning the next day.
“I’ve been thinking about self-harm for a long time,” said Sunil, a recovering heroin addict I met in Bir during our first weeks here. “Brown sugar,” he said, with the addict’s sheepishly proud smile. “But I only smoked, I never injected,” he added, earnestly. His apartment was very close to ours, and when the A.A. meetings held at a local retreat center were cancelled because of the early preparations for lockdown in Himachal Pradesh, Sunil asked if we could meet at his place every other afternoon, just the two of us. In time this became too oppressive and I had to cancel the meetings, which made him very angry.
I’ve been in A.A. since January 1st, 2009, when I attended my first real meeting in Research Psychiatric Hospital after a New Year’s Eve suicide attempt. I had attended A.A. meetings before that—both of my parents and my stepfather were A.A. stalwarts, lifers in the program—but never really admitted my alcoholism until that time. And though my A.A. attendance has fallen off over the years, A.A. was crucial to my sobriety, especially in my first two years of not drinking, and whenever I’ve fallen off the wagon since then A.A. has helped me to get back on my feet. So when Sunil asked me to meet with him, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I was worried about it, though, because our first landlord had just ordered us into quarantine—though for reasons that were never made clear, I passed a medical test in town and the quarantine was never required by the state or local government—and Amie needed my help with our son and generally things were so weird that I didn’t need to be adding this to the mix. But I did. Our first landlord, who was Sunil’s greatest friend and advocate, approved the plan.
Sunil is a pessimistic person and he warned me that India was about to explode. He warned me that they would come for the foreigners first. “But I won’t be long after you. I’m from Delhi, and the locals don’t really want me here.” He explained that in India, when it turned bad, it would get really bad, really fast.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said. Sunil was getting in my head.
“Oh it’s going to make Partition look…painless,” he assured me. Partition referred to the creation of Pakistan after World War Two, when India and Pakistan both became independent nations. I had been reading about Partition for an Indian Civilization class I was teaching, and the descriptions of the mobs, the riots and the bloodshed was terrifying. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died during Partition, and many of those died violently. “These are the darkest days we’ve ever seen. Who knows if I’ll ever see my wife and son again. This is the first time since I’ve moved here to Bir that I’ve wanted to… harm myself.”
When Sunil said this, his face actually became sallow and dim. He is a handsome man in his early sixties but fear was undermining his good looks.
I too had been thinking about suicide a lot, especially since the coronavirus started. Partly because a faculty member at Ashoka University (where I teach every spring) had committed suicide just a few days into the lockdown, and many people had written to me about it, including one of his closest friends and several of his students. Partly because I always think about suicide a lot, but since being on quarantine I wasn’t feeling suicidal at all—I mean, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt less like killing myself—and I wondered if other suicidal and depressed people were also experiencing this great feeling of relief that came with the interruption of ordinary life. And partly because in the early days of the coronavirus we really didn’t know what was going to happen next—we were scared. I was especially scared for the welfare of my wife and two-year-old son: my daughters were, I felt, comparatively safe back in the US. And in that fear for our lives I felt with some self-congratulation that suddenly my own life had real meaning: that it was important that I stick around to try to help my family. I always feel that way, of course, even at my worst, but the fear made it felt urgent. Like, you can kill yourself when you get them back safely home if you really still need to do that, but right now, buster, you are actually useful and necessary, so belay that idea.
“That’s really why I moved here,” he told me. “I figured, what did I have to lose? If I stayed in Delhi I was going to…”. He paused. “Harm myself.”
“I’ve tried to kill myself several times,” I said, and laughed. I tend to laugh when I tell people this, perhaps because it reduces the tension, but also because in my own case it’s funny, this repeated failure to kill myself. There does seem to be something comical about trying repeatedly to kill yourself and fucking it up. Of course it’s also very common, and it’s only funny when you’re talking about yourself. It’s very upsetting when you learn about other people’s repeated attempts and failures.
“Yes. That’s what I meant to say,” he said. But he didn’t say suicide, and in our many conversations over the course of the next month or so that we were friends he never used the word, though we talked about suicide a lot.
From Sunil I started to learn what it may be like for many people who have been on the other side of my addiction from me. In our meetings, I would speak for at most a few minutes, and then I would listen, and Sunil could go on for an hour, or longer. I could tell the story of Sunil’s life three times over. “You only become a professor if you love the sound of your own voice,” I often tell my students, and when I was sitting with Sunil I often thought of that. How many times have I drifted off subject in the middle of a philosophy class to relay some personal story that was of interest only to me? Not to mention any time my shares had gone on too long in an A.A. meeting, or the droning, self-pitying monologues I inflicted on my wife back when I was a drunk. (She will not tolerate that kind of thing from a sober me.)
For a time I thought: well, you never did much service work in A.A., so now you’re starting to pay your dues. Then I thought, well, you’re a lousy listener, and Sunil is teaching you care and patience. Then I thought, my God, he can’t keep going this way much longer. And by the end I thought, I don’t think I’m helping Sunil at all, I think he’s just psychologically exploiting me, and how the hell am I going to get out of this? I worried that ending these one-on-one sessions might be some kind of terrible trigger for Sunil. But I also joked to my wife that Sunil was Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and I was the dead mouse he was rubbing in his pocket.
Sunil was convinced that the world was ending, and before long I started speaking in apocalyptic hypotheticals myself.
“If we ever get back to the US again…”.
“Assuming I still have a university to return to in six months…”.
“Even when the Indian medical system collapses…”.
“If the lockdown one day actually ends…”.
“After we declare bankruptcy…”.
Around this time, because of Sunil and because of the urging from some recovering friends at home, I started to attend A.A. meetings online. Also, to be perfectly honest, I hoped that if I shared about my situation with Sunil—while maintaining his anonymity, naturally—there would be others who had dealt with this kind of thing and might give me some advice. But I soon realized that was not going to happen.
Some A.A. Zoom meetings I joined were open, so that anyone can attend. This is a central tenet of A.A. philosophy—the real idea behind A.A. is that meetings are there for addicts who are still suffering—and without open meetings, one worries that A.A. loses much of its muscle. A.A. at its best is an open meeting.
But open meetings do not adapt well to the online environment. By definition anyone can join, and online, well, anyone joining is a problem. Bored, usually callow people who were obviously not interested in recovery came into the online space and offered unhelpful, even abusive commentary. Open meeting trolls. “Not gonna lie, you’re pretty messed up.” “Gross” “Just stop drinking you idiot” “What a loooooser!” Stuff of this caliber, which made it impossible for anyone to be honest. I often thought only a fool would be honest in this format anyhow, when anyone could be recording you.
The closed, by-invitation-only meetings were better, and it seemed that those were the ones being attended by the sorts of people who normally would attend a meeting—people who were really serious about getting and giving help. I was invited to speak at a couple of these closed Zoom meetings, and one of them was a kind of celebrity meeting, attended by a variety of prominent people in recovery circles and a number of honest-to-goodness celebrities. And one of these celebrities, an actor in his twenties, shared something that stayed with me. Ever since the lockdown had started I had been worried about addicts who couldn’t get their drug of choice. It was a kind of nightmare scenario for me back when I was a drinker: suddenly, without any warning at all, the whole thing shuts down—every bar, every restaurant, every liquor store. That’s how it happened here in India, and I thought, my God, these alcoholics must be going out of their minds, they’ll be breaking into stores at night, who knows what they’ll do. But what I hadn’t thought of was the much more obvious problem: suddenly being alone, bored, with nothing but time on your hands and no one expecting anything from you.
“This is the first time in my life I’m really alone,” this fellow said. “Like, for days. No questions asked. So it’s the first time in my life I can totally do whatever I want. As much as I want to drink. As much as I want to smoke.” (His two favorites, he told us, are booze and crystal meth.) “And everybody was still delivering to me, my dealer, the Whole Foods guy with my wine. So I stayed sober alone for maybe three days and then I just cut loose. There’s one whole week I don’t even remember. Except I know I smashed my car because the cops called me and I lied and said it was stolen. And it could have been stolen but I have a video from my camera in my garage of me getting into it.” He paused where we all would have laughed if it had been a real meeting. “Anyway, it finally ended when I tried to overdose in my bathtub, and when I woke up in the morning, still in the tub, that’s when I decided I’d better come back to meetings, even though this Zoom thing sucks.”
I thought then of how lucky I was to be on lockdown with my family. Of course I had thought that many times, because Sunil complained constantly about being far from his wife and son. But I had never thought of it in terms of my sobriety. Of course, if you are suddenly alone in a scary situation with nothing to do and no one to watch you, and you’re an addict, what else are you going to do? And for me and many other people like me, that kind of binge opportunity doesn’t end until you’re in jail, or you attempt suicide, or both.
And this fellow and others on that call insisted that the limited fellowship of A.A. Zoom was helping. But again, even in the closed Zoom meetings you’re joining a network that may be much larger than you know, and so you can’t really get into the nitty gritty in the way you can in a meeting in person. You can’t trust a computer—and you really can trust a room full of fellow alcoholics. Or maybe it’s just that for me the online format doesn’t work. I need to be able to really see the other person and to know that she or he is seeing me. For me, the point of an AA meeting, as I discovered through the Zoom meetings, is intimacy. The intimacy of suffering together and struggling together and recovering together. Alone in my room with a phone or a computer it was about as successful for me as porn. And it felt the same way afterward—incomplete, a bit embarrassing, a bit sad, a bit discouraging. Lonely. Which is just the opposite of how a meeting normally feels to me. And they were no help whatsoever with my Sunil problem.
But Sunil was a therapy junkie and he loved the Zoom meetings, at least at first. He was attending two or even three a day. “A.A.’s just another addiction, son,” my father, a lifer in A.A., used to tell me. “It’s just a healthier addiction for most people.” Often when I was walking by Sunil’s apartment—he always kept his door open—I would hear him repeating a story to his Zoom meeting that he had told me the day before, or would tell me later that afternoon. After a few weeks he told me: “I’m not sure I’m getting what I need out of online meetings,” and I agreed. But he had therapy over the phone with his wife, and private therapy sessions also over Zoom with their therapist, and maybe he understood the medium. When I teach online, I prefer not to give video lectures, and create a kind of mishmash of content—“Asynchronous Online Teaching”—that keeps me from speaking for very long into a screen.
One evening an enormous storm came down the mountains and it felt like the wind would blow our apartment far away. My wife and son were in bed asleep, and I went out onto the balcony to watch the lightning and the rain. I was quickly soaked. Normally storms reassure and invigorate me—I especially love thunderstorms in the mountains, because I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, and when I was a kid our house had a roof I could climb onto outside my window, and when it stormed at night I would always get out of bed and go sit on a ledge that was just barely protected from the downpour—but this time I thought, it’s the end of the world. Let it wash us into oblivion. And I thought, I’m not sure that I’m up for all this. I was exhausted and afraid. And I sat down, wet and shivering, suddenly feeling helpless, and like my frenemy Sunil, I thought about self-harm. I thought it was far away from me, but it was back, and I thought about it for the longest time that I’ve thought about it in seven or eight years. It was a sudden and completely unexpected return of a way I used to feel almost all the time, and that made me even more afraid, because I thought, what if this is the start of something again? What if tomorrow I’m going to feel worse than I do tonight? That had happened to me before, and I know it happens to lots of people who struggle with depression and the temptation of suicide.
After about an hour sitting out there in the rain, listening to the booming noise of the wind, I got up, shivering, and went to turn on the geyser to take a hot shower. I decided I would end my meetings with Sunil. I also decided that I was done with A.A. I will always be grateful to the program and I believe that The Twelve Steps can help an addict when nothing else will. But I feel like it’s no longer helping me. I feel like the fellowship I need is from other places: from my friends, from my family, from my colleagues. I don’t know, I’m in this funny place right now where I find myself not really wanting to talk to other addicts. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. Maybe it’s just a bad Sunil hangover and it will pass, and in a few months or a year I’ll find myself wanting or needing a meeting. I guess I hope not. If one of my kids needs a meeting, some unhappy day years from now, I will take her or him.
The last time I saw Sunil was in early May, before we moved out of Kotli and up to a little retreat high above the village of Sansar, almost at the top of the mountain. I was in Bir buying one half of a wheel of good cheese from some Tibetan friends of ours who own the Bhoomi Café, near Chokling Monastery. The wheel was frozen solid—they’d put everything into a deep freeze when the lockdown happened—and they needed to cut it in half so while they let it thaw I walked back through town to find a working ATM. Though it had been almost hot in the morning when I left it had turned into a cold, rainy afternoon and I was preoccupied on the almost silent, muddy road, wandering through my various worries. And then I felt someone watching me, and I looked up, and there was Sunil. He disappeared almost completely under his dark green rain jacket, the hood lowered so low that I couldn’t see his eyes. His hands were deep in his pockets. He looked almost exactly like Bruce Willis when he played the Overseer in Glass. He had a small red vinyl bag tucked closely to his body, on a cord, and he was coming from the end of town where Sunil had no reason to be, where there was only a liquor store and some woebegone tuck shops. I knew from the hunch of his shoulders and the way he walked past me, his energy like a shadow or a hole on the other side of the street, that he had scored.
We come to India every spring so that I can teach at Ashoka University outside Delhi. But the pollution in Delhi is terrible so Amie and Ratna live in some desirable place and I fly back and forth every week, commuting by plane. Last year, in the spring of 2019, we tried living in Goa with our then one-year-old in a three-hundred-year-old Portuguese mansion, but there were difficulties and when an enormous rat died on the sponge in the kitchen it was the last straw and we flew back to Bir for the remainder of the spring. We’ve now officially given up on Goa.
Our first landlord in Bir alternated between threatening to kick us out and refusing to let us leave the house. Over and over again he told us he would call the police on us, knowing that we didn’t speak Hindi, to tell them that we “were in violation of the ordinances,” which we scrupulously followed. We didn’t quite understand what he hoped to gain from this bizarre behavior (of course we knew he was outraged that I’d stopped meeting with Sunil) until, in the middle of one particularly bad night, he sent a WhatsApp message to my wife suggesting that she “show him her gratitude.” I was expelled from a food rationing line by a self-righteous, six-foot-tall Tibetan while trying to buy vegetables. When we finally found a better place to stay and so could leave the sexual harasser’s apartment, we had to walk about a mile across town to our new apartment, at which point the police pulled up next to us and told us we were not allowed out. “Keep distance! You should not be out.” I saw that they didn’t have room for us in the back of their car—it was a small silver Mazda, and there were four of them crowded into it—or I would perhaps have been more frightened. Eventually they let us keep walking. As I went one day to buy water from a tuck shop in Chougan, a neighboring village, a woman sitting on her porch with friends hissed at me and shouted “coronacoronacorona!” One of her friends turned to her and said something strong to her, and the friend looked at me with apologetic eyes. I raised an open palm to my forehead to thank her: this is the gesture of Namaste in the villages where we are.
Our initial concerns involved food and water. The food problem had started immediately. The first apartment didn’t have a refrigerator, but I managed to talk our host into letting me out of quarantine long enough to go buy one, at a little roadside place in a scrubby town called Bir Road. Then the restaurants closed, and the stores were closing, and the man who delivered food stopped delivering, and our landlord didn’t want me going out to buy food or even milk. I wrote to Vikram, a friend who owns a hotel on the other side of the Tibetan Colony, and he WhatsApped me back that he’d deliver two cases of toned milk to us the next day, and to wait outside June 16 Café for him at seven AM. I hustled down before our landlord could stop me and stood there waiting in the empty street, wearing one of the blue cotton masks that we’d bought in Fort Kochi, a few people staring at me from second floor windows. Then Vikram pulled up in his jeep, waved, dropped the boxes on the curb, and raced off again. He shouted, “We’ll settle accounts once this is over!” When I tried buying vegetables in town I was told there was a local order not to sell to foreigners. I started to panic; I didn’t know what we were going to do, and then Yugal, the kind owner of an Amul shop—a kind of ice cream and milk store—took pity on me and said he would bring food from Palampur if we would send him a list. Yugal’s prices were like Whole Foods prices back home, outrageously high by Indian standards, but we didn’t care, he was feeding our family.
At our second apartment, behind a series of side-by-side garages on the edge of the road, there was a tuck shop and a vegetable truck made regular rounds, and so our food problem was solved. But water was an issue. If it rained in the mountains, which it did almost every day, the water was turned off. No showers, no toilet, no washing your hands, no brushing your teeth, no washing clothes in a bucket. We learned to keep old water bottles filled. There was no purifier, so we boiled our water, but everyone told us not to drink it: “It’s wastewater. There’s stuff in there that you have to filter out.” So I would walk into Chougan to buy bottled water, but we could only go out between nine and eleven AM, and even then the police checkpoint sometimes stopped me and sent me back. I’d point to my empty backpack and say, “Buy water,” and they’d wave me away: “Home! You stay home!” Sometimes the tuck shop had bottled water and sometimes it didn’t. Sparkling water, which we consume by the case at home, became a delicacy, and I kept my eyes peeled for it. Sometimes as a surprise I’d come home with three or four pint bottles of Kinley’s Extra Strong Soda Water, and we’d make ourselves salt-limes.
By April, everyone in the world was trapped indoors, and our thoughts had begun to turn toward the uncertain future. We feared the cops and we wanted to go home. In India everyone fears the police, or they should. I remember a story I read in the paper in January, while happily eating my breakfast at the faculty mess at Ashoka University. It was about a Chinese tourist who was in Kerala, and the hotel he had booked turned him away when he arrived for the start of his holiday. The news about Wuhan was starting to get big, and Chinese tourists were being turned away all over India. This poor fellow, who so far as he knew was completely healthy, went from one hotel to the next and everyone refused him. So at last he did what no one who knew a bit about India would ever do: he went to the police. And what did they do? Arrested him, and put him in quarantine. No warning, no test, no symptoms. Just welcome to India, here’s a fourteen-day mandatory stay in a hospital instead of a vacation.
One day our second landlord was over for tea and a teenage boy who works for him told us about forgetting his mask and being chased through the streets by the police, until he jumped over a fence into someone’s farm and was attacked by their dogs. “But the police didn’t get me,” he said in Hindi, laughing. “That would have been worse. They would have tortured me.”
It seemed like whenever we talked to anyone about the police they used the word “torture.” We didn’t know if this was just an idiosyncratic word choice or it was meant literally. The expats were all telling each other to lay low, and recommending that we obscure our place of residence to the best of our abilities. There was collective agreement that we were all in danger of being rounded up during some paroxysm of xenophobia. Even our second landlord, Jaswant Paul, a very sympathetic, kind and honest fellow, repeatedly warned us about the dangers of the police and the villagers’ fear of white people. “They don’t know you, they don’t know where you’ve come from, they think maybe you are the ones who brought the virus here.”
We had WiFi installed in the second apartment, the roadside place. I taught my Existentialism and Indian Civ classes online, attended the faculty meetings I needed to attend on Zoom—I couldn’t use the video, I didn’t have the bandwidth, but I could listen—and WhatsApped with my daughters back in the US. We did our daily “India coronavirus updates” searches on Google, and reassured ourselves that we were better off in India than back home.
My three daughters—two teenagers and a twenty-five-year old in grad school—were safely in Kansas City and Austin with their mothers, and they knew we’d be back as quickly as we could. We were in a small village in a remote Indian state with very low infection rates, and so there seemed to be no good reason to go home, though so many people—the chair of my philosophy department back in the US, the human resources person at my college here in India, my colleagues at both universities, all of our friends and family—expected us to go home and seemed to find it irresponsible that we weren’t home already.
One friend, a lawyer: “I’ve talked to an immigration expert. She says it’s illegal for them to keep you out of the country. You have a right to return.”
A colleague at school: “We just really want you home. We will all feel better when you’re home.”
Another colleague at school: “I saw that India is starting flights soon so you should be able to get home.”
My ex-wife: “I’ve talked to an Indian client who says you can charter a flight for $2k a ticket.”
The HR person at my university here in India, when I asked for help with extending our visas: “But if you don’t mind me asking, why aren’t you already back home, in the US? Because others have managed to get home?”
Really the smart thing to do was stay right where we were. Even now, at the end of June, as I write this, going home is slightly crazy: the virus is on the rebound in the US, up 40%, and here in Himachal Pradesh there are fewer than 500 cases, of which only 280 are active, and a total of ten deaths.
But the point in April, May and most of June was that we couldn’t go home if we wanted to, and it was the panic and the claustrophobia of not being able to that made it so difficult.
In April and May, the obstacles to getting home were insurmountable. Even if we had been willing to brave the flights and airports, there were no open flights or open airports. If there had been, we would have to get to Delhi, hundreds of miles away, and there were no flights flying between Indian cities. We could drive the twelve hours to Delhi, but there was no one to take us, and if there had been, it was highly unlikely we could get across the many district and state checkpoints.
“But even if you could get there, with a pass from the American Embassy,” our second landlord Paul told me, “how would the driver get back home? It’s impossible for him. He would be arrested, beaten, tortured. That’s why no one can take you.”
“They really beat and torture the drivers, Paul?” I asked him later.
“Of course, my dear. Otherwise these drivers will try to drive. They must make a living. But the police know how to control them.”
Now, in June, domestic flights are opening up again and under Vande Bharat, the Indian government’s program for repatriating Indians abroad, we can get an outgoing international flight on Air India. (The planes fly out empty except for anyone, like us, who might need a ride to wherever the plane is picking up expat Indian nationals.) But so many people are trying to buy them to get out of India—presumably Indian nationals, either wanting to vacation or to escape the tidal wave of COVID cases that everyone is anticipating, now that the lockdown is easing—that the Air India site constantly crashes. It’s a kind of lottery to get a flight headed anywhere in the United States. The last time I checked, the only flights available were to Europe. And in Europe, we were told, they wouldn’t even let us through customs. We’d simply be told to stay on the plane.
As I write this, I miss my daughters and can’t wait to hug them. Amie misses her mom. We miss our dog, and we miss our house in Kansas City. We worry about returning to the US, which, from the relative calm and safety of our perch on this mountain, sounds pestilential and chaotic. It will be a relief to no longer be an unwelcome guest in another country, a kind of permanent tourist. But the truth is we have mostly enjoyed our stay.
Outside our second apartment there was an enormous fig tree that grew next to the porch where my wife and I took turns working. The branches, full and heavy with leaves—the hundreds of figs were still green, almost invisible and small, about half the size of your thumb—leaned across the stone path that ran about ten feet beneath the brick wall of the porch and up to the road at the gate. There were many varieties of birds in the Dhauladhar mountain range, finches of lots of colors of green and yellow, and they like the fig tree.
Most mornings, while my wife or I sat on the porch and wrote, fifteen pack donkeys walked slowly past, their dirty canvas sacks full of bricks or gravel or sand, while three men with long sticks kept them moving. About half a kilometer up the path behind our apartment someone was building a second floor addition to his home. He was a friendly man and waved to us when we took a walk with our two-year-old son up the path that runs up the mountain to the village of Gundehar.
In early May, Modi was loosening restrictions, construction had started again, and because our apartment faced the busy road running through the Kangra and Mandi districts, traffic picked up quite a bit, especially in the mornings. After 2 PM, when the lockdown resumed, we would see mongooses walking along the edge of the road, having no immediate reason to hide, and bored children played in the street with paint or balloons, unworried about cars or trucks. Though summer was coming, the days were bright and cool, and some nights we even had to run the fan in our bedroom.
But we couldn’t really get outside, and when we could, we worried that we were getting exposed to too many people—we were living behind a tuck shop, on a busy turn in the road. This is why we moved into a house further up the mountains.
We bought a used silver Mahindra Marshal Royale jeep for 3 lakhs, so that we can traverse the treacherous mountain road between our new mountain house and town, and some afternoons I drive down to Bir, or to the store in front of our old apartment. In Bir Road I have also bought vegetables, and there is a shop in which I found some toy cars for my son and some plates and spoons for our kitchen.
My classes are online for the fall and I know my wife sometimes wishes we could just stay here until a vaccine emerges. But we do have to get home, if we can. My daughters are waiting, and they’ve been waiting a long time. Even if we can’t get out this summer, we won’t be able to stay up here in the mountains: when the monsoon comes in July, my landlord tells us, the leeches are so ubiquitous that it’s risky to walk at all outdoors. It’s late June now, and monsoon hasn’t officially started yet, but I was out walking this morning with my son and came back with a leech on my ankle and another one curled between my toes.
We’ve been in the mountain house for a month-and-a-half now, and there are still a couple weeks left before we can try boarding a flight. Here in the mountains, we have an office downstairs—a table we brought up from the second apartment and a cane chair we borrowed from a campsite nearby, in an otherwise empty room with grey granite floors and high white walls—and through the window I can see the snow on five of the surrounding peaks from here, and from our balcony the terracing of the mountain ranges far below us looks like a scene from a Japanese painting. The Dhauladhar range stretches out as far as you can see, and the sun sets behind it. When I talk to Indian friends on the phone they tell me how lucky I am to be locked down here. Just behind us on the other side of the ridge is, I’ve been told, one of the two best paragliding spots in the world. From here we can see the bright green and gold roofs of Sherabling monastery, down in the valley, and at night the lights of Sansar and Bir, and next year, when people can travel again, if we come back here, we will be able to see the paragliders flying down into the valley.