Delhi has opened up after the lockdown. Shops and malls are in business. The laburnums are in bloom, and the monsoon rains, while they lasted, have imparted a waxy iridescence to the trees. But the Indian capital is a different city. There is little traffic, schools are still shut and most people are continuing to work from home. The shops and malls have had barely any customers. India’s economy contracted 24 per cent in the last quarter. No one is in a mood to spend.
The city looks prettier, less congested, more expansive. The wide vistas of central Delhi (some of the best city roads in the country) look wider still. The air is less noxious. But the city – without its hustle, its rude and reckless drivers, the swarms of visitors near tourist attractions such as India Gate or Qutb Minar – is no longer the same. Delhi seems to have mislaid its heart. It isn’t there any longer.
At least the booze is back. For the duration of the 68-day federal lockdown (one of the most protracted and severe in the world), the Indian government ordered that all shops selling anything other than what it considered “essential commodities” to close. Liquor does not fall into that category in India. Supermarkets here, unlike in Britain or Europe or America, do not sell wine, beer or spirits. You could not, therefore, buy any alcoholic beverage anywhere during lockdown. Calls to hospital emergencies from drinkers suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms went up, as did suicide attempts from those who felt they could bear the agony no more.
After debating whether to ration the alcohol I already had at home, or to enjoy it while it lasted, I went all in. I first finished off all my wine; then started on the spirits, followed by the liqueurs: I drank Baileys Irish Cream, Cointreau, Kahlúa.
After that, I started making myself fresh lime sodas. I kept pretending that they were not fresh lime sodas. It was hard work. In this current phase of life – which the government calls “Unlock”– if there is one thing that has returned unaltered to how it used to be before the pandemic, it is the experience of drinking at home.
Televised sport has returned as well. A new football season, a new beginning. And we can’t have enough of new beginnings these days. Of all the European leagues, India is in thrall to the English Premier League.
The Spanish league has the greatest club footballer of all time; the Bundesliga has the reigning world club champions. But the popularity of the Premier League is unrivalled in India. Its success as a well-marketed, global entertainment commodity is astonishing. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal (and others) have supporters’ clubs in major Indian cities. And there are bars where these fans used to gather to watch games, often at odd hours because of the time difference between England and India.
I watch most of the football games with my daughter, who is an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. We are both ardent Arsenal fans. When games kick off at half-past midnight in Delhi, it is noon in Vancouver. But we manage to watch it together and discuss the proceedings in real time; she in the noon haze of the Vancouver summer, the air tinged with lingering dust from the California wildfires, and me in the darkness of the Delhi night, the patch of visible sky occasionally split by bolts of lightning.
In an increasingly protectionist world full of unyielding international borders, technology has shrunk distance in a way that travel is no longer able to. It is a benediction. And because it is so, and because there is no alternative, I choose not to acknowledge that this can never compensate for the real thing. My daughter’s spot on the sofa remains vacant. I miss her palm in mine. Her head on my shoulder. I miss the smell of her hair.
Print in crisis
After nearly 21 years, I parted ways with the Hindustan Times. Indian newspapers are in crisis. For years, they had bucked the trend that had disrupted the industry in Britain and North America. But the pandemic has ravaged them.
For decades, English language Indian newspapers, in terms of their cover price, have been given away almost free to their readers. Advertising is the lifeblood of the business, and there was a lot of it. Despite the digital behemoths which ate into newspapers’ share of the advertising pie, Indian papers, until Covid-19 struck, received enough advertising to make huge profits. Yes, the volumes of the profits had declined over the years (prompting managements to use that as an excuse to cap salaries or do away with staff), but the profits for the big players in the English language market remained sizeable. Now advertising is drying up; the decline seems irreversible.
For me, being my own patron is a new experience. It has its attractions. Puerile meetings have vanished from my life. And what fun it is not having to deal with people whose core vocabulary consists of words such as “action” (as a verb); “takeaways” (not in relation to food); “cool” (not in relation to temperature); “learnings” (while learning nothing new); “going forward” (while usually regressing)… Oh, there are too many to enumerate. It is a pleasure to erase all that from my life.
Soumya Bhattacharya is the former managing editor of the Hindustan Times. His most recent novel, “Thirteen Kinds of Love”, is published by HarperCollins
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?