There she came, my daughter, blinking into the cold dark of the Delhi night, illuminated by the harsh lighting of the airport. Her face was covered by a shield, nose and cheeks by a mask, her hands wreathed in gloves. There was no place to kiss her with all that apparatus in the way. I was seeing her after exactly one year. A 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she had been unable to come home for the long summer holidays because of the lockdown in India and the subsequent restrictions on international arrivals.
That year was the longest in her brief life that we had gone without setting eyes on each other. Here she was, not on a screen that simultaneously brings us close and reinforces how far apart physically we are, but in person. I touched the only unobscured bit of her face with my hand.
British parents who send their children to British universities will find it hard to imagine the upheaval in a parent’s life when his child goes to study halfway across the world. The time difference is 12 and a half hours in the summer, 13 and a half in winter. When I am awake, she is asleep; her waking hours are my sleeping ones. I can’t call her on a whim to tell her something that she would like to hear about (“Listen, I read this terrific line…”; “The highlights package is up on the club website…”; “Did you see the news about…?”).
Everything must be remembered, saved up for the video call at the end of my day and the beginning of hers. Often, there are things that I forget. It is the same with her. Those things remain unsaid, bits of our lives that we would want each other to know about, vanishing in the ebb and flow of the following day. Each day is choreographed, a dance with the time difference, book-ended by video calls. She left home a year and a half ago. But I am still struggling to inhabit a different reality.
The armchair tourist
I was last on a plane in September 2019. I miss travelling on holiday. In these times of enforced confinement, Netflix and Amazon Prime have become surrogates for travel and touchstones of memory. I have watched shows (such as the vapid Netflix series Emily in Paris) and films simply for their locales, and others in which the setting is a strong allure. It is reassuring to see the Seine flowing unflustered, the mayhem of Manhattan, the cottages and green of the English countryside, London as vibrant as it used to be, the snowbound fastness of northern Europe, the canals of Amsterdam, the green, shuttered windows of Tuscany, the vast skies and expanses of the Australian outback.
Streamed into my living room, the images seem like still points in a world that appears vulnerable, forever in flux. Those images shore up feelings that, to quote the American novelist Lorrie Moore, now “exist in the faraway lock-box of memory”.
A Test of character
I watched nearly every ball of India’s historic 2-1 Test series win against Australia. India’s victory in the fourth and final Test in Brisbane was remarkable for all sorts of reasons: India were without their best batsman; without their four first-choice fast bowlers; without their two best spinners; and fielded a bowling attack that had taken 11 Test wickets between them before the game.
To me, it was pleasurable for another reason: the absence from the team of India’s captain, Virat Kohli, who was on paternity leave. Kohli is the finest all- format batsman in the modern game. But with his boorishness and bluster, his popping eyes and his chest beating, his unbridled, unwarranted aggression and arrogance, Kohli exemplifies the kind of triumphalism and sense of entitlement that has come to characterise Indian cricket (and rather too many of its fans).
In the Brisbane win, among the greatest ever in India’s history, the team was led by Ajinkya Rahane: underrated, understated and graceful. That is how I like my cricketers (and human beings).
Regardless of the outcome of the series, though, I always thrill at watching India play in Australia while I am at home. The day’s play, for me, starts at 5.30am. I go to sleep the night before in anticipation, the TV remote on my bedside table. I start my day with the game, my mind uncluttered. Wake up and smell the coffee? No, wake up and watch the cricket. It has a touch of the transgressive.
An Indian winter
Whenever I have visited England during an unusually hot English summer, my friends have said, “You must feel at home in this weather.” I don’t. The metropolitan Indian of a certain socio- economic category is not really exposed to the heat of the summer. He has air conditioners at home, in the car, in offices. In his hermetically sealed pods, he can, if he so chooses, live in Arctic conditions. In a London summer, he takes the Tube and feels suffocated.
India is largely thought of as a country that is hot. It escapes many people how cold it can get in the winter. On New Year’s Day in Delhi, the temperature was 1°C. The city is in India’s northern plains. Up in the mountains not too far away, the temperature was already -7°C. And icy winds sweeping down from the snow-clad mountains made it feel even colder.
Fast forward to the height of summer, though, and Delhi will be sizzling at 47°C. You would be able to fry an egg on a car bonnet. And that is when the sealed pods come into play. To borrow from Walt Whitman, India is full of contradictions because it contains multitudes.
Soumya Bhattacharya’s most recent book is the novel “Thirteen Kinds of Love” (HarperCollins India)
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost