In February 2020, I rang my mother in Srinagar to say that the situation in Europe was alarming since COVID-19 had already reached the continent. She suggested that I return to Kashmir ASAP, declaring that if all of us were to die, let us, at least, die together. I instantly turned down her offer. A year and a half later, my family are grateful that we have so far survived the pandemic because there are more than four million people across the world who have died of this disease.
In the last three years, I have yearned to see the high Himalayas again and often recall a poem by Kalidasa in which Yaksha sends a message by means of a passing cloud to his beloved wife in the Himalayas. I couldn’t fly to Srinagar in August 2019 because a military lockdown was imposed in the town. This lockdown, which lasted seven months, turned out to be a precursor of the long lockdowns, due to the novel coronavirus, in Milan, London, Paris and New York – the trend-setting capitals of the world.
My yearning to see the snow-peaked mountains again has been reinforced since the pandemic began and I like to believe that COVID-19 will be over in a couple of years like previous pandemics in history. There was a respite last summer when some people were able to travel internationally but most Londoners were still recovering from the impact of the first lockdown and the threat of a second wave loomed large.
It has been almost nine months since the first dose of a Covid vaccine was given to the lucky recipient Margaret Keenan in Coventry. We have seen a deadlier wave in the UK this year but thankfully most of the restrictions are now over. Freedom to travel has resumed but we have already forgotten the art of travelling. Until 2020, it was just going through the security checks at airports that made us anxious but now there are so many Covid protocols to be observed that it is a real performance to travel from one country to another. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore when you travel. It is bad enough to be frisked at an airport, let alone questioned about compliance with all the new rules.
I have always enjoyed my stays in hotels but having to stay in them against your wishes in order to fulfil quarantine regulations is certainly not a pleasurable experience. I therefore waited eagerly for a travel review by the UK government scheduled for the beginning of this month. It seemed like a very long shot that India would be upgraded to the amber list. But a friend in Leeds sent me a text message
late at night on the 4th of August to let me know that the country’s status had indeed changed and right away I booked a flight to Delhi for a fortnight’s time.
It sounded somewhat alarmist not that long ago when scientists warned that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in the near future. The recent IPCC report paints a gloomy picture of the future of our planet. In fact, the UN chief has used the term ‘code red’ to describe the current climate emergency. I have heard this phrase before, designating a kind of off-the-book punishment in the film, A Few Good Men. Nature seems to be exacting punishment, in the form of recent infernal forest fires and cataclysmic floods, for mankind’s relentless use of fossil fuels and other excesses. In the climate crisis, ‘we are confronted with the urgency of now’, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King.
It is always reassuring for me to see snow-peaked mountains or a stream flowing through a forest of deodars (meaning ‘divine trees’ in Sanskrit). The verdant valleys of the Himalayas are indeed a trekker’s paradise. A walk in the mountains reminds me of the fine ecological balance required for the survival of humankind on our planet.
The pandemic has offered us a new perspective on our short lives on planet Earth that, I feel, makes it imperative for us to see our loved ones who live in another country at the first opportunity. But you have to hope sanguinely that both the countries – the one you are travelling to as well as the one you are travelling from – aren’t hit by a new wave of infections. A third wave has stabilised in the UK but it is still expected to hit Kashmir. I understood ‘third wave’ to be a transition from the industrial age to an information age, described by an American author in a book of the same name, until COVID-19 came along and created three waves of infection in the UK.
Some of my friends in London would have liked to tag along on my trip to Kashmir but travelling internationally these days isn’t a straightforward matter as you have to undertake a number of Covid tests. A friend who travelled to Kashmir recently refrained from buying his flight ticket until he received his test results because, he explained, there is no guarantee that you would test negative even when you are fully vaccinated. However, we have to hope for the best during these uncertain times.