Tomorrow, on Friday, I will take time to write and test some animations. But things take a different turn. And the class + project topple like dominoes:
Corona – not the Mexican Beer
The Coronavirus epidemic has become a pandemic – and the Fulbright Delhi office has already put international travel on hold (no Uzbekistan) and restricted domestic travel (I return the Tuesday Hampi tickets). Yet I still deemed the crisis far away from my life in India.
Last week I already spent 2 days coordinating + supporting my DCoM faculty + students as NYU moved all its classes online. And this Thursday evening Srishti moves all public art projects indoors.
Friday morning: The Delhi Fulbright office urges all scholars to return to the US within a week. I am at my Srishti office and drop my project to start a flurry of activities: flights, guesthouse logistics, making rounds to say good-bye, scheduling last meetings. Friday afternoon: Srishti moves all classes online. Saturday: No flight yet from Fulbright. Just in case, I start packing – and prepare presents for my closest colleagues who I’ll meet in the next days. Sumi, my wonderful roommate leaves tomorrow. We had long talks like old friends. Farewell! Sunday: I am on a Tuesday flight with Emirates Air via Dubai (low infection rates + excellent healthcare – but a major hub). I pick a seat with the fewest people around me.) Lunch with my Srishti neighbor Vishwesh at a nearby organic restaurant leaves a superb memory. Manjari, my anchor at Srishti, visits with homemade food and a book on strange street signs – so good to laugh + so good to have worked with my colleagues! Monday: I meet Arzu in leafy Indiranagar and give her something to remember me by as well as my project materials + solar lights. She has a delicate scarf for me. We will work together online – along with the class and hope her July visit to NYC will still happen. (August note: no, it did not with the pandemic still having the upper hand)
Tuesday: Out for last errands on Sempige Road, a merchant reaches for his mask upon seeing me, a foreigner, a bearer of bad news to him. I take my last Uber to the airport, which to my relief is semi-abandoned. The last rupees go to a coffee. I have 3 seats to myself. Stranded Spaniards sit in front, nobody behind me. Wednesday: Dubai is another matter. Quite crowded. Temperature control at the US-bound gate. All good but why do I have to pour out all my water? The flight is packed – and we all just hope for the best. After 14 hours another temperature check at JFK, swift immigration in low traffic – but endless wait for baggage. Taxi home. My husband waits on the stoop. After 30 hours door-to-door I shower + take a nap. (That is what I meant to do. I wake up 9 hours later) – emails + calls to family + friends, texts to Fulbrighters en route. Good to be home.
Thursday, NYC: masked and gloved I stay in a ‘social-distancing’ line outside a Manhattan supermarket and get some quick staples. Then back to self-isolation for 2 weeks, just in case. It is so quiet in the streets. Hardly a car. Very surreal. Friday: India announced a ban on all international flights. Sunday: India goes on complete lockdown + Emirates Airlines halts all flights. So glad I just made it out (to what? A new epicenter of the virus exacerbated by lack of federal organization and insufficient hospital beds.)
I finally unpack and relive my almost 3 1/2 months in India with each book, each piece of fabric, spices, each present I brought, each concerned text I receive. I learnt so much, about India’s old and present culture, about India’s many grassroots ecological movements, about myself, my assumptions. And I am thankful for some of the harder lessons, the ‘culture shock’ that I was seeking. They made me question my habits and made me thankful for aspects in my life I had taken for granted (like women’s safety).
The palette of spices and smells, the unique mix of flavors developing as you eat will be one of the strongest memories I take home – and I am not known to be a ‘foodie’. I learned to make Chai Masala and a visit to my neighborhood Indian restaurants (once they reopen) will have new meaning.
But the most lasting impression will be the generosity and genuine warmth, interest, and trust of the people I worked with, the open and curious gaze, the deep philosophical approach to discussions – at Srishti and among Fulbrighters. That includes strangers like the kind shop merchant, the curious family who asks me to hold their baby for a family selfie, the 80-year-old Irish traveler with her niece, the curious school kids waving, the woman I meet at a gallery who texts me to meet at a museum the next Saturday, and of course, the owner at ‘MY’ Dosa corner at 17th Cross in Malleswaram.
Farewell India – it will take some time to digest, to sort images on my hard drive and inside my head.
PS: My first week in NYC was surreal – an empty city and an increasingly dire outlook on tests, equipment and medical workers’ protection available. I thought a benefit of returning to NYC was reliable healthcare… I hope I don’t have to put that to the test. NYC has about as many infections as all of Germany – and more deaths… Anyone working in healthcare is truly courageous! I have the luxury of staying indoors.
PS2: After settling in, my work goes on + here is a mockup of what the installation may have looked like. Yash is interested in collaborating. Could we install it in Bangalore and NYC when things are back to normal?