Becoming more aware during the covid pandemic

THERE MUST HAVE been some mistake. The organisers of the 2022 Bangalore Literary Festival omitted to invite me to speak about my writing at the festival, which is held in early December.

However, one of the invited speakers was the renowned travel writer Pico Iyer. He said many things that chimed with my way(s) of thinking. One of these was how little we know about our immediate surroundings. During the pandemic lockdown, his movements were restricted to the places in his near neighbourhood (in California). Everyday, he used to walk to the end of his street and gradually realised that until the lockdown commenced he had been unaware if the great beauty of his immediate surroundings, which he had never noticed before.

Likewise, for a few months during the first London lockdown, we did not stray more than about 1 ½ miles from our home. Every day, we took a stroll along streets, which we thought we knew well, and also along nearby streets we had never entered or even knew existed. Everyday, we spotted things we had never noticed before, despite having passed them often over a period of several decades. It seemed that when our horizons became closer and our world contracted, the acuities of our vision and perception expanded. We discovered that our temporarily contracted world revealed details and facets that were hidden from us, or went unnoticed, when our movement was unrestricted. It was these details that inspired me to investigate them and then write about them in what has become my book about West London.

As I listened to Pico Iyer’s excellent lecture, I realised that what we had noticed during the lockdown in relation to heightened awareness of our immediate surroundings in London was what he had experienced several thousand miles away in California.

Modern transport and communication technology has in many ways caused the world to seem as if it has shrunk. Pico Iyer mentioned this, but said that despite this we appear to know less about the world than we think. The enforced confinement to what we believed to be a familiar environment has demonstrated that we really know far less about it than we had hitherto always assumed.

Welcomed to India with coffee

BECAUSE OF THE COVID19 pandemic, we had not stepped onto Indian soil for two years and nine months. This was unusual for us because after we married in early 1984, we have been visiting India on average twice a year. For family related reasons, we have almost always landed in Bangalore.

When a new international airport was opened near Devanahalli village (at the northern edge of Bangalore) a few years ago, a line of eateries and cafés opened alongside the main landside of the terminal building. Being outside the terminal, which can only be entered by holders of air tickets, these outlets can be used by passengers and those who are not travelling by air.

One of these stalls is a grand affair partly decorated with copper sheeting. It is called Hatti Kaapi. The ‘kaapi’ in the name refers to the way local Bangaloreans pronounce ‘coffee’. This particular coffee stand provides excellent quality South Indian filter coffee. It is so wonderful that whenever we visit the airport, either arriving (from the UK or from places elsewhere in India) or departing, we always make time to drink a coffee served by this superb stall.

So, after what was for us an abnormally long absence from India and what has been a disastrous period for everyone, it was wonderful to discover that it was ‘business as usual’ at Hatti Kaapi. And since our last trip 2 ¾ years ago, a new sign has appeared at Hatti Kaapi. It reads:
“HATTI KAAPI The great Indian welcome drink.”


Seeing that sign after 2 ¾ years made us feel much more welcome than its designers could have ever imagined.

Covid is over

IT WAS EASTER Saturday (2022), the sun was shining, the air was warm, and we paid a visit to the world famous, popular Portobello Road Market. For the first time after over two years of pandemic-induced suppression of London’s ‘joie-de-vivre’, the market was buzzing with activity, crowded with foreign tourists and local visitors. As it was before Covid19, the market was bustling and business at the stalls, which offer everything from artichokes to antiques and pancakes to paella, seemed to be brisk.

Portobello Road

A friend, who lives in rural France, said to me a few days ago when we were walking near Leicester Square:

“It’s hard to believe that there was ever a deadly pandemic in this city.”

And as we walked along a short street in the area, he added:

“There are more people out in this street than there are living in my hometown.”

Yet, Covid infection rates are high in the UK. Friends in India have been telling us that they are thinking twice before visiting the UK because the risk of becoming infected here is so great at the moment. Recently, I have heard that approximately between 1 in 12 and 1 and 15 people in the UK are likely to be infected with a Covid19 virus, and therefore capable of spreading it to others.

Apart from personal hygiene and wearing face coverings, good ventilation is considered to be useful for reducing the risk of spreading the viruses. So, when I boarded a bus in South Kensington recently, I opened the window closest to me – each window on London buses has a label saying “Open this window”. Immediately after following this instruction, which has been given for reasons of prevention of infection, the lady sitting behind me, who was not wearing a face covering, stood up and slammed it shut. I stood up, opened it, and told her not to touch it. She said, speaking angrily with an Eastern European accent:

“You don’t need to open it. You are wearing mask and have three vaccinations.”

How she knew my vaccination status, I do not know. My wife said to her:

“Don’t you know that one in twelve are infected?”

To which the lady replied:

“Believe what you like.”

Then to my great surprise, she added:

“Covid is over”

Winter solstice in the park

THE TEMPERATURE HAS dropped. Fear of the Omicron variant of the covid19 virus has meant that less people are out and about in London. This was the case in Kensington Gardens today, the winter solstice. The wildfowl that gather around its not so round Round Pond wait eagerly for visitors to distribute tasty morsels. Today, I saw a lady feeding the birds. So many were attracted to her that sometimes her head seemed lost in a cloud of noisy gulls. In front of her, swans extended their necks, attempting to reach her hands. Undaunted, this animal lover continued carrying out her kind gesture.

Wall of sorrow

PARLIAMENT’S HOME IS OPPOSITE a wall that runs along the northern edge of the grounds of London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. The wall is separated from the River Thames by a walkway, the embankment between Westminster and Lambeth bridges. Almost every square inch of the river facing side of the wall, which is about 440 yards in length, is covered by hand-painted hearts of various sizes and in various shades of red and pink. Many of the hearts have names, dates, and short, sad messages written on them.

Each of the many thousands of hearts painted on the wall (by volunteers) represents one of the huge number of people who died because of being infected with the covid19 virus. The wall is now known as The National Covid Memorial Wall and work on the painting commenced in March 2021. The mural that records the numerous tragic deaths was organised by a group known as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The names and other information added to the hearts is being done by people who knew the bereaved person being remembered. When we walked past the wall today, the 27th of October 2021, we saw a young lady carefully writing on one of the hearts. Seeing this and the wall with all its reminders of the pandemic-related deaths was extremely depressing. On our return journey, I insisted that we crossed the river and walked along the opposite embankment on which the Houses of Parliament stands. Even from across the river, the reddish cloud of hearts on the wall is visible. Certainly, this would be the case from the riverside terraces accessible to those who work and govern within the home of Parliament.

It is ironic (and maybe deliberately so) that the wall with its many tragic reminders of deaths due to covid 19 is facing the Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster), where had different decisions been taken, sooner rather than later, many of the names on the wall might not have needed to be written there.