10 Feb-10 Mar 2019 and 10 Feb-9 Mar 2020
I recently read an opinion piece in India’s The Telegraph by Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian, in which he speculates that India is currently experiencing not one, not two, but six crises. It broke my heart. I want to share with you the Rishikesh we knew and experienced in February and early March of last year, and again at the same time this year, but can’t possibly do that without acknowledging what is happening there today.

This brilliant confounding country of 1.3 billion people, where cows are worshipped,

where millions live in a kind of normalised poverty, where flowers are an industry of major importance, where men surrender everything to become enlightened, where women dance in the rubble like peacocks in the brightest colours imaginable,

this brilliant country that is some kind of irregular improbable jigsaw of hundreds of different tribes and cultures, is going through one of the worst times in its history brought into sharp relief by the corona virus pandemic.

According to Guha: The Indian medical system is overburdened; the Indian economy is in a shambles; Indian society is divided and fragile; Indian federalism is weaker than before; the Indian State is becoming increasingly authoritarian — it is the combination of all these factors that makes this perhaps the greatest crisis the country has faced since Partition.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, gave four hours notice for the lockdown. Four hours! Without consideration for the millions of migrant workers who had to get back to their homes, often hundreds of miles away. The people did the only thing they could. They began walking – with no food no money no support. Eventually, after a couple of days, transport was allowed to run again to get these people home, though of course they are now unemployed. Unemployment has risen from 7% to 27%.

We have friends in Rishikesh who lost their jobs as servers in a restaurant because of the lockdown. They had a couple of days of panic trying to get back to their village in the Himalayan foothills. Each with a wife and child, they eventually managed to scramble onto an inevitably overcrowded bus and get home. We sent them money. There is no bank in their village. We don’t know if they can access it or not but it is there for them when they can. They send texts to Don every few days. They call him their father and me Ma’am-ji. We are moved by every text and photo we receive from them. They are such good people, and we are so happy to see they are in a green rural setting and seem to be healthy. They are among the lucky ones.

The once busy and overcrowded streets of Rishikesh

are mostly empty these days. The tourists, both international and domestic, have left long ago. With what is being called Stage 4 of the lockdown some businesses are now starting to open again, but not yet the restaurants. The auto rickshaws are running again but can carry only two people instead of the usual (or at least hoped-for) ten.

The number of new cases of Covid-19 continues to rise in India by about 5% per day so it is far from over, but there are no known cases in Rishikesh, and India’s total deaths from the virus sits at 4980, a remarkable statistic given it’s such a crowded country with a chronically overburdened medical system.

So now I want to take you back to an earlier time. It was only three months ago, but feels like a lifetime. I got sick in India, the usual parasite/bacteria/gut problems. I found a clinic where I could see a doctor just down the street from the ashram that we were attending each morning. The street

is an artery through a quiet residential neighbourhood,

and as I waited in the morning for the clinic to open I watched the community come alive with beginning-of-the-day activities, the rush to get to schools and jobs. This is what it looked like then:

With a few twists and turns down this road you’ll come to the main road that runs north-south through Rishikesh. It’s largely empty these days, but back in February when we were there you could get a tuk tuk all the way up to the Tapovan area in the northern part of the town. A walk through Tapovan, first on streets and then on ever-narrowing alleys brings you to Lakshman Jhula.

If, instead of going down the stairs and crossing the bridge you turn left past the German Bakery, follow the road along by the river, make a couple of turns, and go down some very narrow alleys in a different residential area, you will eventually come to this:

If you then head down the narrow staircase right in front of you, past the shed housing the milk cows, you will come to Ramana’s Garden Organic Café, and Ramana’s Garden School. The school, begun more than 20 years ago by an American woman, Prabhavati Dwabha, provides free primary and junior education to nearly 200 students as well as housing nearly 70 at-risk children. The café, run entirely by volunteers and catering largely to western tourists, is one of their main sources of income. It serves the best homemade lasagne and ravioli I’ve ever eaten, but the loveliest thing about eating at Ramana’s Garden café is sitting outside on the middle-level deck right next to the flowering Silk Cotton tree. Several times we were lucky enough to get that table and were entertained by a parade of exotic birds as we waited for our meal.

And walking home alongside the river one day we saw a pair of Great Hornbills!

Instead of diving into garbage bins,

or swiping bananas from a fruit stand,

I’m guessing the langurs

along with the macaques

have headed off into the forest to fend for themselves with the closure of easy pickings in town.

After having been sick for nearly two weeks the doctor prescribed some medications that cured me in three days for a total cost of about $5. The café at Ramana’s Garden closes anyway in March so the lockdown would not have affected it too much. The children that live at the school no doubt stayed in place. And Rishikesh is slowly opening back up again.

I’ll close with something from Madhu who writes at The Urge To Wander: Most people outside of the country do not quite grasp the miracle that is India. This gaggle of disparate cultures, religions, languages and notoriously rule-breaking citizens who’ve managed to stay together despite some of the most corrupt & inefficient of systems anywhere.

And I hope with all my heart that the same miracle will help India pull through this latest round of challenges, and that one day soon children will again put on their uniforms and head off to school.

Next post: Back to Vancouver summer 2019 – the Pride Parade and the Columbia Street (food truck) Festival.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.