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The Equinox and the Equator

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Mad March lies behind us, the term seems somehow befitting a year on from lockdown as we look towards what lies ahead. Equinox, in Spring and Autumn, the time when the sun crosses the equator and the day and night are of equal length. It signifies change from one season to the next. In the Western and Northern hemisphere this is often when Spring comes into bloom although confusingly, the calendar states that British Summertime officially commences.

At the end of March clocks changed in the UK moving one hour forward at 1 am, an extra precious hour, the weather was far from Summery. In Delhi however, it was scorching as the last few days of March heralded a heatwave, the temperatures topping 40 degrees with the hottest March on record for 76 years.  Soaring and searing heat, that strange yellow sky and dust storms, miraculously making way for a blue sunshine morning the following day. There is nothing as contrary as weather.

In Brazil the heat also brought the most incredible storms, of the electrical kind. There, the most enormous expanse of sky put on a fantastic show when the storms rolled in.  Witnessing their approach on the horizon was an added ethereal dimension. However, long before that our daughter would sense a change. She is a human barometer, a meteorological expert wrapped up in a bubble-haired 3 year old form (as she then was). As the mercury crept up she would experience a sinus headache, at times accompanied by extraordinary nosebleeds.

Initially it was discomforting for her. She possesses a heightened sensitivity to high pressure. Her body literally communicates with the atmosphere, as if to say, with confounding accuracy, ‘there’s a storm brewing’. It took us a while to catch on. Six years of storms and we were adept at deciphering her weather reports. For her part, she grew extremely sanguine about it (interestingly the word for blood in portuguese is ‘sangue’, isn’t language wonderful?)

I always associate March in India and the change in season with Holi. Friends and colleagues who would fall ill around this time with colds or chest infections would attribute it to seasonal (as opposed to climate) change. It amounted to colds, coughs and stomach complaints year round. We used to wonder: Could it be dengue or chikungunya? Now we think of the other dreaded C.

As many in the capital experienced a somewhat muted Holi this year, others indulged in riotous abandon and no doubt we will see the repercussions as the R rate rises. I recall our first Holi in Delhi years ago, when we were invited to a friend’s hotel and greeted on the rooftop by assorted members of her wonderful extended family dressed in sparkling white, rivalled only by their dazzling smiles. The dancing – Punjabis have a fabulously expressive way of moving – drew us in. Here was a welcome as warm as the sunshine, intensifying the whiteness of garments soon to be besmirched with the zinging emblematic colours of Holi.

For the uninitiated what ensued bordered on anarchy. And we loved it! In England or the US, the only thing that comes close that I have seen (not been part of I hasten to add) is a food fight. My attitude to food and waste means that to my sensibilities this is sacrilege; a food fight is a whim of an overfed nation. But to throw colours, and petals and water, now that’s my kind of battle. I must add that at some Holi celebrations other more distasteful things are thrown or added. However, at our first Holi in India all was pure colour and magic.

When people from adjoining roof terraces joined in and vibrant powder and water were lobbed across the boulevard, my kids were in heaven. My son’s face lit up with glee (or was that ghee from a thousand samosas?) This, beyond doubt, was the place for a 7-year-old boy! Following the festivities we managed to bag an auto rickshaw and the ride home was an odyssey. We had the forethought to leave our car at home and this seemingly lone chariot winged its way through the capital’s deserted streets.

Our rikshawala seemed to have no issue at all with our bespattered selves. We were covered from head to foot with the colours of Holi, and he happily conveyed his technicolor cargo door to door. It was memorable and hyperreal; gleeful from one end of Delhi to the other or so it seemed, past India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, the floral roundabouts and lush tree-lined avenues.

It brought to mind our first time in Delhi as a family on our ‘Look See’ visit from Brazil. Crammed into a rickshaw after having a wonderful meal, we drove from the Imperial to our hotel and pulled up at the traffic lights. On one side was the magnificence of the parliamentary architecture, on the other…well naturally…an elephant in a truck. I kid you not. It was exactly 8 years ago to the day that I am writing this to you, dear Reader. The children were small enough that they were on our laps in the rickshaw which must have been vibrating not due to its chugging engine, but our laughter.

Holi’s rainbow colours reminded me of something I thought I would never experience in Delhi – Gay Pride which we attended almost 18 months ago now. In turn that recalled our time in Brazil and the many times we were at Carnaval (Carnival) in different parts of the country. There is nothing quite like Brazilian Carnaval and each city has its own flavour.

My son was born at Carnival time, very in keeping with his personality, and we spent his memorable second birthday there.

He was nearly part of the parade in the Rio Sambadromo, as an exquisite Samba queen took him in her arms and prepared to carry him off! I demurred as she purred that he was simply celestial. I think it helped that he was dressed as a pirate, and thus adorably fofinho (a little cutie).

This weekend past was full of Easter. Brazil and Easter saw many happy celebrations, including an Easter hunt in the US Ambassador’s Residence. I used to write for the Embassy and we were treated as honorary members of the US Community. But an association with another family (half, American, half Brazilian) who we were with in Brazil and then in India, is so very cherished. We spent Easter celebrations at each other’s homes, I recall a chocolate egg hunt in their garden in Sundar Nagar (nimble scouring as they melted – the chocolate not the friends) and painting eggs together after Easter lunch at our home.

An interview with one member of the family appears in our new ‘Trailblazing in Conversation’ series which you can find in the Features section. Dr Rebecca Reichmann Tavares was Regional Head of UN Women in South Asia, a remarkable woman and formidable egg painter to boot. Turn to Features to read more about her fascinating life and work.

When I look back at celebrations: large festivals of Holi in India, Carnival in Brazil and even Easter Egg hunts, it seems like another age. We took for granted our physical proximity to others, the ability to mingle in a crowd of strangers or close friends. I yearn for those times again and hope that we can follow guidelines assiduously for the good of ourselves, our friends, our neighbours and our community too. But also for the good of strangers, those we have yet to meet, of whom we have no knowledge, but with whom we are, through time and space, connected.

Having experienced lockdown on two sides of the globe I am convinced that those times will only return if we socially distance, wash our hands and wear a mask. Yes we are fatigued, but to return to the carefree we have to be careful. For if this virus has taught us anything there are much less than six degrees of separation (or handshakes, or sneezes, or even laughter) between us and someone right across the globe. At home and over yonder, beyond the equator, we remain inextricably linked.

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