Nick Carson in conversation with
Raj Sharma guided Nick, his girlfriend (now wife) and a small group of others around India in 2016. Raj’s passion, warmth, knowledge and humour made the trip unforgettable – and he went on to establish his own tour company, Horizon Journeys.
26 weeks reflection:
My 26 Weeks conversations with Raj coincided with two emotionally wrenching milestones in his life.
Firstly, the loss of his livelihood as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. His passion for travel, and sharing his country’s rich, vibrant culture with people from all around the world, was infectious.
As well as losing his income, a part of his identity has been taken away by the virus: as Raj so poetically describes it, he’s “a bird that’s used to flying, and is now in a cage.”
Secondly, the tragic loss of his father during lockdown. The dynamic of the whole Sharma family unit changed while confined within the four walls of their newly-built house.
Raj is proud of his country’s rich heritage, but he’s also proudly Westernised. He eschews the classic Bollywood flicks that his wife loves in favour of Tarantino and Scorsese, and is borderline obsessive about the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But the elaborate traditional Hindu funeral rituals gave him great comfort after his father’s passing, despite the constraints placed on them by pandemic regulations.
While we found so many parallels in life under lockdown in our respective countries, I felt privileged to have these intimate glimpses into how a different culture deals with grief.
Raj was also strikingly honest about his own journey, and how his pent-up anger and frustration softened after his father passed, and he needed to step up to be there for his family.
He told me at one point that the pandemic, while clipping his wings with one hand, “taught him how to be a husband” with the other. By losing one aspect of his life, he developed a deeper appreciation for family and learned to value the basics.
This opportunity to find something positive amongst the many stresses of the pandemic definitely resonated with me.
For three months of the UK’s first national lockdown, while the nurseries were shut, my wife and I juggled the very full-time demands of our then 18-month-old, while both attempting to work from home.
This game of high-stakes Tetris almost burned us out, but also brought us closer. Those intensive months at such a formative time of our little one’s life were immensely valuable.
Compared to Raj, we’re so fortunate. My wife kept her job, and my freelance work – after an anxiety-inducing tumbleweed period at the start of lockdown – recovered.
It’s impossible not to share Raj’s frustration as his dogged persistence to find employment is slapped down at every stage.
Raj’s ill-fated attempts to transfer the skills he’s learned from 17 years in cultural tourism echoes the UK government’s tone-deaf pleas for talented, passionate individuals in the crippled creative sectors to retrain in totally unrelated areas.
As the country entered its second national lockdown, our furlough scheme may have been extended to avoid the end-of-October cliff edge – but it’s still ultimately damage limitation. The surge in unemployment is unavoidable, and we also face the daunting prospect of a whole generation struggling to enter the job market at all.
As I write this a week into lockdown #2, India’s official figures show over 8.5 million COVID-19 cases, and more than 127,000 deaths. The US, by comparison, has over 10 million cases and 238,000 deaths. Here in the UK, the grim milestone of 50,000 deaths is fast approaching.
While skeptical about the accuracy of India’s numbers, suggesting that some unscrupulous private clinics may be profiting from false positives, Raj believes a growing lack of adherence to guidelines doesn’t bode well for his country’s recovery.
“When it started, everyone was afraid of other people,” he recalls. “There was pin-drop silence. No person outside. Now I see half the people not wearing masks.”
“It’s increasing because people are not being careful,” Raj adds. “They have to work, they don’t want to die of hunger, but even the people who have money are getting relaxed about it.”
So much has changed in the 26 weeks since Raj and I first spoke, both for him and his country – but the next 26 weeks are even more crucial. For all of us.