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.
Note 1: March-May
A guide in Northern India, Raj’s work dried up when COVID-19 hit. “I’m really worried,” he admits. “I react with a lot of anger sometimes.”
He lives with his wife (“a calmer person than me”), sister and parents in Jaipur. His father is bed-ridden; additional worry.
Raj initially shrugged off news of the virus. But panic began in early March: an Italian couple had tested positive in his city.
“I was surrounded by foreign tourists carrying God knows what,” he recalls. He led his last tour in mid-March, with a mask and hand-sanitiser. A week later, India was in lockdown.
Passionate about travel, culture and meeting new people, Raj now passes time watching movies. He’s not optimistic about work picking up before 2021 – fortunately his wife, a teacher, can continue to work remotely.
“I’m a proud, independent individual, but my ambitions have lessened,” he says. “I’ve realised you only need the basics.”
Note 2: May-July
Bed-ridden for six months, Raj’s father passed away on 21 May. “I must be strong for my mother and sister,” says Raj. “I’m trying to be normal.”
The night before his death, he’d asked Raj for a leg massage. “He looked very calm. I think he knew he was going to go.”
20 people attended the cremation: before India’s lockdown restrictions were relaxed, only four had been permitted.
There was a formal Hindu procession, albeit with masks, hand-sanitising and social distancing. Raj shaved his head to participate in a 5-hour cremation ritual, including the symbolic act of touching the fire to his father’s skull.
On the 11th day, an even more intense 8-hour ritual included multiple ceremonial baths. On the 14th day, it was all over.
“Although I’m Westernised, I still love the rituals. They gave my mother and sister comfort,” he says.
Lockdown has taught Raj the importance of saving for the future, but also that although his feet itch for travel and adventure, his family values his time more than his money.
“I’m much calmer now,” he says. “I’ve even started cooking. I don’t enjoy it, but I’ve made my peace with it. I can make a very nice soya chilli.”
Note 3: July-August
Lockdown meant that Raj couldn’t take his father’s ashes to the Ganges for the traditional final ritual until 10 August, almost 3 months after he passed.
It was a 17-hour round-trip from Jaipur to Soron Ghat, the sacred place where his family has been going for generations. At least 250 years, according to the records kept there.
COVID-19 restrictions meant they were unable to stay over, so Raj and his uncle completed the trip in a single day. They left at 5:30am, returning after midnight.
It was Raj’s first time out of Jaipur since March, and he was shocked by the lack of adherence to government guidance in more rural areas: “It was jam-packed,” he reveals.
90 job applications have yielded just two interviews so far. Raj has met a string of box-ticking recruiters who can’t appreciate his transferable skills: they see only ‘tourism’.
“There was a time when I got extremely frustrated and negative about it, but I’m not giving up,” he says. “My wife tells me not to worry: ‘You’re trying your level best. You can’t blame yourself. It’s all you can do.’ But I do sometimes feel like a bird that’s used to flying, and is now in a cage.”