How India helped me beat COVID the second time around
My life as a chef and consultant takes me to places I never could have imagined when I started cooking in my early twenties. I have cooked for royalty, heads of state, business moguls, popular celebrities, fashion icons, revered artists and everyday people. Each left an indelible imprint on my psyche. More than once, I felt like I was the one educated in exchange, with parent schools that can’t transmit and money can’t buy. It is human interaction, its myriad emotional connections or lack thereof, that I find to be the most valuable pieces of the puzzle that is my professional life. To communicate and be able to influence change, to help plant seeds of movements that make life richer and more sustainable, to frame a life and help it mature, it takes talking, doing, teaching and sharing with authenticity, touching minds and hearts, and letting the other person question, ponder, ponder, debate, get angry or come up with an affirmation.
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Recently, a second episode of COVID left me in quarantine, but this time it was in Mumbai, at the residence of two luxury hotels. During my enforced stay, I found myself understanding anew the many gifts life has bestowed upon me and the lucky perch from which I live.
Miles from the comfort of my own bed and in the absence of my sleuth, Clouseau, I was unconcerned by the 104 degree Fahrenheit fever and painful chills, incessant sweating and debilitating cough that rocked my body. COVID had taken away the joys of touching lives during the pop-up planned by luxury brand consultant Anandita De and superstar restaurateur Suren Joshi. Instead of worrying about the headache, which was worse than any migraine, and body aches that made me feel like I had been hit by a truck and left to die on the road, I was sad that the chefs in the kitchen at Joshi House in Bandra, Mumbai, did not give me lessons or receive hands-on cooking lessons from me. I lamented not being able to attend a pre-service meeting and observe how the restaurant manager inspired his team or hear how they questioned the format in which my mentee Vardaan Marwah and I presented our progressive Indian cuisine . I mourned my inability to interact with the team members, as I had wished to enrich my mind with their voices, their questions, their reactions, their unique perceptions. Of course, I had also wished to leave them a bit of my own quirkiness and myself.
When I first had COVID in the United States last year, days before my left shoulder surgery, I found myself in a deep, dark abyss. A brooding, dark, sepulchral space of dark, gloomy thoughts and awful despair. An inconsolable and miserable discomfort had taken over my usual sunny disposition. My heartbreaking spirit had been chipped by the virus and the frayed social fabric that is 21st century America. My hotel stay in Westchester, New York, felt like incarceration worse than life imprisonment. Even with my family visiting me from a safe distance, I couldn’t get rid of my angst. NYC, my soul city and my home for 30 years, was cold, unable to heal myself. Even before my body felt pain, my mind and heart were shattered beyond repair. I’ve seen death up close, and it took everything I had to fight off the terror my mind was sowing in my psyche. That I got out alive, had surgery, and lived to tell the tale is a miracle I couldn’t foresee at this hotel.
The fever was much higher the second time around, the body aches were even worse, and the oxygen saturation just a tad better. I also suffered from an awful migraine-like headache that tied me to that dark time after my stroke when I returned to India to possibly die. Yet what amazes me most, I felt no fear, I didn’t feel alone, and I certainly didn’t see death or contemplate any fear of being hospitalized or worse. In quarantine, with no immediate family nearby, a doctor who knew my medical history or who could be a comforting figure – in Mumbai I felt comfortable, hopeful, joyful and in control of myself and my my senses, assured of my future and making it safe to a negative status.
Anandita De, my new best friend, is a friend I was destined to have for my second COVID battle to have a Mumbai native who genuinely cares about me. His many daily, conversation-rich calls lasted for hours and kept me engaged and challenged. Those hours of human connection, the salt-of-the-earth images living on the streets I saw from my hotel window, the sounds and smells of Mumbai, the knowledge that I was coexisting with people far richer or incredibly poorer than Me who was also fighting against COVID, I stayed true to myself, without being afraid of the consequences that the virus could have inflicted.
The heart and soul of India, its unparalleled beauty, its deeply vexing poverty, the unequaled generosity of its citizens, its elastic heart and its raw and brutal endurance to face all the forbidding vicissitudes of life…The fluidity with which India breathes, moves forward, connects with the past and looks towards tomorrow and the tomorrows beyond… The incessant horns in the streets, the cacophony of deafening and equally heartwarming sounds… The tireless energy of birds singing and fly, despite frightening and superlative levels of pollution… The majesty of the gnarled old trees, the rich vibrant flowers and the lush, lush greens of the grass and leaves in the places where you expect them, and those places where the ‘one would not think of such a blessing… It is what has kept me from breaking, even on the verge of being broken beyond repair – this magical truth of India, this foundation from which spring the man, the woman e and the Indian child – it made me see hope where a yes there ar I found none.
Quarantined for more days than I care to count, I found myself happily resigned to my fate. I made peace with the virus. By finding space for this in my mind, I have found space to accept and embrace my reality and to struggle with the pain and loneliness of living with COVID. Leader, teacher, mentor, speaker, consultant, and author—those professional hats have been relegated to a distant closet in the depths of my mindscape. By connecting to my surroundings, as rich and mystical as India, as heartbreaking as the greatest democracy in the world, I found my balm, my comfort, my hope, the healing and the faith that gave me the courage to continue, to live, to believe, to love, to be at peace with oneself and the rhythms of the world.