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Hate in the time of coronavirus

Lives around the world have ground to a halt. 

People across society — politicians, priests, executives, businessmen, office workers — are self-isolating for fear of spreading, or contracting, the coronavirus.

Businesses have been closed indefinitely. Workers face layoffs. Students are out of school, set on a path to nowhere. The aging are confined to their spaces, unable to meet loved ones, afraid of risking their vulnerable immune systems. 

Economies are shrinking. Uncertainty looms. All we can do is tune in to the news and watch ourselves drowning in a rising tide of infections. With no vaccine in sight, prospects of surviving this catastrophe appear slim.

How did we come to this point?

Here’s a guess — hubris and hatred.

For thousands of years, mankind had shared the Earth with other species of flora and fauna. With the advent of civilization, we embarked upon a path to self-destruction by developing weapons that can wipe us out several times over, and by waging war on Nature and upon ourselves. We called it science, statecraft and capitalism. Only the fittest would survive. 

And how did that work out?

We ignore a fundamental truth: Life on this planet is interdependent. Humans are part of a delicate ecological balance that depends on the elements, flora and fauna to survive, just as rich humans need the services of poor humans to exist. 

When Neil Armstrong saw the Earth from outer space, he beheld a breathtaking sphere — one world in all its beauty and splendor. Unfortunately, that iconic vision in 1969 had no impact on our lives. We have persisted in our genocidal ways, continued to bomb each other, and violate Nature, driven by avarice and hate.

Now, as a result of our cruelty, we face a common foe that defies science and threatens to wipe out entire populations — a mysterious zoonotic virus that jumped to humans from wild animals being slaughtered in an illegal meat market, and is spreading unchecked.

In one fell swoop, Nature seems to be extracting its price for aeons of pillage and arrogance — our inability to share space with other animal species, our delight in caging and exploiting them for entertainment, our plunder of elements that have sustained life for millions of years.

Suddenly, we are told, the smartest way to beat the virus is through the old-fashioned values of good citizenship, a la South Korea and Singapore — display a social conscience, self-isolate, show consideration and self-control, delay gratification.

As New York faces a mountain of cases, our patience will surely be tested like never before. All of us aggressive drivers and hostile commuters will have to learn to hit the brakes and slow down, cherish our time with loved ones, engage our minds in positive ways, watch and read the news, introspect and be humble. 

And dial down the racism and animosity.

We might have set foot on the moon and we might be hurtling toward Mars and the sun, but we could still be wiped out by a sneeze.

Things might have been simpler had we not been clueless about living together in peace.

If anything, the coronavirus is a reminder that divisiveness and hate will destroy civilization as we know it. Calling it a Chinese or an Arab virus misses the point. We are one human race, afflicted by the same scourges. A virus that infects one nation can infect us all — and a vaccine that saves one life can save us all. 

We must treat the coronavirus, and other such viruses that emerge in the future, as an existential threat to the dysfunctional family that we are.

Either we face this onslaught together, or forfeit our planet and become extinct.

Another year, another laugh

As yet another year draws to a close, amid political turmoil, rampant injustice and violence across the world, is there any reason to say Happy New Year?

I believe so.

From watching the news on television, it would seem otherwise. Crime is rampant. Death stalks the roads. No one can be trusted. Civil society is breaking down.

But there’s still an enormous sense of satisfaction in life’s small pleasures.

Friends getting together to catch up on old times. People traveling to new places. Families lavishing love and affection. Readers and TV watchers devouring their best books and shows. Connoisseurs of art and music gorging on what they adore. And foodies wolfing down their favorite dishes.

I’m looking forward to spending the first week of March with a bunch of friends in India, where we have a yearly rendezvous, somewhere in the hills. We talk and drink and joke and listen to some great music and eat some great food.

Here in New York, a group of friends from Newsday with an insatiable appetite for dim sum are going to be greeting the Year of the Rat later in January, sitting around a table somewhere in the din and bustle of Flushing, Queens.

Our families are a source of strength and joy — and occasions like weddings, like my daughter’s recently, bring the generations together under one roof to reminisce about the times we spent growing up.

We travel to enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of places we seek to revisit or discover. For me and my wife, this year it was mostly India, and the Hudson Valley, where we chanced upon a fabulous antique shop stuffed with typewriters, old furniture, clothes decorations and posters that was a veritable trip back in time.

This year I developed a love of South African jazz, a la the late Hugh Masekela, thanks to my friend PK, and Pandora.

Art has a special place in my heart. I sketched portraits of Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. And I’m working on a landscape of Darjeeling — the Himalayan resort town where i was born. Finishing each drawing brings me a peculiar sense of joy and fulfillment.

There’s joy also in making others happy. I got a kick out of introducing my son-in-law to the pleasures eating dim sum in a Chinese restaurant — he was absolutely thrilled.

So what’s not to be happy about?

Sure we oppose injustice and aggression, and all the terrible things happening around the world.

But why let it ruin the one thing we should all be grateful for — life?

Fuzzy fonts

I rub my eyes, stare at the screen
The jumble of words regurgitate
A tainted water story we’ve run before
With a clever lede, but still a month late.

What’s new, I ask — and get no response
Reporter can’t be reached, editor gone for the day
The story’s got to run, it’s laid out on the page,
Questions be damned, hit the key and take your pay.

An energy report reads like a technical treatise
I scratch my head, try to comprehend a supposed authority
On power plants and electric bills,
And wonder if our reporting has outlived its utility.

Budget reports don’t add up, percentages falter
Names are misspelled, facts don’t check out
Strings of words, when lifted, perpetuate errors
Whatever happened to just making the effort?

Here we are preaching from our devices
Recording history, slaving day and night
Plying our wares in cyberspace, scoring likes
And we don’t know the first thing about getting it right.

It’s 4 pm, the print shift begins
A skeleton crew settles in
The phones have been ringing off the hook,
A flood of angry calls prompt another correction.

The day I survived

 

Yesterday I had the narrowest of escapes – without quite realizing it until much later.

For starters, everything that could possibly go wrong did.

I set out for work as usual, after my hour at the gym, and a quick breakfast, off to my copy-editing shift on the Newsday day desk. As I cruised along on the Southern State Parkway, I heard a hard object — rock or metal — hit the undercarriage of my 2014 Prius, triggering a warning on my dashboard that I should stop in a safe place immediately and get my hybrid system inspected. Not good.

But I kept driving and made it to my office parking lot on Pinelawn Road 5 miles away. I got in touch with the nearest Toyota service station in Huntington to get the problem examined, and eventually left it there and got dropped back to the office.

After my shift ended in the evening, I planned to take the Long Island Rail Road train home. I took an Uber to the Farmingdale station. The last time I took the train home was five years ago. I thought I knew my way around – but nonetheless ended up on the wrong side of the station. When I realized this, I ran through the tunnel under the tracks to the westbound side to catch the 7 p.m. to Jamaica, from where I would take a train to Valley Stream and take a cab home.

That’s not how things turned out.

I got in the westbound train, and sat by a window on the north side, looking at the darkening evening sky. We passed Bethpage, then Hicksville. Then came the announcement that we were approaching Mineola. Moments later I saw a burst of flames right outside a window on the south side and felt the whole car heat up momentarily. I heard the muffled sound of the flames hitting the window. We seemed to have just gone through a fireball. A loud thud followed, and then another powerful one, before the train scraped against a hard surface and wobbled to a stop.

That was the scariest moment. I looked outside. The traffic on the street was a good 20 feet below. We were on an elevated section of track, and I was afraid we would topple over with the impact. Luckily we didn’t.

The worst, for me, was over.

Passengers on the train got restless. Some panicked, tried opening windows and doors, even though we were clearly locked in. A conductor raced to the front to figure out what was going on. A teenager called her mom. “I might not make it home, mom,” she said, first sobbing with emotion, then exploding: “Is that all you have to say?!”

I learned that human behavior in such situations is infectious. I stayed calm, seated by the window, and sure enough, a fellow passenger came and sat by me, and others settled down on seats nearby. A young man raced to the exit and tried banging on the door. Others followed suit. Some argued about not wasting time sitting inside waiting for help that was not going to arrive. Others pleaded helplessness.

Eventually, there came the announcement that we had hit a car on the tracks, so please be patient. Emergency personnel were on their way to rescue us — get a ladder to help us off the train. Nassau County emergency personnel got on he train and told us someone was in the car that was struck, and an emergency operation was underway.

I had switched to reporter mode and began tweeting out pictures from inside the train and sending tweets and feeds to my paper, Newsday. I spoke to my editor, who asked me to stay on the scene as long as I could and gather details. My long trip home had turned into a spot news assignment.

Soon Nassau County emergency personnel set up a sturdy ladder against one of the front cars, and helped us climb all of about 15 feet down to the ground, one at a time.

We were just outside the Westbury station. It was freezing cold. Some passengers, like a young Indian pharmaceutical worker from Central Islip headed to Secaucus, where he lives with his wife, didn’t seem to be wearing enough layers to be out on the frigid February night. We were asked to gather at an indoor taxi stand at the intersection of Union and Linden avenues. The room was packed. The police were taking down names. Anyone who needed medical attention was asked to seek help at the post office. A bus would eventually take us to a point from where we could get home.

On the prowl for color from the scene, I spoke to two young women from the Netherlands, Giullia and Dianne, both scientists headed to a conference in Baltimore. They said they had landed at JFK about 5 p.m. and decided to spend some time in New York City, so they took an air train to Jamaica, where they hopped on an LIRR train — only to learn they were headed in the wrong direction. So they made the switch at Bethpage — and got on the ill-fated train that hit the car. 

Were they upset, or exhausted? Far from it.

The intrepid travelers took it all in stride, and had a word of praise for Long Islanders. “People on the train were helping each other out,” Giullia said. “The railroad personnel were concerned about everyone’s safety. We thought they responded well.”

Despite their difficulties, these young professionals — who couldn’t have been older than in their late 20s — were extremely mature and level-headed. They saw it all as nothing more than an unfortunate accident — a situation where everyone was supposed to come together and help one another, as they saw happening.

Where were they going to stay the night? Accommodation had been reserved for them, they were told, though they weren’t 100 percent sure.

How were they planning to go to Baltimore?

“Not by train!” they laughed. “We’ll take the bus.”

Their lightheartedness and indomitable spirit seemed to bear lessons for many others.

Only much later did we learn that two trains were involved in the accident — and that the fireball I saw was a car with three occupants that had been smashed to bits by two locomotives running in opposite directions as it tried to beat them at a particularly accident-prone railroad crossing.

All three, of course, had died.

I was among about a thousand LIRR riders lucky to have got away without a scrape — alive to tell the story.

So Long Island

A getaway for the rich and chic

Sticking out in the Atlantic,

Like a crocodile with broken teeth

Hungry for what lies beneath.

 

Once home to tribes that hugged the Sound,

And lived off the land until they were found

By colonists with their guns and wiles,

Tossed into the abyss of history’s files.

 

A natural treasure stalked by human leeches

Lusting for its forests and golden beaches,

Where chemicals have leached into the water

From a Cold War machine lost in the gutter.

 

Where death and mayhem lurk every day,

As angry drivers race down the parkway,

Caught in traffic, with no room to fail,

Decency be damned, may the worst prevail.

 

An enclave of wealth and power

Opening up to many with no time to shower

As apartments send more children to be schooled

And taxpayers protest, we won’t be fooled.

 

 

Daddy

 

 

dad_bw

Sometimes when I’m lonely and blue,
I become that little boy struggling to keep pace with you,
And when my legs grow weary, I squat in protest,
Longing to ride your shoulders, so I could rest.

Your smooth belly was a playground immense,
A stage for characters in my world of heroes and fiends,
Locked in an epic war for supremacy,
On what turned out to be shaky territory.

Sound asleep, you looked Brobdingnagian in bed
I once tied your hairs to the posts near your head,
And when you awoke, all hell broke loose,
You screamed in fury, I ran like a goose.

On Sunday mornings, we ate samosas and jilebis
A time to laze around, no chores please,
Listen to Hindi music, or go to the movies,
Occasionally dine out, though never at a Flurys.

Your birthday meals at your sisters’ were scrumptious,
Your appetite for life infectious,
Chicken, prawns, fish and meat
Nothing like a doting sister’s treat.

Paydays were picnics on the Maidan,
But my brother and I had other plans,
We trotted off on our little feet to your office past every crossing,
To catch our dad as he left work on a day he felt like a king.

When I broke my arm at cricket ball throw
And a cyst developed in my right elbow
I went under the knife, needed bottles of blood
You were the father who gave me all he could.

When I got a job at the newspaper,
It filled you with pride, but you seemed to waver:
Wouldn’t it have been better to serve the administration
Of our vast and challenging nation?

Your last letter to me seemed like an appeal
A long scrawl waiting to reveal
How much you missed me when I was away
A desire to see me on your last day.

As I approach the age you left us in ’81
A time too short for one so full of love and devotion,
I remember your smile and hope you have found the peace in heaven
That you sought on earth, until your life ended at sixty seven.

The fall I turned a new leaf

David-WeldIt’s one thing to read about surviving a traumatic event — quite another to live it.

As fall pours its bounty of fresh produce and balmy weather, I am reminded of the season last year, when I learned some life lessons — particularly, the value of tenacity and presence of mind when you’re injured and helpless, writhing in pain, with nobody around to help you.

A fan of books and movies about daring expeditions, I found myself in the middle of a misadventure of my own making that put my instincts to a cruel test.

I had been assigned to sketch a few “hidden wonders” of Long Island for my newspaper, Newsday. I had chosen my spots — a couple parks and trails, an ice-cream shop, a lighthouse and a beach lined with tall, red bluffs, deep inside a sanctuary in Smithtown. That last one seemed a bit hard to get to, but from the photographs I saw, it looked like the prospective piece de resistance — if I could get there.

I got the easy ones out of the way first, wrapping up the parks, lighthouse and ice cream parlor in a day, and then headed out to Smithtown the next morning, Nov. 9.

The David Weld Sanctuary, an isolated spot along the Long Island Sound, is a sprawling network of walking trails through thickly wooded terrain that loop around a wetland, to an open beach along a line of chiseled hills, whipped and eroded by storms and tides.

I squeezed my car into the tiny six-space parking lot, swung a bag with my camera, pens and pencils over my shoulder, ready to create what I was convinced was going to be my best work for the assignment.

Signs at the gate warned against straying from “marked trails.” A nearby kiosk offered a posted guide to the preserve, but no directions to the beach, where I was headed. I trekked along, clicking away with my camera, happy I had all day to get there. Going by compass directions, the beach should have been a short distance north from the parking lot — but I soon found that the trail heading north tapered off into a dead end, down a slippery slope littered with fallen leaves and branches, close to what looked like winding stream.

I retraced my way back on the trail, and this time headed east. Not surprisingly, the path snaked around the wetland, before leading to the beach — a roundabout route to my destination. This was a “hidden” spot because it was practically inaccessible, thanks to the park signs, which are no help.

After walking through the dark woods for more than a mile, I found shafts of daylight streaking  through the tall trees. The edge of the forest was near. Soon the sight of a golden beach and sea beckoned me to an opening. I took the bait and headed for the crooked,  muddy path down the bluff. A solitary boot print assured me somebody had stepped down this way.

Gingerly, I extended my right foot and felt the ground with the sole of my worn-out sneaker. Would it take my weight? I had to find out.

Big mistake.

As I lifted my other leg to descend, my right foot twisted with an audible snap, and I fell on my  butt in agony, momentarily paralyzed. A pain shot through my leg — I knew I had broken my ankle — and my foot began swelling almost instantly.

I waved to a couple strolling on the beach in the distance. The man seemed to respond, and began approaching me.

“I think I’ve broken my ankle trying to go down this bluff,” I told him when he was within earshot. “Can you tell me the shortest way to the parking lot?”

“Well, there’s a better way to get back up, further down,” he said pointing to a spot where the access to the beach was smoother. How was I to know, I asked him. There were no signs. So much for marked trails.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” he said. “It’s still a long way to the parking lot.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll try to make it.”

The man walked back to his partner, and I began testing my ability to hop along on one foot, with minimal pressure on the broken ankle. I made a mental calculation. It was about 1 p.m. I had to get to the nearest hospital emergency ward, but the parking lot was a couple miles away. The park closes at 5 p.m. So if I inched along at a snail’s pace, I could make it in an hour or so. I could then get into my car, drive with my left foot — if not my right foot — get medical attention and then call my daughter, who could pick me up.

But first, I needed to get my photos of the beach — I wasn’t leaving without them.

With my right foot throbbing in pain, I took out my camera, hopped to a suitable point on the beach and clicked away furiously till I had satisfied myself with pictures from every possible angle and composition.

Done with the photos, I packed the camera into the backpack, strapped the bag on my shoulders, balancing on my one good foot, and began my excruciating journey to the parking lot — first crawling up the gentler gradient to the forest trail the man had showed me, and then setting out on the long trek to the car. Perspiration soaked my forehead. My foot was taut and swollen inside my shoe. The  bag added to my weight, but I had to keep moving, I told myself. Sitting and resting would only delay treatment and make things difficult. So I inched along, trying my best not to fall again and worsen my injury.

My thoughts strayed to the three years I had spent in military school back in India. This was what they prepare you for. I thought about wounded soldiers and how they fight the elements to survive — nature is as much an adversary as the enemy. Decades ago, had I not been rejected on medical grounds because of my broken arm, I might have been in the Indian Army myself. Many of my classmates had joined the armed forces and fought in wars. Some had died. My rejection had saddened me as a teenager. I had missed my first goal in life. Maybe this was the universe’s way of giving me a taste of what I had wished for.

Checking on my progress, I found the sea had receded into the distance and that I had traveled a few hundred feet — I was going to make it, probably in less than an hour. And if I could hop this far with a broken ankle, I could definitely drive with it. A walking stick would help to reduce the pressure on it. I picked up a fallen branch that looked like a strong bough. It was too flexible and wasn’t much help, but still better than no support.

On the way, I passed a young man with headphones, heading to the beach. I smiled and told him I had broken my foot on the bluff. He shrugged and smiled back, probably absorbed in his music.

Dragging myself across what now appeared to be  inhospitable terrain for an eternity, stopping occasionally when the pain got unbearable,  I eventually made it to the gate. My spirits soared. Thrilled that I would now be able to drive myself, I collapsed into the seat of my Prius and tested my ability to manipulate the accelerator and brake with my broken foot. It felt a lot easier than what I had just endured.

Soon, I was coasting down a hilly road that led, without the aid of a GPS signal for quite a distance, to the nearest hospital — St. Catherine of Siena.

The hospital parking lot was chock-full of cars. I found a spot far from the ER. Heads turned as I did my one-legged hop over the concrete pavement, stopping to ask a lady  directions. Few people made eye contact, probably because they had worries of their own.

Once in the ER, I grabbed a wheelchair. After a short wait — emergency rooms are like triages that take patients according to priority — I was X-rayed. A doctor dressed my injured foot and told me I had suffered a bimalleolar fracture and might need surgery.

I broke the news to my editor, and my daughter, who drove a long distance to pick me up and take me home.

What followed was a long spell of pain, swelling and immobility:  a two-week wait before surgery — by a talented young Indian doctor who was fascinated by my artwork, and the length to which I had gone, and promised to visit the ice-cream parlor I had sketched — and then two months of bed-ridden recovery.

While I was home, I finished the assignment, which took an extraordinary effort  because I had to get out of bed and sit on a chair with my right leg propped up, to prevent swelling. But I kept at it, and finished more than 7 watercolor paintings, five of which made the cut.

The Smithtown bluffs (shown above) were the most striking.

Eventually I limped back to work, and gradually got better.

It’s been almost a year after the accident, and I’m wiser from what I’ve learned about my flaws and strengths — and that when it comes to the crunch, I can tap into my inner reserves of faith, endurance and determination.

But I am humbler about nature and the environment. It is a precious gift we must learn to preserve and respect — and never take for granted.

After all, we’re not the ones in control. One misstep and you could be in deep trouble.

It’s a wonderful life — worth every breath

So life isn’t easy, and some of us who aren’t happy dealing with the struggle, the losses, the challenges and conflicts — like Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain — sometimes  choose the peace of the grave.

More so in an age of frustration in the face of deepening religious and political rifts — with refugees from war-torn Syria and gang-infested Central America being turned away from the borders of prosperous nations — and allegations of sexual harassment and assaults.

But why not rage against the dying of the light, and fight the good fight? Wouldn’t that set a better example for our children — by showing them how to deal with adversity? What do we expect them to learn from suicides by famous professionals — whom they look up to as models and aspire to emulate?

I believe that our education system lacks humanity. We’re taught how to work hard and succeed but hardly to cope with the storms and tremors of life — the shocks, sadness, failure and depression. Right from kindergarten up, going to school is about competing and winning and gloating, often ruthlessly.

Not everyone succeeds. Many falter. Others strive to overcome obstacles and eventually come through. But we learn early on that we’re far from equal in our abilities and achievements — and most of us are fine with that.

After all, each if us is unique in our own way. We have our own likes and dislikes and interests and abilities. What some of us are good at, others are not. That does make us different from one another — not necessarily better or worse.

That’s why it’s good to be curious. We all have something to learn from others — and probably something to teach someone. No one is omniscient.

Humility is a mark of wisdom and maturity. If there’s any quality worth envying in another, it is the ability to remain calm and humble in the face of adversity.

This is not to minimize the problem of mental illness — that is the realm of psychotherapy. When we’re unwell, we need to see a doctor or therapist, and there’s no shame in doing so.

But for those of us who are in control of our faculties, common sense demands that we don’t turn everyday life into a war — as do so many reckless and aggressive drivers and commuters who push others out of the way, or hog up seats with bags and coats.

We can live and let others live. All it takes is a smile, and some consideration, to make things better all around.

Life is better than the realities that confront us today. You only have to look at the stars, and flowers and landscapes around the world, and the beautiful work that thousands of great artists and writers and poets have produced over the centuries.

It’s all about nourishing the mind — and developing the ability to introspect and understand another person’s point of view.

Evolution, truly, is not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the smartest.

Simply untrue

Life in America revolves around a plethora of stereotypes — wild notions that paint whole communities with broad brushes, without thought to accuracy or context.

Some say such generalizations make it easier to understand, and keep pace with, a complex world. Hence the suggestion that crime is a mostly black and Hispanic phenomenon, Latin American immigrants are junkies and rapists, Indians are misers who learn by rote, Chinese are cheats and Asians, in general, are a passive race. The only true Americans are the whites and blacks, but patriotism is a province of the white race.

Thanks to Democrats and years of globalization, the narrative goes,  whites are finding it harder to make ends meet. The economy is importing technology and skills they cannot match. And only by reversing, or severely limiting, globalization can true Americans be lifted from their morass of hopelessness.

Obviously, it is this narrative that propelled Trump to the presidency in 2016 — and probably fuel his foreign and domestic policy. The problem, however, is that stereotypes only go so far in explaining our rapidly changing universe.

Did Trump’s ideas about striking a rapport with his “smart” friend Putin bring Russia closer to the United States? Did offering to meet the North Korean leader stop that nation from building a nuclear capability, with China’s assistance? Back home, did all the money spent by the National Rifle Association for Trump’s campaign prevent the rifle industry from filing for bankruptcy after his election victory? Why isn’t anybody splurging on guns? Could they have other priorities, perhaps?

Reality has a way of straightening out misconceptions. Jingoism and hatred don’t bring in jobs — if they did, Trump would be a national hero by now. Building a wall will not prevent immigrants from seeking a better life in America, simply because life in our neighbors to the south is brutish and short — and many people enter through airports anyway. Spreading lies about minorities don’t cut it with most Americans, who know the difference between hearsay and facts.

That’s why the Republican Party in Virginia dismissed Freddy Burgos, a member of its leadership known for his anti-Muslim rantings, who posted a Facebook comment that only Christians are fit to run for public office.

Granted, Trump’s election had something to do with the effects of globalization. America has failed to prepare its workforce for the sweeping technological changes of the 21st century, while corporate giants went about transforming everyday life. It is only now waking up to the importance of STEAM — or science, technology, engineering, arts and math — education to help make its labor pool more qualified for the jobs of the future.

The way to win this battle is to get better — not keep out the competition. As in sports, so in life: Playing a skilled opponent only sharpens your faculties and makes you a better player in the global marketplace.

A state of joy

The other day, my neighbor exulted about my burst of energy — she remarked that I was glowing with happiness. Four months ago, I had broken my ankle and was either bedridden or hobbling around on crutches, and now I was back on my feet. My recovery seemed complete. She even asked my daughter the name and number of my surgeon. She was curious how someone who looked so miserable for months could undergo such an utter and complete transformation.

The truth is this wasn’t about my ankle. It was about my heart. I had just got back from a vacation to my homeland, India, an annual trip to that diverse and vibrant country to catch up with friends and family and revisit familiar locales.

For 14 glorious days, I allowed myself to be drawn into the chaos of New Delhi’s noisy streets, wrong-way drivers, overcrowded marketplaces, bumpy roads and elsewhere,  untamed rivers and jungles — to savor the sounds and smells of a land I call home, light years away from Long Island, where I live and work.

My escape began with the Air India flight I took from JFK. The spicy food seemed better prepared than the half-baked ideas of my neighbor on the plane, a 35-year-old businessman, who was convinced that China has a Muslim majority and the exchange rate was never 15 rupees to the dollar in the 80s, before he was born. I knew better than to argue with him.

Once in Delhi, I couldn’t stop looking for subjects to sketch and photograph — the buses and trains and autorickshaws and bicyclists. As my brother Prodip sweated through the 50-mile drive home from the airport to Greater Noida under the afternoon sun, I took in the passing skylines and  dusty roads. The noisy, reckless drivers we encountered were a reminder of a familiar reality — that some things never change. I was fine with that.

At Prodip’s home, I savored the guavas and grapes and the tangra fish curry his wife, Ruby, cooked. Later, I sat in their balcony and sketched the forest of high-rises as I watched laborers from surrounding villages being dropped off in tractors for work in front of luxury apartment complexes still being built — even as residents have begun moving in. The jobs are precious — they mean food and education for thousands of struggling villagers who have nothing to fall back on except manual, or menial, work.

A few days later, I moved to the apartment of my friend, PK, in Vasant Kunj, where I whipped out my watercolors and sketched the rooftops in one of the city’s most enviable neighborhoods. The scenes were a throwback to the late 80s and early 90s, when we lived in south Delhi before emigrating to the United States. Much of  the neighborhoods I knew are unrecognizable today, with flyovers and high-rises having obliterated marketplaces and streets lined with villagers hawking fruit and vegetables. Of course, being with PK, was a pleasure in itself — we talked about the musicians and the novelists we love, and ate some delicious tandoori chicken and rotis at a dhaba on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he teaches. His home, filled with books, paintings and objets d’art, always keeps me busy sketching for hours.

My exploration continued after I switched to my friend Debu’s home on the north campus of Delhi University, where his wife Rini teaches English. The foodies that we are, Debu and I went about executing our plan step by step: First lunch at Oh Calcutta, a restaurant known for its scrumptious Bengali food, where we wolf down deep fried tortillas (luchis), goat curry (sajnekhalir mangsho) and fried eggplants, then head back home and snooze. The next day, we hired a cab to take us to the Jama Masjid, which I spent an hour photographing and sketching. I even shot a video of the streets around the holy site — a riot of life, color, cacophony and confusion that never fails to deliver. Then we downed a few beers at the India Habitat Center, and ate at Karim’s — fluffy bread (khamiri rotis), mutton burra kababs and halim, a delicacy made by pounding mutton and lentils in a medley of spices.

My vacation took on another dimension when we traveled from the streets of Delhi to the jungles of Kumaon — the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarkhand. Debu, PK and I joined five other friends — a professor, three journalists and a guitarist — for this excursion we had been planning for months. After sitting on a train for five hours, we drove in a minibus over a stretch of rural India that looked like the villages and small towns I’d reported from as a journalist 40 years ago, when I wrote about caste violence, police atrocities and superstitious practices like witchcraft.

We got off at what looked like an abandoned bridge over the shallow Ramganga river within the Corbett preserve, a place not often visited by tigers but quite frequently elephants, monkeys and other animals, we were told. The terrain was rustic and untamed, as would be expected in a wildlife preserve. From here on there would be no more paved roads, only rocks and rivers. The eight of us boarded two amphibious jeeps that carried us over the bumpy, undulating ground, and then four river crossings. We stopped at the fifth, which we crossed by raft, two of us to each, pulled across by rope.

Once on the other side, our porters led us on a half-mile trek to Vanghat, our cluster of thatched brick cottages in a leafy compound ringed by an electric fence, nestled among the pale green mountains where animals roamed free. The roar of the river was pierced by the sounds of birds, crickets and the occasional cry of the peacock. It was a long time since I had felt this far from civilization — the last time being when I had trekked to Madhyamaheshwar, an 11,473-foot-high peak in the Garhwal Himalayas, shrouded in mist and devoid of human habitation, 38 years ago.

Over the next four days, we gazed at the stars and birds, rafted across the river, climbed steep mountains into dense forests over winding paths blanketed with fallen leaves — a venture fraught with risk for someone recovering from ankle surgery — bathed in the river, and rode open jeeps on a safari into the heart of the tiger preserve and back. Although we had no tiger sightings to report, the trip was well worth getting up before dawn and facing the blast of cold air with hardly adequate clothing, something we griped about for a while — until the sun came out.

The getaway was a chance for the eight of us to do what we love most — argue about everything from politics to journalism to academics to music to movies — and joke about one another. For a few days, we breathed and smelled the air of the Kumaon Valley, with our smartphones mostly out of service, carrying on a tradition we have come to cherish and preserve, particularly after we lost one of our own, Arindam “Bong” Sengupta, to cancer in 2016. We know he would have loved it in Vanghat.

Like every year, it was an extraordinary vacation that yielded more than the value of the rupees we spent — an experience enriched by the conversations, wisdom, fun and energy we infect each other with. In the end, we all go home with a sense of renewal and fulfillment – something our families have come to understand is vital for our sanity.

In my case, the results were apparent.