As kids, we fantasised about time travel. Picking up our ‘knowledge’ of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity from comics, we would brag about “travelling so fast that time would slow down”. The really brainy ones would talk about “time capsules that travelled faster than light, re-seeing past events playing out before our eyes like a movie flashback”. Whether it was Lord Ram returning to Ayodhya around circa 5000 BC, or, 7,000 years later, people disappearing into digital caves fleeing a deadly virus in 2020 AD, our time capsule would streak ahead of light rays, giving us the most spectacular sneak preview of the past!
Last week I snapped out of comic books to reality when I time-travelled to London to finally figure out Einstein’s genius. But to explain this story, I need to dial back to when I first crawled out of my digital cave in April 2021 AD…
That Horrible Month of May 2021 AD
India was reeling under the murderous second, or ‘Delta’, wave of COVID-19 infections. Until then, for 13 months, I had stayed unbelievably confined at home, drinking copious amounts of beer, sitting Sphinx-like before the computer screen. But then, a health contingency in the family forced us to travel to London via New York.
Yes, you heard that right – London via New York. Since Indians were banned from flying directly to London. So, we had to dash to New York, stay there for ten days, and then become eligible to enter London. The whole experience was bizarre, but it was human civilisation’s ‘new normal’.
I took my very first RT-PCR test 72 hours before hopping on Air India’s non-stop to NYC. Two painful jabs by an ill-trained ‘technician’ (the misogynistic man seemed to enjoy my wincing) deep into my throat and nostril threw up a negative result, and I was ready to fly. On board, I was greeted with a hamper of packaged confectionery, all kinds of chips and chocolates. Any ‘contact activity’, such as serving hot meals on tablecloths and trays, or using quilts, was outlawed. It was the most sterile 14 hours I had spent on an aircraft, ever.
Less Paranoid in New York City
The John F Kennedy airport in NYC was fairly deserted but somewhat less paranoid than the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The scrutiny of our test reports and travel documents was pretty quick and rudimentary. We were “advised” to self-quarantine, although there wasn’t a legal mandate to enforce the rule.
Two days later, we walked to a City MD centre for our ‘quarantine release’ tests. I could feel a looming sensation, a psychological laceration in my nose and throat as the technician prepared to administer the jab. Imagine my joy and relief when he barely shoved the stick a couple of millimetres into my trembling nostril, moved it around gently five times, and said, “all done”. No pain, no trauma. That was my first Rapid Antigen Test (RAT), a far more humane incursion than the terrifying RT-PCR. God bless America for not insisting on that mediaeval diagnostic. As I fished out my credit card to pay what I presumed would be several hundred dollars, I was told “it’s free”. Whoa!
Eight days in NYC were curiously relaxed. People were out and about, malls and bars were bustling, and only an occasional outlier could be seen wearing a mask.
We once again braced for the dreaded RT-PCR as it was time to turn around to London. But bless the Lord’s mercy, as the UK tweaked its rules ‘just in time’ to permit a RAT instead of RT-PCR. Another quick trip to City MD, another gentle swishing in the nostrils, and we took off for London. It was a shorter, less sterile flight.
But Kafkaesque in London
In May 2021, London’s COVID-19 protocols were Kafkaesque. We were forced to pre-book three Do-It-Yourself (DIY) test kits for a few hundred quids apiece. Happily, these were RATs – and since I had to ‘do it myself’, I was even less invasive and gentler than the Americans. I can’t be sure if I even managed to get a viable sample out on Royal Mail to the test lab. Be that as it may, all my tests came negative!
We had to strictly quarantine for eight full days unless we took a fifth-day ‘release test’. But inexplicably, even if we tested negative on the fifth day and were then free to roam about, we had to take the eighth-day test. Nobody could explain why such a ludicrous rule was made. So, we would argue endlessly whether it was state-sponsored extortion or profiteering. Ultimately, we agreed it was both. Our five long and lonely days were punctuated by frequent ‘missed calls’ from London’s COVID-19 monitoring cell, a clever ruse to map our location. Aah ha, India had inspired its erstwhile masters to use jugaadu missed calls to ‘spy on the natives’ to ensure that we were observing quarantine rules.
Somehow, we made it back to India, but not before another RT-PCR test was done to satisfy equally paranoid Indian authorities.
Time Travel to London in Circa 0001 AC (After COVID)
Legend has it that circa 0001 AC is also known as 2022 AD in modern mythology. That’s the year we travelled back to London in a time capsule. How the world had changed! Nobody insisted on an RT-PCR test before the flight or masks on the flight. Normal food and wine flowed through the aisles. At Heathrow, the immigration officer looked quizzically when I asked if he wanted to see my final vaccination certificate. Nobody asked if we had booked our Second or Fifth or Eighth Days’ DIY tests. Nobody made prank calls to ‘spy’ on our location. Masks? Heck, what’s that prehistoric contraption?
London was buzzing as if the year was 2019 AD, aka in modern mythology as circa 0003 BC (Before COVID). This was Einsteinian relativity playing out in real life. I had flown back in time to re-see an alien world, thought to have been lost and buried under a pandemic.
Of course, our return flight to India jerked me back to reality. We were grounded for two hours on the tarmac because the RT-PCR test reports of the pilots and crew – mandatory under India’s COVID regime – were delayed. When I asked about the logic of testing only the pilots and crew even though 350 passengers were travelling back without a test, I got no sensible answer. Except to say that in India, we are like this only!