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Beware of Stockholm Syndrome after a beach holiday

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Photo: Bloomberg

  • For all their pleasure, vacations can be taxing in covid times. Filling in govt forms online, for example, can bring on anxiety attacks at the prospect of a series of illogical questions
  • Returning home to the familiar captivity of covid can be such a relief that it’s easy to slip into a mutant variant of Stockholm Syndrome, happy to be around stuff that offers us comfort

Duc des Esseintes, the wealthy aristocrat who is, in effect, the only character of the 19th century novel A Rebours by J. K. Huysmans, is an extreme kind of loner. But, one day he summons his horse carriage and packs his trunks for London, intending to stop at a tavern in Paris frequented by the English. In the bar, he is overcome by visions of a tedious and tiring journey ahead. London, he decides, can never live up to Charles Dickens’ depiction of it. Des Esseintes cancels his journey and returns to his villa in the French countryside, “feeling the exhaustion of a man who returns to his home after a long and perilous journey."

Travelling for the first time in 12 months in early January, I began to feel a similar nervousness. Filling in any government form online brings on anxiety attacks at the prospect of a series of illogical questions. The Kerala online health declaration form is easier to navigate than most, but I still needed my elder brother by my computer. When I stepped into the car, the usual driver I use for the journey to Bengaluru airport clucked with alarm when I told him my flight was at 10am. It was 7.45am, but he drove as if we were in a motor rally.

On the Indigo bus service to get us to our small twin-engine turbo-prop aircraft for Kannur, in Kerala, my fellow passengers clad in full personal protective equipment appeared to be vying for a role in a remake of Grey’s Anatomy. As I picked up the visor and mask and sanitizer handed out by the airline staff, I comforted myself that covid meant I would not face a blizzard of Indigo puns such as “Girl Power" pinned on flight attendant uniforms. But the packaging read: “We have got you covered". Unnerved anyway as I boarded the small plane, I whatsapped my brothers to say I wasn’t planning to travel again for a year.

The first swim in the Arabian Sea that afternoon washed away all such whining. In one of my previous jobs, I was a travel editor, but averse even then to travelling in peak holiday season.

I also preferred staying with friends in places such as Dubai, New York and Paris. Long before strict quarantines for two weeks confined to a hotel room became a prerequisite for international travel, plush city hotels always seemed to me a “prison with room service", as the playwright Alfian Sa’at observed of Singapore decades ago.

But, Kannur’s beaches were so blissfully quiet that they reminded me of descriptions of Bali by early American travellers to that Indonesian island. At sunset, there were at most 20 locals on the beach. In the middle of the day, the friends I was staying with and I were the only swimmers. The sea was gentle enough to swim in for an hour, with the waves only very occasionally hurling us towards the shore. The only troublesome spot along the five-minute walk to the beach was a fierce bull that calmed down if an egret was perched on its back.

Our days fell into a pattern. Huge breakfasts of appams or stringhoppers at home, or in a fisherman’s café nearby, followed by work in the mornings and then a midday swim. Dinner was always a wishlist of changing Kerala delicacies cooked by the Costa Malabari homestay owner’s wife Ani, a master chef in her own right. It was a holiday in an unhurried beach destination that also seemed like time travel, by contrast to our age of riotous beach parties in Goa.

And yet, when I turned the house-key on returning to Bengaluru, I realized I am afflicted by a mutant variant of Stockholm Syndrome, a peculiar condition of extended captivity in which one ends up bonding with one’s own jailer. Having authored a travel book, Right of Passage, more than a decade ago, I am now bizarrely happier at home than travelling. This feeling was accentuated perhaps by the fact that every Kolkata 1950s sofa-chair and book case in my living room stands in brass shoes, which were gleaming uniformly that evening. My workaholic helper had polished not just these, but also my antique Kerala spittoons as if they were genie-producing lamps from the Arabian Nights.

I quarantined myself for a week. Soon after, I attended my first dinner party in months. Its hosts had set it in a garden as beautiful as those in Netflix’s Bridgerton. They had painstakingly set down protocols, with families to sit at separate tables for dinner, and even different washrooms allocated to guests who had likely been seeing each other socially in the previous few months. At dinner, however, everyone banded together at an improvised table of 20, as if it were a college reunion. “We are going to see an explosion of socialization post-pandemic," predicted a host. And, just as likely, an explosion of travel.

No man is an island, the much-quoted line goes. Still, I wager that many of us are content to be boring stay-at-homes. When I read the rules that my favourite beach destination Sri Lanka had announced for tourist travel in 2021—including no meeting locals and a diktat of only one hotel per town for foreigners—I decided I would stay home till I got a vaccination jab. Filling a tortuous Indian government form seems less complicated by comparison.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and the author of ‘Right of Passage’

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