Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

The Janata Curfew: Deserted Streets, Towers of Silence and “Good Vibrations”

I have been journaling about life in Mumbai during the Covid-19 pandemic for a few weeks now and have decided to turn some of those entries into short blog posts for whoever’s interested. This is the first installment. If you’d like to read my long-form stuff, head to The Borderlands.

22nd March, 2020

Today India, a country of 1.3 billion people, came to a standstill as the Janata Curfew (or People’s Curfew) went into effect. With only a few hours’ notice, businesses across the country were asked to close up shop and only people providing “essential” services were permitted to venture out into the streets between 7am and 9pm.

Here in Mumbai, a city brimming with chaotic, restless energy under normal circumstances, a profound silence has descended — like a demoniac emerging from the throes of an exorcism. The frenetic traffic has ceased and there is only the birds — pigeons cooing under air-conditioning units, crows cawing in the branches, parakeets shrieking under the eaves of the bungalow next door, kites screeching in the far-off distance, a lone koel whooping in a hidden spot among the tree canopies — and the faint drone of a television. Even the stray dogs have ceased yapping.

Around midday I surreptitiously stepped out onto the street for a few minutes so that I could fully take in this historic moment and get some footage. I could picture the tut-tutting in roomy apartments across Bandra and South Bombay if my friends found out that I’d flouted the curfew, if only for a few minutes. But I couldn’t resist.

The trees stirred lazily in the breeze. All the shops had their metal shutters down. Even the flour mill across the road, which normally clanks away from dawn to midnight seven days a week, spewing white dust into the street, was shuttered. A couple of hens were pecking at some grain that had been scattered on the pavement. Once or twice a motorcycle went by and a couple of pedestrians strolled nonchalantly down the street wearing gauze facemasks, but otherwise there was no sign of human life.

Before today I wouldn’t have thought this was possible. A city of 20 million as silent as a cemetery — each apartment block a Tower of Silence like the one at Malabar Hill where the Parsis lay out their dead for the birds. 20 million Mumbaikars of all creeds, castes and political affiliations observing, without coercion, a curfew declared by the prime minister mere hours ago. Even the down-and-outs who usually loiter across the street from the liquor store are nowhere to be seen. I wonder if the local government has provided shelter for them.

At 5pm sharp the apocalyptic silence was shattered by a cacophony that seemed to herald Judgement Day. As per the prime minister’s instructions, an almighty din went up from windows, balconies and terraces as people across the country cheered for the healthcare workers toiling tirelessly in the wards of the infected. For a solid ten minutes or so our neighbourhood resounded with whoops and whistles and clashing kitchenware — a fitting ovation for a city whose residents seem to be constantly trying to outdo one another in decibels.

But the gesture was somewhat undermined by pseudoscientific claims circulating on social media. It was said that the vibrations generated by 1.3 billion people clapping at a time when the moon was entering a new astrological phase would destroy the virus. This outlandish theory quickly gained traction among both the literate and the illiterate. And soon enough videos started coming out of people taking to the streets in droves striking  bells, drums and metallic plates in what appeared to be a premature celebration of victory over the Covid-19 demon. 

When the clamour died down and Mumbai was once again plunged into silence, I could almost hear a collective sigh of exasperation rising up from the medical community.

We had one job: to stay off the streets.

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“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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