Planet Bombay

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

Lockdown: Panic on the streets of Mumbai

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

24th March, 2020

Last night was pretty wild. We came off a Zoom call to find the world in disarray. Our street, which for the past few days had been as ghostly quiet as a neighbourhood in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, was suddenly full of braying traffic. Masked pedestrians carrying bulging tote bags scurried like bandits between the vehicles, bathed in the red glow of brake lights.

The prime minister had just announced a 21-day lockdown, unleashing a maelstrom of panic buying. It was around 10 O’clock and my street was as active as if it was the last day of the week-long fair following the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.  

D and I had followed the coverage of panic buyers ransacking toilet paper shelves in Australia and the UK with a mixture of befuddlement and mild amusement. But now, as we stood at the kitchen window watching the nocturnal grocery shoppers sweeping through our street like a marauding army and storefront queues lengthening and snaking down the pavements, we began to take stock of our situation. There was no risk of a toilet paper shortage in India (for reasons I won’t go into here), but we knew we didn’t have enough food to get us through a 21-day closure of shops.

If we’d paused for a few minutes to watch the PM’s address to the nation we’d have known that grocery shops are to continue operating, albeit with reduced hours, throughout the lockdown. But we were caught up in the madness around us — the honking of car horns, the revving of motorcycle engines, the hubbub of urgent voices. And there was only one thought on our minds — what if the shops close or sell out before we get to them?

So we ended up among the idiotic throngs on the street and made our way to the meat shop on the corner, where the queue had devolved into a scrum. Shoppers were diving into freezers, grabbing armfuls of packaged poultry and scanning the premises with febrile eyes peeking out above sweat-damp homemade masks, foreheads glistening in the glare of fluorescent lights. The rank smell of raw meat hung thick in the air. One of the exhausted butchers hacked away at a rack of ribs on a grimy tree stump. Another, mopping his brow, fielded requests for chicken salami, Bombay duck pickle and cheap cuts unappetisingly referred to as “scrap”. Flanked by shelves that had been stripped bare, a crucifix and an illuminated portrait of a dour-faced man in formal attire were suspended above the melee, the latter ringed by a garland of dusty marigolds.

Social distancing? Forget about it. This was like a Friday night in Toto’s before the authorities tore it down — sweaty bodies pushing past one another in the grungy semi-darkness. But unlike a Friday night at Toto’s, everyone in the butcher shop was on edge. Eyes were wide with heightened alertness, raw animal instinct crouched behind a veneer of self-control. For the first time since the coronavirus outbreak started making headlines, an uneasy feeling came over me. It doesn’t take much for the fabric of society to unravel, I thought. And I had seen firsthand how quickly a mob can turn violent when disgruntled villagers on the road to a South Indian hill station had come close to torching the bus I was riding in (a story I will perhaps tell here one day). More than the virus itself, I fear the societal breakdown that will come with a prolonged shutdown.

D and I grabbed whatever we could get our hands on — some bacon and a couple of packets of questionable “Oxford pork sausages” — and struggled for a few minutes to get the attention of a shop assistant with a lazy eye. “Kitana? Kitana? How much? How much?” Finally, we bagged our winnings, paid our bill and extracted ourselves from the knot of frantic bodies.

We went home to stash the pork in our freezer and then headed out again with a bulky canvas bag. We walked to the crossroads outside the Mehboob film studio to see if we could get some tinned goods from Patel Store. By now most of the shops were closing and the traffic had more or less cleared, but there was still a long line outside the chemist.

All these pavement queues were reminiscent of the demonetization debacle in 2016. For several weeks people all over the country had queued up outside bank branches to exchange notes that had been rendered worthless overnight. Then, as now, the people of India had been forced to adjust en masse to a major change of circumstances with no prior warning. The confusion generated back then is still relatively fresh in people’s minds and many are inclined to treat official pronouncements with scepticism. In a country where political rug-pulls like demonetisation can upend the lives of millions at any time, it’s hard to know what to expect in times of crisis. Perhaps that’s why the panic buyers out on the streets this evening were not convinced by the prime minister’s assurance that essential services will continue operating. Perhaps that’s why they paid no attention to a police car which was cruising down the road with lights flashing, a mounted megaphone blaring out a futile entreaty: “please return to your homes!”

Patel Store was shuttered and the last few customers were emerging from the back door. D asked the shop staff if they’d be closed throughout the lockdown. “Madam, we will be open in the mornings until 10 O’clock,” was the response. So the panic was unwarranted, after all. Nonetheless, we decided to carry on gathering supplies since we’d already come all this way.

We brought some over-priced oranges from a fruit shop and then wandered down Hill Road. The silence was unsettling. The torrent of traffic that usually courses chaotically down this notorious thoroughfare had been reduced to a mere trickle. The hawkers had long since cleared off with their roadside clothes racks and bundles of leather footwear; the pani puri sellers were gone; the beggars had moved on. A lone vagrant sat near the entrance to St Stanislaus School and I noticed that fresh graffiti had been scored on the wall. For the second time since I snuck out onto the street during the Janata Curfew a few days ago, I was confronted with the haunting stillness of a metropolis in lockdown.  

All the restaurants were closed and looked as though they had been for years. We found a dry fruits shop that was open at the turn-off to Chapel Road and joined the queue. The shop was small and the staff were only letting customers in four at a time. The pickings were slim but we purchased some nuts, dates, cereal bars, crackers and a few other snacks with low nutritional value. Another customer had placed about a dozen tins of fizzy drink on the checkout counter.

The lady who helped us bag our items confirmed that the shop would be open in the coming days once they had replenished their stocks. “I don’t know why everyone is panicking” D said. She described the scenes we had witnessed in the streets and the lady shook her head incredulously. Like all the shop staff we had encountered so far, she looked exhausted.

We headed home via Chapel Road with our haul of emergency snacks. The narrow lane, which winds its way between murals of Bollywood icons and Catholic wayside shrines, was completely deserted apart from the two of us. What was previously a cacophonous fume-filled rut choked with rickshaws, motorcycles and too-large SUVs was finally revealed as the quaint little byway it always was underneath the commuter bustle. I’ve always thought that Chapel Road could be one of the most charming places in Bandra if it was pedestrianised but I never thought D and I would ever have it all to ourselves.

A rare sight — Chapel Road bereft of vehicles.

We stopped to buy some bread from a bicycle vendor outside Mt Carmel Church. As we were counting out coins, a car rolled up and a girl in yoga pants and a T-shirt stepped out. It was E, a model who we know through mutual friends. She too was on a panic-buying spree and had accumulated a few bags’ worth of supplies in her car. “What a crazy day!” D said. E rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it!” she said, rummaging through the loaves of sliced white bread on the back of the bicycle, “I’ve been looking everywhere for whole-grain bread but it’s all sold out!”

We made one final stop at our local convenience store when we saw that the long queue had melted away. The shop staff had repositioned the checkout counter so that it blocked the entrance and they were dispensing items over it. The floor was covered with trampled sackcloth and spilt grain.

“I tried to call you earlier,” D said to the shop owner’s son, J.

Eyes smiling above his mask, J shook his head: “I’ve had no time to check my phone till now, Madam.” He said that the shop would remain open for a limited time each day throughout the lockdown.

D asked if their supply chain would be affected. “Some things may be hard to get,” J said, “but all the basic necessities will be there, no problem.”

“If your supplies get low make sure you keep aside some essentials for us in your godown,” D said.

J chuckled: “Of course, madam.”

We returned to our flat, somewhat comforted by the fact that we could at least expect a reliable supply of rice and lentils if all else fails. One of the best things about Bandra is the fact that, unlike swankier parts of Mumbai, the small, family-run stores have not yet been replaced by soulless retail corporations. The rapport we’d built up with J and his family would not be possible in a franchise store. And with civilisation crumbling around us, it can’t hurt to have a few shopkeepers on our side. At least until their supplies run out and we all resort to cannibalism.

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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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