Planet Bombay

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

A Sneaky Walk Through Locked-Down 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.

27th March, 2020

What a time to be in Mumbai! The air is probably the cleanest it’s been since the first factories and motorcars appeared here at the turn of the 20th Century. The sky is haze-free. News reports are going round about dolphins returning to the coastline, which for decades has been poisoned with industrial effluence and shipping pollutants. And I still haven’t got over how tranquil the city is — it’s as though we are in the eye of a hurricane.    

Against my better judgement and the protestations of my wife, I went outside in the late afternoon. Accompanied by the music of The Smiths, I followed a route which I’ve walked countless times since moving to Bandra in 2014 — up Mt Mary, which despite the name is barely a hill, let alone a mountain, and down to the seafront. Mumbai is one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities in the world — sidewalks, where they exist, are usually poorly lit obstacle courses strewn with tree trimmings, cracked paving tiles and dog faeces — so I relished the novelty of walking on empty roads. I half expected to run into a police patrol but Mumbai’s finest were nowhere to be seen.

Under the banyans of Mt Mary Road feral cats, emboldened by the absence of humans, roamed freely and chased one another. Tropical birds swooped from the branches, their cries ringing out through the listless air. Fallen leaves stirred in the breeze. It was as though the jungle was reclaiming one of Mumbai’s most prestigious residential areas.

The basilica at the end of the road was closed off behind iron gates, the bells in its gothic spires silenced. The nearby convent betrayed no sign of life. And the kiosks that sell votive candles representing pilgrims’ wishes, or mannats — healthy limbs, nice houses, successful businesses and even American green cards — were hidden under blue tarpaulin covers. If it weren’t for the lockdown they’d probably do a roaring trade in candles shaped like respirators or healthy sets of lungs.

Mt Mary Church devoid of pilgrims.

I wasn’t entirely alone. A few dog-walkers had emerged from the swanky apartment complexes along Mt Mary Road (if dogs can stretch their legs, I ought to be allowed to, I thought). We gave one another a wide berth, like aircraft on parallel flight paths or ships passing on the high seas. And when I descended the west side of the hill I noted that a few of the residents of the slum at the end of the Bandstand Promenade were squatting outside their shanties, shooting the breeze as if they hadn’t heard that the world was in the grip of a pandemic. A lone autorickshaw tore down the otherwise empty coastal road.

I felt certain that I’d be stopped by cops on the seafront and I didn’t have a good excuse for being there. Whether I was acting out of a puerile urge to disobey authority or some misguided journalistic instinct to document this historic moment, I knew I couldn’t justify my foolhardy excursion. But no cops appeared.

The fierce Indian sun danced upon the Arabian Sea the same way it did aeons before the first humans walked these shores. The surf crashed against the rocks — a primordial rhythm unchanged in millions of years. But there were no amorous young couples getting frisky under the palm trees or among the mangrove clusters; no Lycra-clad joggers working their way red-faced and sweaty along the promenade; no roaming masseurs announcing their services with the clinking of finger cymbals; no tea vendors or corn roasters; no buskers or human statues. The promenade’s access points were blocked with metal traffic barriers marked Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and the snack kiosk was shuttered.

The abandoned coastal road.

The sea-facing apartment blocks looked forlorn and insignificant, as temporary as sandcastles, crows swarming around their penthouses like gnats around a dung pile. And Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s ostentatious Greek-style villa lay forgotten and alone behind its large gate, no longer besieged by a horde of paparazzi and celebrity worshippers.

I wonder if this strange and unexpected interruption to regular life will give us all a new perspective on things. Mumbai, of all places, could benefit from a change of pace. Mumbai, a city obsessed with glitz and glamour, could do with time out from the hamster wheel of consumerism.

There is no doubt that this is a stressful time — especially for the poor and those with pre-existing health conditions. But for those of us with the luxury of proper shelter and food security, perhaps this is a time to introspect; to reassess what we attach value to; and to look out for those who are more vulnerable than ourselves. Matters of life and death have been thrown into sharp relief for everyone. Our concerns are existential now and the threat we face is real. For a change, we’re not fretting over why we weren’t invited to this or that party; we’re not stressed about having an outdated wardrobe or a cheap phone. For a change, we have time to invest in the things that truly matter — family, spiritual and emotional wellbeing, and so on. It remains to be seen whether we will take advantage of this rare opportunity or let it slip.

Once I had got all the pictures I wanted I headed home, resolving not to venture out unnecessarily again until restrictions are eased. Here and there music wafted from an open window and a solitary figure paced back and forth on a balcony like a tiger in a cage. A couple of people were squatting on the kerbside by the grassless sports ground on Rebello Road, wiling away the sweltering afternoon hours.   

Could life ever be sane again? Morrisey wailed in my ears in his Mancunian baritone. But in some ways life was saner than it ever was before.

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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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