Planet Bombay

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

Day 13: An Urban Exodus, a Nationwide Blackout and a Gathering Economic Storm

Office in a Small City by Edward Hopper

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.

6th April, 2020

It’s Day 13 of India’s lockdown. Life here in Mumbai has assumed a new rhythm and the tempo has slowed way down. The nights are still beautifully quiet — no auto-rickshaws buzzing here and there like agitated hornets; no joyriders tearing around on modified motorcycles; no speed fiends in souped-up cars with thumping subwoofers. The nocturnal silence is interrupted only by the occasional ambulance siren wailing in the distance or the shrieking of flying foxes or turf wars between the street dogs who now own the city night.

But daytime traffic has been gradually returning to pre-lockdown levels, especially in the first half of the day. Each morning shoppers form a line outside the local convenience store. Some customers place their order and wait in their car across the street for one of the shop assistants to deposit their groceries in the boot. These people are taking no chances — they sit with the windows up, hermetically sealed inside their air-conditioned metal shell, N95 mask on, gripping the steering wheel nervously with latex-gloved hands.

Once the shops close around midday people withdraw to their homes and a funereal hush descends again. Even the self-appointed neighbourhood DJ who routinely pumps party hits from the ’90s and early ’00s out his front door has fallen strangely quiet of late. Leaves are piling up on the road now that the street sweepers are no longer working.

Predictably, politicians have wasted no time in seizing the unique public relations opportunities that emerge in times of crisis. Around midday today a guy with a tank of disinfectant walked around our block spraying parked vehicles and the walkways between buildings. The tank on his back was emblazoned with the lotus flower of the ruling BJP party and, just in case there was any confusion about who was responsible for this noble act of service to the community, his shirt bore grinning mugshots of the local politicians who’d presumably arranged it. Not to be outdone, the local branch of the Shiv Sena had some kind of mobile clinic parked outside its office all morning — a saffron-coloured minibus with Red Cross decals on the windows at the rear of which a group of people had gathered for consultations.

The BJP and Shiv Sena, both Hindu nationalist parties, were once strong allies. But a dramatic local election at the end of last year, just before the first cases of Covid-19 appeared in China, saw the Sena team up with its former arch-rival, the National Congress Party, to oust the BJP from the government of Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located. The BJP is still firmly in control of the country though, despite losing Maharashtra, and Prime Minister Modi remains hugely popular.

Buoyed by the success of his “clap for healthcare workers” initiative (I hear the UK has followed suit), Mr Modi organised a similar stunt the other day. This time we were asked to show our appreciation for the medical community by turning our lights off at 9pm on a Sunday evening and displaying lit candles on windowsills. The premier’s request triggered a slew of internet memes about people panic-buying candles. Environmentalists were up in arms about all the carbon dioxide that would be released, first by the candles and then by power plants responding to the sudden surge in electricity consumption that would come as everyone flicked their lights back on. But when the time came, almost every household (at least on our block) participated in the voluntary blackout.

While politicians posture and internet commentators pontificate, the poor are enduring unimaginable hardships. Daily wage earners are unable to feed their families and they are fleeing cities in huge numbers in what the Guardian has called the greatest exodus since partition. Because trains and buses have stopped operating, these people have no choice but to journey to their villages on foot, walking for days across vast distances with inadequate footwear and meagre provisions, often with young children in tow. And upon reaching their villages, exhausted and hungry, they are treated as personae non gratae by locals who see them as potential virus carriers.   

Considering the magnitude of suffering that the coronavirus has wreaked upon the underprivileged, I feel guilty about enjoying lockdown. But the truth is lockdown suits me quite well. My routine hasn’t changed all that much as I work from home anyway and, being an introvert, the lack of social commitments is a welcome change. I am content for now in my little quarantine bubble — just me and the missus in our cosy home, loafing on the sofa, binge-watching TV serials, occasionally getting on one another’s nerves, and attempting to apply ourselves to work and the cultivation of edifying pastimes. 

I had assumed that my wife, being much more outgoing than me, would find it hard being cooped up indoors for days on end, but she has been getting on fine for the most part. I guess it helps to know that all our friends are in the same boat — FOMO, or the fear of missing out, an anxiety experienced by many young Mumbaikars to an almost pathological degree, has been well and truly neutralised. Our Instagram feeds are a monotonous stream of carefully composed snapshots of domestic life. No one is jetting off to exotic destinations or hanging out at glamorous events. We are united in boredom.

A mural at the St Stephen’s Steps, Bandra. It’s taken on a new meaning under the current circumstances.

I am perhaps enjoying this stripped-down existence a little too much. There is no pressure to plan beyond the present as each day is basically a facsimile of the one that came before. There are few responsibilities to think about beyond the biweekly grocery run. Most days we don’t step out of the house at all and, besides missing my evening walks, I don’t mind all that much. I find myself staring out the window a lot, like a character in an Edward Hopper painting. But I’m not alone. The man on the rooftop, leaning out wistfully over the parapet, the old woman tending to the pot plants in her window grille, the watchman leaning on the wrought-iron gate and puffing on a cigarette — we are all in Hopper’s world now.  

Our household chores have increased now that our maid is no longer coming, but our apartment is small and relatively easy to keep clean. Even dishwashing isn’t too much of a drag if I have a good podcast to listen to. While I can’t really call it exercise, the slight physical exertion makes a change from my rather sedentary desk-oriented routine. We feel that it is only right to continue paying our maid’s monthly salary as her family is among those who, through no fault of their own, have been thrust into extreme financial precarity by this lockdown. But nearly all of her other employers have suspended her pay and the family savings are rapidly deteriorating. Mumbai is a ruthlessly capitalist society and there is little grace for those who are unable to work.   

The economic repercussions of this pandemic are expected to be severe. Those who’ve not already suffered layoffs or pay cuts are bracing for them. It’s going to be worse than 2008, the financial pundits are saying. So far D and I have been alright — I recently received a commission from a client in Singapore and D is continuing to teach her students virtually. It’s a blessing to have work at a time like this, but there’s no telling what the coming weeks will bring. It is the thought of the economic and social fallout of this pandemic that troubles me more than the virus itself (see my previous post, Lockdown: Panic on the Streets of Mumbai).

Not that the possibility of infection doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll admit that in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak I had a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the whole thing. I watched the world descend into hysteria with a sense of déjà vu — during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 I repeatedly travelled into and out of China as an unaccompanied minor and, despite a slightly alarming incident in Kunming airport, I came through that unscathed. But it’s clear now that this public health crisis is much bigger than SARS-CoV-1 — indeed, the seriousness of this outbreak was apparent even before the WHO declared it a pandemic last month.

I went to bed one night with a headache and slight nausea and was momentarily overcome with existential dread as I pictured a grotty hospital ward full of the sick and dying. Mostly, though, I enjoy good health and I worry not about myself but about my parents on the other side of the world. If something were to happen to them there wouldn’t be anything I could do. International flights have been suspended but even if I could get a charter flight to the UK I would feel conflicted about taking it — it would mean leaving my wife and my home with no guarantee that I’d be able to return anytime soon. I also worry about D’s parents. Her mum, a diabetic, is in the high-risk category. And, although they only live across Mahim Bay in the district of Worli, they might as well be on another continent as travelling across Mumbai is pretty much impossible at present.

The future hangs in the balance but there’s little point dwelling on it. All we can do is focus on “flattening the curve” so that we can return to something resembling normality; so we can get back to our FOMO, our house parties and our traffic jams.

To Modi’s credit, his government acted swiftly and decisively when the country had relatively few cases, which is more than can be said of most of the leaders in the so-called developed world. I’d like to think we can be done with this whole thing by June so that we can visit my brother in America, as planned. But perhaps that’s overly optimistic considering the state of affairs over there.

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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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