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. I hope you enjoy them. If you’d like to read my long-form stuff, head to The Borderlands.
27th April, 2020
On Tuesday, D and I made a trip to the nearby neighbourhood of Khar, the furthest we’ve ventured out since the start of lockdown. D had a doctor’s appointment in the suburb, which borders Bandra on its north side, but the trip also gave us an opportunity to see more of the beleaguered city.
Uber and other ride-hailing services are still out of action here in Mumbai, but we were able to get a rickshaw after walking a short distance. Garbage trucks and other municipal vehicles were plying the main roads but private cars and motorcycles were few and far between.
In Khar, as in Bandra, restaurants and shops were shuttered, with a few exceptions. A small bakery with a hand-sanitizer dispenser positioned outside the door was accepting customers. A sign outside the entrance of Ministry of Crab, a high-end Sri Lankan seafood chain, advised that it was closed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
I was a little surprised to find the clinic’s waiting room full of patients, but I shouldn’t have been — with reduced opening hours, the doctors are basically conducting a week’s worth of consultations over two afternoons. Of course, a crowded, air-conditioned waiting room is not conducive to social distancing and eventually those of us who were accompanying patients were asked to wait outside. But not before a receptionist in full PPE — white overalls, latex gloves, a surgical mask and a face shield — aimed a thermometer gun at our foreheads and directed us to take a squirt of hand sanitizer from the dispenser provided. We were also required to fill out a form asking if we’d travelled out of the country recently or experienced any of a range of symptoms including fever, dry cough and “loose motions”, an Indian euphemism for diarrhoea.
A couple of hours later we headed home on foot, unable to get a rickshaw. The now-familiar stillness of the streets was punctuated here and there by strange scenes. A self-quarantining woman in a fourth-floor apartment was buying vegetables from a street vendor standing below — she hoisted the produce up in a cloth bag attached to a rope and sent the payment down in the same bag. A little further along, we encountered a long line of people queuing up to receive food handouts. No one in the queue bothered with the six-foot rule — in a city like Mumbai, where more than 40 percent of the population lives in slums, social distancing is a luxury only the rich can afford.
We managed to get a rickshaw for the last stretch of the journey home. The driver kept the meter off for the duration of the ride and we didn’t object — only the most hard-hearted of penny-pinchers would quibble over a slightly higher fare under the current circumstances.
Such is life these days that a trip to the next suburb somehow seems like a noteworthy event. Frankly, any excuse to get out of the house is welcome at this point.
However, the biweekly grocery run has become such an ordeal that we always put it off until the fridge is almost empty. I know I shouldn’t complain as there are many in this city who barely have enough to eat, but I miss the days when it was possible to get almost anything delivered to one’s doorstep in a matter of hours, and if a trip to the store was necessary it needn’t take up an entire afternoon.
The other day we stood for the better part of an hour in the blistering sun to get into the supermarket on Hill Road. Young kids passed up and down the queue, begging half-heartedly for food, their parents and older siblings watching them casually from a distance while they talked and laughed among themselves. Every time someone emerged from the air-conditioned supermarket with bulging grocery bags, a couple of the kids would zero in on them. Sometimes one of the shoppers would give the kids a packet of biscuits or something but, more often than not, the kids received these items with a great deal of grumbling and even outright rudeness. When they weren’t begging, the kids would play with one another in the shade cast by a red electrical enclosure. The adults of the family, sitting on the pavement near a chemist, flagged down a chai seller and carried on their hearty conversation over miniature plastic cups filled with steaming tea.
When we finally got into the store, we found it in a state of disarray. Boxes and crates were strewn over the floor and staff were busy replenishing shelves. All the easy-cook items were out of stock — pasta, instant noodles, Thai curry paste, etc. And the checkout line was about as long and slow-moving as the one outside. I wasn’t watching the clock, but by the time we left the store (with just over half the items on our shopping list) the whole trip must have taken around three hours. On the way out we saw M, the friend of ours who has been distributing rations in low-income neighbourhoods. We waved at one another awkwardly from a distance.
Today I went to the chemist to pick up some D3 capsules — I went to the small one on our street rather than the larger one at Mehboob Studios, surmising that the capsules would be available there. A bare rope had been slung across the storefront but the shutter had not been closed, and the chemist was sitting on the floor behind the counter eating his lunch off a steel plate.
I told him what I wanted but he barely looked up from his food. “Five minutes,” he said, holding up the corresponding number of fingers.
It was a searingly hot afternoon and there was no awning under which I could take shelter. But when I brought this fact to the pharmacist’s attention, he bluntly invited me to seek shade elsewhere and continued to enjoy his lunch, morsel by morsel. The man’s shop was small enough that he would have been able to reach pretty much anything simply by standing up. It would have taken him two minutes at most to get the D3 capsules, and I pointed this out. But the man ignored me, and when I told him I’d take my business elsewhere he simply shrugged.
So much for helping out small businesses during a time of economic uncertainty, I thought as I headed to the franchise pharmacy at Mehboob Studios.
If you would like to be notified of future posts, click the “follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (bottom of the page if you’re reading on a mobile device). Even if you’re not a WordPress user you can subscribe by entering your email address below.
You can also get updates by following me on Twitter (@pushkindisco).
And you can view my photos of Mumbai on my Instagram page (@planet.bombay).