Planet Bombay

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

Day 46: Booze Queues, Finicky Beggars and a Kerbside Conversationalist

Customers queuing for liquor on our street.

09th May, 2020

Mumbai’s liquor stores were allowed to reopen on May 4th, having been closed since Day 1 of lockdown. No sooner had the news got out than legions of pandemic-defying tipplers descended upon the streets in a booze-buying frenzy.     

I first became aware of this strange development when a commotion outside brought me to the kitchen window and I saw dozens of eager-eyed men lining up outside the local liquor store, many of them wearing no PPE whatsoever. A lone cop with a megaphone was trying in vain to enforce social distancing. Youths with scarves tied around their faces were speeding off on scooters with entire crates of Kingfisher beer, like highwaymen fleeing with the spoils of a successful holdup. It was like a deleted scene from some end-of-the-world B-movie.  

By late afternoon the line snaked around the Shiv Sena office and down a cul-de-sac, and it was four-men wide in places. The cop had given up and abandoned his post.

The following day the line was even longer. A different policeman was on the scene. He walked up and down the line whacking people on the shins with a lathi, like an angry drill sergeant trying to whip unruly troops into shape. The sweaty boozehounds flinched under the officer’s blows and made a half-hearted attempt to spread out, but any semblance of discipline disappeared as soon as he had passed. Eventually the cop, like his colleague the previous day, realised the futility of trying to get a horde of alcohol-deprived dipsomaniacs to follow instructions and rode off on his motorcycle.

Similar scenes were unfolding all over the city. Videos uploaded to the web showed epic queues stretching for several blocks and there were reports of people getting restive in some places. Some of the liquor buyers interviewed by the press said they believed that consuming alcohol would protect them from the coronavirus.  

The state government has now back-pedalled on its decision to allow liquor stores to open, permitting home deliveries of alcohol instead. But many are questioning the wisdom of the move — with domestic violence cases already on the rise, the last thing anybody needs is scores of housebound out-of-work men jacked up on cheap whiskey.  

*

Speaking of hellishly long queues, I got slightly sunburnt standing in one for over an hour outside the grocery store on Hill Road the other day. A new record for me, I think.

The usual child beggars were there, playing among piles of freshly sawn-off tree branches and switching expressions of mirth for dejected frowns anytime someone new joined the queue. The stony-faced shoppers mostly ignored them, but occasionally someone would complain to the doorman of the grocery store who, in turn, would give the kids a perfunctory telling-off.

While I was waiting in the line a young Caucasian man came down the road, dug a muffin out of his backpack and handed it to one of the kids — a little barefoot girl who appeared to be no more than four years old. The other kids gathered round her to examine the cake, breaking off crumbs to sample it, like a panel of finicky food critics on a baking show.

The man moved a little further down the road and crouched down next to a bus shelter in order to rummage through his backpack. The kids, underwhelmed by the muffin, flocked to his side to see if he had anything more palatable to offer. The little girl, eager to get in on the action, flung the remainder of the muffin into a pile of branches and hurried after her siblings.

These must surely be the fussiest beggars in all of Mumbai, I thought.   

An empty Waroda Road (on the way to the grocery store). A new mural has been painted there honouring the actor Irffan Khan, who died on April 29th.

*

There’s a gregarious middle-aged man who has taken to sitting outside our local convenience store in the evenings and striking up conversation with passers-by.

I often hear him before I see him. “Hello champion!” he calls out cheerily, even if I’m on the other side of the street.

His greeting is quickly followed by a salvo of questions. He always asks me how I’m finding life in Mumbai even though he knows I’ve been here for six years. And he’s always keen to know what the latest Covid-related news from the UK is, even though he seems to be more up-to-date than I am.

“How many deaths so far? 35,000?” he asked me today. I Googled this afterwards and he wasn’t far off — the official number is around 31,500.

I’ve heard that there is a great deal of suspicion, and even outright hostility, towards Europeans and Americans in some Asian countries on account of the high case numbers in those regions. But I have not personally experienced anything of the kind in my little corner of India. Even the kerbside conversationalist on my street means no harm — he’s just trying to be friendly in his own way.

Nevertheless, it’s not easy being an expat in this city right now as many employers are finding they can no longer afford to hire them. D has just learnt that her school will be laying off its international teachers in an effort to cut costs. D’s job is not at risk — for now — but she feels bad for her international colleagues and will miss them, especially a German girl with whom she has built up a strong rapport. It does seem unfair that these people, some of whom have given years of hard work to the school, should be given such short shrift by the management. But it is what it is.


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Sam Northcote

“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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