10th June, 2020
On Wednesday Mumbai hunkered down as a cyclone approached — the first to hit Maharashtra in the month of June since 1891.
With Covid cases climbing more steeply by the day and a plague of locusts ravaging neighbouring states, the sky above Mumbai went dark and the city’s residents battened down the hatches, preparing for the worst.
For several hours a driving rain lashed apartment blocks and a fierce wind rattled windowpanes. The trees around our building swayed violently. But when the storm lifted the city was relatively unscathed. The streets were littered with bits of fallen foliage but there was no sign, in Bandra at least, of any serious damage. Alibaug, a town to the south of Mumbai, got the worst of it — the wind was strong enough to bend utility poles — but even there no major destruction was reported.
Even the family of crows outside our kitchen window came through the storm alive, albeit soaking wet and a little worse for wear. The young ones have now grown up and flown the nest. The day before the cyclone I saw one of them perched right at the top of the tree being fed a piece of raw meat which I had found concealed under leaves (presumably by another crow) in the pot of our Mandevilla vine.
Due to the slight easing of lockdown restrictions we were able to have a friend stay with us for a couple of days after the storm had passed — an Anglo-Indian who recently moved to Mumbai from Manchester. She made espresso martinis for us — the first alcohol we’ve tasted since the start of lockdown — and banana bread. We also ordered a cake from an American friend — a makeup artist who started a baking business during lockdown in order to stay financially afloat while unable to do her day job.
One morning, while our friend was staying with us, an altercation broke out at the gate of the neighbouring compound. From what we could see from our living room window it appeared that a couple of guys were attempting to enter the compound and a couple of residents were preventing them from doing so. One of the residents was wielding a temperature gun and flailing his arms. Both sides were shouting over one another. “Don’t touch me!” someone yelled hysterically.
There is a palpable tension in the city, and for good reason — Mumbai is bearing the brunt of the outbreak in India with over 50,000 cases so far and nearly 2,000 deaths. The second worst-hit city is Delhi, with over 30,000 cases and nearly 1,000 deaths.
The other day D learned that a colleague of hers has lost her nonagenarian grandmother to the virus and now the entire family (14 people all together) has been taken to a government-run quarantine centre in the suburb of Santa Cruz. They are not allowed to leave their quarters under any circumstances. Food is brought to their door daily but it is apparently rather substandard and comes covered with sanitizer which renders it almost inedible.
The colleague, A, told of horrific conditions in the hospital where her grandmother had spent her final days. There were not enough ventilators to go round and, due to a shortage of beds, some patients were forced to sleep on strips of cardboard under occupied beds. Worst of all, there were several dead bodies awaiting transport to a mortuary.
But A was fortunate in a way —her grandmother’s Covid-positive result only came in several days after she had passed away and in the interim A was able to claim her body and carry out the proper funeral rites without any difficulty. Had the result come in a little earlier the process would have been considerably more difficult and less dignified.
D, being the kind-hearted soul that she is, resolved to help her colleague as soon as she heard about the grim conditions at the quarantine centre. A communicated that there were cooking facilities in their quarters but they were unable to get any cooking ingredients delivered. D agreed without hesitation to personally deliver a package of essentials to the quarantine centre. I agreed to help her, albeit reluctantly — I was feeling tired and would rather have stayed home to finish off a writing project I was working on.
As D went round the local shops filling up cardboard boxes with vegetables, instant noodles, eggs, bread and other foodstuffs, I realised what a selfish curmudgeon I was being — a family had just lost a loved one in rather traumatic circumstances and the surviving members were now living in fear for their own lives and here I was griping about a minor interruption to my schedule.
We managed to get a rickshaw to Santa Cruz. Masks on, sanitizer at the ready and two boxes of supplies stacked between us, we bounced along potholed roads through sparse traffic. There were noticeably more vehicles on the roads than when we last ventured out but still considerably fewer than usual.
The quarantine centre was a repurposed budget hotel. We weren’t allowed through the gate so we handed the boxes over to the watchman and told him which room they were to be delivered to.
On the way back to Bandra A called D to express her gratitude. No one else had been willing to help them. Some of the elderly family members had been moved to tears, she said. I reflected on how simple acts of kindness can often have an outsized impact, especially in times of crisis.
And this crisis is far from over, judging by A’s description of the conditions in hospital wards. Imagine my surprise then when pictures started cropping up online of the Marine Drive promenade thronging with walkers. Some people seem to have taken the reopening of public spaces as a sign that the virus threat has abated.
These are strange times indeed.
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