Planet Bombay

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

Day 107: “My Family, My Responsibility” – Part 1 of 2

Corona billboard in Prabhadevi, Mumbai, reading "My Family, My Responsibility".
A public health notice in the Prabhadevi neighbourhood (near where my wife’s family lives). In case the text at the bottom of the billboard is unclear, it reads “My Family, My Responsibility”.

09th July, 2020

We now know a number of people who have contracted Covid and a few who have even lost loved ones to it. But, to D and I, the virus has remained largely an abstract threat — until now.

A few days ago, a family tested positive on the ground floor of the building in which D’s family lives. The municipal corporation, the BMC, moved the infected family to a quarantine centre along with their immediate neighbours, according to D’s sister. Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, we got D’s mum and her nephew and niece to come and stay with us for a couple of weeks. We don’t want to take any chances, especially with D’s mum, a diabetic.

The prospect of D’s mum coming into contact with the virus is sobering, to say the least. We almost lost her to fever in the summer of 2018 and the memory of her in the back of an ambulance on the way to Holy Family Hospital, delirious and slipping in and out of consciousness, still haunts us. While she and the kids were en route to our place, I envisioned the worst-case scenario — that one of them had already picked up the virus and was now an asymptomatic carrier; that we would all sooner or later become infected in the cramped conditions of our little flat; and that the BMC would come and whisk us all away to an austere quarantine centre where we’d either recover or — not.

I am not generally a fearful person (social anxiety aside) but when the life of a loved one is on the line all sorts of wild premonitions enter my mind. I know I’m not the only one. More than Covid itself, fear is rampant in Mumbai and many are completely debilitated by it. Some have barely set foot outdoors since March. It’s easy to see why — India now has the third-highest number of Covid cases in the world, having overtaken Russia. The current tally is 697,000 cases and nearly 20,000 deaths. And this is in spite of the fact that India implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

Thankfully, our fears over D’s mum and the kids have been assuaged in the few days that they’ve been staying with us. The kids are fine, albeit bored out of their minds. No amount of Netflix seems to help. G wiles away the afternoons playing shoot-em-ups on his phone, but it seems there is a limit even to a pre-teen boy’s appetite for battle royale games and every so often he’s reduced to staring pensively out the window or baiting his younger sister until an adult intervenes. His sister, Z, when she’s not squabbling with her brother, occupies herself with arts and crafts. Despite their fierce sibling rivalry, brother and sister are in agreement on one thing — life was better back in their flat in Worli. They’re not used to being cooped up like this — even with the lockdown in place they were always able to interact with other kids on the landing outside their front door.

Corona billboard in Prabhadevi, Mumbai
Another public health billboard in Prabhadevi.

D’s mum spends the daylight hours reading her well-thumbed Bible (translated into Konkani, her mother tongue) and listening to sermons and worship songs on YouTube. She’s been spoiling us with delicious homemade dal, chicken curry and ginger chai. And, being a little old-school when it comes to gender roles, she won’t let me get anywhere near the kitchen sink. My only duty at present is brewing the morning coffee.

Our poky one-bedroom apartment, while perfectly adequate for D and myself, feels a bit claustrophobic with three adults and two restless youngsters living here. At night the kids sleep either side of their grandma on the living room floor, having unequivocally refused both the bedroom and the sofa-bed. With only a thin blanket separating them from the bare tiles, which can get quite cold when the AC is running, they sleep remarkably soundly. Z, a notorious nocturnal wriggler, often wakes up with her head in the spot where her feet were when she went to sleep.

Getting work done is, of course, a challenge under these circumstances but, with the help of some earphones and a carefully curated playlist of focus music, I’m soldiering on. The kids are generally pretty good about keeping quiet while D’s online classes are in session.

But if we are finding our current living arrangement difficult, how are the city’s millions of slum dwellers coping with lockdown? I can’t imagine what it must be like to be confined to a single room with one’s extended family for months on end. Even among middle class families it is common to find two or three generations crammed into a small apartment. These past few days have served as a reminder that D and I are fortunate to have our own space in a city where space is at a premium.  

We only have to endure two weeks of this. Assuming the kids hold out that long, that is. They both miss their mum deeply (she opted to stay in the Worli flat with her and D’s dad) and have been calling her up daily to try to convince her to come and join them here (even though D has patiently explained that this would defeat the purpose of self-isolating). They are understandably worried for their mum’s safety. We’ve tried to assure them that the virus poses little threat to her as she is young and healthy, but their misgivings are hard to dispel.

I often wonder what’s worse, the virus that has turned our lives upside down or the crippling fear that has spread further and faster than any virus ever could.

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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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