Planet Bombay

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

Day 108: “My Family, My Responsibility” – Part 2 of 2

Building terrace in Bandra, Mumbai.
Our terrace/exercise area.

10th July, 2020

The monsoon is now in full swing. We’ve had days of nonstop rain and some violent thunderstorms, but the weather has settled down a little bit over the last couple of days. Rain showers are sporadic and sudden, whooshing down the street with a sound akin to an approaching lorry.

There are growing calls on social media for Indians to boycott Chinese products following a deadly skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in the border region of Ladakh last month. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed, purportedly bludgeoned with nail-studded clubs, in one of the most violent clashes between the nuke-brandishing neighbours since they went to war in 1962.

So, now that we’ve been threatened with plague and famine, the spectre of war appears to be rearing its ugly head. I’m no eschatologist but the headlines these past few weeks seem to have been pulled right out of the Book of Revelation.

In all seriousness, though, I find the sabre-rattling of military commanders and patriotic posturing of citizens on both sides of the border to be at once laughable and wearisome. Having spent substantial amounts of time in both India and China, I have a great deal of love and respect for both countries and wish they’d put aside their senseless rivalry and make more of an effort to understand one another. I feel like a small child caught in the crossfire of two bickering older siblings, cognisant of the stupidity of it all but powerless to do anything to stop it.  

A billboard in Mumbai reading: "Are you an Indian worth fighting for? Boycott Chinese products. Honour our Indian army."
“Are you an Indian worth fighting for?” A billboard on the Bandra-Mahim road calls for a boycott of Chinese products. An Indian friend of mine remarked dryly that the lights on the billboard are probably manufactured in China.

Speaking of bickering siblings, G and Z managed to spend a whole week in the confines of our living room without murdering one another. They were supposed to be here for two weeks but their mother, yielding to their incessant pleading on the phone, came over at around 10pm this evening to take them and their grandma back to Worli.

To be honest, cabin fever was beginning to get to all of us, not just the kids. D snapped at her mum for failing to segregate dry and wet kitchen waste and then at G and Z for not studying properly. I’ve been succumbing to severe lassitude and a profound sense of ennui. I’ve been finding it almost impossible to write and have been instead retreating into books (Graham Greene) and music. I’ve been listening to the new 17-minute Bob Dylan epic “Murder Most Foul” and a new 10-minute electro-folk Sufjan Stevens track about notorious cult leader and bioterrorist Rajneesh on repeat.

Yesterday afternoon D and I went up onto the terrace for some fresh air and exercise. I did a few pullups on a metal water pipe and then stood for a while at the parapet, festering in the bitterest misanthropy while disco-era and early-noughties pop hits thumped out the front door of a ground-floor flat below.

Retro dance music routinely pulses through our neighbourhood, courtesy of the man who lives in that same ground-floor apartment. Abba, Shaggy, Culture Club, Aqua, Sean Paul, Ace of Base – the man seems to have had his music tastes informed entirely by Goan wedding DJs. A balding, pot-bellied, typically shirtless middle-aged man, he’s not the sort you might expect to find rocking out to songs like “Barbie Girl” and “Dancing Queen”. But I’ve seen him many times now, watering his outdoor plants or hosing down his motorbike while campy dancefloor classics emanate from his living room and reverberate down the street. I’ve watched him with growing animosity, dreaming up ways of sabotaging his music equipment or cutting off his power supply.

We went up onto the terrace again today but this time we were able to enjoy the fading afternoon light without feeling like we were in some half-empty dive bar on Retro Night. The only sound was the traffic and the birds — crows, kites and parakeets.

The po-faced secretary of our building’s society was there with her husband, pacing up and down and reciting the Hail Mary, as they habitually do in the cool hours before sundown. The usually stand-offish couple seemed to be in good spirits for a change and we made small talk with them for several minutes. It’s only taken them four years to warm up to us. Perhaps one of the upsides of the pandemic is that it has made all of us more appreciative of the value of human interaction.  

The kids were with us. We watched birds of prey and large bats known as flying foxes swirling in the cloud-strewn sky. A few of the bats came swooping down close to us and we had to duck out the way to avoid being hit by airborne excreta. “They’ll give us the coronavirus!” G shrieked as he dived for cover. Z clung onto my arm, understandably nervous — some of the larger bats were almost as big as her. Several of them watched us from the nearby trees, their heavy dog-like bodies weighing down the branches.   

When D’s sister came to pick up the kids it was too late to call an Uber (they are currently only operating till 9pm) and there were no black-and-yellow cabs on our street. D called to check up on them some 15 mins after they had left our house and learned that they’d only just got a cab, having taken a rickshaw to Lucky Restaurant on the southern periphery of Bandra, beyond which rickshaws are not permitted to operate.

They are home now. But there is some confusion over the Covid cases in their building. D’s dad says that they were all false positives but her sister says that at least one of them was a confirmed case. What’s more, there is now a new suspected case in the building.

We are a little uneasy about D’s mum and the kids returning to a possible Covid hotspot but we couldn’t talk them out of it. All D could do was urge them to stay indoors until the building is confirmed to be Covid-free.

So, now D and I are on our own again. And the house feels strangely quiet.


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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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