Planet Bombay

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

Day 183: A Taste of Normality in a Very Strange Year

People queue up for food handouts in Bandra, Mumbai during the Covid-19 lockdown.
As of September, queues for food handouts were a common sight in Mumbai.

23rd September, 2020

D’s dad returned to Worli on Sunday, having been fever-free for several days and having not developed any of the other symptoms associated with Covid.

Once he had recovered his strength, it was difficult to keep him indoors. A couple of times he went out to stretch his legs, returning on each occasion with something edible — sliced ham, chicken salami and kadak pav (a type of bread roll with a crispy crust). I guess he was getting tired of boiled eggs for breakfast.

By the time Dad left, we were confident that whatever had brought on the fever, it wasn’t Covid. This confidence was reinforced when D took a swab test that came back negative. She had actually scheduled the test before Dad came to stay as a prerequisite for admittance to a maternity ward where a friend is due to give birth any day now. But she had had to retake the test as the first swab sample was destroyed when an oxygen cylinder exploded at the testing lab (without casualties, fortunately).

D’s test was conducted by a private lab. It was a little expensive at INR 2,300 (nearly GBP 25), but the process was fairly straightforward, exploding cylinders notwithstanding. A medic in full PPE came to our doorstep to collect the swab sample and the report was sent by email roughly 24 hours later. Government facilities apparently provide free tests, but, in general, people prefer to go private if they can afford to do so as government-run services are not considered to be especially dependable.

Of course, a few shameless miscreants have found ways to cash in on Covid testing. Reports have come out about lab technicians issuing bogus reports for a fee. There is even a far-fetched but widely believed rumour that labs are tricking people into thinking they have Covid in order to take them away, kill them and harvest their organs for sale on the black market.   

D had her test done by a fairly reputable lab, so there was no question of forged results or organ theft. The negative report was, of course, a tremendous relief to us all. If D was Covid-negative then all of us likely were as we had shared a confined space for several days and had more or less abandoned the sanitizing regimen part way through.

D’s dad appeared a little emotional upon leaving. He hugged both of us tightly and thanked us for looking after him. We packed up the digital thermometer, the pulse oximeter and a can of sanitizer spray for him to take home, urging him to let us know if any of his health indicators look unusual.

The house is now strangely quiet — again. But, I must confess, it’s a relief to no longer have to watch the nation’s shoutiest news anchor, Arnab Goswami, work himself up into paroxysms of puerile rage as he exploits the tragic death of a Bollywood actor and undermines due process of law for the sake of TV ratings day after day. We are now back to our usual media diet of American political satires and late-night chat shows.

Yesterday afternoon we went for a long walk through Bandra’s winding, bougainvillea-filled lanes, eventually making our way to Joseph’s Kitchen in Pali Village to pick up some samosas, fugias (deep-fried dough balls) and mutton puffs. On the way home, one of D’s colleagues, N, called her to invite us to an impromptu birthday party she was hosting that same evening. Not a Zoom party but an actual in-person party — the first one we’ve been invited to since the start of lockdown in March.  

The party was held at N’s house, a quaint Goan-style place with a high, sloping roof. N’s husband, finishing off a cigarette at the top of a flight of stairs that led to their front door, warned us to watch our footing on the driveway, which had been rendered slippery by a recent rain shower. Once we were inside, he offered us both a drink from an impressive stash of alcoholic beverages.

There were seven of us altogether in the living room. The birthday boy was sitting on a large L-shaped sofa with two other guests, watching the music video for November Rain by Guns ‘n’ Roses on a large wall-mounted TV. As the night wore on, we listened to countless other power ballads from the 1980s and ‘90s. At one point, N asked me what music I listen to, a question that always catches me off guard, like the questions where are you from? or what do you do? You’d think I would have prepared sufficiently explanatory yet succinct answers to these questions by now, but no.

“I dunno,” I said, “I listen to lots of stuff, but mainly indie, I guess.”

“Hindi?” she exclaimed in surprise.

“No, indie, as in independent.”

The house help brought round trays of finger foods while we conversed over glasses of red wine. A couple of the guests retreated to a corner to smoke a hookah pipe. One of them, a lapsed Jain, announced that she’d only started drinking alcohol after becoming a teacher. A thunderstorm rolled in and buffeted the house with such ferocity that I thought the roof would come down. Every now and then N’s husband, S, would get up to drive out a dragonfly that had found its way inside.  

N and S are an inter-faith couple who met in a nightclub. While they were dating, S, a Muslim, adopted the Hindu name Rahul in order to gain acceptance by N’s Hindu family. Inter-faith relationships are a contentious issue in India, especially Hindu-Muslim ones, which are considered by tinfoil-hat types like Arnab Goswami to be part of an elaborate Muslim campaign to convert non-Muslim communities, a campaign known to the conspiracy theorists as “Love Jihad”. But, as it turned out, N’s parents had no reservations about her marrying a Muslim. By the time S came clean about his true identity a year after first meeting N’s parents, he had endeared himself to them to such an extent that they enthusiastically welcomed him into the family when he asked for their daughter’s hand in marriage.

N and S lived in California for 16 years and acquired US citizenship before deciding to return to Mumbai. N now teaches French at D’s school and S runs a painting and decorating business serving wealthy clients.  

S regaled us with a story about meeting Bollywood superstar Salman Khan on a film set. In the course of their conversation Mr Khan, learning about S’s passion for cooking, asked him to bring some homemade biryani, his signature dish, to the set the following day. S, assuming the actor was merely being friendly, went home and thought nothing more of his request. But the following day a representative of Mr Khan called up to say that he was eagerly awaiting the biryani. S dropped what he was doing, hastily prepared a batch (a process that usually takes several hours) and took it to the studio. The actor was hungry after a day of shooting but was good-humoured in spite of having been kept waiting.

We had an opportunity to taste S’s legendary biryani sometime around midnight when a large tub of it was brought out of the kitchen. It was indeed delicious.

When D and I were ready to call it a night, the husband of one of the guests showed up with a friend, both somewhat inebriated. S sat down with them at the dining table and poured out three double whiskeys.

It was as we were about to head out the door that we remembered we were in the middle of a pandemic — we could no longer be sure of getting a rickshaw at any hour of the night. One of the guests, the one who’d abandoned teetotalism after becoming a teacher, offered to lend us her scooter. She wouldn’t be needing it as she had decided to stay the night at N and S’s place. We thanked her but decided instead to book an Uber.  

Our cab took around 15 minutes to arrive, in which time we hovered by the door making small talk with the merry newcomers. By the time we left, it looked like the party was only just getting started. Making our way down the slippery driveway, I felt much as I would have done at the end of any typical night out in Bandra in the pre-Covid days — tired, a little buzzed and somewhat relieved to be heading home. It was almost as though life had returned to normal.

But once we were sitting in the cab with our facemasks on, the driver sealed off behind protective sheets of plastic, we were instantly brought back to the new reality.

Interior of Uber in Mumbai, India during Covid-19 pandemic.
This is what many cab interiors look like nowadays.

Sam

“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

6 thoughts on “Day 183: A Taste of Normality in a Very Strange Year

  1. I’m not in Bombay but it makes me angry and sad how media and politicians are exploiting the masses during pandemic, playing on fears. It’s heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, it’s depressing to see leaders around the world taking advantage of the situation. I gather from your blog that you’ve been to Mumbai. Were you visiting or did you live here?

      1. Good question! To be honest, I had an unfair advantage. I grew up partly in India so I already knew people in Mumbai before I moved here. Also, I happen to have a very sociable wife!

        But I’ve lived in a few different places and I know the struggle of making friends. Personally, I always try to connect with a local church community when I move to a new place. But I’ve also tried attending writing workshops and other gatherings of like-minded people, with varying degrees of success!

        Once you’ve established a connection with one or two locals it becomes easier to meet new people.

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