Planet Bombay

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

Moving House During a Pandemic — Part 2 of 2

Sea Link, Mahim Bay, Mumbai.
A man gazes at the horizon from the shoreline of Mahim Bay, right behind our building.

Note: Part 1 of this piece is available here.

October 10th — Movers, Packers & Extortionists

With only a few days to go until we have to vacate the Bandra flat, the electrical appliances are giving up — first the television, then the fridge, then the living room air-conditioning unit. We are also battling an out-of-control cockroach infestation. It’s as though some malevolent spirit bent on hastening our departure has to that end possessed the white goods and summoned a plague of arthropods from the underworld.  

Not that we need any more motivation to move. We are keen to get it over with. The only problem is we seem to have accumulated a lot of stuff in the past four years. We were up until 4am last night putting bits and pieces into cardboard boxes so that the packers and movers we’d hired would be able to quickly remove them today. We fuelled ourselves with coffee and then, to make the packing process slightly more tolerable, we fixed ourselves a couple of glasses of gin and ginger ale using the last of our Bombay Sapphire.

By 4am there seemed to be just as much work to do as when we started. But, while my wife was prepared to stay up all night, I was beat. Surrounded by unpacked odds and ends, general detritus, and the belly-up corpses of roaches, the smell of bug spray thick in the air, I convinced D we should get a few hours of sleep and finish the work off in the (later) morning, before the arrival of the movers and packers.   

The movers and packers showed up at 10am sharp and we were immediately impressed by their professionalism. Upon arrival they sanitized their hands and got straight to work. Each individual knew exactly what he had to do — one sat on the floor and began wrapping fragile items in padding, one began filling, sealing and labelling boxes, and a couple of others began carrying the larger items to the truck parked at the gate. They moved with dexterity and whirlwind speed, rarely pausing for so much as a sip of water. They were a veritable force of nature. Even the washing machine was wrapped up in thick padding and hauled down our narrow stairwell as easily as if it had been made of cardboard.

The supervisor of the team, a well-spoken Goan gentleman, warned us to expect men from a movers and packers union to show up at some point in the day to demand money. We would have to pay up regardless of the fact that these men would have no involvement whatsoever in the moving process. In theory we could refuse to pay, he said, but the workers we’d hired would have to endure a great deal of harassment from the union if we did so.

This was the first we’d heard of such a racket, but I’ve since learned that it happens in other parts of the country too. The supervisor told us that there was little chance of escaping the attention of the extortionists as they are constantly on the lookout for removal trucks.

But we were fortunate. Somehow, we were able to transport everything to the new apartment without having to cough up the so-called “unloading fee”. Perhaps even extortion operations have been scaled back during the pandemic.

The workers moved just as quickly and efficiently to unload our belongings as they had when loading them onto the truck. Each one of them kept a craft knife in a breast pocket, using it to slash open boxes once they had been set down in the living room. The wrapping wizard took his place in the kitchen and began unwrapping items and placing them on shelves.

A few of the unloaded boxes.

There are fresh Covid cases in our building so there are now two flats under mandatory quarantine between the ground floor and our third-floor flat. The society of the building is not allowing any outsiders in until October 23rd, the day the quarantine period ends for the newly infected residents, but they made an exception for our movers and packers. We all took care not to touch any walls or handrails while going up and down the stairs.

By late afternoon, everything had been unloaded. We wanted to tip the packers and movers generously for doing their job well in spite of the risk of exposure to Covid. But, when the supervisor was out of earshot, a couple of the movers asked us not to pass all the tip money to him as he had a habit of keeping the lion’s share for himself despite not doing any physical work. So, I made sure to tip the supervisor and the workers separately.   

October 11th — Make Way for the Rich & Powerful

These days we are eating most of our evening meals at D’s parents’ place (a ten-minute walk from our new apartment) since we don’t yet have a fridge and stove in the new place. D’s dad has been cooking some of my favourite Mangalorean dishes — fish curry, chicken sukka, sorpotel, and so on.

This evening we went to the Bandra apartment to pick up a few small things which we had decided not to take yesterday. We also hired a deep cleaning professional to clean the sofa and called in our house help to give us a hand with general cleaning so that we could leave the place in the best possible condition for the incoming tenant.   

On our way back to Prabhadevi we got stuck in a queue of vehicles at the toll gate for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the cable-stayed bridge which spans Mahim Bay. A large number of police officers had been deployed to clear the way for some big shot who was passing through — probably a high-ranking politician or one of the city’s multi-billionaires heading for a destination that wasn’t accessible by private helicopter. We waited several minutes before a convoy of black cars with tinted windows tore down a dedicated lane, the blue and red lights of its police escort flashing. The barriers were not lifted for the rest of us until the convoy had reached the other side of the bay.   

Mumbai society is so rigidly stratified that the police will go to Herculean efforts to ensure that the rich and powerful are not inconvenienced in any way by the general populace while travelling across the city. Of course, the average Mumbaikar endures extreme levels of inconvenience on a daily basis, and yet most would not raise any protest beyond a bit of a grumble at being further inconvenienced just so that the CEO of some multinational conglomerate could be on time to some ribbon-cutting event or polo match or whatever (ok, I admit, I have no idea what the superrich do all day).

Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Mumbai, at night.
The Bandra-Worli Sea Link.

In Mumbai, VIPs are so commonplace that anyone of any real eminence is referred to as a VVIP. And people are so conditioned to respect the social hierarchy and to grovel before wealth and power that even many of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars, cultural icons with national if not international influence, will parrot the views of government leaders and tycoons on social media and act like sycophants in their presence.  

As we continued on our way to Prabhadevi, our Uber driver observed, quite rightly, that it’s crazy that Mumbai’s traffic is routinely stopped for politicians and ultra-high-net-worth individuals while few motorists bother to give way to emergency vehicles.  

October 12th — A City-Wide Power Cut

This morning the power went down across the entire city, all the way from the swanky downtown neighbourhoods to the outer suburbs. While some suburban areas of the city are plagued by daily power cuts, this is the first time I’ve experienced a city-wide outage in the six years that I’ve lived here. According to news reports, even the satellite town of Thane and Lonavala, a hill station some 60 miles out from the city, were affected by the power failure.

At this point in time, it’s not clear what caused the failure, but blame has been pinned on Tata Power, one of the largest electricity suppliers in the city. The power came back on in phases throughout the afternoon, with our supply restored by around 12.20pm.

Whatever the cause of the failure, the timing of it was ironic. Mere days ago, the landlord of the Bandra apartment confidently proclaimed that Mumbai never has power problems. I had just informed him that the TV, which belongs to him, had stopped working, possibly due to damage from power fluctuations. I told him that power cuts are rare in Bandra but not unheard of, and surges certainly occur frequently.

The landlord’s mood has soured since I informed him about the TV. He thinks (wrongly) that we took advantage of his kindness by not reporting the problem until we had collected the deposit cheque. It’s unfortunate, but not altogether surprising. A lifetime of hustling his way up through the echelons of Mumbai’s cut-throat business world has no doubt made him doubtful of the intentions of everyone he interacts with.

The TV has mysteriously come back to life of its own accord. I sent photographic evidence to the landlord, but he is still giving us a hard time. He has now asked us to hand over the keys immediately so the new tenant can move in even though we previously agreed that October 15th would be the hand-over date. I reminded him of the official letter I’d written (and which he’d previously approved), but he insisted that the 14th is the actual move-out date and that he might lose the new tenant if we don’t move before then. I pushed back, arguing that it will be difficult to clear out our remaining things and get the fridge and AC unit repaired within such a tight timeframe. He responded with a series of all-caps sarcastic WhatsApp messages. “U R BOSS AND I HAVE BEEN TAUGHT THAT BOSS IS ALWAYS RIGHT,” he said.

D spoke to the landlord’s wife and their broker, both of whom were much more understanding. Ultimately, though, we agreed to hand over the keys on the 14th.

October 17th — Work, More Work & Street Festivities

The past few days have been hectic. We managed to get all the repair work done at the Bandra apartment by the 14th. The fridge repairmen quoted INR5,000 but D got them down to 2,000. The repair seemed to involve heating a component with a naked flame, a rather primitive-looking procedure, but the fridge was working perfectly by the end of it.

The landlady and the broker came over in the afternoon to do a final inspection, along with the new tenant, a lawyer who has recently split up with his partner. They were all very friendly. The landlady was keen to make peace after her husband’s bizarre tantrum. She told us that if we were to ever need a loan, we could take one from them with a reasonable interest rate. Unlike many Muslim sects, theirs apparently does not forbid the charging of interest.

We thanked the landlady for her offer, but we have no intention of ever taking her up on it. Aside from the fact that the proposed interest rate was by no means reasonable, it’s clear that her husband is not the sort of man one wants to be indebted to.

We had a few stray items to take away with us, so we’d asked a friend to come by with his car to help us transport them. Before leaving, we said farewell to an elderly Goan couple on the ground floor who were good to us throughout our time in the building. Rain was coming down pretty heavily by the time we finally left.

We are now focused on getting the new apartment in order. The place was largely unfurnished when we moved in, so we’ve been ordering a lot of furniture from Ikea and Amazon. Despite the Covid cases in our building, the watchmen have been allowing deliverymen to come in. However, only heavy items are brought to our doorstep — all other items must be picked up at the gate of the compound.

Covid-19 quarantine notice, Mumbai.
An official notice posted outside one of the quarantined flats.

Yesterday we purchased a fridge, water purifier, gas stove and TV from a home appliance chain store. The store had an end-of-year sale on, but we were able to get additional discounts on the already discounted products since we were buying multiple items. In Mumbai, there is always room to negotiate, even in retail chain stores.

That same afternoon, we had a carpenter over to fix the shower door, which hadn’t been closing properly. We also got him to install wall brackets in the kitchen for the microwave and mount a dish-drying rack on the wall above the sink. A painter also came to touch up the paintwork on some pipes in the shower room. Since the two tradesmen came together, the building watchmen insisted that they leave together, perhaps because they didn’t want to be seen letting too many people in while there are Covid cases in our building.

Amid the madness of setting up the flat — clearing out junk left by former tenants, collecting deliveries, assembling flat-pack furniture, etc — D has been conducting online classes and I have been working on some editing assignments. I’ve also been trying to register my new address with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, but my online application keeps getting rejected. I’m pretty sure this is because registration is only required for long-term visa holders, not OCI holders, but it’s hard to find concrete information. It’s all very draining, but we are relieved to finally be living in our new place.

For the most part, our new neighbourhood is more peaceful than the Bandra one we have come from. But last night was an exception. The ten-day Hindu festival of Navaratri came to an end with raucous Dussehra celebrations. Firecrackers were going off throughout the city, drums were reverberating through the streets, and exuberant pujas were being performed at a nearby shrine to Sai Baba, a 19th-century spiritual leader who embraced both Hindu and Muslim teachings. Once or twice, cops cruised down the road urging people to vacate the streets, but they went largely unheeded.

Last night’s festivities were the liveliest I’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. Other major Hindu festivals like Gokulashtami and Ganesh Chaturthi were rather subdued this year. Diwali is around the corner and then we’re into the Christmas season. If people continue to take to the streets to partake in the festivities, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a spike in Covid cases at the end of the year.

For now, though, life is pretty good.

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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