Planet Bombay

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

Travelling to Delhi During a Covid Surge — Part 3 of 3

Pre-flight selfies look a little different during a pandemic.

Note: This is the third part of a three-part story. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

November 22nd — The Flight to Mumbai

Given J’s cavalier attitude towards airline schedules, we were a little worried about missing our flight to Mumbai. Aside from the fact that flights are not cheap these days, even domestic ones, we didn’t want to stay in Delhi a minute longer than necessary with speculation mounting that the central government was planning to shut the city’s borders to rein in escalating Covid cases. A Mumbai-based friend had texted me the day we had arrived in the capital: “hope you guys will be able to make it back!”

J was already wide awake when I swung by his room to give him a wakeup call. But he took his sweet time coming down to the breakfast buffet, showing up just when D and I were considering setting off without him.

Several minutes later, when J had eaten his fill and had his morning coffee, we wheeled our suitcases to a waiting cab. As we were loading up the car boot, PI suddenly walked out onto the porte cochere, feet bare, clothes creased, and hair dishevelled, to see us off. He’d rushed down the moment he’d woken up.

We left the hotel later than planned but, fortunately, the airport was nearby and traffic was light. When we reached the departures terminal there didn’t appear to be any public health safeguards in place. We had made sure to download the government’s contact tracing app, having been caught out at the airport in Mumbai, but no one asked to see it at any point during our return journey. We had to join an absurdly long queue at the check-in desks and the security concourse was a complete free-for-all. It was little wonder that the virus was rampant in Delhi if this was the state of affairs at its largest public transport hub.

Throughout the journey J eagerly conveyed to me his newfound interest in mathematics, “the language of the universe”. He riffed on the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio, and chaos theory while we made our way through the airport labyrinth. He had a pair of noise-cancelling headphones around his neck and his in-flight reading material under his arm — a 1,000-page doorstop by the mathematician Roger Penrose called The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.  

Upon reaching Mumbai we stopped by the airport Starbucks for some coffee and a bite to eat, having forgone the overpriced in-flight refreshments. After a busy weekend, it was nice to kick back for a while without needing to rush off anywhere else and we ended up staying in the coffee shop a good hour or so chewing the fat.

We had seen J a couple of times since he moved to Bangalore in 2017, but both of those meetings had been rather fleeting — the first was squeezed into an afternoon on a weekend when D and I had travelled to Bangalore for a wedding, and the second was an impromptu dinner at our place when J had flown in for a couple of days to attend an art auction as one of the featured artists. But this time J’s visit was open-ended — he had a vague plan to hang out with us for a few days, and possibly see one or two other Mumbai friends, before carrying on to Bangalore.

J had left Mumbai under rather traumatic circumstances, which I won’t go into here. He’d moved to Bangalore for a change of pace, staying with an aunt until he’d found his feet in the city. Not long after moving he’d been offered a teaching job at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, one of India’s most prestigious design schools. He’d applied to study at the institute but they’d been so impressed with his portfolio that they’d offered him a place on the faculty.  

The change had given him a new lease of life. As a creative, he’d found Mumbai’s ruthlessly capitalistic environment oppressive. Bangalore was much more his scene. He was constantly trying to convince D and I to move there, referring to it by the popular sobriquet “the Garden City”.

He’d been slightly apprehensive about visiting Mumbai due to the unpleasant associations it held for him. But once we got past Bandra, the suburb in which all three of us once lived, his unease seemed to fade.

Once we reached our apartment, we dumped our bags and sanitized our hands thoroughly before making ourselves at home. A friend of ours, DM, was there to greet us — she had been staying at our place over the weekend.

After taking a quick tour of the new place, J settled on the living room floor to go through my book collection. He was especially interested in a box set of The Chronicles of Narnia which I’ve had since childhood. His favourite book in the series was The Silver Chair, perhaps the darkest of the lot since it takes place largely in an underworld in which the protagonists question the reality of everything they’d ever known.

He also picked up a first-edition copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and read aloud some of the racial caricatures he came across within its pages. There was a note scrawled on the back page. It was my handwriting but I had no recollection of writing it: “It was him: he’s British. Stealing is in his blood,” it read. Presumably something someone had once said to me which I had thought was noteworthy at the time.

In the evening we watched a Kevin Hart Netflix stand-up special which J had been raving about throughout the journey in between expositions of mathematical theories. We had a few beers and ordered burgers and chicken wings from a fast-food establishment owned by a mutual friend.

D had been feeling a bit rough since leaving Delhi. We didn’t think much of it at first — it was probably a classic case of what foreigners used to refer to as “Delhi belly”. But we began to suspect the worst when DM, who had gone through Covid in the summer, said that her experience with the virus had started in exactly the same way.

November 23rd – December 07th — A Full House

The next few days were not short of drama. D was fine within a day of being back in Mumbai but J developed a mild cough and a case of the sniffles while out visiting a friend in Bandra one day. The friend, who was due to get married in a few days, freaked out and more or less forced J to get a Covid test done.

There followed a tense 24 hours or so in which we awaited the results of the test. During that time J took to wearing a mask indoors, sanitizing his hands and various surfaces obsessively, and keeping to one corner of the living room. He became convinced that he had caught Covid from the man sitting next to him on the plane who had been coughing violently with his mouth uncovered throughout the flight.

“I don’t want to be a Typhoid Mary,” J said, referring to a cook who unwittingly infected 50-odd people with typhoid fever in New York at the beginning of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, I also began to experience a prickly feeling in my throat, but I had no idea whether this was an early indicator of Covid or a delayed reaction to Delhi’s air pollution or even something of a psychosomatic nature. 

To make matters worse, the friend D had visited in Delhi informed her that her boyfriend had tested positive for Covid shortly after D’s visit. He had started to experience flu-like symptoms while D was at their place and had only waved to her from the other side of a glass door. D’s friend had also got tested and was awaiting the results.

All things considered, we thought it best to stay indoors for a while. We backed out of a plan to join a small group of friends for a birthday celebration on Tuesday. We half-expected PPE-wearing officials from the BMC, the governing body of Mumbai, to show up at any moment to decontaminate the building and slap a 14-day quarantine notice outside our flat. And we imagined what our more judgemental acquaintances would say if they learned that we’d brought the ‘vid-19 (as Kevin Hart calls it) back from Delhi.    

But none of us regretted going to our friend’s wedding. “I’d take a bullet for that boy,” J said rather theatrically. Besides, we had not been reckless. We had followed the rules to the best of our knowledge and, wherever possible, we’d gone the extra mile and taken sensible precautions beyond the officially mandated ones. And DM was not too concerned about being under the same roof as us, having already beaten Covid once.

In the end, all was well. J’s test report came back negative and the prickliness in my throat disappeared without any further symptoms manifesting. It also turned out that we’d got back to Mumbai just before a change in the rules for travellers arriving from Delhi. As of November 25th, all arrivals from the capital and a few other Covid hotspots would have to carry a negative RT PCR test report with them.

Over the next few days, we relaxed and settled into a new rhythm. DM returned to her own home at some point. J set up his work equipment on the dining table and spent the mornings delivering lectures to his students over Zoom. D, who ordinarily would use the dining table for her lessons, took over my workspace in the bedroom in the mornings. And I got my desk back in the afternoons, the time of day when I am generally most productive.    

Whenever J wasn’t in a lecture, he’d have something playing on the Amazon Echo he’d brought with him — usually a full-length audio recording of the Tao-te-Ching or some other philosophical text or an eclectic playlist of his current most-played tunes. In the afternoons he spent a lot of time on the phone strategizing, brainstorming and troubleshooting with a group of his former students who were collaborating on a range of creative endeavours at the intersection of art, technology and finance. Though he explained to me several times what he and his crew were working on, I never quite grasped it.

He liked to burn the candle at both ends. He was the last of us to go to bed each night and the first to wake up in the morning. He fuelled himself with mug after mug of weapons-grade coffee which caused his hands to tremble uncontrollably. He popped outside regularly to stretch his legs and have a cigarette until one day the watchmen of our building told him off for smoking in the courtyard where the elderly residents liked to exercise in the afternoons.

The watchmen didn’t know what to make of J. He looked Indian and yet he could hardly string a sentence together in Hindi (or any of the other 20 official Indian languages) and had no discernible Indian accent. And he appeared to have a very cosmopolitan wardrobe — sleeveless Singha shirt, skinny jeans, “Straight Outta Compton” baseball cap, retro sunglasses, chunky jewellery, etc. He was representative of a New India that they could not comprehend — a returned expat who had spent many years immersed in the cultures of the United States and the Arabian Gulf region.  

J initially bridled at his treatment by the watchmen. But later he made peace with them by giving them a jar of artisanal chocolates from Ooty, the hill station where we’d gone to school. And from then on, he mostly sat on a windowsill in the living room whenever he wanted a smoke. At one point he attempted to switch tobacco for nicotine gum and cranberry tea but he never seemed to be quite at rest unless he had a cigarette between his caffeine-trembling fingers.

In the evenings we’d pontificate on politics and religion and a range of other subjects. Or we’d unwind in front of the TV, usually with a chilled beer in hand, to watch a documentary or movie or serial. Sometimes we’d just watch live performances by the likes of the Future Islands, one of the bands that sound-tracked our early days in Mumbai, and other favourites like the Talking Heads and St Vincent, or some newly discovered artist. And one evening we ended up ploughing through clips from The Mighty Boosh and Four Lions, offbeat and slightly irreverent British comedies that J and I could quote from extensively. It was like we were reliving the halcyon days when all three of us lived in the same city and hung out regularly.

One evening J invited us to join a Zoom call in which his students presented their coursework. He seemed to have a good rapport with his students. For some reason they called him The Butcher, after a hard-as-nails cockney character in the TV show The Boys.

We stayed indoors mostly, even after J’s test report came back. But we did venture out once to visit M, a friend who had moved to Mumbai from Manchester just before the pandemic hit. As M had recently given birth, we took extra care to observe social distancing guidelines and met her and her baby outdoors in a private garden within the grounds of her apartment complex.  

J also went out on his own once to meet one of the co-owners of a design shop to scope out potential areas of collaboration.

December 07th — An Abrupt Departure

On the 15th day after arriving in Mumbai, J suddenly decided to leave for Bangalore. He felt that it was time to move on and, although we didn’t understand the urgency, he insisted on flying out that very night. We urged him to wait until the morning to fix his travel plans, but he was unwavering in his decision to catch the soonest available flight, which happened to be at five o’clock in the morning. And we knew J well enough to know that he could often be impulsive and that once he had made his mind up on something it was all but impossible to talk him out of it.

J cited a number of justifications for wanting to get back to Bangalore but the main one involved the imminent return of his aunt from Sierra Leone, where she had been working with survivors of Ebola throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. He had always spoken highly of his aunt, who had pursued multiple career paths in various conflict zones around the world, including a long stint in Afghanistan.

He was also keen to get back to the collective he was overseeing. Though he could handle most of the work remotely, there were a few upcoming things that he wanted to manage in person. Throughout his two-week stay he had been urging me to join the collective for a couple of months. He wanted to give me a room in the spacious bungalow they were renting so that I could focus on the novel he’d been encouraging me to write for years. He was insistent that it was impossible to get “deep work” done in a mad city like Mumbai, and I couldn’t argue with that. I told him I’d think over it.

I helped J take his luggage to the cab around 1.30am. It was much too early to head to the airport, but he didn’t want to keep us up too late. We said our farewells in the dark street. “Come to the Garden City,” he said one more time before getting into the cab and disappearing into the night.

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

3 thoughts on “Travelling to Delhi During a Covid Surge — Part 3 of 3

  1. A great tripartite story, Sam. So glad you and D stayed clear of the n-n-n-n-19. Love reading about the inimitable J, whom we met at the time of your wedding. Had to chuckle at your description of his selection of fave tracks; I dubbed my 4600-strong Spotify playlist ‘Eclectic Sounds’. Looking forward to that novel – no pressure! Happy and blessed Easter to you and D! Clive.

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