09th February, 2021
At the beginning of 2021 Covid seemed to be on the decline in Mumbai. Cases had fallen sharply from their peak in late 2020 and the officially reported mortality rate had dropped below 1.5 percent, leading many to assume that the city had achieved herd immunity.
By February much of Mumbai appeared to have returned to business as usual. Masks were still mandated but there was very little regard for social distancing in most public spaces. Joggers and strollers were taking to parks and promenades in droves, shoppers were flocking to malls and markets, pedestrians were thronging the streets, and vehicles were manoeuvring around groups of kids playing gully cricket.
But I was still somewhat taken aback by how crowded Apollo Bunder was when we showed up on a Tuesday afternoon looking for jetty no 5. Domestic tourists swarmed around the Gateway of India, taking selfies in front of the landmark or looking for the dinky wooden ferries that would bear them across the glittering sea to destinations like Elephanta Island and the village of Alibaug on the Maharashtrian mainland.
This was only the third time in a year that D and I had ventured to downtown Mumbai following an impromptu car ride to Marine Drive on my birthday in August and a terrace barbeque at a friend’s place in Colaba in January. The occasion for this trip was a friend’s birthday party which we would be celebrating on a private yacht somewhere off the southern tip of the Island City.
We found jetty 5 after walking from the north side of the Gateway to the south side and linked up with a few of the other guests who were there. While we waited for the last few stragglers to turn up, we watched the throngs wandering lazily along the sun-soaked promenade in front of the Wes Anderson-esque façade of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Child beggars and vendors moved through the crowds like gulls around a fishing trawler. “This is why we’ve beaten Covid,” one of the guests said. “Herd immunity.” I looked for a hint of irony in his expression but found none.
Once all the guests had arrived — there were about ten of us altogether — we piled into a small motorboat which conveyed us to a yacht anchored a short distance from the shoreline. The crew welcomed us aboard with virgin mojitos and ice tea. And once we’d had a quick look around the vessel that would be our home for the next 3-4 hours, we all squeezed into the air-conditioned cabin amid a sea of heart-shaped balloons, closing the blinds in order to surprise the birthday girl, Akanksha, who was coming on another boat accompanied by her husband, Sanjay, and their young son, Vishal.
We watched through chinks in the blinds as the dinghy approached, weaving between the numerous sailboats that were anchored between us and the shore. We waited with bated breath when the dinghy drew up alongside our hull and we heard footsteps on the rear deck. And we hollered “happy birthday!” in almost-unison when Akanksha pulled open the sliding door. But she had suspected something was going on and made little effort to appear surprised. Vishal, on the other hand, was flabbergasted.
By the time we weighed anchor and got going the sun was well past its zenith, casting soft honey-coloured light onto the western hemisphere of the dome atop the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the turrets of the neighbouring triumphal arch. But the waves still sparkled brightly, making me glad I’d remembered to bring sunglasses.
It took us all a while to find our sea legs. There was only a slight swell but it forced us to hold onto guardrails when moving around on the decks. Vishal felt seasick from the moment he boarded the yacht and immediately went into the bedroom in the bow to lie down. While we’d been anchored, I had noted a sailboat next to us which was aptly named “Sheikin’ not Stirred”.
I had taken to the sea many times on the battered ferries that depart from the Gateway but never on a yacht. Ferry rides could be quite bumpy, especially when caught up in the wake of a larger vessel like a coastal patrol boat or a container ship, with sea spray coming in over the bow. On one trip the engine stalled and we were at the mercy of the waves for several minutes without lifejackets as we drifted towards the colossal weathered hull of a nearby oil tanker which would surely have reduced our boat to matchwood upon collision. Given these experiences, I had assumed that I would fare reasonably well on a yacht, which would surely be more stable than the sputtering, rickety tubs that ply the Mumbai-Elephanta route. Instead, I found myself staggering from deck to deck like a rubber-limbed man battling the effects of a powerful tranquilizer.
D got along much better than me. It wasn’t her first yacht excursion — she had been invited to one by a princess of a certain Muslim community a few years earlier. It was, in fact, D who had handled the tour booking on this occasion, although it was entirely financed by Sanjay.
It was a nice boat. There were two lower decks fore and aft and one upper deck above the cabin. Below decks there were two bedrooms, one of which had an en-suite bathroom containing a shower cubicle, as well as a kitchenette. Onboard caterers supplied us with refreshments including tandoori chicken, fish, and paneer (a type of cottage cheese) in addition to the assortment of cakes we’d brought with us. There were no alcoholic drinks, however, as these required a special license which we had not obtained.
As we headed out into the open sea, we passed fortified islets and oil rigs and a menagerie of seacraft — warships, cargo carriers, tankers, pleasure boats, etc. Occasionally we passed close enough to a ship to hear the clank of onboard machinery and smell the fumes of its engine. To think of all the people going about their business on all those vessels, some of which had come over the oceans from distant lands — it was as though we were passing through an entire floating city that stretched to the horizon in all directions and yet remained mostly invisible to those on the land — one of Mumbai’s many parallel worlds.
Shortly after leaving harbour, I moved to the front deck, joining a couple of guests who were posing for pictures there. One of them had studied civil engineering with Sanjay and they were both now involved in building roads in Mumbai.
Several other guests soon joined us, including Vishal, who had recovered from his initial queasiness and appeared to be having a good time. While sitting there enjoying the breeze and watching the horizon, I saw a dolphin surface briefly a short distance from our port side. I had heard about the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins that live in the waters around Mumbai, but I’d never seen one with my own eyes until that moment. It was a fleeting glimpse and the others, engrossed in conversation or preoccupied with selfie-taking, missed it entirely.
I’ve always been amazed at how a city brimming with 20 million humans can accommodate so many different kinds of wildlife. Kites soar around construction cranes and roost in the hollow structures of half-finished apartment blocks; megabats share the lower skies with parakeets, egrets, common crows and pigeons, and the occasional kingfisher; leopards stalk the jungles on the city perimeters, sometimes wandering into residential areas; crocodiles lurk beneath the waters of Powai Lake; monkeys occupy the trees in protected areas; and, at certain times of the year, flamingos congregate on the mudflats and among the mangroves around the city’s industrial areas, apparently drawn to the blue-green algae that thrives on sewage and industrial effluence. True, some of these species are barely clinging on to survival and their existence is being further threatened by mammoth construction projects like the eight-lane coastal freeway and the new metro lines but, considering how noisy and polluted the city is, it’s a wonder that they haven’t already disappeared entirely.
In the early days of the lockdown, animal lovers in Mumbai were cheered by reports that dolphins were returning to Mumbai’s coastline thanks to the cessation of shipping and industrial activities. But conservationists later refuted this claim — the creatures have apparently populated the waters around the metropolis for many years despite the heavy shipping traffic.
The captain steered us further and further out to sea until there was no sight of land in any direction. No one seemed to know where we were heading. But eventually the motor was cut and the anchor dropped, the chain rasping against the metal of the hull for a solid minute or two as it plunged into the depths. And we bobbed on the spot for a half hour or so watching the sun sink below the horizon while loud dance music pumped from the yacht’s inbuilt sound system. I would rather have enjoyed the view in silence, relishing the absence of car horns and construction noises, but it was nice all the same to be far from the madding crowd. I was surprised to see that smog still hung thick in the air, blurring objects on the horizon, even though we were a considerable distance out from the city.
I staggered up a companionway to the upper deck to take in the view from there. But the oscillation of the boat was much worse now that we weren’t moving forward and I began to feel nauseous. I fetched an ice tea from the cooler and found that sipping it alleviated the nausea to some degree. I tried to ignore the rocking motion and focus on the majestic sunset and the tranquil ocean breeze. I took a few photos, but doing so only made my condition worse.
Soon after the sun had slipped away, while we were still bathed in its crepuscular orange afterglow, the captain fired up the motor again. He had spotted a fishing net drifting in the water nearby and didn’t want to risk getting the propellers tangled up in it. We were on the move again, music pumping, the wind picking up, and the air rapidly cooling. A couple of balloons escaped the cabin and were swept into the sea by the wind, and I watched them bobbing in our wake — neon-pink inflatable hearts that faded from view like castaways abandoned to the wild, lonely expanse of the Arabian Sea. Perhaps they would wash up on some filthy beach. Perhaps they’d spend a silent age drifting on the ocean currents like the innumerable plastic bottles and food wrappers that ferry passengers casually dump in the water every day not realising that plastic takes some 500 years to decompose.
A few minutes later we stopped and dropped anchor again. Twilight was turning to dusk. There was a dark mass of shadow behind us — an island or promontory whose fringes soon began to sparkle with electric lights. A huge tongue of flame shot up intermittently against the dark hills — I assumed it was a gas flare at an unseen oil refinery but Akanksha was confident that it was something to do with a film studio.
Now that the wind had picked up, the swell had grown heavier. I wasn’t the only one struggling with seasickness — the others were not in great shape either. Sanjay’s mum, who had already been ill with a stomach bug before the trip, retreated to the cabin to try to get comfortable. Ironically, Vishal was now the only one of us who seemed fine, and he was darting from deck to deck like a regular little powder monkey.
I had not expected seasickness to be an issue, having not experienced it since I was a 10-year-old kid riding the ferries in Hong Kong. But there I was on the upper deck of a luxury boat, laid up in a corner, the blood draining from my face and my stomach churning. And, to make matters worse, the air was turning chilly and I’d not thought to bring a jacket. This was a far cry from the glamorous experience we’re constantly being sold by pouting Instagram influencers and glossy lifestyle magazines.
D was feeling queasy too, but she was nonetheless able to engage in a lengthy conversation with Akanksha’s younger brother, a twenty-something entrepreneur who had created an e-commerce site dedicated to Indian-made products. I listened in but I was in no mood to participate.
Akanksha’s brother spoke about his business goals. Despite the fact that he could in theory live quite comfortably on the wealth that his dad had made in the jewellery business, he was keen to strike out on his own and make something of himself. His dad had brought him and his two sisters up to find their own way in life and to understand the value of hard work. He was inspired by his older sister, who had launched a kids’ play centre just before the pandemic struck — the same centre that had brought D onboard as a part-time consultant. Despite the unfortunate timing of the launch, Akanksha was working flat-out seven days a week to keep her venture afloat, sacrificing any remnants of a social life that the pandemic had left her with, all while looking after Vishal and preparing for the birth of her second child.
It was sometime after 7pm and we were on the move again, heading back to shore. The swift forward motion came as a relief after the nauseating lateral rocking that we’d been subjected to while moored up. Oil rigs blazed with electric light like signal fires hovering above the dark waters, a cargo ship’s engine hummed in the distance, and city lights twinkled like a string of beads on the starboard horizon. The sky was the colour of graphite and where it met the land it was irradiated with the pale glow that hangs over nocturnal Mumbai like a sort of permanent daylight — even out at sea few stars could pierce through the fog of manmade illumination.
Akanksha’s brother was lamenting the fact that so many of his compatriots allow their career choices to be defined by their parents rather than charting their own course. Most Indians are too busy struggling to make ends meet to stop and think about what they want to do with their lives, he said. It was perhaps an odd conversation to be having on the deck of a boat that probably cost as much as a good-sized house, but he was not wrong — the majority of people in India are too focused on attending to basic needs like food and shelter to worry about nebulous concepts like self-actualisation.
Eventually the harbour hove into view and the Gateway of India greeted us just as it greeted colonial personnel in the final years of the British Raj. The triumphal arch was built to commemorate the arrival in 1911 of King George V, the first British monarch to visit the so-called “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. A few decades later, in 1948, the Somerset Light Infantry exited the subcontinent via the same archway, marking the dawn of Indian independence.
We dropped anchor and a few moments later the yacht’s tender came over the waves to take us back to the jetty. The sea was quite choppy now and the tender pitched wildly against the hull of the yacht, making it a challenge to jump from one vessel to the other. Sanjay handed the captain a fat wad of banknotes and we waved to the crew as we headed back to the shore.
It had been a mostly enjoyable evening but I was glad to be back on terra firma. We all took a moment to let our stomachs settle. The crowds had died down but the child beggars were still there and a man was loudly chastising them in Marathi. We had originally planned to finish off the day by getting some street food at a popular joint behind the Royal Bombay Yacht Club but none of us had much of an appetite after more than three hours on the undulating sea.
D and I were the only ones who had not come in a private car. One of the other guests offered to give us a lift home but he had a long journey ahead of him and our place was not exactly en route. We declined politely despite his insistence that it would be no trouble for him. Sanjay rolled down the window of his BMW while his wife, mother and son were getting in and eagerly asked me if I’d enjoyed myself. In truth I had, even if the experience had taught me that I don’t quite have the constitution for a nautical career.
After exchanging the usual parting salutations, we all set out for our respective homes. D and I attempted to take a quick stroll around the streets of Colaba but my shoes were not the strolling kind and they quickly began to chafe against my feet. We called it a day and hailed a black-and-yellow cab, grateful for a day well spent — grateful that we’d once again had a brief escape from the monotony of pandemic life.