Bad days

To the right of the building that you see in the featured photo, above the trees, is my view of the sea. I can often see ships on the horizon, waiting to dock in the Mumbai harbour. Not now. For the last two weeks, I have not seen the horizon because of the pollution. It is specially galling, because we’ve had wonderfully clear air for almost a year, since late March 2020. I took winter pollution in my stride before, hiding behind masks and switching on air purifiers, but this year I reminded myself of the reasons behind this.

Normal sea breeze
Inversion layer

The reason for the annual winter pollution is the formation of an inversion layer in the atmosphere. When the sea is colder than the land, the hot air over the city rises, and cold air from the sea blows in. This happens daily, through the year. In winter, the sea air is colder, and the sun is not high enough in the sky to warm this layer fast enough that the breeze sustains itself through the day. As a result, a cold layer stays put over the city, as human activity pumps more pollutants into it. Since cold air is denser, the layering is stable, and the static dense layer just gets more and more dirty. On a relatively warmer day this layer can get heated enough to rise, and one can suddenly see the air clear up. But then as the air cools again, it gets murky as the temperature inversion sets in. By comparing the maximum and minimum sea water temperature with atmospheric temperature, it seems to me that, as usual, we are in for bouts of bad air right until March.

What bothers me is the source of the pollution. Since businesses are still running in shifts, and people are largely home, the traffic is not as bad as it used to be. Sure, the rush hour has its share of snarls, but travel times are still only half of what they were last January. On the other hand, all the construction and repairs that were postponed by nine or ten months has suddenly started again. I can see roads dug up everywhere, many earth movers at work, and concrete being poured. I guess dust from construction, rather than traffic and industry, is the main component of the bad air now. This is actually worse than normal, and very bad news for respiratory health.

In other years I find that visits to Delhi or Kolkata in this season are likely to give me a bad throat. The reason is that the air pollution in both these cities comes from burning organic matter, which may cause fungal spores and bacteria to become airborne. These are directly responsible for throat infections. Winter pollution in Mumbai usually causes respiratory problems in more indirect ways. However, if dust is now a major component of air pollution in Mumbai, then the bacteria carried in soil have just added to the list of throat infections we can now get. Add this to our worries about COVID-19 and the possible cross over of the bird flu now killing poultry and crows through the country. Consider also that an inversion layer prevents the rapid dilution of pathogens that infected people breathe into the atmosphere. All told, the next couple of months could be bad.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

Easing back into a changed world

Chef Floyd Cardoz was the first person in my world who died after a COVID-19 infection. We’d been to his restaurant in Mumbai the day before it closed to the pandemic. We stilled the small panic in our hearts and visited it again the day after it opened. There are major changes now. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who had introduced me to the farm-to-table philosophy, and taken the time to demonstrate ways of retaining fresh flavours in food, has decided to move away. Chef Hussain Shahazad is now designing the menu. I was not very comfortable in a closed dining space, even though the staff was masked and tables well separated. The pandemic has not finished with Mumbai; people we know are still falling ill, and eating in a restaurant is not the safest thing to do right now. But we were tired of eating at home. We’ve had fancy food delivered, but even that requires us to assemble each dish. And, no matter what, there is always cleaning up afterwards. So we gambled, as we do sometimes.

There were many changes to the menu, now much smaller. A wonderful invention is the dish called Paya with Momo. I had encountered tangbao, soup filled dumplings, decades ago in a long-vanished Chinese restaurant called Nanking in Colaba, and encountered them again in our travels in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chef Shahazad has reimagined them as momos filled with paya. A momo covering is thicker than the tangbao that I’ve had, and Chef Shahzad goes with the momo. The paya (soup of trotters) was wonderful, quite comparable to the local slow-cooked version that The Family and I enjoy so much. The topping, a tangy and spicy chutney, is a lovely complement.

Chef Heena Punwani has added a very small selection to the menu; that day we saw only two of her creations listed. We decided to try what she calls Strawberries and Cream. A simple description would be a chhana poda doughnut sliced through to hold a lime infused cream, roasted pistachios and slices of strawberries, topped with a strawberry sorbet. Chhana poda, or baked paneer, is heavy, frying it into a doughnut would make it heavier. The Family was a little reluctant, but went along because of the strawberries. The whole thing was surprisingly light and delightfully fresh. Well-roasted nuts are almost a signature with her, and the sorbet was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more from Chef Punwani.

I will miss Chef Cardoz and his singular focus on exploring and popularizing India’s culinary heritage. I look forward to seeing Chef Zacharias doing something new. But I’m glad that a place that we have haunted for years continues to reinvent and showcase the immense variety of Indian food.

Al fresco

I wonder where the phrase dining al fresco comes from. But that is what we did on our little workation. The first time was a shock. The Family ordered up chai with pakoras, and we sat out in the little garden waiting for it. When a man walked up to us with a full tray, I had a moment of confusion. Both of us were without our masks with a stranger near us. This had not happened in more than nine months. I curbed my instinct to dash in to get my mask. We were outdoor, with a nice breeze coming down from the hills behind us, and the server was wearing a mask and a shield. It was reasonably safe. A little chit chat as he set up the table stabilized my heart, and I was able to concentrate on the food. The perfect sweet and milky chai and a plate of hot pakodas with a spicy hot coriander and mint chutney, things we haven’t had for months! Time to take a photo of a world renormalizing, and dig in.

We were even more adventurous for dinner. The Family said we should go down to the restaurant. I’m still unsure about meeting more than two strangers at a time; when I go in to work I don’t take a lift if it has more than two people in it. I was a little reluctant. Our compromise was that we would sit outdoor. We need not have worried, the resort had set up its dining entirely in a garden, with tables distinctly more than two meters from each other. In the lovely glow of stars overhead, trees lit up, we relaxed into a mood where we could begin to come to terms with a changed world.

In the light of the little oil lamp on our table I began to put into practice the intellectual understanding that I had reached earlier, as we planned how to reopen during the pandemic. Similar thought had gone into the adaptation of this space. Guests, like us, were isolated islands in a large open space with a nice breeze coming through it. The weather was colder than I’m used to Mumbai, but everyone was prepared for it. People were put into tables according to the size of their bubbles; we were escorted to a two person table, larger family groups had tables of up to eight people. The service personnel wore masks and shields; they were more at risk than us, since they were forced to meet strangers. There was a singer on a little podium placed away on one side, about four meters from the nearest table. There was only a low bush between her and the edge of the cliff, so there was always a breeze around her. It was all very well thought out, and I could dismiss my concerns once I’d looked around and taken it all in. The rest of our time there was very relaxed. As we walked back to our cottage I looked up at the clear sky. We were not yet passing through the Geminid meteor shower. Perhaps next week, I remarked to The Family.

WFH can be WFA

No one cares whether you wear slippers or shoes when you work from home. That was part of our 2020 vision. Slowly we are all learning that no one cares whether you work from home, or work from anywhere, as long as your work gets done. I decided to check out the possibilities last week. After eight months confined to our home, The Family and I decided on a few days away. My criterion was good wifi and open spaces; she wanted lovely views and good service. We found a place which satisfied us both, and spent three days away from home. The highway towards Nashik is little used now, and I could finish a meeting on the road. We drove off the highway at Igatpuri, and stopped by the lake behind Bhavali Dam (featured image). I lost connectivity there, but my meeting was over. If we travel while working we’ll have to have maps of mobile coverage (Google, I need this layer on your maps, if you are listening).

Getting away, working in a resort outside towns, was a pleasure. The sight of a red veined darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii) sitting on the car antenna in the morning, relaxed me as I eased into work. The pandemic is not over, but hotels and resorts are adapting to changed circumstances. Open air dining, in-room dining, good wifi, isolation, many places are able to turn these pre-existing facilities to their advantage. Several districts and towns, especially those which have avoided the pandemic, restrict visitors quite strongly. Bhandardara town, our home for the work week, was of this kind, but we were happy to stay in our private cottage high above town and meet only the staff at the resort. Many other people had reasoned like us. The place was full, even though it was the middle of the week. We could wave a distant hello to people in nearby cottages while we sat in the small garden and worked.

Is this part of the future of work? It has been a long time coming, but I believe that this new category of a break, WFA (work from away) is finally here to stay. What else can you call it? Awaycation? Workation?

Ghoti, population 30,000

On our drive back to Mumbai we stopped at the little town of Ghoti to buy vegetables. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai come from Nashik district, where the town lies. Ghoti is one of those places which has grown too large to be called a village, but has still not realized that it should really have a municipal corporation. The Indian bureaucracy has a name for such places, it is called a census town. We had expected the market place to be crowded. It wasn’t. Nashik district was pretty badly hit by the coronavirus, and people have learnt to stay at home and avoid crowds. Those who have the money to buy their groceries in bulk do it, and visit the market infrequently.

The market straggled along the main road to the highway, but there was a clear center. That was where the fresh vegetables were to be seen. A large part of the vegetables supplied to Mumbai comes from Nashik district. This was obvious from the freshness of the things on display. A variety of chili, many kinds of beans, huge bundles of greens and gourds, all at a price about a fourth of what you would be charged in Mumbai. The periphery of the market had grains and kitchen utensils (different vendors for metal and plastic!).

Less than a fourth of the people I could see were using masks, and many of them were not using it properly. Masking has become so common in cities that it is a little disconcerting to pass through small towns and see that masks are not yet in regular use. I suppose communication needs to improve. I don’t watch TV very often, and seldom in Marathi, so I don’t know whether it is just the frequency of messaging should be addressed, or something different needs to be done. Masks are such a simple and effective preventive that I really do think the message should be spread even better.

Our daily mask

While putting away the washing a new world order came into focus. I suddenly realized that masks have now become just another thing to wear before you leave the house. Most of my masks are two layers of cotton; in the heat and humidity of Mumbai anything heavier is unbearable when I’m out. I wear better masks only when I’m forced to be in an enclosed space with many people for a long time, like a doctor’s clinic. But what is surprising is how quickly they have become interesting.

I started to wear masks three years ago, when construction in the neighbourhood threw up so much dust that outdoor exercise became a minor health hazard. Then they had to be ordered online, and were uniformly black, grey, or dark blue. As a result, I had a packet of masks with me in the fearful days when everyone was looking at instructions for DIY masks.

And now? You have to have several masks in your drawer because each can be used only once before you wash it, and you have to discard ones which have gone through twenty five washings or so. Every clothes shop has a rackful of them, in a choice of colours, in cotton or silk, in two or three layers. You can get them block printed, or hand painted, in handloom, or raw silk. The Family is hoping to find some with Madhubani or Warli paintings. They are well on their way to becoming fashion accessories.

I’ll know that the new normal has arrived when I see the first jeweled masks on film stars or in a society wedding. I would like that: the final stage, acceptance.

How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Good employers

We’re all aware of the number of people who have lost jobs during the pandemic. It will be quite a while before peoples’ personal levels of income reach what they were six months ago. There are businesses which pre-emptively fired people. Then there are businesses which tried to retain as many employees as possible for as long as they could. This cafe had more servers than customers, something which annoyed me, until The Family pointed out that they probably haven’t fired anyone yet. That changed my perspective. This business is only a stand-in for those uncounted, unseen employers who kept paying their employees as long as they could. Some shut down, some will continue until the economy gets back on its feet again. They all tried their best.

Marine Drive on a weekend afternoon

The weather is clearing up slowly as the monsoon dies down. Brilliant sunshine and no haze is the order of the day right now. On Saturday afternoon The Family and I decided to go for a walk to Marine Drive; we’d not seen it for six months. It was different. Not very crowded. People were mostly masked. These two youngsters without masks looked so much a throwback to earlier times that they gave me a twinge of nostalgia. I know that they should not be doing this, but I can hardly blame them. At their age you think you are immortal. I don’t want to take that away from them, though I hope they have sense enough to mask themselves when there are more people around.

There are reminders chalked on to the promenade. People took photos. I took one. The Family, who has been reading newspapers more regularly than me, told me that it appeared in the papers some days back. I think it is heartening that so many people are obviously being sensible. Hospitals are no longer over-run. The result is that the fraction of deaths in hospitals is decreasing. I’m sure many people are not getting themselves tested, and the actual number of deaths will only be tallied by historians in future. But the epidemic is destroying the country in other ways: jobs and incomes are lost, other diseases are unchecked, school meals have been stopped, less well-to-do children are missing school because they can’t go online. It’s too depressing to think of during a lovely walk by the sea. Let’s go back to admiring the view.