“Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” Freud is said to have said. In the same way, this attractive cheesecake is only cheesecake.
I took this photo two weeks ago, when we met a friend in a deserted restaurant for lunch. I’m happy that this Lebanese restaurant has continued to produce good food even after two years of scarce diners. I saw that there was only one other table occupied for lunch on a weekend. The omicron wave was just beginning then, on the first Sunday of January. “This won’t be good for business,” I thought to myself.
I scanned the menu and the rose flavoured cheesecake seemed to be the most interesting dessert. Not only was the flavour interesting, the cake was also light enough to round off a long lunch. The brass plate, the rosy dessert, the light, everything looked like a photo would come out well. So for once I remembered to take a photo before digging into the food.
For the last two weeks the wave of infections, now tens of thousands of new cases daily in the city, has kept people at home. Traffic has thinned out, shops and restaurants barely have customers. The number of new infections may be levelling off, but the number of deaths has just started increasing; it takes two weeks or more for critical cases to resolve. Hospitalization rates have been low, since the city is almost fully vaccinated. So one expects that deaths will be much lower than in previous waves. That is what the vaccine was meant to do. Nice to know that it is working.
Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.
It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.
Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.
The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.
Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).
The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.
Last Friday we went to hear Ustad Rashid Khan sing. It has been more than two years since the two of us sat in a darkened hall full of people. Everyone had to carry a certificate of complete vaccination in order to enter, and even then there was the mandatory temperature check at the gate. The seating was alternate, and everyone was masked. But people mingled in the foyer. In any collection of people there will be those who are more careful and distancing and masking, and those who are not. In recent times we have never been in a crowd except at airports, and there we could keep our distance. Still, this didn’t set our teeth on edge.
Why? I asked The Family after the concert. Perhaps because everyone was vaccinated. Vaccine coverage in Mumbai is very high, with almost everyone having received one shot, and a large fraction being fully vaccinated. The case load has not disappeared. There are between 100 and 200 new cases discovered every day. Even in our moderately large apartment complex there is a case every few weeks. But beds in COVID hospitals and ICUs in the city are now freely available. People have buckled down to work again, although there is more work-from-home than in the November of 2019. The pattern of sickness and mortality has shifted over time. The pandemic began with large risks for people above 60. Now the largest fraction of mortality is for people in their 50s. The number of children, under 10s as well as teens, infected is no longer a negligible fraction. As the pandemic comes under better control, attention has to shift to the less vulnerable population. No one is invulnerable.
Ustad Rashid Khan has perhaps the best voice of his generation of singers. It was good to begin the season with him. We have tickets for the next couple of performances. It was interesting to find that at the end of the concert there was no crowding at the doors. People spontaneously remained in place and maintained a constant trickle at the exit. That is the kind of new normal that I would love. The initial vaccine hesitancy in certain pockets of the city was quickly overcome because all political parties supported the vaccination drive. I came across a very well-researched news story which talks of the slower spread of vaccination in villages. India’s population is immense, and even though it hits new records of the number of vaccine doses given, only about a quarter is fully vaccinated as yet. It will be a while before one can safely gather in large numbers indoors everywhere in the city.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same)
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
As things open up and people start commuting back to work, my work times have begun to get back to the usual nine to five. There’s little opportunity now to finish most of my day’s work in a five hour stretch in the morning and then go for a walk. As a result I find that the last time I was out for a stroll in the middle of the day was in late August. I’ve been posting on and off about the great ferment in small businesses: many have shut, others have changed from one business to another. A corner restaurant that I used to duck into for an occasional cup of tea has shuttered down, as you can see in the featured photo.
The Family has a favourite fruit vendor. As she chatted with him, I looked at the small but elaborate Jain temple next to the street market he sits in. Religious places are set to open soon, but at the end of August its doors were still firmly shut. All around it business seemed to be on as usual. When I said this to The Family, she gave me The Look. “Don’t you remember how crowded this place used to be in the afternoons?” I don’t any longer, but I can imagine that when people again have unrestricted access to the suburban trains, the crowds here will double.
The market began to fill up by sundown. Many people are still fully masked, but sights like the one above are not uncommon. Mumbai claims to have given one shot of the vaccine to almost all residents, and both shots to a rapidly increasing fraction. In January when I saw scenes like this I was afraid (correctly, as it unfortunately turned out) that we would have a new wave of infections soon. This time, I see this and hope that it signals a return to normal. At least, as long as a new mutant of the virus does not begin to spread.
We decided to walk away from the dam and lake. The flat land rose gently towards Kalsubai peak. A road wound through the rolling countryside. We would follow the road, more or less, to avoid getting lost. This side of the plateau was less well off. Perhaps the land was not as productive as that closer to the dam. A thin soil covered the porous laterite rocks. The red mud of this area was a clear indication of the geology. Immediately after the mosoon the waters would drain away, leaving a dry parched land. It showed in the village.
Across the country, Anganwadis are essential nodes in primary health care and pre-school education for children. One essential service it provides is to track childhood nourishment, and give food to malnourished children. The pandemic has interrupted this service for the first time since it was set up by the central government in 1975. We saw a closed center. A few pre-school children hung around it, and ran away when they saw me. As I took photos, they came back slowly to stare.
Next to it was a primary school. The walls contained early-school material. Schools have been shut for almost two years now. Elementary schools provide a mid-day meal. In a poor village like this, the meal is an essential component of childhood nutrition. That is another source of food shut now. This is happening at the same time that incomes have fallen, because the few people in the village who worked in towns have lost their jobs.
It isn’t just this one Anganwadi which was closed. In the more prosperous part of the plateau, between the dam and the highway, we’d seen others also shut. Some educationists are lobbying to get governments to continue to provide children’s meals even during this pandemic. A shortfall in nutrition affects children very crucially. The effects on India’s rural population won’t be visible till the middle of the century.
Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.
Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.
The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.
Like many of you, we had been shut away at home even after being fully vaccinated. While a deadly wave peaked around us, affecting every person’s circle of family and friends, we did not feel any urge to go out. But that wave is now slowly dissipating, leaving behind the post-COVID complications that still kill (India’s first near-Olympian, Milkha Singh, being the latest victim). The sheer depression of being isolated at home while one or two people you know die every day made us want to get out. It had been possible during weekdays for the last two weeks. Eventually, yesterday, The Family and I could juggle schedules to arrange lunch together. South Mumbai looks pretty ordinary, if you forget what it would have been at this time two years ago. Some shops are closed, many of them perhaps forever. The traffic is lighter than normal, and the number of pedestrians lighter still.
Lunch was at a pizzeria on Marine Drive, where we got a table suitable for watching the monsoon tossed waves on Backbay across a welcome view of Marine Drive. A stiff breeze blew between the distanced tables, keeping the monsoon’s humidity at bay. The service and attention to detail has improved with the drop in crowds. We slipped into a dream of normal times, sipping a light rose, spooning up pasta, biting into a crisp pizza, looking for an appropriate dessert to follow and deciding on an espresso instead.
Afterwards we walked past the Brabourne Stadium to the hundred years-old ice cream shop below the stands, now piloted by an old Parsi lady, the grand-daughter of the original Rustom. She never pushes at the boundaries of the stereotype of a cantankerous old Parsi, so sure she is of the quality of the ice cream that she knows that neither her manner, nor the looks of the shop or the merchandise, have to be updated by about three generations. The usual small stream of customers waited patiently for the wonderful ice cream sandwiches, a generous slab of ice cream between two thin wafers, leavened with mild insult. We walked away, a dripping kesar pista in hand, happy that some things never change.
Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.
Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.
A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.
There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.
When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.
We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.
When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.
Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
My nieces do not have this freedom. One, a counselor, realized she was in depression caused by listening to her clients trying to cope with the world that I just described. Her own therapist is counseling her from hospital while being treated for COVID-19. Another niece is in the vanguard of today’s lost generation. She finished her architecture degree from home during last year’s lockdown, and was lucky enough to get a job. So she is in a town completely new to her, setting up her home and commuting to work. She is fairly confident of her work environment; every one is masked all the time, she says. But she finds commuting scary, since in her town many people do not realize masks help protect you. Other nieces are a little further back in the same cohort. One is doing her final year’s internship from home. Another is beginning her second year of college from home. And yet another has just had her school leaving exam cancelled.
I realized that I had been depressed only when I came out of it yesterday. The trigger was that The Family and I got our second shot of vaccine. I had been depressed by thoughts of my own mortality, then. Unlike the two of us, my nieces spend time on social media, which is choked with an outpouring of grief and helplessness from individuals. They are still not eligible for vaccines, and next month, when they are, the vaccine shortage will really begin to hit. Their generation will be changed; I don’t know how.
There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.