Yesterday evening we decided to get a coffee, walk with it, drop into a shop to buy a replacement charger for a phone, perhaps pick up some bread for the coming days. It took almost half an hour to get a coffee, because the queue was long. A couple in front of me was told that they had to mask themselves if they wanted service. They pulled their masks out of their bags and put them on their chins. We took the coffees out.
The phone shop was so full that they were not allowing more people in. There was a little cluster of people waiting at the door. We went on to the bakery. It was empty; a lone person at the counter served us. This was the only sign that we were in the middle of an epidemic.
The newspapers have been full of the news that Mumbai’s case count is declining, COVID care centers are winding up, and that more commuter trains are running. The anthropause is over. I can now hear the distant sounds of cars from the balcony. The sky is turning the grey that Mumbai’s pollution usually makes it.
The worst of the pandemic may be over, but the epidemic is just smouldering. It can catch fire again. The complacent behaviour which we saw yesterday is just the oxygen that such a fire needs.
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.
I woke before dawn today, even before the first bird had started singing. As the sky turned from black to a faint colour, I saw twinkling lights on the horizon, out at sea. The mad twinkling told me that the morning was going to be more hazy than I’d hoped. Shipping had come to a halt in April, and the absence of man-made noise must have been almost pre-industrial. For the first time in the recorded history of Mumbai dolphins were seen in Backbay. That is well past now. From July I’ve been seeing cargo ships pass through the far channel, weaving back together a world wide web of commerce. One of the set of lights, the rightmost, looked like a mobile drilling rig. The leftmost was certainly neither that, nor a container ship. It looked more like a cruise ship waiting to berth. I didn’t know that passenger cruises had started. Could this be one of those stranded cruises finally coming to dock? These are strange times; both would surprise me, but I’m ready for surprises.
When I went to sleep last night the oppressive humidity of the afternoon had given way to a cooler breeze which brought rain. I woke to a clear morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the orchestra of birds was in full swing. A coppersmith barbet supplied the metronimic rhythm as the competing trills of green bee-eaters and purple sunbirds rose over it. The parrakeets joined in, and I thought I could hear an Alexandrine call amongst the rose-ringed.
I made my tea and looked out. The break in the clouds was the promise of the approach of sharad ritu, that interval before autumn that the English named an Indian summer. The sky was a blue that was almost impossible to see in Mumbai since the 1990s. The anthropause has made a big difference to the quality of the air. The crows had just begun to get into the swing of things. I was always a night person, more familiar with the late rising constellations than sunrise. But I’ve begun to enjoy this interval between sunrise and the start of human activity.
The moths I used to see on walls since last winter had disappeared around the time we went into lockdown. They are back again. I don’t know whether this was due to the anthropause, or whether this is a normal annual cycles. I must watch next March and April.
Yellow-tailed tussock moth
I can still only identify less than half of the most common ones. Here the two I know are the spotted Crotolina podborer (Argina astrea) and the yellow-tailed tussock moth (Somena scintillans). You can roll your mouse over the photos to get the captions.
I really must invest in a field guide to Indian moths. Any other enthusiasts out there? Anyone who can make suggestions about which book to buy for Indian or Asian moths?
I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.
When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.
This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.
Friday mornings are hectic in lock down. The Family and I are in our separate meetings all morning. There is no time to plan and put together a wholesome meal. So we’ve decided to either order out for lunch, or do a quick lunch that only requires assembly. This Friday we had hamburgers and a salad. Later, when I thought about it, the “quick meal” was such a misnomer. There was such a long chain behind even such a simple thing.
The patties were made by a Bohra couple who’ve risen to new business opportunities out of home, and delivered to us by the husband. The bun was a multigrain bun which we ordered from a small Parsi bakery chain (how it has grown over a decade from a stand alone shop in Colaba!) which has been delivering through an internet startup. I’m sure that behind both these objects was a desperately cobbled-together chain of supplies.
The vegetables came from a farmer in Nashik, who, along with many others, have taken to direct marketing after the collapse of the vegetable exchange which powered Mumbai until March. The mustard (oh! the mustard!) was Bengali kasundi delivered by everyone’s least favourite internet behemoth, and probably has been stocked in one of their warehouses for ages. Fortunately, this has long shelf life. Good cheese has not been available in Mumbai for weeks now, so we had to do without it.
Normally we wouldn’t even notice the web of commerce which brings things across the world. But the Anthropause has disrupted so much of our daily lives, that we now think about every meal. One thing is certain, online marketing has bloomed in this new economic ecosystem, and it is no longer only the large aggregators who gain from it.