Reflection

After nine months of being confined within the immediate neighbourhood of home, watching the garden, the sea, and the sky respond to the changing seasons, I find it distressing to be elsewhere in the middle of the city. I can no longer ignore the expanses of concrete unrelieved by vegetation, the traffic, and the haphazardness of a city by the seas in which the majority of its citizens don’t have even a distant view of the sea. This is what I hear many people grumbling about. If work from home remains the way many of us work, then there will be a slow draining of people away from these congested unlovely parts of the city. There will be new inequalities of course; the people who stay will be people whose work involves being on the spot. Hard to follow the possible lines of the future. Maybe I should put together a panel discussion to talk it out.

Free as a bird?

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.

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.

Cabbages and kings

In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.

“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.

Help!

I need somebody

Help! Not just anybody

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic broke the world and told us what is really important. A few days of panic as the familiar world and its patterns dissolved. Packaged food disappeared before The Family and I could react. Our household help was suddenly unavailable. The routines of work were gone. We were adrift!

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

Pink Floyd

Afterwards, in those long and unending hours there were only two of us in the house, rattling around in these four rooms. Wasn’t this our dream once? Let the world disappear, as long as I still have you? Without thinking of it, we moved back into a mode that we had forgotten in these decades. But now it was so much more pleasant. Then we were still adjusting to each other, still not entirely comfortable replacing me with we. It was different now.

But we didn’t know ourselves. The Family found that she liked cooking. And I discovered that I didn’t mind helping around the house; that doing mindless things helped me to reach inner peace. We cooked, and cleaned, and the uncertain days of the pandemic became a preview of our life in retirement. And when we sat together to eat, it was time to talk and talk. Unlike those early days when the purpose of talking was to tell the other of our life before them, now we could say “Remember this? Remember when? Whatever happened to?”

April, come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain

May, she will stay

Resting in my arms again

Paul Simon

We cleaned and chopped and cooked. Spring onions lasted well into summer. We ate lychees after years, because there was little else available. Some lunches were just a small salad, a fruit, an egg, and toast. Other lunches were elaborate, a dal, two freshly cooked veggies, some chicken, and fruit. We only had soup for dinner. Except when we uncorked a bottle of wine, and brought out the precious few munchies and packets of nuts we had left over. I had the time to devil an egg, and The Family learnt to make a Bengali style veggie which is normally served during durga puja. And then, when we could finally begin to get fish, we would sometimes have a beer and a fried fish. I discovered how acid could liven a flat tomato sauce, and invented new ways of making liver. And we dressed up on our birthdays.

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic passed like bad novels and movies. Julie and Julia? Love in the time of cholera? The hundred foot journey? The incredible lightness of being? No reservations? Lunchbox? For us, life was nothing dramatic. Just finding a recipe. Inventing something new. Praising each others’ food. Dressing up for dinner. Small and simple things which became treats, new discoveries.

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.

Ghost city

At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.

Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.

But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.

South Mumbai on Sunday

We took a little walk through the empty streets near the stock exchange late on Sunday afternoon. The roads were far from busy, and it was easy to take photos. I haven’t done street photos for almost year now, and it felt good to be out with my camera.

There was construction going on in this lot for a while before the lockdown due to COVID-19. Now work has stopped completely. I wonder whether it will resume at all. If the building industry crashes one can imagine that a lot of savings will be totally wiped out.

A street barber can always find work. The featured photo is a close up of this same barber at work. No masks! That seemed to be common on Sunday. This is not a political statement that the media is geared to recognizing. But it certainly is a response to the way the poor have suffered through the pandemic.

A raddiwala sleeps outside his shop. Sunday afternoon is a good time to sleep. Why is he sleeping there, I wondered. What’s his story? He is likely to be an employee. If he is still here at a time when this business is doing so badly, he must be quite desperate for work.

Above the raddiwala’s shop were lots of small apartments. The pink casement caught my eye. Every building looks battered after the monsoon. Some of them will get a coat or two of paint soon. Other buildings were not being maintained because the owner was planning to make money by selling the lot to a builder when the tenants moved out. These calculations will have to be redone.

There were games of cricket on every street. Sometimes even two to a street. This happens every Sunday, but it seemed to me that there were more people on the road now. Lockdown fatigue?

Younger children were going into a park to play. Different age group and different economic class. That’s why the toy vendor is standing at the entrance. The flood light is from a film shoot which had just finished. So they are shooting films again. Lack of consumers is not the problem with that industry.

This old man also seemed to be a raddiwala. Why was that little diya burning inside his kiosk. Evening puja? I feel sorry for people in this business. The margins are low, and at this time I’m sure he’s barely making money.

Near the stock exchange is this imposing neo-classical building which holds a bank. It’s almost a hundred years old now, and is in slightly better repair than many others around. It was perhaps the last of the neo-classical buildings here. Just about the time that it was finished, Art Deco became all the rage.

Time to get a taxi. This lemonade stand does business near the parked taxis. Clever guy. But someone should teach him the right way to wear that mask.

At the end of the walk I was very happy that I had a good mask and a face shield. I’d passed too many people who were not wearing masks. Outdoors the risks are lower than they would be otherwise. Still it is not the most comfortable situation to be in. I usually see a larger fraction of people with masks. Perhaps the people I saw today are always without masks, and only the middle class office workers, bankers, and businessmen wear masks. I’ll have to watch carefully the next time I come around here.

The lips of time leech

On a walk through a wet and sunny garden I remember the poem that made Dylan Thomas famous.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

More than half a year at home; thrown back by two generations, into a time when infectious diseases could kill you. Almost a year since I traveled out of India. But the seasons change as usual. Varsha has given way to sharad, exactly as the calendar dictates it will. The motion of our world around the sun drives the seasons. The nuclear fusion that powers the world’s most destructive bombs powers life. Walking under trees you see death and life.

I turned the leaf over, and under it a caterpillar had drawn a cocoon around itself. A butterfly will emerge in days.

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.