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.

Garden day

Between chasing birds and scoping out animals on holidays, and traveling on work otherwise, I don’t get to spend much time in gardens. So when the opportunity does come, I lose no time in relaxing. Instead I’m up and about with my camera, until I come to a nice empty bench on which I can sprawl.

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I managed a long sprawl in this tiny garden in Hampi while others were visiting some small and insignificant forestry museum. I think it was time well spent. You decide.

Litchi Bay

On our last day in Guangzhou my flu was at its peak. I slept all day in our hotel room while The Family explored the parts of Liwan district that she’d wanted to go back to. At three in the afternoon I woke feeling better, and we decided to go have a small snack in the historic Panxi restaurant, and explore the Litchi Bay scenic area around it. This involved a walk down Enning Road, which was charming enough that we didn’t mind doing it again.

The “scenic area” was a sprawling garden between two canals connected to the Pearl river. A few days ago we’d spent our first evening in Guangzhou loitering by the Pearl River in Shamian Island. We sat down below the massive trees which you see in the featured photo and talked about how we’d been next to the water during every sunset in Guangzhou.

If we’d come here earlier we might have been able to take a boat through the canals, but right now they were coming in to moor. We stood near the jetty and saw little nuclear families of China disembarking, little children excitedly running around as soon they got off the boat. Streetlights were slowly coming on, and we had to begin thinking of our dinner. In China this was already past dinnertime, and most people were thinking of their post-dinner entertainment.

The Chinese middle class seems to have more leisure time than in India. A group of friends playing cards (or some other game) together in the evening is not uncommon at all. Not all the people in this group seem to be retirees. Also, Chinese cities, even vast cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, have lots of gardens and open areas where young children can run around playing. This is so very different from the daily experience in a city like Mumbai. China, for all its different political system, has been building a comfortable lifestyle for its middle class. The disposable income of the middle class definitely exceeds twice that of their Indian counterparts, resulting in much better quality of goods and services in their cities. The public transport, and the entertainment areas are just two aspects of this difference.

This has been done without sacrificing a traditional lifestyle. We discovered basins of fruits drying in the sun by the roadside. It was such a wonderfully domestic sight on Enning Road. We stood there and watched locals wander by, probably talking to each other about the odd foreign couple looking at nothing in particular.

Earlier in the evening when we walked past this very ordinary door, I did a double take. There are really two ferocious dwarpalas guarding this house. The brickwork is common in this area. I never gave in to my great desire to scratch at the brick to find out whether this is just cement paint over red fired clay bricks (which we saw in the Yongqing Fang complex) or cinderblock bricks. If you happen to know, please let me into the secret in a comment.

This cannot be an everyday sight even in Guangzhou. The guy in the chicken costume was playing a little flute and saying something. I suppose the explanation is fairly mundane, perhaps an advertisement for a restaurtant, because in spite of this outlandish costume he didn’t seem to attract too much attention. It is common in China for people to stand outside shops and shout out to passersby to attract them; sometimes walking down a commercial street feels like a war on your ears. But this was pretty unique.

We briefly considered walking into that fancy looking restaurant across the square from Panxi. It seemed like a welcoming place. But I was too tired to cross the road. I stood at the corner and took a few photographs. There was a dinner-time quiet, very few cars on the road, and not too many people. Bicycles are not as common today as the iconic photos of Chinese roads from the 1960s and 70s could lead you to believe; but in the Liwan district I found many people on bicycles. Maybe I’m imagining things, and a quick look at statistics would prove me wrong, but it seemed to me that electric scooters are more of a thing in Shanghai. In Guangzhou bicycles are still preferred to these electric scooters.

Coffee is relatively expensive in China, but I like a shot of espresso in the late afternoon. We found a nice cafe next to a canal and sat down with a cup each and watched the restaurants across the canal slowly fill up. Since it was our last evening in Guangzhou we talked about what we’d missed (all the memorials and museums related to the Republic) and the wonderful unscheduled things that we had seen. When we chose to stay in Liwan district we had some inkling that we would see the China outside the guide books, but we had not expected to be so thoroughly charmed by it.

Autumn flowers

Autumn is a glorious time in Germany. Leaves change colour; the green of forests slowly give way to gold. The sky can be overcast, but when the sun is out, the light on the leaves is a wonderful sight. I loved walking at this time. All my friends told me to look out for mushrooms. My city eyes did not catch even one. But I stopped to look at mosses and at flowers. I find the variety of autumn’s flowers strange. I never thought that there were so many until I walked out with a camera looking for them: first in gardens and then in wild patches. I can’t name even one of the weeds.

If you know any of these, I would love it if you leave a comment with the name of the flower (in German, English or any other language).

The Indian Garden

As I sit and complete the last few jobs on my laptop, I can smell the fragrance of the night-blooming parijat (shefali in Eastern India) from a bush below the balcony. This has a made up name in English: night-flowering Jasmine. I can easily distinguish its smell from that of the Jasmine (mogra) which grows in a pot in my balcony. I love these, but they are so close to where I’m sitting that they drown out the milder fragrance of the champa (frangipani) from a tree a little further away. There is no rajnigandha (tuberose) in the neighbourhood, otherwise this fragrant duet which I’m writing about would have been overcome by its heady smell.

The traditional Indian garden is a place you can enjoy even with your eyes closed. All these flowers are white, and not very photogenic, so they never appeared in the old Bollywood movies where the hero and heroine would run through a colourful garden (except in the 40 year old hit called Rajnigandha).

Its time for me to shut down the laptop and pack it up. My next post will either be from China, or after I return.