“Do we always enjoy every day?” I asked The Family. “No,” that was a clear answer. But then I checked up what we did this day on the last five years, and I think we enjoyed it every year.
What did we manage to do? We danced in a shack which had filled up with fog, we went out for a walk in the neighbourhood during the lockdown, we spent an evening at a bar, we walked in the oldest mountains in the country, and we fed giraffes. Sometimes one can have have fun, I think. What should we do today?
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.
After another lunch out, we walked through the area around the stock market. The state has designated five categories of lock down, and districts move between them depending on the availability of hospital beds. This is one of the most rational ways that public health agencies can act, but it is still an awful time for business. Mumbai is now in the middle category. I chatted with the owner of the restaurant: he is resigned to the enormous losses, the impossibility of doing his full menu, and the lack of a stimulus.
Since last June we have discovered a large number of people who, having lost their previous business, turned to food as the one thing which always generates an income, no matter how meager. Associated with this is the rise of delivery services, taking their workers from among people who have lost other semi-skilled jobs. The Family worked out a way of no-contact tipping of these delivery boys. We still say boys, although a slowly increasing number are older men, perhaps compensating for the loss or incapacitation of the major bread-earner in the family.
Our walk showed us the same business model on the street. Many of the old street-food stalls are open, now to a much reduced number of customers. Businesses are working on restricted in-office personnel, and the central business district of Mumbai looked empty in the middle of the week. The man roasting peanuts outside the stock exchange, whom you see in the photo above, was joined in the lunch business by newcomers. We saw two such new businesses working out of parked SUVs. One was selling plates of cut fruits, the other was serving out plates of idlis and vadas from large vessels. I liked the views through the open doors of the boots. SUV owners turning to street catering is an indication of a fall in incomes. Mumbai has changed deeply without changing. If the streets are anything to go by, the hustle remains, although the virus may have set us back by one generation in terms of prosperity.
The Family feels like providing business to these street food vendors, but there is only so much you can eat. Paying for others is perhaps the right alternative, but how do you provide a connection between these businesses and the people who are going hungry? I ask the question here because the last such question I asked generated responses, including direct reach outs, which helped us and others in our tiny efforts to help.
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.
On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.
The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?
The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.
Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?
If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!
So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!
It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.
On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)
On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)
In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)
When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)
The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)
Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)
Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)
For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.
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.
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.
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.