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.

Gray days

The fag end of the monsoon is always depressing. Just when you have seen a day or two of bright sunshine and colour to remind you of what the world could be, the endless dreary rain sets in again. This year is no different. It has been a depressing gray since the weekend. Without social contact it is even worse. On Sunday I could not stand it any more, and the Family and I put on our rain coats and masks and went out to the Gateway of India in the evening. An espresso carry out, a stroll by the sea, and the sight of other people, although distanced and masked, revived our spirits for a while.

I felt cheerful enough to take photos of the depressing weather. The Gateway looked forlorn and beaten down by the rain. Usually it is cleaned by a work crew long before Diwali; I hope that happens this year. Far in the distance I could see the usual semi-industrial wasteland of the docks below the hills, the feet of the Western Ghats dipping into the sea. I guess the time when these toes of the Sahayadris are chopped off have just been postponed by the economic depression brought on by the epidemic. One can see a silver lining in everything when one feels upbeat.

New things on the horizon

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.

Bon weekend: a way through the maze

It is a good week that ends in a happy decision. After lots of discussion, through many calls-to-attention and dissents, and much going back to basics and consulting lawyers, we could take a decision that a dozen of us could each be happy with. We will have to go back to full functioning, because we can’t wait for five years to reopen. But we can’t force people to act against their fears, or to utilize city services which are working at less than capacity. So, for the moment, we decided to open fully, but with minimal staff, so no one has to share an office. People who do not come in to work on a given day will be working a normal day and week out of home. Almost every person will still be coming in to work at least once in two weeks, but older people and people who have morbidities which make them more susceptible to COVID-19 will be able to work entirely out of home.

I think this was a foregone conclusion. There is no alternative to leading our lives, but we will have to feel our way through new dangers, and adapt to take that into account. We have learnt a huge amount about this disease in the last months, and we can bring that new understanding into play, as best as now-strained finances can. As we start to work, perhaps we can bootstrap ourselves into a better situation in all respects. I am happy that we can curb the madness of meetings and video calls at all hours of the day and night and every day of the week. I love my work, and can do it constantly, but when I am doing a lot more chores and repairs around the house (because help that would be available at other times isn’t), I need to take predictable times off. I hope our co-workers agree with the decisions we took for them, but I think we have enough flexibility delegated through the organization to take care of most reasonable caveats.

Now I have time to enjoy my tea in the morning as I look at what is nesting or hiding in the banyan tree outside; a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) this morning. Or to wonder when the municipality will be back to work trucking away the neatly stacked remnants of the trees that fell down in the storm a month ago.

Back to earth

Normal life seems set to start. I spent a day in meetings from ten to six, with a fifteen minute break for lunch at three. Five hours in one chair, and then almost three hours in another, gives your back long enough to seize up. Making decisions which had been postponed for months is going to take long. Sights like gardeners mowing lawns, and crows descending to feed on the slaughter, were so uncommon in the past months that I took a photo when I saw it. Such things will become routine once more. I’m afraid the sky will get smoky and polluted again, adding another edge of danger to the epidemic which has not yet receded. What a wonderfully positive thought to begin the day with! I think I should stop now.

But I can’t resist remarking how plastic the behaviour of animals is; crows here have learnt to follow lawn mowers. Learning and passing it on others is culture. I don’t know whether crows satisfy the second part of the definition of being cultured.

A new beginning

I have been in to work twice in the last week; mostly to assess how mold has spread, and what to do about it. So I welcomed the weekend morning that dawned bright and sunny on my balcony, with a hot cup of chai in my hands. Something landed on the far tip of a tree, and it bent with the weight of the bird. I looked through the zoom, and (surprise! surprise!) it was an Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria).

They are not uncommon around Mumbai, but I’d not heard one in the last few months. It is one of the largest of parakeets, and has quite a different call; easy to tell both by voice and sight. The distinguishing feature is the touch of red on the wings. The Wikipedia article told me something I hadn’t known: that they were transported to the Mediterranean by Alexander’s army when it retreated from Punjab.

The grey hornbill couple are also back; a definite signal that monsoon is tapering off. They had a bad day or two, since their old nesting tree was blown down in last month’s storm, but they seem to have found a new place to nest it. The sun is out. Monday is a full day of in-office work: truly a new beginning in the middle of a rapidly worsening epidemic.

Beam me up Scotty

No one will beam us back to normal except those who find a cure for COVID-19, or an efficient and cheap vaccine. Until then the world is experiencing a variety of effects: second waves in some places, persistent long plateaus in others, strong economic distress everywhere. Niece Moja, a therapist, is one of the few people with a burgeoning business, but she is also a wreck at the end of a busy day having to deal with others’ anxieties on top of her own. Niece Mbili is one of the unlucky generation. She graduated in the middle of the crisis, and at a time when the industry she wanted to join has dropped into recession. The Youngest Niece is in the uncertain generation. Will her school reopen? Will her school leaving exams at the end of the next year leave her infected?

We’ve decided for ourselves to work back to something closer to normal. I’d been working through video and phone calls, but now I’ve begun to take “coffee time” with colleagues. Some time back we started meeting friends outdoors: masked and distanced. Last week we met a couple for dinner for the first time in half a year. We sat as far apart in their living room as space allowed, and had all windows open. We think we can continue meeting couples for dinner, one at a time, with at least two weeks between meetings. This interval would be sufficient for us not to become unwitting carriers of the disease. Our help have been lucky, most of their employers gave them their salary and helped out with food, when they were not working. Still, they are happy now to get out of their own homes and back to work, but have concerns about safety. We worked out a way so that they don’t have to breathe the same air as us when they come home.

We’ve been shopping for a while, usually outdoors. Unfortunately markets are crowded, so distancing is not possible. Most people are masked, but many are not properly masked: noses outside the mask, or mask pulled down below the lips. So I prefer to have a face shield in addition to a mask when shopping. The economic trouble has reduced a lot of people to an unsustainable income level, so there are many people who come up to you begging for help. It is distressing, because you know that as an individual you cannot possibly help enough. I have the luxury of moral distress, but when you cannot get a meal, perhaps you are not focused on the long term. When I’m face to face with this kind of problem, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed that I have a mask and a face shield to protect against a more remote possibility.

COVID-19 has probably killed more people than we can really account for. When a younger friend, a Himalayan trekker, died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest three months ago, I did not think it had anything to do with the epidemic. But then I heard of two more friends of friends, again in the early and mid-40s, dying similarly, and read about cardiac problems that COVID-19 causes, and I begin to wonder. There is no upside to going back to normal. But there is no upside to remaining locked down either. A perfect dilemma! If I were in the shoes of policy makers, I would throw money at some kinds of biological and mathematical sciences. Funding science always produces new possibilities.

[All images except the featured one are WhatsApp forwards; artist unknown, copyright status unknown]

On the edge

The rains are beginning to die down. The epidemic isn’t. Passing clouds still deposit short and furious showers; half a kilometer away the road is dry. Official numbers tell me that every day about 1000 people in Mumbai are newly infected, about 70 die. We decided to mask ourselves and went out for a walk to Colaba and the Gateway of India. The Gateway was clearly a popular destination. There were police barricades around it to prevent crowding. A stretch of the sea front is opened up to walkers around 5 in the evening. We’d reached before the crowds, so I got an opportunity to take photos of the vista of the empty harbour, and the lovely old buildings which face out towards it.

It is clear that people will die if everything opens up now. It is also increasingly clear that people are hurting: the plumbers, the electricians, the taxi drivers, and also big businesses. If a few hot-spots had been locked down early and severely, like Wuhan, then there might have been a chance to beat back the disease and open up more fully. But, as the examples of China, New Zealand and South Korea show, perhaps not. So we live on edge. These masked walks, an occasional espresso takeaway, phone calls and chance meetings with friends on the road, is that all there is to the new normal?

An evening drive in COVID times

Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.

At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.

I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.

Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.

Twelfth night

Twelve nights? Definitely more. By the second half of August I usually reach a milder version of the mood I am in now. It has been raining almost continuously for two weeks. I can’t even get up the enthusiasm to go for a walk. My shoes don’t dry by the next day. Even in the rain it would have been lovely to drive out to the Sahyadris and go for a couple of hour-long walks between mountains. But even that is not possible with this lock-down. And to top it all, one of the buildings I would pass on my daily walk has been sealed due to an infection. On days like this I just land up eating junk food and feel even worse the next day. No inspiration at all. I will just copy lines from a better writer.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.