Empty table thought

Good lunches should end with a memorable dessert. A crepe chocolate cake sounded passable but not exactly like the thing that memories are made of. Crepes with chocolate? Been there. Done that. Why not the pandan infused panna cotta instead? But when it appeared on the table it looked fabulous, and it tasted wonderful on the rainiest day in this record-breaking monsoon month of July. The sweetness of the chocolate infused the warmly comfortable flavours of the layered crepes. There was a light feel of a thing which was half air. And the balancing tartness of the raspberry sauce, presented as blood-red drops on the side, was exactly perfect. I’m happy to find this restaurant.

Earlier, when The Family had stepped out for a moment, I took a photo of a Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, prosecco, orange) that we’d ordered as an aperitif. The server suggested this off-menu drink, and it was perfect for the Thai food that the restaurant serves. Masking is a wonderful idea for the staff, since they are going to meet a large number of unmasked people every day. I’m all for it as the minimal safety measure that they can use. The other is to reduce contact with unmasked people as much as possible. However, it does tend to reduce them to, literally, faceless service providers. That’s not something I like.

Redundancy

Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.

I always fall into the bullshit. Why?
Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.

Pentametron++

Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.

Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow
By this bright sun, with his light display,
Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow,
And calmly on him shall infold away.

Deepspeare

Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

Light and dark

A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.

Hustle without bustle

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.

Wonderfully ordinary

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.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Kausani bazaar

“Why don’t we have lunch in Kausani?” The question came up at breakfast. We would check out soon, and the drive was a short one. We’d got in late the previous evening. It seemed like the right thing to do. I remembered Kausani as a busy little town, and it had been a long time since we had seen a town, little or big. We set off towards the center of Kausani late in the morning.

It was a ghost town. A large plaster statue of a blue Shiva dressed in skins looked down at the empty bazaar in the middle of town. Lots of empty cars were parked around the junction of roads. Very few people passed by. A general store was open, a couple of ATMs, many restaurants were open and empty of customers. I walked up to the man lounging at the base of the streetlight at the very center of the town.

I’d not seen a single customer come to him, but he was very cheerful when I asked him what he was selling. Local herbs for your home garden, he said. “I’m not buying anything now,” I explained, “I just want to look.” He didn’t mind. I recognized coriander. He held up a couple of other seedlings which I hadn’t seen before. “Used in cooking,” he explained, helpfully un-enlightening. He had a plot of land just outside of town, and managed to sell a few of these every day, I gathered.

Across the street a sweet shop was just going through the motions. The owner was looking out at the empty road hopelessly. His listless eyes met mine for a moment and then drifted away. He realized the futility of waiting for customers, and hadn’t even bothered to make enough sweets to display a full counter. The many open but empty restaurants around the bazaar was a reminder of the complete collapse of Kausani’s tourism dominated economy.

In spite of the hardships, construction work had clearly not halted in the neighbourhood. The one shop which was definitely open and doing business was a hardware shop, with a shed full of sacks of cement outside. The situation reminded me something I’d read long ago. Talking of export oriented economies, Raghuram Rajan wrote in his book Fault Lines, “Unfortunately, even as exporters like Germany and Japan have become large and rich, the habits and institutions they acquired which growing have left them unable to generate strong sustainable domestic demand and become more balanced in their growth.” Excessive reliance on tourism is similar.

One place had bucked the trend: a small bakery which I’ve written about before. Ramesh had to leave a job in a hotel somewhere abroad and come home for the pandemic. He opened this bakery, catering to a daily demand for bread, biscuits, and a continuous trickle of orders for birthday cakes. He and the baker were cheerful. Why do cakes sell but not sweets? There was a clue in the prices; cakes are more expensive. The pandemic had not been even-handed. The poor suffered more, many lost jobs and livelihood. Those who can eat cake have also lost, but haven’t been wiped out. We had coffee and biscuits as we chatted with Ramesh, and decided to come back for lunch later.

Intimations of mortality

Until yesterday I had not realized that I was beginning to slip into depression. I’d neglected work. The news was horrible: people begging for hospital beds for family members, others dying outside overfilled hospitals, doctors filmed crying, other doctors begging the government to divert industrial oxygen to medical use, black marketeers making money on drugs with limited efficacy for COVID-19. Locked down at home, I vacillated between consuming this horror show and mindless rom-coms. In February I’d posted a photograph showing how complacent people had become about the falling numbers of infections. That was reinforced by the trips I took in March and April. Courts have begun to question the administration’s contention that only common people are to blame for this disaster.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                          To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
            The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

My nieces do not have this freedom. One, a counselor, realized she was in depression caused by listening to her clients trying to cope with the world that I just described. Her own therapist is counseling her from hospital while being treated for COVID-19. Another niece is in the vanguard of today’s lost generation. She finished her architecture degree from home during last year’s lockdown, and was lucky enough to get a job. So she is in a town completely new to her, setting up her home and commuting to work. She is fairly confident of her work environment; every one is masked all the time, she says. But she finds commuting scary, since in her town many people do not realize masks help protect you. Other nieces are a little further back in the same cohort. One is doing her final year’s internship from home. Another is beginning her second year of college from home. And yet another has just had her school leaving exam cancelled.

I realized that I had been depressed only when I came out of it yesterday. The trigger was that The Family and I got our second shot of vaccine. I had been depressed by thoughts of my own mortality, then. Unlike the two of us, my nieces spend time on social media, which is choked with an outpouring of grief and helplessness from individuals. They are still not eligible for vaccines, and next month, when they are, the vaccine shortage will really begin to hit. Their generation will be changed; I don’t know how.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

I need your help

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?