A Still and Silent Bombay

Bombay is known for her hustle-bustle way of life but the lockdown has left India’s most vivacious city subdued and silent, observes Purva Mehra.

I’ve travelled more over the last three weeks than in all of 2019 (a year of many vacations). Hurtling down rabbit holes that is, arriving at strange doors. Each opens to despairing feelings about our world in quarantine, a dystopian reality far stranger than fiction.

Never has stepping out of one’s door been such a contentious or threatening matter. I live in Bombay, a city accustomed to an unhealthy pace, to staying out rather than in. All us Bombayites have ranted about how quick, how unliveable, how hostile Bombay is, wishing for an alternative reality or a break from Bombay’s Bombay-ness.

However, what we wished for is far worse than Bombay on a regular day. It’s been three weeks since the Prime Minister called for a country-wide lockdown and the Maharashtra government has been particularly firm in reinforcing and extending the quarantine in Bombay, owing to its frightful density of population.

Over the last three weeks, Bombay has been uncharacteristically hushed, only strays roam in packs puzzled by the quiet. The eerie stillness is more unsettling than Bombay’s daily terrors. Even for us whiners, the severance from our city caused by the menacing spread of COVID-19 is too brutal. 

Statistics are grim in Maharashtra, the number of positive cases will have crossed 1500 as you read this and the death toll in Mumbai would have crossed a hundred. Dharavi and Worli Koliwada, Asia’s largest slum and a fishing village respectively, have not surprisingly become the state’s largest containment zones. In Bombay’s abundant expanse of slums, cases and dead bodies are piling up. As of last week, the number of containment zones in Bombay rose to 381.

As the nightmare intensifies outside our 6ft 6’’ thick plywood door, inside it we fuss over lunch and dinner menus and how to get our food orders and groceries sent up to our sixth floor apartment without any human contact. I live in a full house, with parents, my nanny who has been living with us since I could crawl and my  sister who relocated to our home from her in-laws for the duration of the lockdown. For a house with such diverse personalities crammed into two rooms, food has become a happy distraction.

Are we following updates from the outside world? My dad who has a voracious appetite for news, both printed and broadcasted, is ensuring we do. We stay a safe number of kilometres away from Dharavi and Worli Village, but the numbers are catching up in Bandra West, where I live. Everyday we hear of another posh building habited by the wealthy being contained. The roads parallel to mine have been closed. Cops are swarming familiar streets through day and night.

However, fearlessness is on full display during grocery runs. There hasn’t been a moment of lull in Bandra’s plethora of produce markets and kirana stores. People are queuing up, crowding shops, aggressively stocking up on vegetables, cigarettes, mixers, meats, biscuits. I was part of this race during the first ten days. I’m a food writer accustomed to eating out five times a week and eating extravagantly. To prepare for the lockdown, I needed more feta, more basil, more cherry tomatoes, more soba noodles, more buckwheat flour, more hazelnuts, more Lindt. I had lost all sense of what qualified as “essential goods”. As a friend indelicately put it, my choices reeked of privilege.

After a few sobering calls from our house help, cooks, drivers and cleaning staff (all residing in the contained slums) who haven’t eaten more than dal and rice for nearly four weeks as vegetables and even sugar has gotten scarce in their neighbourhood, I realised I needed grounding not feta.

I switched my attention to my other privilege, access to a personal yoga instructor. My sister, Tanvi Mehra, who runs Tangerine Arts Studio, a fitness space in Bandra, has spent the last three weeks tirelessly hosting yoga classes on Zoom. She has gone from a person who opens her laptop twice a year to spending eight hours a day on the computer, teaching. In addition to heavily discounted daily classes, she hosts frequent fund-raising ones (for Covid-relief organisations) and free live sessions.

I practice with her daily. I’m also among the fortunate few who has retained her job while many in the city are out of livelihood. I can afford the yoga classes and the centering that comes with a slow, focused, daily Hatha-style flow. Many of Tanvi’s students only attend the free sessions as they’re out of jobs or their salaries have been paused.

Unlike my gradual toning down of my extravagant living, my parents adjusted to the reality quickly and rather smoothly. I still step out for groceries every eight days, my parents have been nowhere in a month. Dad is pushing 70 and mom is in her mid 50s. They’re both active people who miss their jobs immensely but haven’t complained of much else. Dad has had to pause his business, but his main worry is being able to pay his staff, many of whom depend on cheque payments from cheque books that my father has no access to at home.  

They’ve prioritised their safety and those of others by adhering to the lockdown, but as week four looms, boredom is slowly seeping into their bones. Their simple routine of TV, phone calls, Whatsapp forwards, and more TV is now losing its novelty. Dad is a workaholic during the week and a farmer on weekends. We have a farmhouse that my parents have built and tended to every weekend over the last 28 years. Their sense of claustrophobia is arising from their inability to drive to their small patch of land that needs attending.

Mom has found some semblance of a routine in household chores, cooking and pruning her few indoor plants. She’s instrumental in keeping my father and the family positive and buoyant, but the cabin fever is gradually creeping up on her as well.

I’m lucky to be cocooned by a supportive family, a strenuous yoga practice, busy work-from-home days and distracting comforts of hobbies and a home. People around me are flailing. Friends staying alone call and speak of a spiralling sadness or unbearable loneliness, others of being constantly on edge or fearful of death and some are so consumed by boredom that it’s manifesting as fatigue.

But, ours is a first world malaise when you consider the only options available to the city’s homeless and have-nots — death by virus or death by hunger. This is the part that has robbed me of sleep. I don’t fear for my health, I seldom do. My anxiety is stemming from my inability to help repair the broken systems. After we have paid salaries and a little over to our staff, even made multiple donations to different organisations, what then? Is it enough? Will their lives improve after the cases of COVID-19 plummet? Will we continue donating money to NGOs that work with them? Will our new-found empathy last long?

These are the stifling thoughts behind the trap doors I find at the end of slippery rabbit holes almost every night. So far the only thing this lockdown has cost me is a few dollars in meditation app subscriptions (to help me sleep), another ironic reminder of my extensive privileges on a grounded planet.

Purva Mehra is a Mumbai-based Food Writer and hatha yoga practitioner.

April 15, 2020
Photos Purva Mehra

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