Wading through the Mumbai Blues

In lockdown and stripped to the bones, one of the world’s most populous cities reveals itself to its inhabitants

Wading through the Mumbai Blues
Mumbai police conducting Flag March at Anand Nagar to enforce strict implementation of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, on June 22, 2020/ Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The morning after India entered a nationwide lockdown on March 24, I looked out of my window and saw Mumbai, one the most hyperkinetic cities in the world, transformed by stillness. The usually busy junction ahead of my apartment complex was empty of its usual crush of traffic. The large, under-construction metro station seemed to loom even larger. Even the city’s lifeline, its suburban train network, was halted. There were no planes in the sky, no sounds of hawkers, film songs, drills, temple bells, and impatient car horns. Every so often, the wail of a passing ambulance drifted upwards. The silence was perhaps the most unfamiliar part of the landscape.

Humans have a fascination with ruins, but what we were to witness over the next few weeks was not a city in ruins, but our own absence from it: the city without us. This was true across the world. But in Mumbai, a sprawling metropolis and the financial capital of India, this had a particular impact, and led to wide-ranging effects — many of which are yet to be understood. In the three weeks of strict lockdown that ended up being extended to three months, millions of Mumbai residents watched the bare bones of the mega city being revealed.

What they saw was an emptiness unique to Mumbai. To understand this emptiness, we must recall how full the streets were. According to the last national census in 2011, the city was home to around 12 million people — a number that is since estimated to have risen to nearly 20 million. The individuals who make up this tightly packed population (73,000 persons per square mile) live in close proximity to each other, in luxury apartments and skyscrapers, single room tenements, and slums. These sharp inequalities in one of the world’s most densely populated metropoles come with scarce open spaces (13.3 square foot per person), meaning that the city’s roads, bylanes, pavements, and alleys perform many functions and undergo several transformations through the day and night.

In Mumbai, the streets are spaces for livelihood and leisure, for celebrations and gatherings. There is worship at roadside temples, newspaper reading at roadside libraries, chatter at the pavement barbers or tea stall. Women step out onto the street to take a breather from tiny homes. Children play when the traffic stills. For the estimated 57,000 homeless in the city, the pavement is home. (Unofficial estimates put this number much higher, closer to 200,000 people.) For millions of commuters, the streets are — or were — the place where they spend many traffic-choked hours between home and office.

That morning, all this was missing. It was as if the people and the activities that populated the roads had simply vanished. But of course they had not. They were simply elsewhere.

India locked down with just a few hours’ notice, at a relatively low rate of infection, with around 500 reported cases nationwide. Buses, trains, and flights were halted. Essentially, we were locked in place wherever we happened to be. Mumbai emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak in the country. Two months into the lockdown, the city accounted for 20% of India’s over 5,400 deaths and 190,600 infections, overwhelming its already fragile public health system.

Online, I saw idyllic images of nature, and birds and animals were shown wandering around urban settings. Outside my window, the horizon began lighting up with dazzling sunsets. Sometimes, thanks to the relatively dust-free air, I could even spot the glimmer of the sea. On the phone, voices warned me of the dangers of the “outside.” In those early days, each new case was a cause of worry. A family friend called me from Kolkata, nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away, to warn me against stepping out. She had received a forwarded message on WhatsApp — the free messaging app used by around 400 million Indians to share anything from news, rumors, fitness tips, and propaganda — about a doctor who tested positive in a nearby area.

But emptied of its buzz of activity, Mumbai’s divides became clearer, with even the implicit borders of the city emerging

Outside, I saw containment zones blocked off with bamboo barriers, banners declaring them to be off-limits flapping in the breeze. Mumbai is also a city of enforced proximity between socioeconomic classes. But emptied of its buzz of activity, Mumbai’s divides became clearer, with even the implicit borders of the city emerging: like the places where police patrol cars slowed down, and where they simply passed by; or the boundaries of gated communities, or large apartment complexes like mine, built for exclusivity and self-containment, with tall walls and security guards at their perimeters.

The strictness of the lockdown meant that going out for essentials was an arduous task. Even grocery stores had regulated hours of operation. As the supply chain wobbled, their shelves began to empty. The queues grew longer, snaking through the white circles painted on the pavement to ensure distancing between shoppers.

A city accustomed to having goods and services delivered regularly, Mumbai was also emptied of its workforce. Doorbells that rang all day with the arrival of domestic help, deliveries, and repair services fell silent. The people who ran the city, who provided the muscle for its movement, had either left or were rendered immobile.

The lockdown left millions of migrant laborers without a means of income. The result was a heartbreaking exodus, as laborers picked up their families, their meagre possessions and attempted to walk home, often to destinations hundreds of kilometers away. Nearly 200 such workers were killed in road accidents; news reports carried stories of the hardships faced by others. One harrowing incident saw a group of 16 people mowed down by a freight train as they slept on the railway tracks, exhausted by their journey. The images from this massive dislocation were stark and unforgettable. They exposed with unforgiving clarity how disposable these workers were, and how there was little space for them in the massive sprawl of the cities they served. And they revealed the fragility of their lives, upended in a few hours.

Walking around my neighborhood, I found the streets in a state of absence. The emptiness of the roads exposed the backdrop of the city, indelibly marked by deserted food stalls, the chair from a puncture repair shop, the shuttered liquor store, and the dusty spot under a banyan tree used by a newspaper vendor to spread his wares. Only one destitute woman remained, sitting on the steps of an upmarket grocery store, people taking a wide circle around her to get into the queue to enter the store.

Walking out onto these empty streets took on a heightened charge and came with a new sense of risk — not only of infection, but also of surveillance and danger. Mumbai was under a curfew, and the rules  kept shifting confusingly.  Sometimes hawkers would be chased away; once, I arrived at a market minutes after the police had dispersed a crowd that had gathered around a vegetable seller. Within housing societies of the affluent, the residents’ committees took on greater powers, issuing orders and edicts. In one nearby housing complex, members of the building’s WhatsApp group shared pictures of a young woman walking around the compound, demanding that she be disciplined for this transgression.  

As a woman, the streets of Mumbai had felt relatively safe to me.

As a woman, the streets of Mumbai had felt relatively safe to me. Even in the midst of crowds, I had walked with a sense of assurance and routine, confident that the bodies around me would accommodate my passage, like a rehearsed piece of choreography. But now as I walked around my own locality,  I became aware of a change–a feeling of unease all too familiar to women. Men on scooters and bikes veered uncomfortably close. Large cars slowed down. I began avoiding the quieter side streets or going out around dusk.

One of the few occasions I could venture out without censure was to buy vegetables from a vendor who set up his stall in my apartment complex, where four blocks of flats house around 200 families. Standing in the slow moving line, I heard mothers talk about the challenge of keeping young children indoors day after day and how older couples struggled to get by alone. I heard of people facing trouble getting treatment for non-COVID-19 ailments, of ambulances refusing to carry suspected cases to the hospital.

On social media, I saw images of lockdowns in other cities. I saw  people walking in the park, or on supermarket runs, or sitting on terraces and rooftops. In Mumbai, our lives had shrunk determinedly to our interiors — a fact that disproportionately impacted the working class. One young laborer told me how he spent weeks cramped inside his single room tenement with three other people, going out only to use the community toilet, or to buy food. “Even if we just sat outside our door,” he said, “the police would come and yell.”  

After domestic flights resumed in late May, I left Mumbai to see my family in the north of India. I returned to Mumbai in November, the ninth month of the pandemic, on the cusp of the major festival of Diwali. On Twitter, I found a message that urged: “This festive season, add a new accessory to your attire — A #Mask.” 

After the long hiatus away, I found the city transformed yet again. In my building, there were three people who had tested positive for COVID-19. Every so often, I smelled the odor of disinfectants as the premises were sanitized. But other than a notice outside the building entrance, there was no longer any major interruption in my life. It was a far cry from the bamboo barriers and strict measures of the lockdown, and it seemed counter intuitive, given that by then India had reported the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world, second only to the United States. Though Delhi had replaced Mumbai as the city with the highest number of confirmed cases in late July, a second peak was anticipated in January.

I received invitations to Diwali gatherings that I turned down. On weekends I heard firecrackers and music from wedding processions passing by on the street. Cinemas and places of worship were also reopened, albeit with restrictions. The limits of the lockdown had been replaced by a difficult limbo, with each day presenting new negotiations, new limits to be breached, and figuring out what staying safe means. 

On the surface, the city seems restored to a measure of its pre-pandemic vitality. Construction work has resumed at the metro station, pushing dust and noise through my open windows. Walking around my locality,  I see the tea stalls doing business and the newspaper vendor back in his spot under the banyan tree. The sound of glass being cut and metal grills being fashioned also fills the air from roadside workshops. There is a queue of masked commuters at the bus stop, and many shops and establishments display a sticker that reads: No Mask No Entry. But what most people I talk to on the street tell me is this: Nothing is like it was before.

To begin with, there is the stark reality of the lives claimed by COVID-19. Behind the range of conflicting statistics and claims of under reporting, the city has recorded over 10,000 deaths. Often, fatalities during the peak of the outbreak came with deep trauma for the bereaved families, as overcrowded hospitals turned away patients, and even crematoriums were packed with people waiting their turn to have the loved ones they had lost during the pandemic cremated. 

The impact that this dual blow — both from the lockdown and the economic downturn — has had on the poor is evident on Mumbai’s streets.

There is also the economic recession, playing out in the nation’s financial nerve center. During the course of the pandemic, the economy has shrunk and millions have lost their jobs. The impact that this dual blow — both from the lockdown and the economic downturn — has had on the poor is evident on Mumbai’s streets. For instance, stories like that of Gagan, who irons clothes at a crossroads in my locality, exemplify the economic hardship that has unfolded because of the pandemic. When the lockdown was announced, he was in his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Over the following months, he lived off his savings, managing to make ends meet by working in the fields with his family. He also paid to get his son a seat on a truck heading out of Mumbai. He returned last month to a diminished business and large debts. He had been forced to give up the tiny room and ironing table that he rented, and he owed thousands of rupees to his former landlord for electricity he had not used.  

Listening to his story, I was reminded once again of the fragility of his life, and the delicate balance that had been lost in the wave of the pandemic. I thought of the rickety table he rented, the mounds of clothes he used to carry along with his son on a bicycle, collecting them from different apartment complexes as he went along. For him, this return to Mumbai was a step back in time — all that he had worked to build over the years had been lost.  

During the first stages of the exodus of laborers from Mumbai, I heard some men tell journalists they never wanted to return to this city that had treated them so harshly. Yet many of them did. In the village, Gagan told me, there was no virus. Nobody there bothered with masks — it was only on the train journey back to Mumbai that he had bought one. But he had to come back to Mumbai, he added, because in the village, there was also no work.

Over the months of India’s harsh lockdown and the gradual lifting of restrictions that has followed, the phantom presence of the virus has shown who the city keeps out and who it lets in. It has shown, in fact, who the city is built for.  Walking in the evenings, I see cafes, salons and restaurants lit up and buzzing with customers. The public park shuts at 7 p.m., when most people get off work. On the glass fronts of shops I see posters advertising for delivery boys. Outside malls and eateries, I see men on scooters and bicycles waiting to pick up orders for food delivery apps. The quieter bylanes are crowded with young people perched on cars and scooters, talking, laughing, and fighting. A friend tells me that people are “just done with the virus.”  And it seems that they are, either out of privilege or necessity.  

The virus has also shown how malleable the ways of our world are; how in fact what seems entrenched can be changed. In the past too, urban living has transformed in response to pandemics. It is possible to see this as a moment of reevaluation for many relationships: schools and families, women and work, cities and their residents. How we treat our urban spaces and how they treat us. But for now, COVID-19 seems to have dovetailed for Mumbai residents into yet another inconvenience in an already difficult city.

As 2020 drew to an end, the feeling of living in a limbo seemed to heighten: a vaccine for the virus was in sight, but out of reach for many people. I read of other parts of the world locking down yet again, facing a winter with varying levels of restrictions.  In Mumbai, New Year’s Eve came with a night curfew, and celebrations were subdued. Early in January, India’s regulatory authority for pharmaceuticals approved two vaccines for emergency use. The scale of the immunization effort that lies ahead is massive: a plan to inoculate a priority list of 300 million people by summer.

Early in December, I decided to make a long overdue journey to the upmarket suburb of Bandra for a doctor’s appointment. Afterwards, I took a walk to the nearby promenade, enjoying the breeze and the view of the shimmering sea, glimpsed at this proximity for the first time in months. I had read that even this vista was to change, with the construction of  the Mumbai Coastal Road. The highway, that will extend the city’s choked streets onto its western coastline,  will also transform the city’s seafront and its public spaces.  

On the promenade, I saw a police car slowly driving past the waterfront. Lovers sat on benches, stealing a few  moments together in a city where space and privacy are at a premium. A construction worker ate his lunch in the shade of a palm tree, opposite luxury mansions worth millions of dollars. Across the road were shuttered restaurants promising home deliveries, and a cafe buzzing with customers. I walked towards a small knot of people, and found myself anticipating the sway of their bodies;  all of us moving to create space for the others,  in a familiar Mumbai choreography. 

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