Nisarga to COVID: When Fear of Mortality Hits a Plushy Mumbaikar

As Mumbai, already crippled with COVID-19, escaped a cyclone, a Mumbaikar pens his experience.  

5 min read

High anxiety reigned right from Wednesday morning to latish afternoon. Windows shut, doors bolted, electronic appliances switched off, gaping at the darkening shadows, the mutinous skies, and checking on about the progress of Cyclone Nisarga - a seasoned Mumbaikar was alarmed that his nerves were shot to smithereens.

The city was being cyclone-invaded again, way after 22 November, 1948. The headlines had reported then, “Electric Supply Breakdown: Transport Disorganised”, “Many Casualties in House Collapses”, “Roads Blocked by Uprooted Trees”.

As Mumbai, already crippled with COVID-19, escaped a cyclone, a Mumbaikar pens his experience.  
The day Cyclone Nisarga was supposed to hit Mumbai. 
(Photo Courtesy: Dhruv Somani)

Auspiciously around 4 pm yesterday the word was out: Mumbai had been spared by the ill-timed fury of nature. Videos popped up on WhatsApp about the devastation on the outskirts of the metropolis. Thane, Raigad, Alibaug, Mandwa, Palghar and other districts were squalled by Nisarga – the Bangladeshi meaning of the name being ‘nature’. A handful of lives were lost inevitably to become statistics in the log-records.

In the city itself, nearly a hundred grand old trees were uprooted, including a giant oak opposite the tony Cricket Club of India, Churchgate.

The Nisagra was a weak cousin of Amphan, which had lacerated Kolkata and Bangladesh last month, killing at least 100 people. Mumbai lucked out. By early evening, defying the curfew, throngs collected at the Marine Drive oceanfront to click selfies. It seemed just like another romantic, monsoon day in Paradise.

Social distancing and masks were forgotten - a majority of Mumbaikars are just not interested, citing breathing trouble or claiming that they’re on their way to do yoga, where inhaling and exhaling is of the essence. Approach an offender, his mouth resembling that of a goldfish, and he’ll probably spit on your face.

Meanwhile, Maharashtra continues to tote up the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases, possibly because of its size and the inhuman conditions in shanty colonies.

In Mumbai’s hospital facilities, the brave battalion of doctors and nurses are at the end of a tether. Patients with other grave, life-endangering illnesses have been seconded, although with the so-called opening-up of the lockdown, online consultations and private sanitised clinics are striving to slave against the ceaseless odds.

In the event, how does a Mumbaikar, fortunate enough to live in a cushier section of the city – Malabar Hill close to the Chief Minister’s official residence – keep his cool in the face of an imperilled city? One mantra is to switch off television news entirely (Arnab Goswami with his nerve-jangling voice throw for starters), delete social media messages, which in effect predict Doomsday is just a breath away. And attempt to practise the declared policy of “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” It’s the most comforting prescription, probably, under the circumstances.

As Mumbai, already crippled with COVID-19, escaped a cyclone, a Mumbaikar pens his experience.  
A tree uprooted as Cyclone Nisarga hit Mumbai. 
(Photo Courtesy: Dhruv Somani)

Yet in a housing colony, can one become a one-man police force? No way. If a group of 20-plus insist on playing football in the parking zone in the deep of the night, so be it. Fortuitously, though, the densely populated colony has come together on some key necessities: no outsiders to be permitted, the online deliveries of groceries, provisions and mangoes (remember it’s the season) have to be delivered to the security staff at the gate.

Try to do it solo and this business of online and phone shopping is, alas, severely impractical. Get through to the chemist’s even, and you’ll be told gruffly, “No staff. Come here and collect the stuff yourself.”

The staff, as you might have guessed, comprised mostly of migrant, daily-wage workers, who may or may not ever return to the city of big bucks. Be they shop attendants, electricians, plumbers and more key factors in our daily lives, they have elected to leave with their families, and that too way before special trains to transport them to their ‘muluks’ could be initiated.

From all accounts, thousands are still trekking home on foot. Deaths out of sheer starvation and fatigue – are they being tabulated? No-brainer question perhaps.

Journalists—senior and cubs – have been shown the door. From Delhi, a colleague reports, “They don’t have money to pay for their room rent or a square meal.” Okay, so the morning newspapers are missed – a generational habit – and are accessible as e-papers. Unfazed, stalwart journalists are doing their jobs from home and the photographer community ventures into the field, to click shots which will perhaps be the only documented history we will be left with of a city under siege.

As Mumbai, already crippled with COVID-19, escaped a cyclone, a Mumbaikar pens his experience.  
Migrants hit by the COVID-19 crisis. 
(Photo Courtesy: Sl Shanth Kumar)

The Press Club at Marine Lines, where scribes would gather for quick meals, has been closed in keeping with “no clubs” order, leaving the retirees to scramble for food in any which way. A senior film critic, single and a senior citizen, is surviving on glasses of milk and vitamin tablets, a bowl of khichdi from a good samaritan. His eyes don’t permit him to read or write, under stress. Such invisible micro-effects of the 68-day lockdown – plus a day of curfew -- could lead to a neurological disorder.

Psychological depression and rising domestic violence have become serious issues, so has the jokey prediction that there could be a population boom once the virus leaves, and do be prepared for a long haul.

Naturally, any summary of the lockdown – it was absolutely necessary, its implementation is another story – would be an exercise in futility. Imperative political debates have been forgotten; in Mumbai the debate is whether the Centre-State relationship is in tatters. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, is largely rated as someone who means well, but when orders are issued, why are there inordinate delays and chaos?

For instance, the opening and closure of liquor shops witnessed virtual stampedes. Plus, since he isn’t exactly the most ideal orator, his TV appearances indicated his helplessness rather than his independent fervour. Either way, the Shiv Sena has changed its spots, and at the moment, it is the CM and Sharad Pawar, president of NCP, who can restore a semblance of sanity to Mumbai. After all its dwellers have been classically known to be ‘resilient’, surviving the most perilous of catastrophes.

By the way for a writer, of sorts, what are the options? Write a book, write a book, the suggestions, echo. Make use of the time. Stonewall here: are the publishers in the mood to print books at all at this juncture? Or will they go the Kindle hog? Read books (oh hell, how many?), watch Netflix, Amazon Prime Video etc (yeah what else?). Keep in touch with friends on the ‘phone (to hear more scary stories?). Eat right, build up your immune system, don’t forget the vitamin supplements (right, thanks).

Or just go for a long walk on your building’s terrace, get some sun, great for vitamin D. Now this I could do, happily, if it weren’t for those open gold fish mouths just a couple of feet away.

Moral of the story: When every plushy Mumbaikar understands that he is not immortal, that there is a virtue called civic sense, then for sure we’re all in this together and will get over it.

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