By mid-March, New York had called in sick.
When the Director of Programs interrupted Sandy Hartman’s mid – morning class on ‘History of Jazz’ for a brief announcement, Riya knew intuitively that it couldn’t be good news.
Juilliard was temporarily suspending all courses in view of the unforeseen situation which had overwhelmed the city. With immediate effect, The Meredith Wilson Residence Halls were to be converted into a COVID specific hospital. The boarders had a week to vacate. The faculty regretted the, unfortunate turn of events. The school looked forward to welcome the students once the situation improved. A technical team was putting together an online course apparatus, even as he spoke and the travel desk would work closely with international students.
All around, things had changed. The rushed world of ambition and velocity had been reduced to a surreal stagnant space of quarantines, isolation wards and ventilators. The plummeting Brent subordinated itself to the spiraling rate of positive cases of this new dreaded virus, now in the city. New York was fighting …but at the moment the novel virus seemed to be winning by a mile, and then some.
She took the elevator to the Cafeteria and took a seat in the far corner. Bill Blasio was all over the giant screen explaining a complex containment strategy that his team planned to execute over the next 72 hours. As he came to the part spelling out details of essential services in the locked down environment, Riya reached for her phone nervously.
Rajiv Bakshi was lost in thought as he took a sip of his after dinner Pierre Ferrand Abel. He leaned against the railing of his fifteenth floor sit out and stared aimlessly across Cuffe Parade into the emptiness of the Arabian Sea. He remembered the day in the non-descript year in mid 90s. As a young banker back from Singapore with a FOREX lead with the then Chase Manhattan, he had put all his savings into the down payment of 15B Casablanca. A few months later he had moved in with his wife Rini, and made it home. His favourite corner since, had always been the balcony with a view of the sea to the distant right and the wondrous green Colaba Woods to the near left. Up front, beyond the World Trade Centre, were the Ambedkar Nagar slums reminding him of the characteristic homogeneity and benign acceptance of the Maximum City.
He smiled to himself as his mind travelled back to that warm summer afternoon when he had driven back a glowing Rini and a little pink – wrapped Riya from Breach Candy to Casablanca. Eighteen years was a long time. Yet it seemed like yesterday…
The phone rang yet again. This Work-from-home thing was turning out to be a terrible inconvenience!
The Delta out of JFK, one of the three airports in New York City, was the earliest option out. The itinerary was waiting in her mail box. Rini had called up with her usual last minute pep. Pack light…Keep yourself hydrated…Don’t forget Cetrizines for the allergic rhinitis…Do drop a mail to the Indian Mission in NY…
She gave a long hug to Sara, her roommate, promising to stay in touch over the forced break. Both knew their world was changing….the world was changing…. Nothing would possibly be the same again.
Out in the corridor, old Tom, the floor janitor, lowered his mask, touched his cap, smiled and wished the really nice Missy from the Freshers class of Piano Jazz….. Godspeed!
Parimal Mondal balanced the bag near his feet, and started his Scooty. He had come to collect some grocery from Sahakari Bhandar, near Colaba Post Office, his weekly routine for many years now. The local kirana was never well stocked, and marginally expensive. As he turned right from Afghan Church, the Anglican Church in South Mumbai, to drive towards his rented room at Ganesh Murti Nagar, he saw a group of Jawans spraying disinfectants near the Colaba Military Station, which was the residential area for personnel of the Western Naval Command. There was a new disease called Corona. People said that it was a deadly virus which had killed thousands in China. Now it was spreading all over the world. There was nothing else on TV these days. Yesterday, Parimal had recalled those distant nights in his village near Canning in Bengal when his grandfather spoke of the terrible time the village had been attacked by the plague. Almost every family had lost a member, the stench was unbearable when the wind blew inland from the river… the Doms, fearing infection refused to help in cremating the dead.Muted sobs and muffled groans of pain and helplessness hung in the air. He could not sleep the entire night and lay awake next to Arati staring at the ceiling in horror. Thankfully, the morning arrived through the grills of the small window and his fears vanished into the early morning basti bustle.
Shortly after he had filled the water drum from the BMC tap, Bakshi sa’ab called. Riya didi was returning from America this afternoon. He had to pick her up from T2.
Parimal had worked for the Bakshi family for years now and had grown to be both loyal and rather fond of them over time. He had watched little Riya grow up…driving her to school and piano classes and birthday parties. He had been sad to see her go to college abroad but she seemed so excited at the adventure! But now he was a little surprised at the suddenness of the move though. The Bakshis had visited their daughter during Christmas, and Parimal had gathered that the girl was not due to return to India till much later in the year.
He dropped off the stuff, told Arati not to wait for him for lunch and hurried towards Casablanca, a couple of minutes ride from his place. Parimal had been idle since the boss had stopped going to his BKC office and was working from home. Occasionally, he had been called to run an errand, but mostly he had been free at home. He remembered that the car needed to be cleaned and there wasn’t much time. He tied his handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose, adjusted his helmet and set off. He had to get hold of a proper mask soon. Everyone had one these days.
As Parimal eased the Q5 into the Western Express Highway, Riya picked up the Times of India. The Prime Minister had addressed the nation the evening before, and had urged all to stay indoors the following Sunday. He had cleverly called it the Janta Curfew, making it sound almost voluntary. She knew though, the model of operation from the establishment was following a standard pattern: “Please stay in,” “It is highly recommended that you stay in,” and then “You MUST stay in.” Wuhan did that, Milano followed, New York caught up, and it would dawn onto Mumbai soon. Her world today operated on familiar templates…scaled models, bell curves, Big data, AI and Python!
On the surround, Bose softly played Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell from the legendary opera Dido and Aeneas.
Riya felt like a child again,fragile, unsure, and vulnerable. She reached for the controls and retracted the sun roof, peering out into what looked like a still frame from old Bombay. Speeding through the empty roads, the Worli sea face, Haji Ali and Mahalaxmi passed her by like a collage of colourful pastel sketches. The clear sky met the blue sea in the distant horizon. And somewhere in between was delicately placed the fancy brick and mortar like those cardboard models from kindergarten craft assignments. There were no people, no life, just the ‘automated blinking red lights at a distance…impersonal, indifferent, non–committal, aloof.
Parimal accelerated past Pedder Road and Babulnath and turned left on the Chowpatty. Riya settled back on the soft leather and reached for her knap sack. She took out a bar of Baby Ruth Crisp and broke it into two.
“Parimal bhaiya, yeh lijiye.” Take this, Mr Parimal.
“Ji, didi.” Parimal reached back with his left hand, took the chocolate, deftly found a gap in the kerchief, placed it in his mouth and returned to the wheel in one swift, smooth motion.
Riya took the other half and savoured its sweetness. They were racing past Brabourne Stadium and heading south. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon at one of the world’s most popular promenades…but the Marine Drive, today, was deserted. A lone policeman sat under a tree and stared at nothingness.
Parimal and Arati had settled into the numbness of the containment routine, like most others at Ganesh Murti Nagar. Essentials were available at the small grocery store down the lane, the only shop which had remained open. For Arati’s medicines, Parimal had to go to Colaba once with a pass issued by the local municipality staffer. Many of their neighbours were migrant labourers, who were anxious to go back to their villages. The construction sites were down and the future looked bleak. Parimal was lucky. He had a steady salary and hot meals. This was as close to the home he and Arati would dream of. Sometimes, though, he admitted to himself that he missed the haunting tunes from the far away fishing boats drifting along the Matla River. It carried him to a land of salted fish and panta bhaat and the sweet- sour cholai which lightened the head and gladdened the heart. But he always tore himself away from the fancy reverie and quickly got back on rails.
Babloo Naskar hadn’t had a drink for a month. He was used to his regular quart of Haywards XXX for as long as he could recall. But now the Sarkar had shut down all the wine shops. Babloo had purchased a pauwa now and then for a premium from the local bootlegger….till he couldn’t afford it anymore. So it was a very thirsty Babloo who knocked on Parimal’s door early one morning. A queue was already forming in front of Swastik Wine Mart as the State Government eased restrictions to permit liquor shops to reopen.
“Ki hola re Babloo?” “What’s up, Babloo?”
“Aaz maaler dukan khulse re Pari! Zabi naaki?” The liquor shops have reopened! Want to come?
The idea was tempting. Parimal wasn’t much of a drinker. But today he could do with a tipple. Like every other month his salary had come to his account and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend a little on a bottle for the evening. These days there was no duty anyway. He quickly put on a shirt on his netted singlet and followed Babloo out on foot.
The area around the liquor shop was a chaos, an unmitigated disaster. There were hundreds of people jostling and cursing in their effort to get ahead. The duo tried to figure out where the serpentine queue might lead to but after walking to the far end of the road near Badhwar Park, simply gave up. Near the Charagh Din showroom, the line had branched out. One led to the Macchimar mohalla on Cuffe parade, the other headed towards the Causeway. No one knew how or when it would move….if it did, that is.
Babloo hadn’t come this far to return empty handed. He was determined to get his quota and planted himself firmly in the queue which turned towards the causeway. He would wait. Parimal had had enough. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. He struggled out of the melee and headed home, silently cursing himself for listening to Babloo and wasting his morning. He was drenched in sweat by the time he reached home. Quickly grabbing a gamcha, he headed to the sauchalay a few hundred feet from his door. He wasn’t feeling too well. Must be the exhaustion from walking in the scorching summer sun.
The situation in Mumbai was deteriorating with each passing day. The Chief Minister of the State, was under tremendous pressure. Fadnavis, whose party was in the opposition, left no stone unturned to show the coalition government in poor light. Dharavi, the slum conglomerate, was collapsing under the weight of its positive cases. Govandi was critical. Cases were spiraling all over the city, the doubling rate was worsening, the death toll climbing. The latest fiasco of the migrants causing stampede at Bandra, generally considered a posh locality, had brought the Uddhav Thackeray led Government much embarrassment. Kasturba Hospital was bursting at the seams. The other hospitals barely coped, wereover burdened, under staffed, and logistically crashing. And recently, the decision to open liquor outlets had led to riots and lathi charge – a complete failure of social distancing norms and prevention of transmission. The civil administration seemed ineffectual and helpless.
The CM summoned the Chief Secretary to Matoshree, the home of the Shiv Sena family, who was now in power after a long dull stretch. Hard decisions needed to be taken.
At midnight, Pardesi was relieved of his duties as the BMC chief. It was around 0115 that Iqbal Chahal chaired his first meeting as the Civic Chief. The numbers were frightening.12,000 odd positive cases, 793 deaths, not enough recoveries. His city was the epicenter, not just another dot on the red zone! The entire city of Mumbai had become a huge containment zone in Lockdown ++. The plan had to be two pronged. Aggressive testing and expeditious creation of medical infrastructure. Testing kits were reallocated from districts, resources deployed, critical clusters listed down to the last detail.
Ward A chief, Shambhurao Agashe was told in no uncertain terms to deploy the ‘Bhilwara Model’ in two main slums in his area, Ambedkar Nagar and Ganesh Murti Nagar, south of Cuffe Parade bordering the Navy Nagar area. He was sweating as he walked out of the BMC conference hall. It was 0335. He sighed as he typed a short post on a WhatsApp group simply named BMC_A. He repeated the message to the SHOs of Cuffe Parade and Colaba Police Stations.
“Meeting. All members. 0530. Ward A office. URGENT.”
Around 9 that morning, there was a knock on their door. Arati opened the door to be greeted by two unrecognizable men and a woman dressed in personal protective clothing. One of the three spoke from behind his face shield. Parimal Mondal was on their list of individuals whose swab sample was required to be collected for testing of COVID. The names had been sampled randomly from the latest Electoral Rolls and reports would be available in 24 to 48 hours. There was nothing to worry.
The lady stepped forward, lifted Parimal’s face slightly by the chin and inserted the probe to take a nasal sample. Sample preserved and a label stickered, the group moved on to the door indicated against the next contact on the list. A band of enthusiastic onlookers followed them paying no heed to the objections of the lone policeman from the local police station.
Still in a haze, Parimal looked around to find Babloo leaning against the garbage truck at a distance. With deft sign language, Babloo Naskar indicated that his sample had also been taken and all was fine! Parimal just stood there, lost in thought.
Rajiv was sipping his second cup of Darjeeling while leafing through an old copy of The Economist. Rini put the oven to pre-heat in the kitchen and walked in to the living room. Riya had retreated to her room after breakfast to Face Time with an old school friend. It was getting unbearably hot in Bombay. The air conditioners hummed in tandem ad infinitum. Rini lounged on the recliner and opened the New Yorker pdf on her tab. She had barely read a few lines when the landline suddenly erupted to life with loud jarring rings. They hardly used this phone anymore. So both Rajiv and Rini were startled at this unfamiliar disturbing noise. Rini was the first to recover and padded across to the teak corner table on which the receiver was placed.
Rajiv took off his glasses and looked at her. Who was it?
“Parimal’s wife…” she placed her finger on her lips to indicate that Rajiv should be quiet.
As she listened to Arati, occasionally contributing monosyllables to the conversation, her face changed. Rajiv could see indifference turn to curiosity, then concern, then anxious nervousness and real fear. After about five minutes, Rini hung up but did not move.
The news was worrying. Parimal had tested positive for COVID-19. There was some random testing in his neighborhood and the reports had come in the night before. The positive cases were checked for symptoms by the BMC doctor. Parimal had a sore throat and fatigue but nothing more serious. Thirty seven from the Ganesh Murty area had tested positive. Only three had severe symptoms and had been shifted to the Kasturba Hospital. The others were taken to the make shift quarantine facility set up at the local Corporation school. Parimal was among them. Their families had been isolated in situ, which simply meant that they were not to venture out. Rice, dal, potatoes, onions, a tetra pack of oil, a bar of soap and a bottle of sanitizer had been placed outside Arati’s door in a large cardboard box. She was given a number to call in case she developed cough or fever, however mild.
But did he go out much? Where did he get the virus from?
The dam burst! Arati was furious! That rascal Babloo Naskar had lured her good man to the daru ka dukaan the other day. There was big maara maari. Parimal bechara was caught in the crowd. Anyone could have been infected under those circumstances!
And what about Babloo? Was he tested?
That is the anyay, madam. God is blind. There is no justice! Shaala Babloo is negative and my poor Pari is dying of this Corona! May Kali’s curse be on that bastard!
There was silence in the room. Rajiv slowly walked to the dispenser and poured himself a glass of water. Rini was about to say something when Riya walked into the room, looking lovely and radiant.
“Riya beta, did you wear a mask in the car when Parimal drove you home from the airport?”
“Dad, of course! Was sort of uncomfortable though…nose gets itchy all the time.”
What a glorious view! Riya slid open the glass door a fraction and walked out into the balcony.
A million thoughts crowded the Bakshi minds. Did the driver keep the keys on the hook? Or did he hand them over to Rajiv after parking the car? What about the floor? He did walk in that day, didn’t he? And the luggage! He had carried the luggage all the way up. Rini…yes, Rini and Riya had unpacked a while later! What a mess!
Rini knew exactly what Rajiv was thinking. Trust these damned slummies to go out and invite the dashed virus! And for what! Half a bottle of cheap bloody alcohol! And now all of us are in a spin, a royal soup! I mean do these half wits need to be told to be responsible? Wrestling with ruffians around a bar at 10 in the morning.
The western sky was incandescent with the sun setting on the Arabian Sea. A gentle breeze blew in from the Colaba Woods. It was a mellow evening, just a little humid. But Riya was puzzled at the behavior of her parents. They seemed to be lost in thought, constantly brooding over some problem in their heads. Both hardly touched their food during lunch. When she asked, they stone walled her. It was nothing. You know how it is, Rini told her. The economy is nose diving, business is bad, clients are getting anxious, NPAs. Not the best of times for the bank! It’ll be alright dear, don’t worry! These things happen…
Oh, okay then!
Retreating to the comfort of her room, Riya heard the familiar double beep of a message on her phone. She reached for it to find a message from Sara Blinov, her half Russian roommate from Juilliard.
“Hi R! Terrible news. Self tested positive post return from school. Quarantined for three weeks at mamma’s place at Ithaca. Not too bad but BORING!!!BORING!!!BORING!!!Thank God. Asymptomatic! Miss you girl!”
Aninda Mukherjee is a marine maintenance professional who, when not measuring tappet clearances of a diesel engine, spends his time with his favourite three R’s. Reading, Writing and Running.