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Life in the empty lane

Forum Gandhi | Updated on June 03, 2020 Published on June 03, 2020

Minimum city: All that Mumbai is famous for was missing — from dabbawalas to local trains and, most important, its teeming millions   -  PTI/ KUNAL PATIL

Appreciation for food, freedom and facilities — the lockdown hands a young Mumbaikar important lessons

As a schoolgirl, I was struck by a chapter in our textbook. Called Suraj ughawlya nahi tar (What if the sun doesn’t rise), it explained the importance of the sun. It left me wondering what Mumbai would be like if the sun rose to an empty city.

After all, this beautiful city — with its wide expanse of sea and as wide a sea of people — can honestly get a bit overwhelming. It has over 2.3 million people squeezed into a 603.4 sq km area. If you ever fancy a live wrestling match, all you need to do is go to any train station in Mumbai during peak hours.

Now the city, though stirring back to life, is a pale shadow of its old self.

I have seen a different side of Mumbai. The media is a part of essential services, so I was out in these Covid-19 times, looking for news. The city looked alien to me. All that it is famous for was missing — from its Koli women and dabbawalas to local trains and double-decker buses, and, most important, its teeming millions. Before the government imposed a lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19, it used to take me 40 minutes from home to office. Now it took all of 10 minutes.

At first it excited me: It was as if an old dream had come true. Then, emptiness sank in. It seemed as if I was looking at a city which didn’t belong to me. There was no honking traffic. There were no kids in the park; no fights on the streets. I could only see a group of sad migrant workers walking on endlessly.

The city had lost its character and charm. That’s when I realised no matter how much I complained about it, Mumbai wasn’t ever going to be the same without its peculiarities.

Food and work

That evening, I went back home and ate, without a fuss, the karela ki sabzi my mother had prepared for us. Another time, I would have grumbled. Now I wondered what the migrants had eaten.

Before this lockdown, I seldom thought of the truck drivers, loaders, distributors and delivery boys who were relentlessly, and silently, keeping the city alive, providing the people with basic necessities such as bread, milk, vegetables and grocery. The ‘out of stock’ sign at stores and portals made me realise their role.

I also wondered about Kalavati. When we were younger, my parents had taught my sister and me to be respectful to our house help. Before we ate, my parents would keep aside a large container of food for Kalavati and her three children. I remember how she helped me pack my school bag, fold my clothes and tidy my cupboard. She washed clothes and utensils, swept and mopped the floor. And I recalled now that she was a single mother, who had to make a living, manage her home, and bring up her children.

Kalavati is no more. But when I next see Shanker mama, who helps with the housework, I am going to say ‘thank you’ to him.

Fun and family

We, the millennial generation, have lived life in the fast lane, aided and abetted by technology. Ten-second Instagram stories and 280-characters on Twitter have marked our parameters. Now we are locked in our houses.

No offence meant, but I am not in the Instagram dare game of singing, dancing and making Dalgona coffee. That’s mainly because I am showcasing my talent in the kitchen, singing to my pet dog, and dancing to the tunes of my mother.

We are a tiny family of four — my mother, my older sister, my dog and I. Before the lockdown, like many other millennials, I was at work or busy with my social life. I had little time for my family. My mother kept urging me to buy her a carom board, and I wouldn’t, arguing that it would lie in a corner, unused.

That was then. In the past few days, I have not just cleaned my cupboard (at her bidding), but also taught her to play UNO, and she’s quite a pro at it now. We watch comedy shows, dance to random songs and play games.

Of course, my social life will resume after the lockdown lifts, but I also plan to spend time at home. And right after the lockdown, I am going to buy a carom board. Not just for my mother, but for us too.

Freedom’s not just another word

I also now appreciate this privilege called freedom. Places such as Kashmir, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine underline a world where lockdowns, scarcity of essentials, internet shutdowns and being separated from loved ones are an everyday reality.

Will all this spur me to write poetry again? The fondest memories of my childhood revolve around writing my first poem with my father for my school yearbook. I wrote poetry as I grew up — over 150 of them, in fact.

I sit myself down and pen my thoughts. I may not write as much as I did, but I am going to learn to write for myself again.

And, another thing. I remember how I used to daydream of “that one day when I would do all that I want to do — or not do anything.” Never have I done so much of “nothingness”.

I need to take some time out for that, too — to do nothing at all.

Published on June 03, 2020
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