Essay: Casablanca; the covid chronicles
An Indian marooned in locked-down Morocco for three months writes of both, the kindness and craziness of strangersUpdated: Jul 01, 2020 15:53 IST
The lockdown comes down with the suddenness, the brutality of a butcher’s knife. Little have I envisaged that three weeks spent waltzing through Marrakech’s dens of decadence will entrain three months of confinement in Casablanca. Hotels shut, homelessness looms, Ali El Hajouji manifests. This philanthropic young Moroccan of mytravelkeys.com, is helping stranded tourists and lends us an apartment. We find ourselves in Casablanca’s chicest quarters, Anfa, where The Indian Association Morocco will graciously home-deliver home-cooked Indian meals. Whilst other stranded tourists wallow in ghastliness Fortune has favoured us. “Us” signifies mum and I.
Mum, however, is 72, ill, distraught. She protests I forced this trip on her. Now she will perish abroad. She bears about her an air of desolation. And blatantly refuses to see Providence pampering us. So, I argue we are safer in Morocco: as stories emanate from India of VIPs scorning lockdowns, conducting birthday bashes/weddings whilst jamaats conglomerate with religious fervour, I contrast the rigorous discipline here. Moroccans respected the King’s orders to shut mosques, unprecedented in Moroccan history; there’s 6pm curfew, and military vehicles patrol streets; food stores permit but three people at a time, making you queue outside on demarcations 1.5m apart; pharmacies dispatch drugs in baskets hung from a pole poked out into which you drop money which is sanitised with clinical meticulousness. Notwithstanding, mum bellows, “I want to be in MY country, in MY home, with MY people and MY family!”
A year ago, in Kumbakonam, an astrologer predicted that during this period, mum would be severed from family, home, country. I had dismissed it as nonsense. Curious how Destiny unfurls. Stranger still, my horoscope for the same period forecasts “distant travels” with the excitement of an odyssey about it.
Switching from the sybaritism of the past weeks back to asceticism, I soon relish confinement -- the sudden magical suspension from life’s mundanity. This is a moment of inviting introspection. I cannot fathom how someone as resilient as mum could cede to despondence.
When flights are cancelled in perpetuity and lockdowns extend seemingly for all eternity mum unravels. One night, at some obscene hour she wakes shrieking with agony, “I will never go home!”
These words are surprisingly repeated by a Chinese neighbour. As our flight into Morocco almost entirely comprised Chinese tourists (although China was then the epicentre of Covid-19) I enquire of my neighbour if he knows when flights will resume. He responds with unexpected vehemence, gesticulating madly, “I live here now. I am NEVER going back to China!” Well, well…
Mum is chronically homesick. Aeons of yoga, meditation and mantras (six unexceptional daily hours thereof) haven’t equipped me to handle my mother’s unmitigated and inexorable misery. We disagree on everything. Life becomes a war of words. (The world too is likening the pandemic to a war, and this is rather a war against an insidious, invidious, invisible enemy. But true stories of war reveal that present conditions nowhere approach the horrors of war, although the economic collapse might well eventuate World War III).
I escape every evening for long walks into emptiness. I’m never stopped although locals get fined unless emerging for essentials: medication, food and liquor (ah yes, liquor sales catapult).
An old man hails me in the street, his hands flapping wildly like the fans of a windmill in a tornado. Is he speaking to me? But yes, in these depressing times when one sees a pretty girl one must say, “bonjour.” It must take an exceptional eye to perceive beauty in a face two-thirds masked, the rest concealed behind shades… He happens to be my neighbour and a doctor. When some of mum’s more esoteric medications prove elusive, he volunteers himself and his WhatsApp. He messages me with zeal until he has me in his swish apartment. The medications can wait, Monsieur has another agenda. He just visited India and must with urgency show me his India snaps. Ensues one picture of the Taj Mahal, followed by floods of porn and the declaration, “I want to taste India in Morocco” (sounds a tad less crude in French). I swig the remaining wine offered and decide to scoot, except he spares me the exertion, expelling me with little ceremony, no doubt berating himself for having wasted good wine on a fool oblivious to the terrific priapic appeal of the would-be septuagenarian seducer.
Once the pandemic intensifies and masks become mandatory, flabbiness sets in. For administrative assistance I venture to unglamorous quarters. Here, ruffians roam maskless as police idle. The very poor and very rich transgress with impunity. Queuing on lines one metre apart outside the elite Carrefour Gourmet (requiring hand and feet sanitization before entry) I remark that a young chap has on everything -- Versace jeans ripped so high they expose sagging Calvin Klein boxers held up by an Hermès belt -- but a mask. His girlfriend is hailed by occupants of a car. Her Gucci stilettos puncture my foot, her Chanel bag smacking my face, as she bounds to the car. Kiss-kiss -- she smacks five people bunched inside the car and returns to embrace her boyfriend. Police bear down, smiting them for flouting guidelines.
As the lockdown stretches and mum’s condition whittles away, it becomes imperative that we reach the Indian Embassy in Rabat. But securing authorisation to travel is another drama. Delays are exacerbated because regulations change overnight and at administrative departments one must combat gatherings of disgruntled locals attacking authorities with wild invectives, dashing their masks on the floor rebelliously, despatching missiles of spittle. Social distancing? Even the authorities disregard it as their fingers move from their mouths to papers they sign, standing close to you. Over four hours at The Commune d’Anfa, having secured a chair (is it contaminated?) and WiFi, I watch the pantomime around me. For my travel authorisation an officer will tell The Pasha that the flat owner is evicting us and we need to reach our Embassy to seek urgent shelter. I interject: Ali isn’t evicting us, he has angelically offered over two months of free accommodation! The officer instructs, “You’ll have to lie to reach Rabat.”
I get authorization to travel (near-impossible), a lift home and a ride worth $250 to Rabat. What luck! I intend getting through this pandemic, and in style. But style is a state of mind. I cannot but regard the pandemic with detached irony and introspection.
Suddenly, I perceive life and regeneration amidst disease and death, life from death. The world has been periodically scourged. Vedanta (Bhagavad Gita XI.32) and Christianity will tell you this is the plan of Nature, for which Trump flatteringly credits China. And if everything is manufactured in China nowadays, including allegedly Covid-19, at least Springtime in Casablanca isn’t!
How surreptitiously Winter has slipped into Spring and with what vigour and vibrance. Spring has asserted itself on the glamorous purlieus of Anfa with its Parisian chic boutiques and luxury organic delicatessens. I stray on longer and longer walks, lured by the enchantment of Casablanca, and take to a daily pilgrimage through tree-embowered streets to the top of Anfa Hill, magnificent with villas, from where you behold the mighty Atlantic on one side and Casablanca prostrated on the other. Yonder gleam the cream and emerald minarets of the royal Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in North Africa. But my eye rarely strays beyond Anfa Hill which spring mantles with an opulence of verdure and colour. I tread streets softened by plump rugs of petals, shaded by floral canopies in mauve, golden yellow, magenta. Immaculate white whorls of flowers, seemingly gossamer-spun, and bushes flecked as if in delicate pink snow, exude their hypnotic fragrances. Spring’s bounty also expresses itself in a voluptuous profusion of peaches, apricots, nectarines, strawberries, cherries -- for which I effect another daily pilgrimage to the Carrefour Gourmet supermarket…
Those diversions into the external world notwithstanding, I withdraw more jealously into my private universe of meditation, mantras, music, reading and speculation: my mother feels more keenly her solitude. Casablanca to me is an extraordinary, even elevating experience. But mum’s anguish sharpens into something so intense that I am impelled to write the PMO. After all, the PM was emphatic about special consideration for senior citizens. My mother’s urgent repatriation plea is instantaneously heeded and with sheer elegance various ministries come together to arrange speedy repatriation -- this when Morocco with but a clutch of stranded Indians isn’t a priority.
Yet, a couple of weeks elapse owing, I suspect, to my mentally resisting returning home. Mum verges on mental collapse. Until I do what I knew I always must: obey the Vedantic injunction of yajna, which demands sacrificing one’s ego and desires. By way of which I vow to sacrifice my hair to Tirupati (invariably works!) if mum is repatriated by 05 June, which would mark precisely 3 months in Morocco. Miraculously, immediately, the Indian Embassy announces a charter on 05 June, slapping $1910 per person.
Home I am with a mother heaving with joy, a heart wistful for Casablanca and a head without hair…
After reading physics, French and philosophy at Oxford, Devanshi Mody gadded about the globe until her parents wearied of funding her errancy. And so, she stumbled quite fortuitously into travel writing.