A pandemic-era status check: The Mumbai you almost know
Remember the first lockdown images? Photographs from around the world showed a chilling kind of urban desolation. Once-bustling areas — Mumbai’s CSMT and Juhu beach, New York’s Times Square, central London, downtown Tokyo — had an emptiness we’d never seen.
In an India forced into a sudden and strict lockdown that went on for months, photos were all we had of the world outside. And the outside looked like the end of an apocalypse film, just before the credits roll.
Here we are, more than a year later, with an outside starting to look at least slightly different. Mumbai’s local train services still haven’t resumed for the public. Much of the city continues to work from home. Commutes are dead, there is little traffic. Malls, multiplexes and most commercial buildings remain closed.
But life is sneaking through. In the city of small apartments and big ambitions, today’s images show Mumbaiites shopping again, playing cricket and football, jogging in the mornings and skateboarding by the sea. It’s a city clearly aching to get back to business.
Some breaks we can’t even articulate. How does one explain to the patrolling police that endlessly sharing the TV, bathroom, wifi and sofa with even a loving family can take its toll after all these months? That you just wanted a break from the super-dense-crush-load of domestic life on a Tuesday afternoon?
Fifteen months after that first lockdown, the pictures from Mumbai are somehow more poignant. They no longer share that solitary solidarity with images from the rest of the world. As populations in cities worldwide inch towards full vaccination, their focus is to return to business, to bustle, despite new strains of the virus. In cities like London, authorities are considering making masks optional. In Singapore, gatherings of up to five are allowed and restrictions might be relaxed for vaccinated locals by next month. In Bahrain, fully vaccinated citizens need only display their certification to attend events and enter public places. There are fashion shows, summer picnics, football matches, a Pride march, concerts, even the delayed Olympics.
India, on the other hand, is behind on vaccination and is bracing for a third wave. In Mumbai, local markets are open, but there’s no shoving or pushing. There are people in the parks in the permitted hours, but just a few. So there’s room for cricket or a brisk walk; there are free benches under the trees. There are people on the promenades, but enough space to find a spot by the sea.
Which makes the new images that much stranger. This is a twisted version of the city we dreamed of, wrought not by planning but by disaster, and once again accessible to just the few. The pictures don’t show our city coming back to life. In at least these privileged pockets, they show what our city could have looked like with planning, organisation and the right priorities. With governing bodies that didn’t just count flyovers and km of road built, but prioritised liveability.
Perhaps, for Mumbai, a return to life after the pandemic could also be a return to the drawing board, to re-imagine what we want for our city of dreams. We’ve said that before, we’ve been here before. When the mill lands were freed up, after the deluge of 2005. We can wish it again. If only this time could be different.
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