A solitary walker takes photographs of the sea at Marine Drive on a weekday evening. (Pratik Chorge / HT) Exclusive
A solitary walker takes photographs of the sea at Marine Drive on a weekday evening. (Pratik Chorge / HT)

A pandemic-era status check: The Mumbai you almost know

Slowly, the city is opening up, inching back to a semblance of its bustling, busy, beloved self, with lessons for the future.
By Team Wknd
UPDATED ON JUL 10, 2021 02:23 PM IST

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?

Hanging Garden at Malabar Hill on a deserted afternoon. It’s been over a year since the last school picnic had the steps and lawns covered in excited little children in uniform. (Bhushan Koyande / HT)
Hanging Garden at Malabar Hill on a deserted afternoon. It’s been over a year since the last school picnic had the steps and lawns covered in excited little children in uniform. (Bhushan Koyande / HT)

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.

Local trains sit still and quiet at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Only government employees and a small group of certified essential workers have permits to use the trains. (Pratik Chorge / HT)
Local trains sit still and quiet at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Only government employees and a small group of certified essential workers have permits to use the trains. (Pratik Chorge / HT)
On Marine Drive, some familiar sights have returned along the water’s edge. Yoga and exercising by the sea, as the canines offer quiet company. (Satish Bate / HT)
On Marine Drive, some familiar sights have returned along the water’s edge. Yoga and exercising by the sea, as the canines offer quiet company. (Satish Bate / HT)
Outside Andheri railway station, the crowds seem almost normal, until you realise everyone’s wearing a mask. (Satish Bate / HT)
Outside Andheri railway station, the crowds seem almost normal, until you realise everyone’s wearing a mask. (Satish Bate / HT)
Incoming traffic has slowed to a trickle at the Mumbai airport’s Terminal 2. There are no welcome hugs either. (Vijay Bate / HT)
Incoming traffic has slowed to a trickle at the Mumbai airport’s Terminal 2. There are no welcome hugs either. (Vijay Bate / HT)
At Shivaji Park, Dadar, there’s room for footballers, a cricket match, an evening stroll. Park timings are still restricted, but locals are making the most of the outdoors hours. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT)
At Shivaji Park, Dadar, there’s room for footballers, a cricket match, an evening stroll. Park timings are still restricted, but locals are making the most of the outdoors hours. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT)
With stores open for a few hours on weekdays, shopping has resumed, though even the mannequins are wearing masks. (Satish Bate / HT)
With stores open for a few hours on weekdays, shopping has resumed, though even the mannequins are wearing masks. (Satish Bate / HT)
They’re here, come rain or shine. Skateboarders at Carter Road. The morning crowds of walkers, joggers and yoga-doers have thinned. The view has changed too, with coastal road construction now stretching out from the promenade. (Satish Bate / HT)
They’re here, come rain or shine. Skateboarders at Carter Road. The morning crowds of walkers, joggers and yoga-doers have thinned. The view has changed too, with coastal road construction now stretching out from the promenade. (Satish Bate / HT)

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