Out of the blue, life flipped into social-isolation-mode in late March 2020 when lockdown was introduced due to the outbreak of Covid-19. I went back to the literature on the Spanish flu in 1919-’20, a hundred years ago, and found similar disturbing accounts of people being confined behind closed doors to prevent the infection from spreading. This in the densely populated city of Mumbai, where being mashed up against fellow passengers in the packed confines of the local train is part of the routine.
Being accustomed to the odour of mixed sweat in a local train, the sudden disappearance of the crowd made me realise that the physical presence of people was the most comforting aspect of the city. As a journalist, I would travel on empty roads as I reported on the pandemic in the city’s hospitals. I missed the couples who would line Marine Drive on hot afternoons and the hawkers on the footpaths and in train compartments.
One cab driver observed, “This city seems dead to me.”
It was a comfort when the city began reopening in August 2020 and commuters were once again allowed to board the trains. I found an inexplicable comfort in the company of strangers. These were the same people who would jostle me in and out of the crowded compartments every day before the pandemic started, make a dash for the window seats on their journey back home and who would go out of their way to help a fellow passenger in need.
The rush, the noise, the smells that that I had previously loathed about the city became a source of comfort. It took a pandemic to make me realise that. I still take the train to work. The Mumbai local is the greatest sign of life in this city.
Read all the articles in the Comfort zone series here.