An Indian-American’s Letter from India: How I Saw the Country Change in 2020 - Part 1

By Shivani Tripathi



Fragrant amaltas flowers shower an empty Central Avenue during lockdown in Chembur, Mumbai.

Mumbai is a diverse, spirited, fast-paced metropolis. Residents take pride in saying it is a place that values hard work more than caste and creed, and the city by the sea has a reputation of being one of the safest places in India for women. These qualities, along with my native-level fluency in Hindi, made me gravitate to this part of the world in autumn of 2019 as part of my dream to travel, to write, to be inspired.

India is a place where I can feel both comfortable and challenged, a place that is both familiar and foreign to me, a person born and raised in the United States. After exploring Mumbai, I was to journey through other parts of India and then venture outside the subcontinent. I chose to reside in Chembur, a section of Mumbai that Hindi film personalities like Ashok Kumar, Anil Kapoor, Shilpa Shetty and Vidya Balan have called home, and where the gates of the iconic filmmaker Raj Kapoor's RK Studios still stands.

Bungalows from another era are nestled between modern high rises, quiet public gardens neighbor bustling malls, and a posh golf club is adjacent to a former camp for refugees of Partition. Chembur is close enough to points of interest, but distant enough to be a place of rest after a long day, a community with fewer distractions.

I spent the rest of 2019 and early 2020 exploring festivals, museums, theaters, heritage sites, concerts, food tours and much more across Mumbai. I was making friends with the largest city in India but was also feeling restless to explore a different part of the country. Longing to be surrounded by nature, fresher air and quiet, I made plans to make the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh the next stop in my journey. I took to mask wearing not long after landing in Mumbai as the air quality would often be measured as “Unhealthy" and some days even thirty minutes outdoors unmasked would give me a headache, sore throat and chest congestion.










An eerily empty lane in
a residential neighborhood
in Chembur, Mumbai.

I chose March for my departure but almost as soon as I had booked accommodations, they had to be canceled. A “Janata Curfew" was announced for Sunday, March 22, 2020 and residents of India were asked to remain indoors from 7am to 9pm as a show of solidarity against a novel corona virus making its way to every corner of the globe. It was an unforgettable morning. I awakened as if in the peaceful suburb of my childhood, as the typical sounds of Indian neighborhoods had vanished. No shrill horns were echoing from the street, the vegetable vendor was not announcing his presence to neighborhoods, the sound of construction or repair wasn't reverberating. Only birds were to be heard. With my eyes I witnessed a Chembur that longtime residents told me existed decades ago — a sleepy part of what was then Bombay, where kids would play in empty streets and the pace of life was slow and steady.

The streets were again empty but life had come to a standstill. Two days later, a nationwide lockdown was announced for a 21-day period. The news came in the evening and the next day I went to a small grocery store around the corner and saw shelves quickly emptying as people franticly filled their baskets. When I asked a store employee when things would be back in stock, he said no one knew. Living in America my entire life I have witnessed panic at stores before hurricanes and blizzards, but this was my first lockdown, that too in a country where I had come for holidays. Initially, returning to the US was not an acceptable option to me as murky transportation rules and chaos at Indian airports made getting on a flight appear hazardous, especially since Covid-19 was synonymous with international travel. And I did not feel unsafe or alone in India, as I was joining over 1.3 billion people in the largest lockdown on Earth.



Socially distanced customers wait in line outside a grocery store. Chembur, Mumbai

Pre-monsoon: April, May

The loudest sounds of the day continued to be house crows, rose ringed parakeets, bulbuls and the Asian koel, which would sing into the night as late as one o'clock in the morning, and as early as four in the morning. The winged-residents were reveling in their own music, feeling they reclaimed the city after decades of destruction in the name of development. I could now hear sliding doors shut in the building across the street from me, the whistling of pressure cookers constantly at work and even squabbles regarding housework between family members from an adjacent building.

Household helpers such as cooks and cleaning ladies were either not coming for fear of catching the virus, which at the time was seen as a rich person's disease, or because neighborhoods forbade them from coming, thinking people of lesser means are more likely to catch and carry Covid-19. Easy-to-use mops became bestsellers and jokes about millions of Indians doing everyday housework for the first time were being forwarded on WhatsApp. After months of inhaling a swirl of dust and scents I can only describe as chemical concoction or something's burning, I no longer needed a mask to protect myself from the once unhealthy air.

Factories were not exhaling smoke, there were no vehicles emitting exhaust and dusty construction work came to a halt. Buses were in service for essential workers but the once-crammed carriers were now mostly empty. Walking to the grocery store I would sometimes stop in my tracks, wondering where the fragrance of flowers was coming from, and it was then I would notice blooms on tree branches above me. An earthy scent was a travel buddy while shopping for essentials. And not having to worry about scooters, cars, autorickshaws, bikes approaching from all directions, once chaotic crossways became a pedestrian's paradise.

Stalls selling paan were shut so streets that were once dotted with maroon spots were soon blanketed with flowers of the season, fragrant yellow amaltas, also known as the Golden Shower Tree. I began spending hours on the terrace and would observe more and more people frequenting their balcony and terrace, spaces that were forgotten in the city's frenzied schedule. Mumbai's pale blue sky had changed and would shine bright turquoise on many days. Where there was clarity in the sky, there was confusion on the ground.

In a population which shops for produce many times a week, the vegetable vendor with a cart was not visible. Through word-of-mouth and social media, I came to know a large maidan, or open-air space, had become a fruit and vegetable market which allowed for social distancing in the midst of mango season. But soon the makeshift bazaar was closed due to mingling and again people searched for reliable sources of seasonal produce.



A pre-monsoon rainbow is visible in a cleaner, bluer sky over the city of Mumbai.

Along with my purse, a thaila, or large shopping bag, became my companion and passport when venturing outside. Having a thaila meant you were out purchasing essential items such as food and medicine. Outside stores white rings were drawn on the ground to aid in giving people room, an alien concept in a society where space is maximized and there's somehow always room for a few more folks. Customers were able to stand one meter, or about three feet apart, the distance that was mandated. Inside stores though, I found myself trying to stay a safer six feet apart from shoppers, which was the guidance in America, and a tough task to achieve. At a posh grocery store, between light instrumental music, a recording in polished English requested shoppers not to panic and to maintain distance between each other.

Store owners always seemed nervous of either running out of provisions, being reprimanded or shut down by police for not following protocol regarding limited hours of operation, social distancing and number of customers allowed inside. Many items were available but many brands were not. I would try to purchase provisions for weeks so I would have to make fewer trips, but finding autorickshaws to help carry the load wasn't easy. Checkpoints were placed all across the city and traveling from one part of Mumbai to another would require a special pass or permission.

A few autorickshaw drivers were willing to brave distances of only a few minutes so to make a bit of money without being punished by police. Middle-aged men at the chemist shop, or middle-aged women accompanied by their sons at the grocery store were typical sights around Chembur. Young men traveling alone or in groups of two were much more likely to be stopped and questioned by police. Lanes of shuttered shops and restaurants made me think of the shopkeepers I would sometimes chat with, who before the lockdown said business wasn't great but was moving along.

How much longer could they endure the lockdown? In a nation of over a billion citizens a shortage of labor is unheard of but became the situation faced by many essential businesses. When I would call shops to request delivery to avoid crowds, I was often told “the boys" have left for their hometown and it would be a much faster to pick up items myself. Soon, disturbing images of tens of thousands of migrant workers walking hundreds of miles back to their villages were on every screen, and so were visuals of potentially hundreds of millions more Indians becoming food insecure and falling into dire poverty.

The opportunities many Indian villages lacked was made up by the comfort of having familial support and at least one meal a day, which was not possible if migrants remained in India's metropolises. As someone who was teased in school for belonging to a poor country, the meteoric rise of India Inc. in the past few decades was a source of pride for me and for Indians in India and around the world. However, in a matter of a few weeks, grim statistics and stories of millions who were living hand-to-mouth in cities, walking hundreds of miles to their families in underdeveloped villages shattered misconceptions of how many Indians are prospering and how many are still disadvantaged, impoverished.

The cleaner air, quieter streets were paid with a heavy price—at the cost of millions losing their livelihood. My days quickly became consumed with news from both India and America, especially New York City where close family and friends reside. The ambulance sirens that were synonymous with NYC's struggle with Covid-19 were soon heard in Mumbai. In May, my social media timeline was flooded with Mumbaikars searching for hospital beds for loved ones suspected of having Covid-19. From rarely hearing ambulance sirens I would now hear about six or more vehicles a day wailing up and down the streets Chembur, a constant reminder of how dangerous the outside world had become. It was becoming clear I would have to remain mostly indoors whether in India or the US, and reading about how America's largest city was being ravaged by Covid-19 made me wonder whether there was any completely safe place for life in pandemic. Video calls became more common with family and friends and I was often asked questions I did not have clear answers to: How long would this strict lockdown last?

Is it safer in India or America? Will I be returning soon?

To be continued in the February issue of Saathee Magazine.

All Photos by Shivani Tripathi

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510