My Voice - 2021

An Indian-American’s Letter from India: How I Saw the Country Change in 2020 - Part 2

By Shivani Tripathi

Monsoon clouds in the sky are a welcome sight in Mumbai,
signaling respite from the intense heat of April and May.

Continued from the January 2021 issue of Saathee Magazine

What started off as a plan to spend a few months in Mumbai at the end of 2019, turned into nine months and had gone well into 2020. I imagined adventures in different corners of the subcontinent but now spent days indoors in the suburb of Chembur. The many miles between family, friends and me were greatly reduced through video calls, but points of interest around town only a short car ride away were now unreachable. I had come to India just as monsoon clouds had exited the city and was about to experience their return in 2020.

Monsoon: June, July, August

The first week of June brought additional worry to residents of Mumbai in the form of Cyclone Nisarga. The only time I felt any fear about living in the city was when it made landfall. Buckets of water were filled, all electronics were fully charged and candles were kept handy in anticipation of what the weather event could do to such a densely populated city, with some of its inhabitants living in unstable structures. Predicted to be potentially catastrophic, Mumbaikars breathed a sigh of relief when the cyclone left the city intact. Around the neighborhood I saw a few split trees, some rooftop sheds in shambles and red gulmohar flowers sprinkled on sidewalks.

A crowded chemist shop in Chembur, Mumbai.
Socially distancing customers was strongly enforced
in the early stages of the lockdown but such is
no longer the case.

Soon after Nisarga's departure, monsoon season officially arrived in the city by the sea. It is said there are two types of monsoon people: those who take delight in the cool rain and warm cups of chai, and those who are irritated by waterlogged streets and grey skies. Before 2020 I had spent a monsoon, coincidentally, in Mumbai and could only remember dark clouds and soaked shoes, and experiencing more annoyance than enjoyment. This season, however, I was writing from home and other than going out for essentials, I had no other distractions. I stepped outside to soak in the season's first cloud burst and looked up at the sky as droplets splashed across Mumbai and me.

Trees covered in months of dust transformed from sepia to a lush hue of green. Such small joys had much more meaning in lockdown. The quiet in my corner of the world would be punctured by the most beautiful sounds like the sudden rush of rain, myna birds chirping and the rustling of palm leaves in the breeze. While waiting for their normal lives to move forward, people were traveling back in time. I was hearing children play in open spaces inside localities and a few scooters zipping down lanes while Hindi film songs from the '90s echoed into my room from a nearby building. These became the sounds of many evenings to come.

Memories of my first visit to India as a child were dusted off and city residents posted on social media how they felt the Bombay of their youth had returned. I couldn't take enough pictures of vibrant sunsets after a rain shower had swept the sky clean for the sun to slowly descend. But the spell cast by such moments would be broken by news of the rising number of cases in the city. Ambulances were taking patients from hospital to hospital hoping to find an empty bed, often waiting for hours and in more than a few instances, the sick passed away on route. Days were spent sometimes in amazement, at times in a daze and even in dismay at what was occurring in India and around the world. There were more questions than answers and any small talk between people included the question of whether lockdown would be extended. Eid, a time for celebrating and gathering with family and friends was observed very differently with lockdown restrictions in place. Would limitations be in place in November during Diwali?

Bus stops across Mumbai display signage
encouraging citizens to take proper
steps to protect themselves and their family.

The gradual "unlocking" of India was publicized and soon I started receiving messages from ride-booking services such as Uber and Ola, announcing they are back in service and ready to take me from Point A to Point B with safety protocols in place such as masked drivers, frequent seat sanitation and lowered windows for ventilation. The unease of being less than six-feet-away from a stranger aside, where would I go? Restaurants were open only for delivery, shops and malls were shuttered and museums, theaters were closed. Traveling to another Indian state for a change of scene seemed just as futile.

Entry guidelines and quarantine rules were confusing and I would joke to friends that post-lockdown the rare sound of a plane flying overhead would shock me as if I'd never heard the sound before, or give me déjà vu as if it were an echo I had heard in another lifetime.

As the fourth month of lockdown commenced in July, I started listening to Christmas carols and searched streaming platforms for wholesome, American films to escape from what could've been a mix of lockdown fatigue and perhaps seasonal depression from not being exposed to enough sunlight. Video conferencing with family and friends often provided the ray of sunshine I craved. Curious to know what my day was like I would get equal parts excitement and envy for the unique treats I would have delivered such as kadhai paneer pizza and pani puri sorbet. But however hard we tried not to discuss the topic we all wanted to forget for a few moments, how the pandemic was changing our lives would always make its way into conversations.

I would be asked when I will be returning home, as many were doing in India and around the world. My journey began with the desire to live a life that was different from the one I had known in America, and that was still possible in India even if it meant spending much of my time indoors. I was indeed more creative and feeling enthused by the fictional worlds I was creating on blank pages. I would glance up from my laptop and see red whiskered bulbuls perching on a tree branch outside my window, my lunch might be a Maharashtrian-style tiffin with ingredients such as tender coconut, jaggery and tamarind water, and sunsets were spent on a terrace with the azaan in Arabic echoing from afar and a mother scolding her son in Tulu in an apartment nearby.

Hair salons in Mumbai were allowed to open end of June but it wasn't until mid-August that I made an appointment. I hadn't read any sensational stories of the coronavirus being spread in salons in either India or America and thankfully the business I enjoyed visiting before the pandemic had many safety measures in place. Before the pandemic I would ride in an Ola or Uber cab almost every day and after five months of only walking to destinations, I stepped into a car.

While chatting with the driver during the 25-minute journey I noticed there was hardly any traffic on the road and visibility was the best I had witnessed in Mumbai, as I saw green hills in the place of grey haze. The driver told me about taking the car with family and friends in tow to their native village in Uttar Pradesh. He confirmed what many news outlets had reported: hundreds of thousands of people were dotted along long stretches of road in the scorching heat of May. He admitted he was getting a fraction of the riders he did before the pandemic and although initially worried about being exposed to unknown people, he told me what millions said as reason to ease the strict lockdown: if you go out to work you might die of Corona but if you don't work, you'll surely die of hunger.

I reached my destination and before entering the hair salon my temperature and oxygen levels were checked, my handbag was sanitized by UV light, I was dressed in an isolation gown and was given sanitizer for my hands. A fraction of the staff was on duty and those present had on a face mask, face shield, isolation gown and gloves. The experience of something as simple as getting a haircut was initially anxiety inducing but ultimately liberating. With many safety precautions in place, I was able to relax and allow myself to feel a sense of normalcy, which until then I did not know how much I had missed.

Noticeable unlocking of Mumbai: September, October, November

A Mumbaikar on the move in the
monsoon rain.

In Chembur, complaints of a foul-smelling odor were reported a few times to local authorities but the source was never traced. My guess is that chemical and fertilizer factories were back in business and what was once a part of the everyday air, had become odorous to now discerning noses. I had a feeling the air quality citizens of Mumbai were enjoying, which was comparable to the suburbs of North Carolina, was slowly on its way out. After many months I saw domestic help returning to housing societies, but now with masks on, and autorickshaws were back on the streets like before except drivers were now rubbing their hands with sanitizer at stop lights.

Familiar street intersections had also changed. In Mumbai, individuals selling items such as flowers and toys would weave between vehicles making money in-between green lights. Now vendors were replaced with beggars. Children and elderly individuals were tapping on car windows or putting their hands inside autorickshaws to receive money or even food. I would read about families and communities becoming destitute due to the lockdown and was now witnessing it with my own eyes. Migrant workers were coming back to the city and many were receiving lesser wages and a harder life upon their return.

I remember a worker approaching me for money as I was leaving my building compound, saying he was weak with hunger. While many were in search of fulfilling basic needs, many others were preparing for the festivities of Navratri and Diwali. Malls and many stores reopened in August and owners were praying the season of celebration would help them get back on their feet. I tried to do all my shopping online but also wanted to support smaller shops so I set out to visit nearby open-air markets. I noticed smaller vendors appearing on street corners which they hadn't occupied before. Upon asking a few questions I would find out they were previously employed at shops or working as domestic help and took to selling flowers, earthen lamps and other Diwali-related items as well as fashion jewelry and street snacks to make a living.

I made my way through lanes, weaving around and dodging people eating at stalls or lowering their mask to speak to others. Many sellers wore a mask around their neck but would properly wear it when asked. Owners of larger shops were breathing a sigh of relief saying people were happily coming to stores and spending money after months of being stuck indoors.

Hello 2021: December, January

The anticipated rise in coronavirus cases post-Diwali celebrations, compounded by cooler temperatures, thankfully did not occur. Centers that were reconstructed for a post-Diwali surge will instead be used for vaccinating healthcare workers. Days before December 25th a night curfew was announced for the city in order to curb large gatherings during Christmas and especially New Year's, and it appears to have been an effective tactic in keeping new cases from skyrocketing.

India technically hasn't been completely "Unlocked" and as of January 2021 is in the phase “Unlock 8.0". When I stroll through Chembur it appears the world is back the way it was aside from face masks. The white circles on pavement outside shops demarcating where customers should stand were now completely ignored. As long as majority of customers and staff had a mask on, social distancing in retail venues is mostly unenforced. Poor air quality has returned with a vengeance. Dust from resumed construction, emission from vehicles back on the road, burning of garbage, pollution from large industries and cooler weather is mostly to be blamed.

The city surpasses an air quality index of 300 nowadays, which is in the category of “hazardous." But restricted travel on Mumbai's famed local train network, closed schools and limited number of attendees allowed at weddings and places of worship are reminders that the battle with Covid-19 is ongoing. I continue to hear ambulance sirens daily but oddly enough, it's the American news that makes me remain vigilant here, as the shocking death toll and diverse demographics of patients reminds me there is no telling the effect the coronavirus might have on a person.

The longest time I have spent outside the United States coincides with the longest time I've spent in India. Looking back at all the photographs and videos I took; I can recollect what I saw but cannot always remember how I felt. Maybe because a myriad of emotions was experienced in the span of even a day, from pandemic-induced anxiety to the thrill of opening a crate of mangoes, or the helplessness from reading the daily news to the rush of hearing a sudden downpour in June. As of now I plan on coinciding my homecoming with the availability of coronavirus vaccines for the greater American public, which could potentially mean spending a little less than two years in a city associated with making dreams come true.

The legendary “Spirit of Mumbai" is not a myth as the city has won my heart by sheltering me and showing me what I'm made of. My instinct told me India would provide me with the inspiration and stories I was in search of and its largest metropolis did not let me down.

All Photos by Shivani Tripathi


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