It was our housing society’s WhatsApp Group version 1.2—christened with the building’s name, followed by “Family” to create a sense of kinship. The first one, created a year ago, had been quickly disbanded after an acrimonious exchange between some society members. This one, a child of difficult times—Covid-19 no less—seemed no less ill-fated. During its early days a spat had broken out between the management committee (MC) and the resident of a flat over cracks on the terrace. The terrace had been under lock and key for all these years, but now, thanks to the lockdown, it was open not just to the sky but to residents too, should they, cooped up in their respective flats all day long, feel the need for a brisk walk. Or for that rarest of rare pursuits—cloud watching and stargazing—in Mumbai, the city of perpetual haze and pollution.
But no sooner had the terrace been opened up than cracks surfaced on its mosaic-chip flooring ominously revealing an age-old fissure in the society between the owner-occupied flats and the tenants. One morning, in a tersely worded message, the MC informed us that the said cracks, brought to its notice by the security duo—whose eagle eyes, until now, were better known for being transfixed on their mobile phones or for remaining closed in summertime siesta—had impelled the MC to unanimously decide (as technical details were not forthcoming one was left to wonder: was the meeting called to order on Zoom?) that the damage was the handiwork of errant, unsupervised children riding their bicycles, the offspring of a certain tenant, and that he had been summarily ordered to pay the damages. Alas, as the minutes of the said meeting were not shared, one can only guess how the august committee, in a state of lockdown, had arrived at their express decision. True, pictures of the terrace showing the cracked surface had been circulated on the WhatsApp group, but even a forensic eye would be hard-pressed to spot any children in the frame, let alone their tell-tale shadows. Perhaps the MC had the benefit of drone photography to arrive at their decision? Or perhaps an anonymous resident, crouching awkwardly out of sight behind the water tank, had provided them with shaky smartphone camera footage capturing the children in their wanton act of destruction?
It was an act of tragicomedy that even upstaged Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau’s feuds with his manservant Cato. And while the cinematic version had left in its wake a ruined apartment set and timeless laughs, this one over a few cracks, provoked little mirth. Or perhaps one could consider another genre: a member of the management committee, with time to spare thanks to the lockdown, had revisited an old favourite, “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes”, and comfortably ensconced in a book-lined study had surmised for the benefit of the less well-read members the famous Holmesian fallacy: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
As things turned out, the resident of the flat at the receiving end of the MC’s punishment exited the group in a huff, but not before posting an equally terse message that seemed to suggest that the MC’s decision wouldn’t do even a kangaroo court proud, that he would be damned if he would pay, and nor was he going to provide breakfast on a day of the week for the security staff (more about this later). In an act of shutting the terrace door long after the alleged errant kids had bolted, the MC, in a belated gesture of magnanimity, weighed in by ruling that the tenant would be left off the hook and that all of us instead would chip in for the repair work.
The wayward children, two boys aged about five and six, had come to the notice of the society residents before. Behind the closed door of my flat, on most evenings, I heard, not without a certain nostalgia for bygone mischievous and carefree days, the pitter-patter of their feet and their squeals of laughter as they made-do a narrow corridor for a playground. One day the resident of a flat lamented on the group that the broadband connection had been down; the resident had been unable to send an important mail and the internet service could be restored only the next day with the repair person cautioning that the fault had been a loose connection in the wires on the terrace, which—the Holmesian fallacy revisited—pointed to children playing in the terrace. In consternation, other residents asked: could not the parents supervise their wards better? Goodness gracious, one was left to wonder. Was the resident of the flat trying to send a mail or trying to download a server? Surely if the resident, parent of a teenager, had checked with the youngster (belonging to a generation that’s better versed in technical matters than their hair-dyed-black parents) pat would have come the answer, “Jeez! Just hotspot your phone—or just send the mail from your mobile. Chill, parent. Ok?” On another day a resident despaired: what if the children dislodged the carefully aligned angle of the flat’s satellite TV dish? One can do without one’s spouse, but can one even imagine a night without a TV news host? Not to be outdone the owner of a terrace flat ominously intoned that with cumulonimbus clouds advancing over the Arabian Sea and imminent over the island city, he and his family would be faced with the prospect of the heavens opening up above their flat—and their heads—lest the cracks in the terrace were not repaired in time.
After the ‘Mystery of the Cracked Terrace’ the exchanges on the WhatsApp group were pedestrian in comparison, but still no less cause for remark. Indeed, if the authors of the forwards were to write TV scripts, then the powers that be at the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime would have the easiest of tasks in sorting them: one folder utopian; another dystopian. One moment a forward from an owner-resident would get your hopes up (“a vaccine is around the corner”), the next moment a message would crush it (“we have to live with this”); another post would be rousing (“we will overcome”), followed by a dispiriting one (“the virus is in the neighbourhood”). If there was a break from this flip-flop, almost manic-depressive routine, it was provided by forwards that needed more than a thorough once-over. “The government is putting money in the accounts of household helps. Fill up the attached Google doc with details.” (Fake.) “The health ministry is recommending a homoeopathic medicine that will protect you from the pandemic.” (Questionable, to say the least.) The likes of the first message invoked no response from other society members; the second was quick to receive endorsements from no less than two residents. One morning we woke up to a message from a resident saying that her washing machine had packed up and whether any of us would have a spare. Eyes still heavy with sleep one was left to wonder: a laptop, a toaster, a mixer-grinder, a mobile; but a washing machine? Who keeps a spare and who in their right mind would care to lug it up or down a couple of floors. No help, predictably, was forthcoming.
With the untimely exit from the group of the accused in the “Mystery of the Cracked Terrace” a shuffling of breakfast and evening tea snack duties for the security staff, which from the start of the lockdown society members had undertaken by turns, was in order. A volunteer to fill the vacated-in-a-huff slot was quickly found. A hat was also passed around, as other societies were doing, and money was raised to provide our staff with monthly provisions: dal, atta, oil, the like. What at first seemed like an altruistic act appeared to be tempered with practicality. As a writer remarked of an earlier time and of another people, “[we] were prone to pursue [our] private interests in the guise of working for the common good.” We hoped that by helping out the security staff they would be lured to stay back at their jobs. Already there were stories of security staff abandoning their posts for their villages and should that fate, heaven forbid, befall us, one could scarcely imagine the MC (let alone other residents) taking turns to man the front gates 24/7. Messages also surfaced on the group exhorting us—and our security staff—to be on a constant vigil as burglaries had been reported in the neighbourhood. Aside from raising everyone’s anxiety level in an already panic-stricken time, it served little purpose: one could scarcely picture our mild-mannered and amiable security duo (not fine examples of a lean and fit physique either) in hot pursuit of a burglar.
As end of May dawned closer the messages on the group continued in the anxious tone: a “basti” near our building had been sealed, and beware, such were the places that housed our soon-to-return household help and drivers. The residents of the building, backs hurting from having to wield brooms and palates jaded from quick-to-rustle-up recipes, were a divided lot on the return of cooks and maids. A flurry of messages resulted in the online purchase of a gun thermometer, but the MC appeared unyielding on the matter: we shall do the dishes, we shall cook the meals, we shall wash the clothes (washing machine or no washing machine) but we shall not risk our valued existence by risking the return of our help.
Amchi Mumbai is five and a half hours ahead of London, but one couldn’t but help despairing that, time zones aside, this commercial capital, seven islands artificially conjoined into a city of one and a half-crore people, is in effect two centuries behind the English capital on the Thames. Chroniclers of the Victorian era report that London “epitomised the 19th-century economic miracle, [h]er scale of living is most magnificent; her rents highest, her opportunities of money-making wildest”, but that “it was also a magnet for a large number of the poorest” and “in the great capital of the world, misery seemed to be man-made, almost gratuitous.” Even a hardened cynic would find it difficult not to find echoes of this foreign city and the distant past in the tony suburbs and narrow bylanes of Mumbai, circa 2020. In 1849, in a dire coincidence, as London faced an outbreak (of cholera), the “city’s single biggest occupation—150,000 domestic servants”, was a sign of “how large the rich loomed in the city’s economy.” In an outstanding and early example of investigative journalism a London scribe wrote an eighty-eight-part series chronicling the lives of the city’s impoverished, prompting the remark, “To read of the sufferings of one class, and the avarice, tyranny, the pocket cannibalism of the others, makes one almost wonder that the world should go on.” As our TV and mobile screens filled with images of migrant labourers in squalid camps; men, women and children setting off on their feet for their homes thousands of kilometres away; of them swarming stations and being packed into trains and buses; we ordered and reordered on our group, by the dozens, the season’s pick of Alphonso mangoes. As gloved and masked shoppers, their arms weighed down by bags laden with fine produce, stepped out of a store in suburban Mumbai and into the air-conditioned comfort of their still-chauffeur driven expensive sheet metal, scrawny, dirty arms were outstretched—in hunger. Under a hot summer sun an itinerant shoeshine was willing to work for money if only you’d allow him to shine your shoes.
On a Monday morning, with less than ten days left for the end of May, which would upstage April as our “cruellest month”, a sombre message appeared on the group from the secretary: a resident of our building, one of the MC’s own, had tested positive for the virus. Details—how? where? when?—were less than clear and forthcoming; we kept our fears and doubts to ourselves as we posted get-well-soon messages. By afternoon authorities from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had descended on our building, temperature guns and oximeters in hand, to check the residents. The common areas were sanitised and we were all pronounced to be safe—for now. By nightfall our society had been sealed and a vinyl sign had been strung on the gate of our building situated in a narrow lane, cheek-by-jowl with other buildings, reading that it was a ‘Containment Area’ as a resident had been found ‘Positive in the Coronavirus Test’ and that entry to the area ‘is restricted’ and ‘Violation of rules is Punishable.’ We had been doubly locked down.
Next morning, in a stroke of perverse timing, the lift broke down. A call to the service engineer got a prompt response, but on seeing the sign on our gate he turned on his heels and left, and no amount of entreaties or pleas from the MC could make him or his employer change his mind. By the next afternoon the fear and the fret of our security staff showed up on our group. They had been getting anxious calls from their relatives in their villages asking them to return home. If they fell ill who would tend to them? Who would ferry them to a hospital? Who would pay their bills? The government had abandoned them and our hastily drafted exchanges—suggestions to increase their salary and buy them health insurance—only belied our fears and anxieties.
In an ironic way things had come full circle and the MC was relieved of the responsibility of deciding the fate of the returning cooks, maids and drivers. It was these folk who had faced the brunt of the virus that had entered the country on board flights they could ill-afford, from countries they could never dream of visiting; a virus that had seeped down the socio-economic levels before exploding into a pandemic burst. They had faced it—as had common folk in other lands and other times—with ‘a kind of intelligence adapted to the harsh conditions under which [they] had to live—namely a harsh climate and a government that treated [them] exclusively as an object of exploitation’. And now these folks were having their comeuppance. With our building being a containment zone it mattered little whether we wanted to let them back into our lives; they, at least for a good while, wouldn’t want anything to do with our lives.