Maximum City”, Mumbai, has yet again matched up to the moniker bestowed upon it by author Suketu Mehta by becoming the “Coronavirus Capital of India”. Despite an eternal lockdown exceeding two months so far, infection numbers continue to grow in the city where I live. As does my dismay.
Wretched reports of overflowing public hospitals, makeshift quarantine and treatment camps mushrooming wherever space will permit (including the race course and planetarium), and the likely impact of the impending monsoon are overwhelming. People are carelessly flouting the lockdown. It’s not only those in poor and congested areas. Educated and supposedly sensible people are merrily gathering on the streets, too. Outside Starbucks in a tony suburb that’s incidentally also a virus hotspot, they chat, most sans masks, over takeaway coffees. In another area of the city, members of an upscale housing society throw a samosa and music party. Four of my friends tell me that residents of their apartment complexes recently tested positive for the virus. It is spreading wider.
I admit, I’m frustrated, along with the majority of the people following the lockdown. Lack of clear and timely information compounds it. As I try to figure out what’s going on, it seems the situation has degenerated into a political power play. This increases my confusion, as I don’t understand how the government functions, having decided long ago that it’s best I keep my nose out of it. The Mumbai Police Commissioner has issued a prohibitory order to curb criticism of the government and the spread of false information. Nevertheless, a message stating that Mumbai and Pune will be under military lockdown for 10 days is being circulated. There are other fake orders permitting relaxations in the lockdown rules. Muddled much? Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government has announced a welcome change of strategy, concentrating on contact tracing and isolation, which it has dubbed “Chase the Virus”. My peculiar imagination presents me with a glorious vision of Ramdas Athawale running after the virus, dressed in his finest jarring attire and chanting, “Go Corona Go”. At this point, I question my mental state.
I realise my happiness, and also my sanity, depend on my capacity to deal with uncertainty right now. It feels like I’m living in a parallel universe in the calmness of my home, while my long-time dread of Mumbai imploding due to its woefully inadequate infrastructure is coming to fruition (never did I dream it would be a virus bringing this spirited city undone though!). I don’t know when or if my husband will be able to return to work, or when I’ll see my parents again. Nor do I have any predictions about the future of the travel industry. All I can do is focus on the present moment, because that’s all that’s definite.
About 15 years ago, I undertook a 10-day residential silent Buddhist Vipassana meditation course. In some respects, it was not unlike lockdown. For the whole 10 days, I was alone with my thoughts, completely cut off from anyone else and the outside world. A few participants lost their minds and had to leave. The most important thing I learned was the reality of impermanence. Situations, and feelings, come and go. What matters is that we acknowledge them but remain detached in order to avoid suffering. There are days when I achieve new things and am upbeat, and days when I’m unmotivated and disturbed. But as always, tomorrow will be a different day and next year a different year. This lockdown actually provides an incredible opportunity to practise living in the now because the ability to plan for the future has been taken from us. And so, I try to direct my attention towards making the present meaningful and appreciating the little everyday “sunshines” in order to emerge resilient and healthy. If I can’t change what’s happening around me, at least I can change what’s happening inside me.
(Sharell Cook is trying to make sense of India, one ‘Like That Only’ at a time)