August 28, 2010

Mumbai’s Week Of Swine Flu A Year On

A little over a year ago, living rooms across Mumbai and outlying suburbs resonated to news anchors announcing breathlessly that the dreaded H1N1 (better known as Swine flu) finally had Mumbai in its grip. In the days leading up to that week in August, the deserted streets of Mexico City, described as the Ground Zero of H1N1 virus, seemed too far away to worry about, at least for the moment at any rate.

Even so there was palpable anxiety. It was inevitable that the US, for reasons not merely restricted to geography, was next. Then it was only a matter of time before India became the new home to H1N1. The panic was to exceed that seen for its predecessors – SARS and Bird flu, both having originated outside India, like H1N1.

For reasons I couldn’t quite understand, it was Pune, and not Mumbai, that first bore the brunt of Swine flu as it seemingly swept across the city. If news anchors were to be believed the end was nigh near and we might be advised to square up to our omissions, tally up our balance sheets, say our goodbyes, and wait out our turn, except the turn never came, to most that is.

But that did not stop panic stricken residents, helped in no small measure by news channels amplifying the unknown with the certainty of an astrologer, from laying to siege to pharmacies for N95 face masks, and as sure as sound follows lightening, black marketers ensured the N95 face masks were selling for several times their worth, and in no time would be out of stock. At least that’s what two chemists told me when I went looking for pharmacies to buy N95 face masks, price notwithstanding. Soon talk of duplicates flooding the market appeared. And news channels smelling a scandal, and rightly so, followed the frauds, and hoarders.

Accusations flew thick and fast. There was little scope for denials, for the risk of being proven wrong was great. Newspapers carried information of Swine flu testing centres while contact details of hospitals readied with wards in preparation to deal with H1N1 infections sought to pacify a nervous populace.

With N95 nigh well unavailable, notwithstanding expert opinion doubting its effectiveness in protecting the wearer against Swine flu, city residents were desperate to buy anything green that resembled a ‘face mask’, in turn ensuring that surgical masks or flimsy imitations of the same would soon become available on Dadar’s railway over-bridge.

If improvisation is the mantra for surviving Indian streets, manufacturers will find ready marketers for their products on Dadar foot-bridge where resilience meets the need to offer hope. Only a few months before H1N1 happened, I saw a vendor on the railway over-bridge selling a pair of Salwar Kameez for ten rupees. Shaking my head, I had walked past in a daze. But shortage of supply and desperation of the public in face of mounting incidences of H1N1 meant the paper masks went for the same price as a Salwar Kameez.

Dus ka ek, dus ka ek,” called out a youth holding out surgical masks as I joined commuters disembarking from local trains and making their way out of the railway station. (“Each for ten rupees, each for ten”).

Savdhani Bartho, Pachtao Mat, Lo Dus ka Ek, Dus ka Ek,” he exhorted passing commuters, appealing to their fears as they walked past, pushing them into deciding on buying from him. Handkerchiefs covered faces of a few while most wore no protection. (“Take precautions, regret not later, take one for ten, one for ten.”)

Sure enough, many responded. Gathering around him they paid for the surgical masks before going their way.

A few feet away another vendor held out more masks, selling each for Rs. 20/-. I could not tell the difference between the two. It did not matter. Commuters would assume the costlier one to be the better of the two.

A few feet further on I came upon a third vendor holding face masks for sale and conversing with a fellow vendor selling wrist watches from makeshift platforms. On busy mornings, and through the day, the railway foot-bridge at Dadar reverberates to calls of vendors selling items ranging from perfumes, shirts, umbrellas, shoes, and accessories of every kind imaginable to food items like paneer, fruits, and vegetables.

Voices of vendors rose a notch, each successive voice sounding louder than the one before, like a vessel clattering down a flight of steps, echoing louder as it gathers momentum down the incline before rising steeply in pitch as it comes to an abrupt and often thundering halt.

At the turn in the bridge that led down the flight of steps ending at the phool galli (flower lane), I passed the fourth vendor holding out more of the same masks, offering each for Rs. 10/-.

Badi Bimari se Bachho, Jiska Elaaj Nahin, Dus Rupaiyya, Dus Rupaiyya,” he announced, reminding commuters of the need to safeguard from a ‘big disease that has no cure’.

Commuters streamed past him, most hurrying to make time at their places of work while still others, too weighed down with more pressing concerns than Swine flu, barely registered the surgical masks on sale with the vendor, his exhortations lost in the background noise of the everyday.

Walking into my office later that morning, past a large poster calling attention to the DOs and DONTs relating to the spread of germs, the reality of H1N1 (Swine flu) finally hit home. There was no escaping it anymore, at least not the daily reminders at any rate.

If precautions listed in posters put up at office entrances were not enough, more were to be found the moment I got on trains heading home.

Back home, switch on the television and there was even more of it. Early mornings were no different. The newspapers the newspaper boy flung against the door whispered, ‘Swine flu.’

A week is a long time in Bombay, longer still on Mumbai local trains. ‘News flu’ having elevated Swine flu to one of eminent danger, speculating on the likely surge given the crowded local trains that ferry commuters to work and back, travelers had taken to using handkerchiefs to cover their faces.

With N95 face masks proving to be elusive, handkerchiefs came in handy. Moreover, the Mumbai commuter will not be bothered with carrying a mask around once out the train. Most would find it too much of a hassle.

I wore my handkerchief in similar fashion.

The week soon passed. And having largely found themselves none the worse for the caution they exercised with what were in effect cloth placebos, the handkerchiefs came off within a week of their going up, even as the death toll from H1N1 infections rose steadily in Pune, and to an extent in Mumbai. And life went on, though not quite.

The days of uncertainty triggered by a seemingly rampaging Swine flu were leading into India’s ‘festival season’ beginning with Nag Panchami, Raksha Bandhan, and Krishna Janmashtami in Shravan masa (month). Bhadrapad masa follows Shravan masa, when Mumbai celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi with a fervour that is unmatched across India. Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali soon follow in Ashwin masa, bringing to an end the three months that characterize much of festivities across India. Swine flu fears fronted the festivities, the elephant in the room that no one dared dismiss.

It was not so much Raksha Bandhan that put the Maharashtra Govt. on tenter hooks as the Krishna Janmashtami (Gokulashtami) celebrations when ‘Govindas’ by the truckloads, cheering from the back of the trucks, reveling in the light drizzle even as they sport their team affiliations on their backs, usually the name of their Mitra Mandal and local sponsors, roar into neighbourhoods across Mumbai and outlying suburbs to participate in dahi handi (literally meaning a pot of curd).

They make their way to Mitra Mandals hosting dahi handi to compete as much for the prizes awaiting teams successfully forming human pyramids in breaking dahi handis, often tied at dizzying heights, as for the spectacle this much loved festival marking the birth of Lord Krishna in Mathura and celebrating his childhood exploits in pursuit of dahi handi for the dahi though it was butter he was actually after.

Some rickshaw drivers from the north of India will often display stickers of the young Krishna, also known as Bal Gopal, on their windshields. I never stopped to ask them how they manage to see through the windshields. If I did I could well expect them to smile and point to Lord Krishna and say, “He’ll take care of us. He always has.”

The advent of politicians and advertisers seeking to cash in on the ready made platform that large congregations of youth presented them with has ensured this ancient festival, easily dating back several thousand years, did not escape commercialization at the main venues, in turn raising prize money as competing political parties sought to be known for organizing the ‘biggest’ dahi handi in town.

Stakes went up. And more youth groups (locally organized as Mitra Mandals) threw their hats in the rings. Many would return home with serious injuries from falls as human pyramids in pursuit of the dahi handi came crashing down.

Word soon went out that the ‘big’ dahi handi celebrations patronized by political parties and local toughs and known for drawing participants and spectators in their thousands through the day stood cancelled on account of fears stemming from Swine flu spreading among such large gatherings.

That left small neighbourhoods to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami by organizing dahi handi in their neighbourhoods. Each Mitra Mandal stepped up and carried on with the tradition of dahi handi in their respective neighbourhoods. Even so I was surprised upon stepping out in the late afternoon to find most dahi handis, strung from ropes spanning roads and decorated with garlands, already broken and crowds dispersed for the day.

At Chandanwadi, a black board erected roadside by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a relatively new local political party known for its visceral hatred of non marathi-speaking people, announced its neighbourhood involvement with its Navnirman Mitra Mandal. The board was empty of any announcement relating to dahi handi. A mobile stall selling catapults stood under the display board. An adjacent stage set up for the occasion was empty, the function welcoming participating ‘Govindas’ and prize distribution having concluded early in the day.

The broken pot still hung from where it was strung over the road, and auto rickshaws plied the roads as people went about their daily lives.

An elderly man reclining in a chair on a raised platform along Almeida Road in Chandanwadi told me that folks finished up with dahi handi quickly, and early “because of that new disease in town”.

His elbows resting on armrests pantomimed as much an acceptance of the new reality as an helplessness dealing with it. He spoke in Marathi. Two little girls from the neighbourhood played in the open space while the man kept his eye on them, watching the roar of trucks carrying cheering ‘Govindas’ past us.

A local youth sat with his back to the wall by a display board of the local Mitra Mandal aptly named Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal, established in the year 1975 and registered with the Govt. of Maharashtra. It is likely that the elderly man was once associated with the Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal in his youth, its survival the only certainty in a fast changing city.

Rarely turning to me as he spoke, he wondered where these new diseases come from. “In my time we never had this disease (H1N1), and the one before that (referring to Bird flu).” Then he turned his palms upward, facing skywards, as if prostrating to the will of the almighty before venting his fears in a calm tone.

“I sometimes wonder what else is in store for me before my time is over and how will these young children cope with all of it!”

August 18, 2010

Jab Se Hui Hai Shaadi

Returning from Tughlaqabad along the Mehrauli – Badarpur road, Toshi and I moved to the pace of Delhi traffic and soon found ourselves behind a Vikram as most 3-Wheeler passenger auto rickshaws ferrying passengers about town are known as in some regions north of India.

On the back, the Vikram sported in Hindi a common refrain around marriage that men will sometimes good humouredly tease their wives with, raising laughs in gatherings and eliciting matching verse from other men and before you can say ‘Hello’ a full fledged mehfil is likely underway as each married gent tries to outdo the other. If they’re lucky the womenfolk will join in notwithstanding the potshots that men aim at them with their verses, mostly good-naturedly. Sometimes not.

While he advertised “Eco Friendly Service” prominently on the back, the two pierced hearts lent urgency to the lines between them, a sentiment that likely elicited smiles, even if weary at the thought, in those following behind him.

Jab Se Hui Hai Shaadi
Aasu Baha Raha Hun,
Aafat Galey Padi Hai
Vikram Chala Raha Hun

(In English)

Since the Time I Got Married
I’ve been Shedding Tears,
A Millstone hangs by my Neck
And I ride a Vikram Now.

The last two lines actually intend: “A Millstone (read ‘wife’ as in ‘she’s a trouble because she’s demanding’), reducing me to driving a Vikram (read ‘to satisfy her demands’ as in ‘living a good life’)”, in essence lamenting the state she’s brought him to. Driving a Vikram for a living is a hard life.

Museebat in Hindi translates to 'Trouble'. If you were to find yourself in traditional neighbourhoods where the lingo is not tempered by urban political correctness, retaining shades of rural ethos, don’t bat an eyelid if the elderly gentleman you’ve known for long welcomes you warmly into his home while calling out to his wife of many years: “Museebat, dekho kaun aaya hai.” (Museebat, see who’s here.)

Note: The lines on the back of the Vikram are drawn from the opening lyrics of the song Jab Se Hui Hai Shaadi from the 1990 Sanjay Dutt – Madhuri Dixit starrer ‘Thanedaar’, except for the last line Vikram Chala Raha Hun which the rickshaw driver modified to reflect his vocation.

The original song shows a harassed and ‘tattered’ Sanjay Dutt lamenting having to do all the chores since the time he got married while his wife, Madhuri Dixit, merrily pampers herself, living the good life at his expense!

Such is life (with a museebat wife)!

Note: Vikram is the brand name of the 3-Wheeler product range manufactured by Scooters India Ltd. based out of Lucknow and formerly known for their 2-Wheelers - Vijai Super and Lambretta. Vikram 750D, Vikram 600G, Vikram 450D, Vikram 410G, and Vikram EV are among their key models in the 3-Wheeler range.

August 15, 2010

Not Just Another Day

He got off the train at Khed and headed for the exit where bougainvillea in mid-leap awaited him on his way out.

Soon we left them behind as we converged into the mountains in the far distance.

But before we made for the horizon we would first cross rivers. Many rivers.