The sequel of Contagion is unfolding all over the globe. The eighth week of the lockdown in Mumbai is not really Day 56, I tell myself; it’s just the same day all over again. The ‘incidence rate’, a term that has leapt from epidemiology courses to the media and everyday discourse, shows a shocking 600-plus new cases in Mumbai each day. There are over 10,000 active cases. Of course, this is a dream compared to New York City, where I moved from. The first line of a famous Tagore song reminds us, “We are all emperors in the kingdom of the emperor…or how else could we dance to His wishes?” With the novel coronavirus’ machinations, we can only do a babel dance to ‘His’ wishes.
As I make my way to the supermarket war zone, the water near Haji Ali glistens more brightly than ever—like wet diamonds. This novel, less polluted Mumbai has a silence, uncertainty and pain that reminds me of the air the month after 9/11 in New York—a smell of burnt oil and lost dreams. After what feels like a cinematic escape from prison, which I re-enact every week, I reach the police-patrolled supermarket parking lot. There are squares marked six feet apart, each circumscribing masked zombies waiting to enter a morgue. The once-upon-a-time Pavlovian cacophony of Ed Sheeran’s saccharine numbers, chattering Pilates moms and retired Sensex men trading notes over mocha cappuccinos has been drowned out by the silence. When will it be normal? Never. The realities of our ghost cities have all merged, puncturing our delusions and coveted circles, creating a silent retreat for birds.
As I enter the emergency room-like zone, my short grocery list suddenly feels long and confusing. At the produce section, the carrots and beetroot look soggy. As if they have emerged from a war zone, beaten, bruised and pummelled. But then, Raju appears, gloved and masked. He has seen me hunting for the vegetables and quickly brings over a fresh lot. I am relieved to see him amid the unrecognisable. I recall my last meeting with him. Before the apocalypse engulfed our lives, a friend and I were sitting exactly here having coffee. The chairs and tables are now missing. Raju, in his twenties and well-groomed, had gingerly walked over saying he had overheard I was working on a film. He is an actor and wondered if I had any leads. I was impressed with his forthright manner and told him I would keep him in mind. Raju handed me his card. As he trailed off with our cups, my friend raised her eyebrows. I was surprised by her reaction and said that I appreciated his spark and thought he was a ‘seeker’. I admired seekers as my journey to Mumbai has been one of a reverse migrant from New York. I had appreciated Raju’s drive to seize the moment, but dismissed it afterwards.
Today, however, things are different. A wicked witch from the East and then the West has pierced the urban cloak of apathy. I could be next—the thought was humbling. At the check-out counter, Raju’s smile was unflinching. He looked as sunny as he did a month ago—his calm an oasis amid sloppy, raided shelves and panic buyers. I cautiously ask about his family. He says they are labourers who returned to Bihar without any income or savings. “The lockdown needs to end now. People will die hungry,” he says softly.
I think of Raju’s hunger, his dreams that I callously dismissed two weeks ago. His is a patch on an endless quilt of lost dreams where hunger pangs, now greater than ever, smother the chance to hone talent. Besides, despite his charm and presence, Raju would never be seen as “fitting” the part. He will be typecast—a driver, butler or at best, a clerk. The truth of burnt oil and lost dreams. My thoughts suddenly shift. At Columbia, we studied how pandemics rebounded in a worse second wave. Would we be able to shoot the film by late fall? If so, with actors wearing masks? Perhaps not. The light at the end of the tunnel suddenly seems dim. I stop the shopping cart and turn back to Raju. “When this is over...” I pause. He nods knowingly, his eyes smiling above his mask. I am grateful.
As I leave the air-conditioned cold storage, my eyes meet the blinding sun. I gaze up to see the sunlight creeping through branches. It is a promise. A promise that beyond these burnt bodies and lost dreams, nature will give us another chance. She will give us a chance to be better for the planet and the humans who survived. I exit the parking lot and check my purse. Raju’s card is still there.Isheeta Ganguly is a Tagore fusion singer, writer and director