Just like a diabetic’s occasional gulab jamun, Marine Drive is Shripal Dalal’s guilty and forbidden pleasure — off-limits and under extraordinary surveillance. The last time the Churchgate resident stepped onto the promenade, he walked with purpose and gave watching eyes no reason to believe that he intended to linger.
“I was returning home from a bank. There was not a soul in sight and for those seven to 10 minutes that I was outdoors. It felt like I was the only person in the world. It was like a post-zombie apocalypse,” says Dalal, who runs an IT consulting firm. “It is also a world in which the promenade is unimaginably spotless and any trespassers are placed under arrest,” he adds.
Under India’s lockdown regulations, movement of a citizen has been severely restricted and with it Mumbai’s century-long presumed freedom to stroll by the sea has been temporarily suspended.
So far, the Mumbai Police has booked six people this month for walking on Marine Drive without an adequate or acceptable reason. The language employed by outraged officers in the FIRs summarises the offence with a single edict: you can no longer wander.
The only exception is made for two hours at dawn for locals to walk their dogs. “Sometimes even we get scared seeing the place so empty, wondering where everyone has gone,” says a beat marshal at Marine Drive police station.
The police’s response to citizens leaving their homes without a permissible or exempted reason to do so has varied throughout the city. Just last week, evening walkers at Lokhandwala’s spacious back road were spared arrest but not the ignominy of apologetic schoolboy hand-to-the-ear sit-ups, on camera.
Those restless men still got off much better than a 21-year-old man in Newcastle, Australia, who was fined $1,000 earlier this month after twice ignoring warnings by the police to stay indoors. The third time the police spotted the offender, he was eating a kebab on a bench.
For those accustomed to walking to and from school, work, market or park, being denied the right to unconsciously put one foot ahead of the other could make them feel disconnected from reality, says Bharat Gothoskar’s, whose Khaki Tours runs 50 guided walks in the city. “This now feels like a simulation of what retirement will be like,” he says.
Others quarantined in containment zones have come to view walking outdoors as a privilege they never truly appreciated. “Even if I get to walk out of my building for three minutes I will be very happy,” says Sharmishtha Chakravorty, director of Musafir Motorcycle Tours. Having biked across half the country, she has to content herself these days with kick-starting her motorcycle and letting it run idle.
It doesn’t come close to a runner’s indoor marathon and the professional cyclist’s indoor trainer bike. “But it is all I can do for my poor bike right now,” Chakravorty says.
In Mira Road, amateur cyclist Bittu Singh has been filling his days lying flat on his back and suspending his bike above him. His 29 rotations of the bike’s wheels in this precarious position is an unbeaten record in his cycling group. Like that kid stuck with unfinished homework at 6 pm, Singh can only look out at the hills of nearby Manor with longing. “Door se dekhkar sukoon ley leta hoon,” he says.
Out on the streets, where citizens have been granted a lot less liberty than in next-door Mumbai, Singh has detected a noticeable change. “People seem afraid to stand still in one place for too long. Everyone buys what they need and heads home,” he says. This is very different city on the move.
Judging by the number of the new groups on Facebook fondly recalling pre-lockdown Mumbai, Gothoskar predicts only one outcome once this unprecedented curfew ends. “When restrictions were finally lifted in China, the Great Wall looked as packed as Dadar railway station is during peak hour. The same thing will happen here,” he says.
But the city isn’t going anywhere. Abha Bahl, who runs The Bombay Heritage Walks says that the city’s oldest buildings have been surviving catastrophes since the 1700s. “They are still going to be around when the lockdown ends. We just need to be patient,” she says. Bahl however, apprehends changes in the way Mumbai is used to wandering freely.
Back at Marine Drive, Nikhil Banker of the local residents’ association has never seen the promenade this beautiful. With Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road, the University ground, the seven gymkhanas and Wankhede Stadium lying quiet, Banker can clearly hear the calls of mynahs and parrots over the usual din of traffic, sports meets and the IPL. For the first time in seven years he has spotted sparrows.
It is a scene alien even to Marine Drive’s most beloved saunterers. Having ambled along the seafront for half a century, Arjan and Sharda Ramani now bide their time exercising indoors. “We miss our friends and the young people who used to wave at us. Hopefully, we will get to go back soon,” says Sharda Ramani.
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