Sometime in August last year, I remember walking into the living room of my house to find my mother looking out of the window, a pained expression on her face. She turned to me and said, “How are we going to shift to Bombay? I’m scared”.
My dad was changing companies and in a couple of weeks we’d be leaving London. There was a lot of excitement at home about returning to India but as the date of our departure drew closer, anticipation morphed into anxiety.
I was in college in Boston when the pandemic set in and decided to complete my semester before flying back to London. With classes, parties and graduation all made virtual, the overriding emotion in college was one of great frustration. But at home, it was one of paranoia; isolation was embraced and interaction was nulled.
On my return, I was immediately sent to my room to quarantine for two weeks. It was my parents’ 25th anniversary the next day but—like the rest of my family—I was a part of the celebrations through Zoom. When I stepped out after two weeks, I was struck by just how differently my parents now lived. Food deliveries and people from the outside weren’t allowed in, groceries would be left untouched for 24 hours, then wiped thoroughly before being used, and every sneeze was met with a glare. My father and I would step out for a walk each day, but my mother rarely left the confines of our home. For four months we led a life so sanitised and de-sensitized that the thought of shifting continents and all the physical interaction it would entail had us all feeling squeamish.
Our last two weeks in London were a whirlwind of frenetic packing and endless farewells, yet the only guests that ventured inside our house were the movers. The nine-hour flight was the final tick on the checklist and we boarded it with our hands glistening of hand sanitiser and perspiration.
We moved into an apartment in a hotel in Santa Cruz after completing our quarantine period and the search for a permanent home picked up. The pandemic influenced our requirements; with work from home being the norm for the foreseeable future, my father was okay with a longer commute to work if it meant a more comfortable location for our home. There was also a preference for a furnished apartment; going out to buy furniture and interacting with carpenters would only further physical interaction.
I treated these apartment viewings as sightseeing opportunities and hungrily tried to absorb Bombay through them. Having lived in inland cities for the majority of my life, I was particularly fascinated by the sea. Each time we’d travel on the Sea Link, I’d roll down the windows, turn up the music and lean back into my seat. The wind, the sea and the skyline gave me this incredible adrenaline rush. I’d lost all sense of place cooped up in the hotel, but the Sea Link gave me a sense of belonging. A feeling of pride that this was a city I could call home.
This was also because, other than the Arabian Sea, there wasn’t much else for me to take in. The city seemed a shadow of its true self. Its defining features—the energy, the hustle, the street food, the nightlife—had all been stripped away: I was in Bombay but I also wasn’t.
I struggled to shake off the feeling of being a long-term tourist, and not a very good one at that. The first vada pav I had wasn’t fresh off the frying pan at a roadside stall somewhere in Dadar; it was a lukewarm one, sans the cutting chai, in my air-conditioned hotel room. Instead of strolling through the streets of Bandra, I swiped through its cafés and eateries on food delivery apps. The inauthenticity of my Bombay experience was incredibly frustrating.
But the city still had ways of making its presence felt. My mother woke me up excitedly one morning and told me that there was a film shoot taking place in our hotel. We took our morning chais to the balcony and looked upon a massive crew that went about shooting a scene where an actor jumps off the ledge of the hotel. My Bollywood-crazed mother spent the entire morning on the balcony, sending photos to the rest of my Bollywood-crazed family. Her frenzy abated when she found out that the crew would be filming in the room adjacent to ours. Interestingly, it sped up our efforts to shift out of the hotel and we soon finalized on a place in Mahalaxmi.
I’d noticed that my parents’ boldness in stepping out grew as our search for a home progressed. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face when during one of our first viewings, our broker took us to an apartment in which the landlord and his family still resided. By the time she realized what was happening, the doorbell had already been rung. It was the quickest apartment viewing I’d ever been to. But after returning from one such house hunt a few weeks on from this incident, my father came to me and delightedly announced how the two of them had gone to a Starbucks. My mother had even used the washroom there!
The change in geography forced a change in our mentality. Driven by necessity and the natural tendency to know one’s surroundings, we overcame our paranoia around the virus: the balance of being cautious without feeling caged in. Once we got a car, late night drives with a pitstop at the Naturals on Marine Drive became a regular occurrence. We’d frequently visited an outlet of the ice cream parlour when we lived in Bangalore many years ago, but these late-night trips to the one on Marine Drive felt different. We were indulging in a bona fide Bombay experience, tasting seasonal homegrown flavours, and etching out a routine that could be refreshing.
Until we can embrace the city in all its engaging enormity, we’ll be scouring for more such authentic Bombay experiences, no matter if they are scoop-sized. The Maximum City may be at its minimal potential, but our will to explore isn’t.
Shubi Arun can usually be found at a coffeehouse, sipping on a latte as he unsuccessfully attempts to write. Walking is his preferred mode of transport, and he listens to more podcasts than songs. He's a passionate sports fan, so live matches and stadium tours are always the first items on his travel itinerary.