The winds had begun early that morning. They were the loudest Bombay had heard in a hundred years. They woke Rohit from the fitful sleep he’d dropped into at about 4 a.m. He didn’t remember when he had begun watching the sea, which was slowly turning turbulent. It was mesmerising. It was now 2 p.m. and he could see Cyclone Nisarga coming inwards across the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea. It was the first cyclone hitting Bombay in a decade but the strongest since 1882. Sheetal, his wife, had texted reminding him to tape up the kitchen window. The hinges were almost falling off, and Abdul, their carpenter, had promised to come in and reinforce the frame and put in new ones in April before he went to his village for the summer in May. But on March 23rd, Prime Minister Modi had announced the lockdown, and the window remained untended even today on June 3rd.
The darkening sea was a churning slate grey close to the shore, deepening into an almost black charcoal further near the horizon. The sky was a swirling smoke grey, but thick clouds were descending and whirling across it now, wiping out the islands just twelve kms away. Waves, four feet high, pounded the tetrapods placed along the shoreline to decrease their impact. The fisherfolk’s village downwind had been evacuated the previous day. The residents had tied down the huts with tarpaulins and nylon ropes, but he could see the wind tearing at them, freeing them from their restraints. Just momentarily he thought of setting up a canvas to capture the terrifying beauty. He could draw himself into the picture, barely visible as his striped grey and black pyjama bottoms and light grey t-shirt would blend into the colours outside and obliterate him. It would make a spectacular picture – man completely quashed by Nature. But it was not worth the effort. He hadn’t washed out his paintbrushes for a week, and they would need to be soaked in solvent before they could be used. Anyway, everything would be over soon now.
The cellphone rang again. It was Sheetal from Singapore, where she had been stuck since the lockdown. She had left on March 1st when there were only 3 Covid-19 cases in India and 106 in Singapore. They had wondered if she should cancel her trip, but her niece, Gouri, was pregnant with her first baby, and the Covid pandemic hadn’t seemed as threatening in this region of the world then. Gouri and their son, Amit, had been born just two days apart. Sheetal’s sister had passed on, after a long struggle with breast cancer when the children were just five, and Sheetal had brought them both up as her own. She had needed to be there for the birth. ‘My first grandchild,’ she told everyone. She had planned to stay on a few weeks after the due date and return to India by April 1st.
Sheetal hadn’t wanted him to be alone for a month, especially since he had been so churned up since December, when the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act had begun. She reminded him how he ‘sponged’ up disturbances in the surroundings and was more affected by them than most. But at the end of February, a month alone had felt right to Rohit. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ he had said. ‘You know I need to have periodic solitary retreats and I have those two paintings I started in January to complete. Besides, I don’t feel like leaving India right now when so much is going on.’
The so much he spoke about was mostly happening in Delhi, though the anti-CAA protests had spread like a tsunami throughout the country. The amendment to the immigration bill, which discriminated against Muslims seeking citizenship, had been pushed through both houses of Parliament without much political opposition. Activists feared that it would be used to terrorise poor Muslims who could not produce their birth certificates. When the first peaceful protest had been quelled viciously by the Delhi police, all of India had been angered. Thousands had taken to the streets. In Bombay they had gathered at August Kranti Maidan, the park where the freedom struggle for Independence had begun. Rohit and Sheetal had been in the crowd, and the dull heaviness that had engulfed anti-Modi activists like him since his re-election had lifted. The disturbances in Delhi had continued with police brutality increasing, especially in dealing with university students and minorities. This was followed by hate speeches against Muslims by ministers of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party in January, and finally the riots in February. He, they both, had been glued to the news through the months. He couldn’t leave the country at that point.
He had been content during the first three weeks. He and Sheetal spoke daily and texted every hour. On his first day alone, he rearranged the furniture in the living room. He pushed the sofa and armchairs inwards away from the large bay windows and moved his easel and desk, with his computer and printer, out of the cramped study to this vacated, better lit space. At first, he woke to an alarm, but that was Sheetal’s need, not his, and soon he took to waking whenever he wanted. He ate breakfast and worked till one, then went to the club for a swim and had lunch in the garden cafe. Back home, he worked till evening when he met friends for scotch and dinner. In that first week, all they talked about was Safoora Zargar, a pregnant activist who had been arrested along with an arms supplier, for instigating the February riots; she was denied bail, yet the arms dealer, who was Hindu, had been granted it. As they watched more biased arrests being made, while police and BJP members caught on camera indulging in physical or verbal violence roamed free, they raged about the Supreme Court, which had so obviously been co-opted by the BJP, and felt a furious helplessness paralyse them. So, when Araaz asked Rohit to team up to create a weekly political cartoon, he was glad to have an outlet for his frustration.
The baby, a girl they named Amrita, was born on March 18th. Rohit didn’t talk to Sheetal for a couple of days while they were in the hospital, but he got regular updates, and the baby and mother were home on March 21st. He had Skyped with Sheetal and the family in Singapore the next evening. It was during the Janata Curfew that Modi had called — a day- long lockdown with the banging of steel vessels to show solidarity with the Covid fight at 6 p.m. They had laughed at the inane thali banging, and later Rohit had felt lonely and wished he had been there with them.
Then Modi went on TV on March 23rd, at 8 p.m., when the Covid cases in the country were still under 300, and theatrically announced that a three-week stringent lockdown would begin at midnight. The airspace was shut down, too. Rohit had been at Araaz’s place that evening and had scrambled to get home. He saw people queueing up in the Godrej Mart at the corner and got out of his car to buy some bottles of Glenfiddich. Everyone was irritated at the short notice and confused about what was allowed and what wasn’t.
Even then Rohit hadn’t been worried about being alone for an additional two weeks. Like many, he saw it as an opportunity to wind down from his busy schedules and perhaps learn something new. He signed up for the Adobe Photoshop course that Amit had been pressing him to do since he had gifted the software to his dad. Sheetal, in her usual fussy way, worried about his meals since Rohit didn’t cook much beyond eggs and toast. But their neighbours, without any prompting, had organised a roster, and two meals were delivered to him each day. He only had to wash out the crockery and return it.
Almost immediately, though, all thoughts of a peaceful retreat collapsed. On March 25th, thousands of city labourers, those who had lost their daily wage jobs and had no money for rental or food, began walking to their villages amidst the lockdown. Rohit had the TV on all day; he tried to work, but the anguished images haunted him. He saw an old bent man crying as he carried his frail wife on his back; he saw a child with a heavy bundle on her head, cheeks wet, and flattened plastic bottles tied to her feet – her slippers had broken miles earlier. Rohit rushed to his laptop and found an NGO delivering rubber flip flops to migrants and sent in a donation. He saw six men with vacant gazes stuck in a 12 ft-by-12 ft room. Their bedrolls were spread across the floor, and they hadn’t eaten in three days. He heard that the rotary was providing meals to workers stuck in cities and sent in a donation, then another and another, until a worried Sheetal changed their online banking password. They had their first Skype fight, and their conversations became shorter and more fraught with conflict. She was in safe and orderly Singapore and absorbed with the new baby; she did not understand the pressing needs of those here. Yet Rohit knew that it was only until mid-April that he would be alone. She would be home as soon as the lockdown lifted, and they would sort it all out.
On March 27th, PM Lee Hsien Loong went on TV and announced the Singapore circuit breaker. The number of cases in Singapore had gone up to 732 as people returned from Europe, and there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in the worker dormitories. Singapore felt a partial lockdown was necessary to control the spread. The city was shutting down from April 2nd. Singaporeans had been given four days notice to get their lives in order and a detailed list of allowed activities was on the government website. Rohit felt irrational anger towards Sheetal and cut the call short that evening, then drank to numb the panic he felt.
The numbers in both countries began rising. At first it was slow, but soon India’s infections were totally out of control. In their now bi-weekly calls, Sheetal spoke of how their visits to the supermarket were so chaotic. People were leaving their carts unattended and blocking the lanes, and there was no safe distancing, but she was obviously not watching the Indian news and seeing the real chaos. Thousands of labourers walking hundreds of miles on foot to get home, police beating labourers because they were outdoors, queues from 4 a.m. for food in the soup kitchens, and people returning with two small bags of food for eight people that had to last them 24 hours. Hospital beds were filling up, corpses lining the walls of Covid wards. Rohit obsessively sketched the faces he saw on TV. All day the labourers walked in his head; at night they pounded his dreams, tread on his bed and body. He began walking with them, round and round in his 1100 sq ft flat. He clocked 20,000 steps, 36,000 steps and then 50,000 steps on his fitbit. He sat on the sofa all night and thought about their suffering; he felt it in his own body; he wondered when it would all end. He barely slept and stopped painting. He felt something crawling under his skin, something terribly grotesque that was clawing its way out.
The landline rang. It was so loud. It was 2:30 p.m. The wind had picked up. He ignored the phone. It had to be Sheetal. He didn’t want to talk to her. She didn’t understand anything. All through April and May, he had emailed her about the horrors in India. He sent her stories of more activists detained without bail despite jail terms being labelled as death sentences during Covid, of Muslims being condemned as super-spreaders after a mosque event lead to a surge in infections, of starvation deaths rising, of small businesses folding up. He had expected her to be as outraged as him, but she was in Singapore, where the situation was being handled with more care; she emailed back stories of hope in India. The rotary, other NGOs, and citizen groups were feeding thousands daily; people were helping each other in more ways than could be imagined – like buying their groceries or paying for hospital treatments. Adbul had walked to his village and WhatsApped her a picture of him with his family. Rohit wanted to scream, ‘SHUT UP! None of this is enough. Can’t you see that.’ She sent him a link with research showing that people acted from their best selves during disasters. Sure, sure, people were doing their best, but to him it was all just a small drop in the huge ocean of misery. The central government was passive, uncaring about the labourers, he replied. Modi had come on TV and asked people to light diyas in April, but not spoken about the labourers. They were still walking the roads, out where they were visible in thousands, no longer in their invisible, cramped, unlivable slums, where people like him had ignored them. Why was she still denying their misery? He sent her an email saying she was deliberately blinding herself to the depths of darkness of what was going on, that it was her normal habit to do that when things got too much. She sent him a link to a talk by Yuval Harari where he spoke of thread of love within humans and the reasons for hope. She told him to stop watching the news as he wasn’t able to manage his emotional boundaries.
He slammed his laptop shut and stopped emailing her. He felt utterly alone. Why did she not feel the desperation of those walking? It gripped every cell of his body and soul with an unbreakable grip. This world they lived in was not worth living in. He spoke to her occasionally but remained morose and monosyllabic on the calls. Early in May someone in the building contracted Covid, and the authorities shut down the building. There were police orders that nobody was supposed to enter someone else’s flat or interact physically in any way with those outside their flat. They could place orders for essential items, only through the designated delivery channels. His neighbour phoned, saying she was not allowed to send him food any more. Rohit did not tell Sheetal this. She would worry and nag him to eat, but how would that help him? He ate sometimes, definitely more often than those walking labourers did. He also did not tell her that Araaz was missing. That he had texted Rohit a few days back that the website with the political cartoons was being monitored, and he feared he would be arrested. Then he had disappeared, and Rohit stopped answering Sheetal’s calls. She left voice messages. ‘Hang in, please hang in. I will be back on the first flight once they resume air travel.’
But he no longer believed that it would ever happen. He scratched his greasy hair. It itched. He hadn’t bathed in a few days. Red patches of a rash covered his neck and upper chest. But it didn’t matter. It would all be gone soon. He was waiting for the end now. Waiting for Kali Yuga to end and the cycle to complete.
Hindu mythology espoused four ages or Yugas, beginning with the Satya Yuga or the age of truth, when there were no poor, no illness, no sorrow, no fear, no greed or hatred and no need to labour, as people could manifest what they needed with the sheer power of their minds. Each subsequent Yuga like the ages of Greek mythology, was less pure, less good and poorer than the one before it. Until the Kali Yuga, where civilisation degenerated in every way possible, losing all touch with spirituality, Here God was misused to promote hatred and violence. Floods, drought, plague, extreme poverty, lawlessness, and lack of justice prevailed. The current Kali Yuga had begun around 3000 BC. Yes, he knew that, logically, chronologically this didn’t make sense as, at that time, history books showed that civilisation was just beginning, the first settlements were forming, the first grain was planted, the first pottery made. But myths were like poetry, and they did not follow the rules of everyday logic. They had to be felt in the heart and soul.
He had begun googling the end of the Kali Yuga a few weeks ago, and many astrologers had predicted that the world would come to an end in 2025, but he could see signs that the world was spiralling towards its end earlier. Some had said Pralaya, the Final Destruction had begun in 2014. That made sense to him as that was the year that a man who engineered the genocide in Gujarat became the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world. Then he was re-elected in 2019, and evil was peaking. The images of destruction were everywhere now. Last week he had seen bodies of labourers cut down on the railway tracks; the cyclone in West Bengal had wreaked havoc on May 21st, in Visakhapatnam there had been a gas leak at LG Polymers and people had fainted on the roads; elsewhere, he forgot where, toxic chemicals had entered the drinking water. And wasn’t this virus the ultimate plague? India had 216,824 cases now. 387,028 people had died worldwide. How long could mankind survive? Nisarga—meaning nature—was aptly named. It would take over and wipe everything clean. In the fisherfolk’s village he saw a roof blow off and be carried away like it was a sheet of A4 paper.
His phone buzzed. Gouri, who saw him as a second father, had sent him a picture of the baby. She also sent him an idyllic picture of last night’s dinner on the balcony, with the sun setting against a backdrop of trees. But he was here alone. One of the effects of the Kali Yuga was separation from loved ones. And it didn’t matter that in Singapore things were settling, that other countries had dealt with Covid and were opening up their lockdowns. Didn’t they say civilisation had begun in India? The end would begin here, too.
The landline rang on and on. Rohit unplugged it. It was 3 p.m. The winds were now the strongest they had ever been in Bombay in a hundred years. Nisarga had made landfall at Alibaug. A minute ago, he had heard the kitchen window being torn off its broken hinges and crashing somewhere. It was time. He had begun to hear the drums, the damaru, being played on Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva the destroyer. He felt them booming through the ether around him. Shiva was warming to his dance. Liberation, emancipation, freedom for all were at hand. Shiva would dance and dance for a hundred years, after which the cataclysmic destruction would be over. Then, 300 years later, the Satya Yuga would begin again, and he would be reborn.
He opened the balcony door and stepped outside. He began swaying, trying to find the rhythms of the wind and waves. He climbed up to the railing, and Nisarga claimed him.
Radhika Pandya is an Indian woman living in Singapore. She freelances as a conflict facilitator and teaches karate. She is interested in writing about issues related to social justice, identity and mental health.