22 March 2020.
We woke up as you do on this typical humid Sunday morning in good old Bombay/Mumbai. But things had all changed this last week. After three flight cancellations, I had finally got a spot on the British Airways flight that afternoon. It was the last day for flights to leave India before the lockdown of airspace to and from India.
It was also the Sunday that the Indian Prime Minister had announced a "Janta Curfew." It meant a people's curfew. It was not legal but people were expected to stay home to slow down the spread of the new mysterious villain, Covid19. Growing up in India I had known that a curfew had some fixed hours but despite that locally there was always movement. People walking to friends or family. Businesses using the day off for catching up with stock count or admin and most importantly streets with minimal traffic packed with kids and adults playing cricket. So we did not think twice when I had to drive out to the airport and make sure I get on the last flight out of Mumbai airspace.
My sister offered to drop me as getting a cab was impossible and I was not missing those free nuts with bad coffee! We drove from home to the airport, a 20-minute drive that often takes an hour weaving through cars, rickshaws and wedding guests dancing in traffic. But today Mumbai decided to listen. The fear of the virus was real and no one was taking chances. For the first ten minutes, neither of us said anything. It felt like we were committing a crime. We were in a place we had no right to be. A city that never shuts, a city that rarely listens to calls for curfews or holidays, was silent. We didn't pass any cars or person, not even a stray dog or cow. There was a huge sense of relief when we spotted that first car, just as we turned into the airport road. It was the most sparsely spread taxi and car queue I had seen, making their way through the security posts. We quickly said our goodbyes and insisted my sister get back quick. She had no trouble getting home and no fines thankfully.
The Mumbai airport is a packed space, needing soundproof headphones and meandering your way through security and immigration with queues almost a mile long! Any day, any time. Today it was empty. The silence was unnerving. As I walked in I heard arguments. Yes! Life was around and the noise that would otherwise annoy me felt comforting. A group of local workers had arrived expecting a flight to another city in India and had not realised it was canceled. The argument was about refunds now. Tearing myself away from the real life drama I went to find my check in desk.
As you can imagine the immigration and security was the quickest it had ever been. With one last flight taking off there were just passengers around. The staff were covered in PPE making me feel under dressed. Our bags were tested with swabs, I think to find unrecognised bacteria. We then had to get temperatures checked and reasons for travel were questioned. "It is far worse in the UK, why not stay here longer?" Even strangers care for you in India and this is why I love this country!
Duty-free was shut. The joy of buying over priced junk is a thrill I did not realise I missed so much until this day! The only thing open was a cafe in the food hall with limited items to sell. There was a cordoned-off area that was open to the passengers. And the only walk permitted was to the loo. That was it. Someone stretched out to nap, another was making small conversations and two girls were working on their TikTok video. I bought myself a coffee and settled to read my book.
We had to wait four hours and some as a few passengers were delayed in a domestic flight. BA did not want to leave any more citizens stranded while it had the chance and had decided to wait for them. I would want that too if I was on those flights.Finally, we could board and within minutes before the no-fly zone ban came into place, we were off. I seem to have a dramatic story with all my flights from Mumbai but I will leave those for a separate blog post.
After reading, movies, bad meals we had landed in UK finally, missing family already. But the hope to get back to routine and away from a strict lockdown in Mumbai felt promising. I was not prepare for Heathrow being so dead too. It had the same eerie feeling that I got walking into Mumbai airport. No one around other than reduced staff. I was expecting questions, tests, etc but I walked out in ten minutes. I got a leaflet that suggested I ring the NHS in case I had any symptoms of the half page list. London had decided to go into lockdown too but it was not as severe as Mumbai. Easily got my cab and was home quickly. The rest of 2020 was not any better. Lockdowns and tier system took over and time is moving on leaving us in a limbo of sorts.
It's March 22, 2021 today and we are still in lockdown. Learning to live with this new lifestyle is frustrating. But as my mum reminds me, we are blessed to be healthy and safe and always see the glass full!