The whole world loves Xmas and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ without necessarily belonging to the Christian faith. What matters is an almost universal spirit of good cheer and bonhomie as people gear themselves for a brand new year and say goodbye to the one that is ending. Well… 2020 has changed everything! It is as if it never happened! Most of us will look back at a blur and wonder -- where did the months go? Into one big black hole of sorrow -- that’s where. For the first time in memory, this is going to be a Blank Xmas, as opposed to the more traditional White Xmas. It feels so eerie and weird here in Mumbai, where Xmas Eve was one of the biggest, most looked forward to party nights on the calendar. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has imposed a night curfew, which effectively means that nobody can ring in Christmas at midnight, except in the privacy of their homes. All public festivities (even those which strictly observe the Covid protocols) stand cancelled. The streets are dark, depressing and deserted, and I feel really bad for the cheerful urchins who used to make quick money accosting motorists and pedestrians with Santa caps, masks and other paraphernalia. I passed a few last night and their glum expressions broke my heart -- there they were, the familiar cheeky little kids, standing in clumps, clutching unsold bright red felt caps and reindeer hair bands. I wondered what they’d do with the dozens of red topis once this gloomy day/year is over.
There has been a great deal of debate over the Maharashtra government’s bold decision to impose a night curfew at a time when the city is reeling under a crippling economic slowdown. Health over all else is the right way forward and all that, but at this point we know very little about the behaviour of the latest mutant strain. By all means take every precaution, but why a night curfew? It feels like surrender -- a sense of defeat -- at a time when everything was looking up and our collective hopes were pinned on the vaccine being made available within a month or so. This fresh development (the mutant strain) has raised a number of new questions and taken us totally off guard. A young man who came over for some work, mentioned the plight of his cousin, who is indefinitely stuck in London and has no idea when he can get back home. He has been informed that as a tourist he will only be able to leave London after he takes the vaccine. Again, as a tourist, he is at the bottom of the vaccine ladder -- he will have to wait till all the other groups (frontline workers, doctors, senior citizens) get vaccinated first. This means he could be stuck inside his obliging relative’s home till March 2021! What a dismal prospect! There he is, this young fellow from Mumbai, staring out of his window at a grey sky outside. Food deliveries are erratic, most grocery stores shut shop be 5 pm. Oxford Street is dead, as are all the other streets, parks and restaurants. His business schedule has gone for a toss, and soon his relative will want him out! What then?
Closer to home, we are trying not to let the pall of gloom and doom affect us by distracting ourselves the best we can. People who had planned elaborate Xmas and New Year’s Eve parties have hastily switched over to other programmes. Dinners have become sundowners, while others are quickly rejigging their eggnog-turkey-Xmas pudding-mulled wine dinner menus and hosting long brunches instead. Human beings are so resilient and brilliant! I love the optimism of people with an indestructible “never-say-die spirit” -- khao-peeo-jiyo. Why not? While in Pune recently, sipping tea inside a spacious tea lounge at the swankiest property in India (the Ritz Carlton), I watched with my jaw dropping to the floor as not one, not two, but three baraats of extremely well-heeled families arrived simultaneously! Three heavily decorated white mares, with three overdressed dulhas atop each and three sets of garishly clad baraatis, added to the mayhem, as guests scurried around, wondering which of the three huge weddings they’d been invited to! Every posh five-star hotel in Pune is fully booked up with lavish shaadis taking place at all available venues. A young jeweller proudly showed me a dazzling diamond set he had created for a local bride -- it was priced at more than one crore rupees!
Chatting with the family of one of the beautiful brides, her father told me how he had reallocated funds meant for a five-day international extravaganza for his beloved beti and invested the funds in a fancy penthouse for the couple. As he put it: “Instead of feeding one thousand guests over five days and hosting multiple functions, we thought this was a better option. It is one way to secure our daughter, plus, it’s a solid investment which will appreciate down the line.” If there is something like a “silver lining” to the pandemic, maybe it is this -- that people are being more sensible about money matters and looking at the future more realistically. “Have money, will spend” has changed to “Have money, will save”.
Dear readers… yup… the times have been bad… in fact, terrible. But you are alive… and so am I! As the lucky survivors of this deadly scourge, let us raise a glass to a better, healthier, saner future! See you on the other side! Here’s to a Covid-free 2021!...