Saturday 18 July 2020

The Silence In The Dunes

dubai curfew during the CoVID-19 corona pandemic

The balcony in our apartment extends to my room but doesn't open up to it. Instead of a door, I have to contend with a window overlooking my own balcony. I don't mind it as I would rather be in than out, given Dubai's propensity for heat and dust. But due to the strategic placement of my window, I am privy to most events in my balcony - which, we can all agree, is any young man's dream.

My role as the sentry of our balcony has its moments. When two birds get into a heated squabble on the railing, I am the first to find out. When our flimsy clothes drying stand tumbles over in the wind, I am the first to find out. Of course, by the time I rush outside to pick it up, our freshly washed clothes are beyond salvation from a thick layer of dust, but that doesn't undermine the fact that I find out first. 

Knowledge is power, after all. 

Occasional rack tumblings aside, the most significant event on our balcony occurs every morning. My parents like to begin their day sitting on our swing, sipping their daily chai in the morning chill, as they gently rock to and fro watching the sun rise over the horizon. Ironically, while I am aware of all trivial events in the balcony throughout the day, from tumbling dryers to squabbling birds, I am not privy to the only significant one in the morning. In the early hours of the day, when my parents commence their balcony routine, I am unerringly snoring away. I don't wake up until the sun is well and truly up (and blazing hot), and until my parents have already completed all their morning chores.

Even if I could manage to wake up at daybreak (a lost cause at this point, frankly), I wouldn't dream of interrupting my parents' daily tryst with destiny. It is their treasured time to themselves in the quiet hours of the morning, sipping chai with great relish. Their moment of solitude before the chaos of the day ensues. At that time, when the world sleeps, it's just them, their thoughts, confessions, supporting words and the chirping of birds. Over time, they have even developed a penchant for birdwatching, pointing out parrots, sparrows and crows with joy. Watching a flock of sparrows soar gracefully around our community adds to the poetry of the moment.

Due to the proximity of my window, at times I am abruptly woken by my father's loud rant on politics. My mother, on most occasions, is perceptive enough to shush him. 

"Thoda dheere bolo, Shalaj so raha hai," she admonishes.
(Speak softly, Shalaj is sleeping)

Soothed by the subdued voice of my father and the caresses of motherly love, I drift back to sleep quickly. 

On other days, I am woken by an uproar, stoked by my mother scolding my father on his latest act of mischief. On these days (which my father insists come rarely), I have no one to shush my mother in turn, as no man in our house would dare think that thought. So as my father gets his (deserved) rebukes, I have to endure them passively too, with my mother's fury effortlessly seeping through the flimsy window pane separating the scene of crime and my room.

However, on that day, that sultry morning in April, there were no loud voices on the other end of the window pane. Yet, I woke up. As I lay in bed, trying to will myself to sleep, hoping to catch a few more hours of blissful dreaming, my mother's sombre voice floated through the window.

"Kisi ne socha bhi nahi tha ki kabhi aisa hoga."
(No one had ever thought something like this would happen)

My father, in a rare moment, said nothing. The words sunk into a heavy silence, interrupted by their sips of chai and the setting of the teacups. Even the birds were quiet that day as if they were acknowledging our ruminations. No sparrows soared in the firmament. My mother's words hung with a certain heaviness, and unknown to her, seeped into our house, twirling and swirling, impeding my attempts to fall asleep again. Something about the way she said it exuded a force that I had hardly felt before. It was probably what woke me up in the first place. 

In 2020, just like that, my life had come to a standstill. 

Even my parents, just like the world around me, had gone quiet.

* * *

Life in Dubai had always been hectic. On the road, you were either speeding at 140, or being flashed out of your lane by someone who was or inching along in a logjam. The speed radars constantly flashed like paparazzi cameras. At work, you were writing an email, while on a call as you wolfed down your lunch in the pauses in between. In the malls, you were jostling crowds and standing in queues. You were guaranteed to make at least three rounds of a full parking lot before you spotted someone heading towards their car that you could tail. In the restaurants and shisha cafes, you were constantly checking your phone, setting alarms, rushing off to renew an expired parking ticket or being passive-aggressively booted out by the waiter trying to serve the customers queuing outside. At home, you barely got through your daily chores before you crashed out, ready to do it all again the next day.

At some point in the week, when two people would discover a rare moment of repose, the frenzy of this city would become apparent. Inevitably, one of them would sigh and lament: 

"Time flies too fast here."

Somehow, time as a dimension, as a continuum, followed different rules in Dubai. Everything about Dubai was about speed - growth, development, economy or vision. We got things done here, and we got them done fast. For a fledgeling city, one way to stand with giants was to convince them that it was precocious. I had watched the Burj Khalifa get constructed, floor by floor, week by week, as my school bus whizzed past it in the mornings. I had seen nothing but a sandy desert where the Dubai Marina launches cruises today. I had felt nothing but infernal heat at the spot where penguins roam in Ski Dubai today. I had seen nothing but the vast and unyielding Arabian Gulf at the spot where the Palm Jumeirah sleeps today. When we moved in, there was no Downtown Dubai. The tendrils of growth snaked out with alacrity from Bur Dubai and Deira, and today pictures of the city from the early 2000s are unrecognisable.

All of this, and more, in just a decade. 

I had not known a Dubai that knew anything else. It was a child prodigy trying to impress the adults with the exuberance of his youth. Those who couldn't, or wouldn't, keep up got replaced by ones who did. Every year that I returned to Dubai for vacations from university, it felt like I was visiting a new city. New restaurants and shops replaced my old haunts and new roads had emerged while older ones had vanished. New skyscrapers, new rules and new people were to be expected every single visit. The only constant was change. 

Every day, the city moved at breakneck speed, of that there was no doubt. 

But at what cost?

In the middle of that frenzy, we first heard a murmur. A virus had started to spread in China. Yet, we shrugged it off - somehow global events never passed through the Middle East. I had often felt detached from world events in this region - to my frustration in my teenage years, nothing major of interest ever happened here. In the 2000s, there were no rock concerts, cricket matches or movie premieres. On the other end, there were no wars, tsunamis, riots or earthquakes either. The disconnect came at a price but allowed us to enjoy a rare era of peace and stability. Global catastrophes felt like problems of the world outside, of which we remained aloof. 

When the swine flu pandemic ravaged the giants, we hardly noticed it. Our school simply put a tissue box in each classroom as a gesture of goodwill, and we carried on. When ebola ravaged Africa, it got honourable mentions in off-hand discussions at get-togethers but remained largely inconsequential. 

So when we heard a murmur, we forgot about it. This was a problem of the world outside. We continued zooming about, tangled in the chaos of city life. Then the rumours got louder, and it became a conversation starter. In March, something was afoot. Something mysterious, unseen and uncontrollable. Then suddenly, the news burst through - the fortress had been compromised. JLT went under lockdown, with One JLT roped off. That evening we went to buy groceries to find the shelves half-empty, with people stuffing their trolleys with every possible item in sight.

One by one, places started closing down. First, it was my gym, then the restaurants, then the hotels, malls, parks and beaches. The cases increased daily, the graph arcing upwards with brutality, hinting that it was still only at the base of the mountain. Darkness started to spread across the city, enveloping it, and seeping into our homes and hearts. Panic and anxiety took the reins. 

In April, the first curfew was announced. No one was supposed to be out late at night in a city that had built a reputation for a thriving nightlife. Earlier, whenever we used to head home late at night, my father would usually exclaim:

"Dekho sadak par iss waqt par bhi kitni gaadiyaan hai, kitni roshni hai."
(See, even at this time there are so many cars on the road and so much light)

Across two decades in Dubai, I have never seen the main roads deserted. Even at the darkest hour of the night, there was light. But in April, I saw them empty with not a soul in sight. Empty and desolate, even in broad daylight. As the cases kept increasing, the late-night curfew became a full day curfew. Pictures of a deserted Sheikh Zayed Road started circulating on WhatsApp. Daily commuters inured to its beauty were served a timely reminder. The emptiness revealed the road's inherent magnificence, its symmetrical majesty.

But, it was also equally haunting. It felt wrong.

As beautiful as Sheikh Zayed Road is, with its columns of skyscrapers standing guard like majestic sentinels that usher entrants into the city of the future, it deserved to be filled with cars, its curbs packed with pedestrians, the parking spaces occupied and the metro gliding past. If that road is the emblem of this city, then it needed to be perpetually in flux, with life constantly flowing down it like a stream.

That week, it was barren. Like the dunes that once rested in its place. After years of fooling time, we had started to go back. 

That was when it sunk in.

The silence hung over us like an iron curtain. For a while, experts believed that the virus might not survive in extreme heat. Ironically, very soon the sun, our eternal blaze, was blocked out by dark clouds. Thunderstorms, rare for Dubai and rarer for Dubai in April, slashed across the city. The pervasive gloom added to the curfew. We huddled at home, afraid of an unseen, unknown and unbeatable enemy. Even stepping out of my door into the building corridor felt like I was heading into the trenches of a war zone. Every person, door handle and item was treated with suspicion and paranoia. We set up a sanitisation space at the entrance of our home, to stop the virus at our doorstep whenever we stepped out. Anyone returning home had to wait for someone at home to open the main door and open all the doors on the way to the dedicated sanitising washroom. The footwear was left at the door.

Those who wished to drive in streets needed a permit, which was granted only once a week for essential tasks. My father, the sole family member to step out during the curfew, found only empty streets and barricades on the roads he once saw life and light even at the darkest hour. 

Even him, who had taken a bus through Delhi in the aftermath of the Sikh massacre in 1984, having described that as the darkest event he had ever witnessed with a scene of decadence and death trailing his wake, found himself surprised, at a loss of words even. Even for him, despite having lived in a world with Indo-Pakistani wars, communal riots and 9/11, it felt odd, felt wrong, to see his Dubai so desolate, empty and apocalyptic.

I had always associated this city with speed, activity and chaos. Not having known it to be anything else, I had taken it for granted, even vilified and complained about it. But it took the stillness, the gaping silence in the abyss, to show me that the city needed its speed. The hustle was so ingrained in the city's culture, that it was the culture. It needed its bright lights, large crowds and loud noises; a haven teeming with life. 

Without it, it felt wrong. 

For the first time in the millennium, Dubai had gone quiet.

* * *

Three months later, my parents' conversations on the swing have nearly returned to familiar territory. Once again, they swing lightly to and fro, sipping chai, while chatting merrily about their life, kids, local gossip, my father's job, his misbehaviours (some things never change, I guess) and to my extreme distaste, my marriage prospects.

I say nearly returned to normalcy because the virus is still with us. Refusing to be eliminated, it has become a part of our lives. It still persists as an underlying context in all those morning chai topics.

Even beyond our balcony, Dubai is nearly back on track. The roads are packed and there was a certain (albeit, short-lived) joy in seeing a traffic jam again. The parking spots are elusive again. The beaches, restaurants, malls and pubs are full again. The cases are on a decline and stringent measures are in place. 

Once again, I say nearly back on track. The mask is now a part of everyone's attire. Gatherings are still restricted, arenas are still shut and theatres are running at limited capacity. People largely stay distant, handshakes have thankfully been discarded (hopefully forever) and the huggers probably burst a vein every time they spot a friend.

The optimist would see the city half full. The pessimist would still see all the prevalent restrictions, covered faces and shuttered shops. Some of those shutters will never open again as we enter another recession. There will be hardships and with it copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears. Some darkness will still persist, inhibiting and oppressive. 

But this city, the only one that I can truly call home, will endure.

At this point, it is hard to predict when. But I know a day will come when the birds will fly again. When once again, as the sun rises while the world sleeps, my parents will wake to a Dubai filled with light and freedom.

Dubai Quarantine Curfew during CoVID-19 Corona Virus

* * *

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Title picture credits: Naomi D'Souza

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