Cycling around Mumbai, looking for coronavirus murals

Since March 2020, the Covid-19 has killed more than five million people worldwide. But on the walls of Mumbai, the deadly coronavirus has turned into a cutesy moppet, easily faded into oblivion if only citizens wore masks and washed their hands regularly.

This became evident with the lockout being lifted as I pedaled through Mumbai in a futile attempt to tame the fat on my stomach. Although I have used a bicycle to do household chores in my extended neighborhood for much of my life, the heavy traffic forced me off the road a few years ago. But when my generous friend Rajesh gave me his spare bike, I began to rediscover the pleasures of getting lost in alleys I had never seen before.

Suddenly I began to see them everywhere: murals extolling the masked heroism of the doctors and police personnel who had worked tirelessly during the pandemic – and with public health messages urging citizens to embrace a behavior appropriate to Covid.

These will go away when the pandemic subsides, so I decided to shoot them with my phone for a lark.

Soon my escapades took on meaning. My stomach wasn’t cut, but I was now crisscrossing the city, staring as intently at the walls as the potholes in the road.

In Wadala, I found a targeted disinfectant cartridge that came close to a virus on the run.

Wadala. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

In Byculla, appropriately masked and socially estranged Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio seemed to warn that the planet was doomed, as was the boat they were on.

Right after the Bandra bazaar, obstacle eliminator Ganesh was playing with the virus like a soccer ball.

Bandra. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

In October, after the monsoon rain washed the walls of Mumbai, I flipped through my phone, happy to have assembled this eccentric album of Covid murals that were gone but relieved that the pandemic was receding. It was time to find a new obsession.

And then, just like that, Omicron lifted his head. The artists were back with new works. New restrictions on gatherings were imminent. It is relentless and irritating.

Byculla. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

Next to the anthropomorphic virus images on my phone, however, there is another set of images that offer a bit of solace.

These are photos I took of Mumbai’s ‘plague crosses’, most erected between 1896 and 1900. As the bubonic plague ravaged the city, these crosses were stone pleas for disease protection. During those four years, the plague killed 55,460 in the city and caused hundreds of thousands to relocate.

Plague Cross, Bandra. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

When the plague was finally quelled with the help of a vaccine developed by a Russian bacteriologist named Waldemar Haffkine, a new set of crosses appeared in the city – this time to express gratitude for being spared.

They are a reminder that this too must pass.

Bandra. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

Read all articles from the Comfort zone series here.

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