As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”
We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.
No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.
A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.
Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.
It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.
Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.
We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).
Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.
When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.
But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.