Coronavirus will become yesterday’s news sooner or later. That doesn’t change the fact that we are living through a crisis the like of which hasn’t been seen in generations. One day, a century later maybe, when the longest-living among us too would begin to die, newspapers would commemorate the event as the passing away of the last of the people who lived through the world-altering COVID-19 pandemic. In brief, big-time history is happening now. And I’ve been trying to prepare a part of its first draft here in Delhi by trying to investigate the corona-ridden lives of people and places from diverse backgrounds of this complicated megacity. To some people, I met in person but from a safe distance. While I engaged with others through WhatsApp video. Here’s a selection.
- In a city without hope
He had never imagined he would see such a day.
Calling Papa and Mummy in the village to send me urgent money filled me with sadness…. At my age, the son is supposed to give to the father, and not the father to give to the son.
But things have turned upside down for most of us and Anil Kumar Shah, sadly, is no exception.
Talking on WhatsApp video, this Gurgaon gardener in the Greater Delhi Region is puzzled by the circumstances.
I left the village to make a better living in the big city, and yet I have to depend on my father for survival.
His father is in his early 70s and looks after a small farming land in Bihar’s impoverished Motihari district. Mr Shah tries his best to make savings, but almost everything he earns is usually spent in the daily living of his own family in the so-called Millenium City. He lives with his wife, Vibha Devi, and little sons, Ayush and Aryan, in a small one-room dwelling in Indira Colony.
In his late 20s, Mr Shah looks after the private gardens of half a dozen residences in upscale Sushant Lok. But he was recently unable to work for almost a month, because of the lockdown imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with a relative ease in the restriction of his movements, he has been able to go out and return to “duty.”
The one month in which he had to stay at home was a trauma. “We exhausted our money,” he says. He thought of returning to the village but his wife persuaded him otherwise. There were no trains or buses, and informal transportation might have put the safety of the kids at risk. Ultimately, Mr Shah was forced to call his father for help, who sent them 5,000 rupees through complicated means — the details of which were difficult to understand over the phone chat.
There was another reason for Mr Shah to stay on rather than to risk the long journey home. His father informed him on phone that those who managed to return were sent for a two-week quarantine in the village school.
Who knows what food they would have given us in the school, or if they would have given us anything at all… my region is very poor… that’s why we have to live and work so far.
Even so, one craves for love and shelter that only a home can offer in times of distress. Mr Shah has been in the Delhi region for almost a decade, it is his home. But the city failed him, he feels. He says he closely followed in the news the fate of the labourers stranded without work and food in the cities they were working in, following the lockdown. “The city is not ours.”
The house in Indira Colony is also feeling like a burden.
The landlord is demanding the full rent of 5,000 rupees.
Once the lockdown eases further and trains start running to full capacity again, Mr Shah is strongly toying with the idea to go back to the village with his family.
- Rickshaw puller’s lockdown
At some point or another, everybody confronts — in their own way — the damage the pandemic is causing on their life. In his case, rickshaw puller Rajkumar can sum it up in two Hindi words—“Phase Gaye”, got stuck.
In his late 20s, Rajkumar just dropped a passenger in a swish south Delhi neighbourhood.
It was a local sawari (client)… I can’t be on the main road… but I’m able to work my way through the lanes.
He says the cops let him operate within the locality, but “they insist that I should wear a mask.”
And Rajkumar indeed is wearing a mask.
One good person was distributing dal chawal (rice and lentils) to some of us patri wallas (pavement dwellers) a few nights ago, and he gave me the mask along with the khana (food).
The puller lives with a few other men on a pavement, not far from the upper crust neighbourhood where he now operates. This afternoon, the houses along this park-facing street are marooned in a comfy post-lunch silence. All the doors and windows are locked. The buzzing sound of an air conditioner is streaming out from one of the apartments.
Rajkumar says he is not a Delhite. “This is just the place where I work.” He says his home is a village in Shahjahanpur, UP. “My wife and my two children live there with my parents.” He would send them money every two weeks but hasn’t been able to do that since the lockdown began three weeks ago.
I’m stuck… I want to go back home but I can’t.
He now takes out a plastic water bottle from under the rickshaw’s passenger seat, as well as a bar of brown soap from his pocket, and starts washing his hands.
One passenger gave me the soap some days ago… he told me to wash my hands many times in the day.
And now he adjusts the mask on his face somehow solemnly. He moves it towards the right part of his face, then adjust it again to cover the left side. He pulls it high up the nose, and then lowers it, and carefully ties the knot at the back of the head.
As he is about to pedal away, a window opens from an adjacent house and a woman’s face appears. “Bhayya (brother), do you want peene ka paani (drinking water)?” she asks in a halting Hindi. Rajkumar folds his hands and shakes his head, indicating he isn’t thirsty. But he is looking moved, probably touched by this unexpected gesture of human-to-human camaraderie.
- Sudama’s smile
The first thing you notice about him is his smile. Or at least, it is so when you see him on the mobile phone screen. Tailor Sudama is talking on WhatsApp video.
The gentleman’s real name is Ajit Singh Nivediya, “but everybody calls me Sudama.” In his early 40s, he has a small tailoring establishment in Gurgaon’s Sector 31 in the Greater Delhi Region, to which he bicycles daily from his one-room home in Sheetala Colony.
Of course, these days he is house-bound. The city is under a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. “So many problems now,” Sudama mutters.
I’m no longer able to earn… And then most food shops are either closed or selling everyday stuff at higher prices than usual…
He rolls his eyes, and flashes his radiant smile towards the phone screen again.
Sudama previously worked in the “medical field.” He called it a promising career. Life was sailing smoothly for him, his wife Saroj and their three children. But then his one-year-old son, Abhinav, succumbed to “some sort of brain fever.” His wife could not bear the grief and she passed away soon after, which leaves him on his own to take care of their two daughters.
A grieving Sudama was forced to give up his demanding job, opting to take charge of his late father’s tailoring establishment “which gave me time flexibility to raise my daughters.”
And by the looks of it, he’s proving to be a good hands-on dad, as he introduces his kids on phone. The little family has assembled outside the house, “for the net speed is very weak inside.” Both girls look as cheery as their “papa” as they wave their greetings. Harshita, a 9th standard student, aspires to be an engineer. Sonakshi is in seventh and wants to be a doctor. The girls were enrolled in a private school “but due to money problems I had to move them to a sarkari (government) school.”
While Sudama is not always able to help his daughters with studies (“the teachers, however, are very supportive”), he does all the house work “so that they have all the time to study and play.” He also does the entire cooking by himself, not letting the daughters hover near the cooking gas cylinder out of safety reasons. “Last night, I made dal chawal.”
Even so, one can’t help wondering. After facing such tragedies in life, how does Sudama manage to keep such a generous smile?
The tailor pauses for a moment or two to collect his thoughts, and says, “What has happened has happened… I’m happy with what I have, my daughters.”
- Three masked men
Just a few cars are passing by, the faces of the drivers hidden behind masks. A Mother Dairy milk booth is lying half-shuttered. The yellow circles in front of the booth, drawn just a few weeks ago to maintain social distancing among the customers, is by now so firmly imprinted on the ground as if it were always there. Beside the booth, a vegetable seller is waiting for customers under a peepal tree. His mask has slipped, leaving his nose exposed to the elements.
This is a Sunday afternoon scene in a well-heeled Delhi locality. Soon, three men appear, walking slowly on the pavement. Two of them are wearing masks while the third one’s face is wrapped in a gamcha scarf.
“We are mistri (carpenters),” says the man in the black mask. It’s the first time in the many weeks of the lockdown caused by coronavirus pandemic that they are heading to work.
We have been told that from now on, people are free to get out from sunrise to sunset for work,
says the man in the purple gamcha.
Counting themselves lucky to have an assignment, the men are on their way to a building site in the neighbourhood—“some mantainance work”, says the mistri in black mask.
The man whose face is covered in the gamcha is holding the auzaar, or work tools, for all three of them.
They seem to be in no hurry and agree to stop for a brief chat.
Awadh Raj (black mask), Sanjeev (gamcha) and Lakhan (green mask) live together in a one-room dwelling in the vicinity. In their 20s, they all are from the poverty-stricken Satna district in Madhya Pradesh, but not from the same village.
“Delhi is full of labourers from our MP (Madhya Pradesh),” notes the man in gamcha. They first met each other in the city a year back, became friends, and decided to share a room.
Earlier we would be living in whatever building site the contractor would send us to.
Now they have become freelancers, and have established a network of contacts that allows them to find work without any middleman.
The last month was obviously full of challenges. “We were trapped in the room,” says Awadh Raj; he uses the Hindi word “phase gaye” to describe the situation.
We were not able to earn even dus paisa… we couldn’t send any money to our families in the village… we were drawing daily expenses from the cash we had in our wallets.
The men are not very hopeful about the coming days. “Once the trains start to run again, I will go back to my village,” says Lakhan, the youngest of them, speaking for the first time.
Awadh Raj stares at his friend’s masked face, his eyes suggesting that he is in deep thought. Placing his arm on the metal railings running alone one side of the pavement, he talks of his wife who calls him up every two or three days, and insists that he should stay in the city.
She says that she is taking care of our children and of my parents, and that I need not worry about them.
His wife fears that he won’t be able to make any money if he returns to the village now. The family has a little land that does yield a small portion of crop now and then
but there is absolutely no water left for agriculture, and the nearby towns don’t have enough factories or construction projects to ensure steady assignments.
The three men stands motionless in silence for a few moments. Suddenly a storm starts, the wind dances with hissing sounds, and the air turns yellow with dust. The pink flowers of an adjacent bougainvillea fall off from its branches like a fountain. The men lower their head, probably to protect their eyes from dust, and walk away with a hurried pace.
- Street sans life
The yellowing leaves fallen from the tree above have carpeted the dusty ground, turning it into a padded mattress of golden-yellow. A large wooden chest is stacked against the red brick wall. It is covered with two layers of plastic sheet. Leaves have fallen upon it, too. Huge chunks of stone are lying on the plastic, probably to prevent it from being blown away in case of a strong breeze.
The wooden chest is shut closed with a huge lock. A foot-operated Gold sewing machine stands beside the chest. The top body of the machine is tied with a sheet of red plastic—this also has become a receptacle for yellowing leaves.
Other signs of possessions include a framed portrait of Lakshmi and Ganesh, a pack of incense sticks, an empty plastic bottle, and a black metallic chair.
There is nobody around. It is afternoon.
This spot in south Delhi is obviously a pavement tailor’s stall. His name must be Dinesh, for that’s the name drawn on the facing wall with a white chalk, along with a mobile phone number.
Delhi has been in lockdown for weeks. The crowds have disappeared. The streets lie lifeless all day long. And yet, next time you venture to get grocery, look about the pavements and you shall spot residues of the once lovely street life, abruptly frozen into mute exhibits, much like the people and homes of Pompeii as the volcano suddenly exploded and swallowed the Roman town, ending its world in an instant and yet preserving everything as it was.
This pavement lane in south Delhi is marked with stalls of florists, kulcha wallas, tea shacks and mat stalls. Each establishment is marked most distinctively with the name of the stall owner and his or her mobile number, either painted on a board or simply drawn along the surface of the adjacent wall. It is surprising that something as ramshackle as a street stall could end up being so visible in the times of complete lockdown.
One of the most poignant sights among these ghost stalls is that of a flower shop—a bouquet of flowers still under the table, its flowers rotting. Where is that florist? At his house in Delhi, or has he been left stranded, with no easy means to go back to his family in some distant state? Has he enough money to survive from one day to the other?
And what about tailor Dinesh?
A call to the mobile number indicated on the wall goes unattended.
Perhaps the pandemic shall end sooner than later. The city’s street will then return to life. And Dinesh, the tailor, will be back on this spot. He will sweep away the dry leaves, untie the plastic from his sewing machine, unlock his trunk, and get back to life as it were.
For now, it’s all silence.
- Women on job
The late morning is still cool as if this were February, not April. The air is swelling with bird sounds. A koyal is crying out without a moment’s break. The street is carpeted with dry crinkly leaves that probably fell from the trees the day before.
The two women, each carrying a long broom, are quietly sweeping these leaves into small piles.
Even as a substantial chunk of Delhi’s people are feeling restless in their house-bound isolation following the lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, Santosh and Lajwanti are carrying on with their working life. As if nothing has changed.
This is true only upto a point.
“These days we are coming to work on foot,” says Santosh, pointing out the most significant change in her daily life.
The masked women are employees of South Delhi Municipal Council, and have been working as sweepers for many years. Both are dressed in a blue uniform of salwar and kurta.
Lajwanti explains that they are unable to find buses early in the morning and so have to walk all the way from home “to duty” in this quiet south Delhi residential enclave.
“I come from Badarpur Khadar,” she says. Santosh walks all the way from Mehrauli.
It takes each of them about two hours in this unusual commute from home.
Santosh wakes up at 5.30 in the morning. “I get ready, make myself parathas, butter toast and chai” and, after fortifying herself with the breakfast, she begins her long walk.
Lajwanti’s morning ritual is no different. She remarks that “one has to sacrifice a lot of comfort to make a living.”
The other woman nods.
Meanwhile, the street is empty. The windows in the surrounding multi-storey houses are closed.
“Sometimes people offer us water from their houses,” Lajwanti says, adding, “Mostly, nobody bothers about us.”
Santosh believes that “people think we might be carrying the infection, and so are scared of approaching us.”
They now return their attention to the fallen leaves on the street.
Suddenly, a window in an adjacent house creaks opens, and an elderly man in white kurta pajama peeks out. Next instant, he shuts it close.
Lajwanti and Santosh hopes to finish the work by late afternoon. They will then walk back to their home. “We usually reach by 3 or 3.30 pm,” says Santosh.
And, at home, they will enjoy a long deserving rest.
- Masks and blooms
The world economies are in shambles. Untold number of people worldwide have lost their jobs. A great many are dead. The pandemic is transforming the world. There’s no knowing when the nightmare will end. Everybody’s life has turned upside down.
But one thing has remained unchanged. The blazing summer has begun and the amaltas has returned like a steady and steadfast guest. It is again starting to bloom, a brilliant, defiant yellow. As if its flowery branches were trying to whisper to these catastrophic times, “You can’t beat us.”
Just yesterday morning a small amaltas tree was spotted in a south Delhi neighbourhood, its branches newly loaded with bunches of golden-yellow flowers. And in a coincidence too fantastic to be believed, a young man was seen standing directly under these flowers, wearing a mask that had exactly the same shade of yellow.
Throughout the year, trees of amaltas look rather unremarkable. But in the summer months, when the city gets so hot it is almost unbearable, they suddenly get sheathed with layers of shining blossoms, and their flowers keep falling on the ground in a kind of silent and magical shower.
The day a young man in a yellow mask was spotted admiring the yellow amaltas, I also spotted a woman in red mask admiring the red flowers of a gulmohar (coincidence!). Those trees are in bloom too, and their beauty is as uplifting. And, much like the amaltas, the gulmohars are also popping up in various parts of the city—each tree looming up like a flame. The woman was staring up at the red flowers for a long time, while the late morning sun was tucking itself behind the foliage, its blinding glow as focused as a reading lamp. It was difficult to discern the woman’s expressions because of the mask, but she must have felt moved. For she took out her mobile and clicked a picture before moving on to a supermarket ahead.
Indeed, some of these blossoming amaltas and gulmohars of Delhi’s are so overwhelming in their bright colors that a chance encounter might make the spectator momentarily forget about the everyday tensions, even about the raging coronavirus. And that must count as winning a battle, if not the war.
A doomed character in Proust’s novel, Charles Swann is of Jewish extraction. He parties with princes and enjoys access to aristocratic salons. He has a discerning taste in buildings, poems, recipes, sonatas and paintings. He is engaged in a scholarly study of Vermeer. He is fond of reading railway timetables. He loves an unsuitable woman.
This is the last of a series of five Coronavirus reportage texts (one per continent, symbolically) commissioned by the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice to prominent international writers. The first of the series: Lives upside down written by Stanley Gazemba; the second: Lockdown in the Free Republic of Pigneto, written by Igiaba Scego; the third: Split Screen Life, written by Eli Gottlieb; the fourth: Virus in a Scorched Land written by Ellen Van Neerven.