That Empty Feeling
You could call me a witness, a stable container of memories. In the commemorative landscape of the national capital, a lot of things happened. On March 24, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown of 21 days in a country of 1.3 billion people to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
It has been two years since Lockdown 1.0. A lot of emptiness was poured into the streets suddenly. I, an anonymous chronicler of those days, went out at night to wander the streets. A press card entitles you to witness everything. The question then was where to begin the forays? The city had emptied out. Was it even possible? But impossible things happened. The Prime Minister forgot about the homeless and the others when he urged people to stay home. The virus made everything stark. More so the differences.
Evidence Of Absence
The first lockdown was the beginning of our slippage into a time when the poor became very visible. Cities like Delhi are generally good at hiding the poor. Remember the 2010 Commonwealth Games? It triggered demolitions across the capital as the nation wanted show Delhi as a “world-class” city. Anything that could tarnish India’s image was either demolished or concealed.
The initial stops for a reporter trying to report on an empty city were the protest sites at Jamia and Shaheen Bagh. They had been removed by the police the same day. The 101-day in-situ protest led by women against the Citizenship Amendment Act had galvanised similar protests across India. At night, the protest site looked eerie. No leftovers, no remnants. Only whitewashed walls where once the slogans and poems had been written. A complete erasure had been almost accomplished. But memory is stubborn. I, the reporter, remember everything.
They called it Janta Curfew. On that day, people had been urged to participate in taali/thali bajao (beat steel plates and clap) to express gratitude towards frontline workers. In the following days, an epic migration began on foot. Migrant labourers decided to leave the cities that had no work. This was abandonment of the poor by the state. It would only be in May that some trains would be designated to carry a number of migrant workers back home. But a few of those trains even lost their way. The lockdowns were also an exercise in such absurdity.
I spotted workers walking home, or huddled together under a flyover, or on the riverbed. A city can be a life sentence at least for the poor. A city is expansive, and yet in those days, the borders had been sealed to “flatten the curve”. If the virus could cross over from another continent, these borders did not stand a chance. These borders were secured by police and the military. They were guarding us against us.
I See You/ICU
I have many names in my notebook. I remember all their stories. Near Batla House, at a half-constructed building, a dozen men were sitting outside. Mohd Qasim was one of them. He said they worked at the furniture unit in Batla House but after the lockdown, they stayed on at the site. The owner gave them Rs 2,000 to buy rations. They weren’t able to afford onions. “The nights are scary. You would think there are ghosts here,” he had said. And then, there were the sounds of ambulances, and visuals on television. Hospitals were full. Too many deaths had happened.
One evening, I found a graveyard designated for those who died of the virus. It was called Zaheed Qurdustan. They said the dead bodies could also infect the living. The gravedigger told me he had never seen relatives fear their dead so much. At the Yamuna bank near the Kashmere Gate, the charred remains of a shelter home emitted a strange smell. It had been burnt after the inmates protested against the poor quality food given to them. One of them had allegedly drowned, trying to escape beatings of the staff at the shelter home.
Everywhere, you’d see the poor queue up for food. Then, they would recede into some unknown place. Subsequent lockdowns were announced. A page is not enough for a diary entry of two years. But I, the reporter who was out, can say this. I had only wanted to see the city in the night. But I ended up seeing cruelty, loss, deaths, and a lot of betrayal.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Reporter's Diary")
Chinki Sinha (Is Editor, Outlook)