Tuesday, Aug 09, 2022

Lock Out In Lockdown: A Diary From Kolkata

Tomorrow, I will have to chase the missing gas cylinder – the distributor’s delivery boy claims that no one was home on the three occasions he attempted to deliver the cylinder in the past 10 days so the order was cancelled, writes Anjana Basu.

A roadside vendor sells eggs to a customer during the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, in Kolkata.

The dogs have vanished from the roads or they are fed up of waiting to be fed. Nor do they react to my hijab-style headscarf anymore, whether blue chiffon clouds or an Amritsari spatter of flowers. By now they have seen so many odds and ends of masks that they have lost interest.

In the clean air I follow the road towards the lake. The gates of Rabindra Sarobar are shut so I take a turn down Southern Avenue with an eye out for the street sellers. The para fishmonger has vanished but there are bulging sacks of potatoes that look reassuring. In between I hear snatches of conversation carried on the wind, "Cleared out" "Police came". The owners of the voices are carrying cauliflowers. I think of yelling out to them and asking who was cleared out and whether it has some relevance to the daily bazaar but decide against it.

Bread is in short supply in the neighbourhood - a cyclist with a box on the back is stopped and hands over his last loaf of brown bread. I make a note of bread and swing round in a turn past the corner stores. At one corner a woman is selling milk from a blue plastic basin. Money is the last thing I carry on these walks but the sight of the white packets sends panic signals and I run to the nearest ATM - they only have 500 rupee notes. Fingers crossed I ask for three packets of milk and luckily she has change, possibly the last few notes. Cradling the three packets I turn towards home. Two women passing look at me with pitying eyes over their masks. "Couldn't even give you a plastic?" one says. I shake my head and think that at any other point in time I would have objected to the plastic.

Over these days of lockdown I have learnt the ways of medicine shops. Phones go unanswered and delivery boys are scarce. My father's doctor's sticker on the car and my company in the back seat gives my shaky driver some consolation – Gariahat crossing bristles with cops and he doesn’t want to be stopped. Three medicine shops give me three different means of social distancing. One lets five customers in at a time and there are circles of white paint on the pavement outside for those waiting to keep their distance in. Not far enough I think muffled in my headscarf. Women shuffle by, para mastaans grumble about outsiders muscling in on their medicine lines. I get some of the meds though not all. The second shop extends a gloved hand through the collapsible gate grill for the prescription after an infinity in which I listen to the woman in front of me order and disorder the medicines she wants with her mask dropping periodically. The hand returns my prescription with a curt, “No stock!”

The third near my house has a tray system – red for the prescription, green for the cash. These fit neatly through the gate grill – the hand that proffers them belongs to the shop owner who literally has his customers at arm’s length with unexpected efficiency. A bearded gentleman shoves his way past everyone, goes to the head of the line and says that God will protect everyone when the people in the queue protest. Someone tells him that both Ram and Rahim are sleeping and perhaps we need to take care of ourselves. He finds some logic in that and subsides.

Lockdown advice, of course is not in short supply – wash the medicine strips, wash the money, wash your hair and, of course, wash your hands. Out of irritation I suggest Baccardi instead of hand sanitizer and am told smugly that vodka is just 45 proof and therefore ineffective.

Tomorrow, I will have to chase the missing gas cylinder – the distributor’s delivery boy claims that no one was home on the three occasions he attempted to deliver the cylinder in the past 10 days so the order was cancelled. “Come at 8:30, stand in line and we’ll write your name down and then maybe we’ll consider handing over a cylinder for cold unwashed cash.” Perhaps I should order up a chula or two if the induction cooker doesn’t cut it and stash away some 98 proof moonshine.