Every morning on my way to work, I cross this long line of cycle rickshaws, autos and parked cars. And in seven minutes as I cross that patch, I overhear bits and pieces of conversations which give me an idea of the pulse of the common man. “Is baar to Kejriwal hi aayega!” “Vaccine ke liye paise dene padenge kya? Modiji ne to kuch aur kaha tha.” Small talk like this floats across the silent streets.
A month ago when I joined this Fellowship in a Delhi hospital, my mornings used to start differently. The rickshaw stand used to buzz with energy. Now it is quiet and sluggish. On the first day of the lockdown, an auto driver was replacing the shock absorbers of his vehicle. His friend asked him why he spent so much in a slack period. “Because I intend to drive home to Bihar in this auto rickshaw, rather than die alone in this city.”
In March, each morning as I entered the hospital premises, there would be a gaggle of undergraduate students busy chattering away. Almost always I would encounter a dozen residents near their hostels, rushing either to the canteen or to the wards. As I entered the hospital corridors, I would hear the security and cleaning staff loudly discussing the previous day’s events. And because I crossed them everyday, hospital personnel would greet me and smile despite their masks, even if I didn’t know them personally.
Now it is eerily quiet. The undergraduate hostels are deserted. Canteens are closed. Healthcare personnel avoid eye contact. Shoulders droop, people look down and walk. The silence is broken only by the squeaky wheels of a trolley carrying oxygen cylinders. Four men dressed in PPE kits are struggling to push it up an ill-constructed ramp.
Between the wards and my lab, there is a lane with two silk cotton trees. In March, the red flowers in full bloom would keep falling off. But that lane always showed me a different side of life. Along both sides would be patients’ relatives and their families, each clutching on to their life’s savings and a bundle of clothes. Some sleeping on cardboard sheets from old discarded packages. Food being cooked on makeshift stoves, clothes being washed and dried. Children and mothers inventing games to play with flowers and seeds. It always left me astonished how people learnt to smile despite owning nothing. It always made me ashamed of my privilege.
Now, that lane is deserted. Maybe security has cleared that area. Maybe because the hospital is now COVID-only, the patients with other ailments have been shifted elsewhere. The only faces I see, are in front of one of the renamed COVID wards adjacent to my lab. The masked relatives sit with vacant stares. No one converses with anyone. I see an old lady desperately trying to convince a security guard for something. He sadly shakes his head and says no. There are no privileges this time around. The poor, the rich and the middle class sit together on the pavement. Some looking into their phones, others who can afford them, into their tabs. Next to my lab, people from outside Delhi have bought mosquito nets to sleep. Their life’s entire belongings holed up in that net. They have no where else to go while their patients are under treatment.
At work, I am shielded with closed windows and an industrial air conditioner humming away, as the equipment need to function at lower temperatures. But all that doesn’t stop the sound of sorrow from drifting in. My work is punctuated periodically by heart rending wails from families of those left behind. A grown up man is bawling away. His brother had called him to say he was fine at 2 pm. He is told his brother is dead at 3 pm. Happy hypoxia. You don’t know when you are going to go.
In one week, almost all my colleagues have either been infected, lost someone at home, or are caring for an ailing one. I am sent to get an RT-PCR test, as everyone else in my room is on leave. When I speak to my colleagues, the stories from the crematoriums and burial grounds are horrendous. Queues and tokens outside Nigambodh Ghat. Iron stands meant for cremating the dead melting due to overuse. It is no longer happening to someone else on television. We are living it.
I open Twitter, and instantly regret it. People are trolling a lady who has just lost her father. Decency is a virtue which their upbringing hasn’t provided them. They are dripping sarcasm about the media “exaggerating”. “If they had it their way, we would be believing that Indians will perish on the road without oxygen.”
Come and see the burning pyres. Come and see the gasping patients, and the desperate relatives. If you cannot empathize with others, at least don’t demonstrate your heartlessness and callous nature by ridiculing the people of India. Human life is of little value here. To think there will be an IPL match at Firozshah Kotla tonight, just across the road where death is dancing a Tandav.