At the time of writing this article it is half past eleven on a busy Tuesday morning. My virtual classroom session has been delayed indefinitely due to a niggling internet issue and it has already poured heavily in my city Durgapur. We are due for another thundershower very soon. The sombre sky, the restive trees and the shivering street dogs scampering around for warmth in the neighbourhood are all telltale signs of an approaching thundershower. The streets are half empty. They have been thus since people were struck down by the COVID panic. A lonely street vendor lugs his empty wheelbarrow up the Lokmanya Tilak connector road. Business has been good in the morning and he has reasons to smile for now. I know him for the last five years. The man had a bookshop in the nearby bazaar once. Last year’s lockdown and the ensuing hard times had eroded his savings so much so that he was forced to sell off the shop. He now lives off selling fresh vegetables from his mobile shop. His days of glory are long gone but he doesn’t know how to give up, yet.
Ever since a partial lockdown was announced in West Bengal towards the end of the assembly elections, life has been hard for street vendors and shopkeepers in the bazaars. They can run their businesses for four hours a day only – two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. “Necessary restrictions to break the contamination chain!” – the administration keeps proclaiming. But now we have more people flocking in the bazaars in the mornings and the afternoons than usual. The crowd has only grown thicker! Apparently COVID wasn’t a threat during the election campaigns and rallies, which saw people flock by the thousands. Add panic buying to the concoction and we are looking at frequent shortages of essential commodities. People have found new love for things like citrus fruits and medicines they hadn’t heard of before the pandemic hit our shores. The other day I saw a man returning home with Rs.8000 worth oranges! The messaging applications are awash with dubious prescriptions and the drugstores are busy fending off fractious mobs. Everyone wants a strip of some miracle drug they have heard of from someone who has in turn seen its name in a “Social Media” prescription. In times of pandemic everyone from the neighbourhood aunty to the man who stares at cows becomes a doctor. The Pulse Oximeter is the new toy to be had and people are ready to sell off their pots and pans to buy this gadget from the black market. As panic spreads faster than the COVID second wave, the definition of normal behaviour seems to have changed. The obscene amount of money being charged for a single 1400 litre oxygen cylinder makes me shudder. I have realised that we are a society of hyenas ready to turn into cannibals at the drop of a hat.
Around this time last year we were already into Phase three of lockdown. The possibility of a fresh lockdown looms on us Bengalis now. Everywhere I look, I see tense faces. Everywhere I eavesdrop, I hear hushed up voices discussing death due to asphyxiation or starvation. The usual vibrancy in the air is gone now. A thick shroud of fear seems to have swallowed everything. But this dramatic change happened all of a sudden. Going into the assembly elections this city was already at war with itself. A line had been drawn. Supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, which has retained power, and those of the opposing BJP were at loggerheads with each other. Everywhere I looked, smalls groups of either party buzzed and bickered and tried to stare down any opposing voice. Threats – sometimes subtle and often loud and clear – were being issued. Either gang knew that post the elections the victor would make life miserable for the vanquished. The streets had been festooned with party insignia and the trees had put on more springtime colours than usual. The green and saffron of the TMC and BJP and the red of the CPIM adorned the tall trees as party flags fluttered in the breeze. There was no talk of COVID or a lockdown and business was going on as usual. As counting day approached my city froze. I will always remember the 2nd of May 2021. The whole city converged on television sets. The womenfolk forgot to cook. The men tried to bunk offices. Even the children knew something momentous was about to happen. By evening it was clear that the TMC was retaining power with the BJP having made inroads deep into the heart of Bengal. The seed of communal hatred planted a long time ago had come out of hibernation and sprouted into a prickly bush. A grim and gory future was already in the making.
All the lively commotion surrounding the elections is gone now. As the world tries to battle a microscopic enemy, another invisible foe – considerably stronger than the virus itself – has swept across our lands like an unstoppable conflagration. Fear! It lurks wherever people are. Sadly none of the smart people in white lab-coats seem to have any clue as to how to tackle this disease. As people in my city choke from panic attacks I can only watch helplessly.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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