The French author Dominic Lapierre bestowed the moniker, ‘the City of Joy’, on Kolkata. And the city has lived up to the reputation with its exuberant chaos and warm, welcoming soul. However, for the first time since the inception of the city in 1686, Kolkata has become eerily still under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has become a ticking time bomb with the Government of India declaring it to be one of the country’s 11 districts where the situation is ‘specially serious’. It is often said that the people of Kolkata are laid back and homebound. While that may be somewhat true, knowing that this state of being is now the rule of law is discomforting.
Kolkata has been under lockdown since 24 March, and this arrangement is expected to be either revised or extended on 3 May, depending on the imminent threat at that time. With everyone except the emergency services personnel locked at home, the bustling streets now wear a dreary look. Everything is closed except for grocery stores and markets stocking food staples, and pharmacies. We are all telecommuting and trying to set aside the crippling anxiety to take refuge in the pretence of a normal day.
The images of a desolate Victoria Memorial, an empty Prinsep Ghat, doing the rounds on the news, seem like an otherworldly phenomenon. The closed shutters of the roadside tea stalls that are as much a part of the city’s culinary landscape as that of its cultural landscape remind us of the normalcy that we probably took for granted. The iconic Howrah Bridge that bears the load of 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians daily is now almost an antithesis of its usual self. As unwelcome as these sights are, there has been a positive side to this situation as well. The air quality of the city has improved considerably. The Hooghly River, on which the Howrah Bridge is situated, has seen at least a semblance of clean water. As much as we miss the honking of cars and never-ending traffic jams, the absence of smog has gifted us the pleasure of experiencing a clear night sky with sparkling stars.
What the Bengalis have missed the most till now has been celebrating Poila Boishakh, the Bengali New Year, on 14 April. Poila Boishakh is a time for large gatherings with families and friends over delicious food and the quintessential adda (the Bengali version of hanging out). With the norms of social distancing in place, there has been no restaurant hopping on this special day this year. There has been no Halkhata Pujo (Pujo-worship), in which Bengali businesses open their new financial ledgers for the year, the red ledger book being the Halkhata. We all have a staple shop that we visit every year on Poila Boishakh for the Halkhata Pujo. With the norms of social distancing in place, all we could do is celebrate at home by praying for the well-being of everyone.
One thing has become clear ever since the lockdown began. Social distancing is a luxury that can be afforded only by the privileged. India is a developing nation with a population of 1.3 billion people. What about the people who live in slums that house 10 people in one room? What about the daily wagers and migrant labourers who have no savings and have now lost their livelihoods? What about the people who don’t have homes? While the Government is doing its best to help such people with various relief packages, it is nearly not enough. In light of the grim situation, we must step up to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at hand. We can do so by assisting the following organisations in Kolkata:
The Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan, the organisation’s hospital in Kolkata, has set up isolation wards for people who test COVID-19 positive. The different branches of the organisation in the city have also distributed a cumulative 32,000 kg of rice, 6,000 kg of lentils, and other essential commodities such as cooking oil, potatoes, onions, sugar, salt, flour, biscuits, bars of soap, face masks etc., among approximately 6000 poor families. You can help them in the relief work by clicking the link below:
This Kolkata organisation began its journey by feeding people outside government hospitals two years ago. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they have turned their focus to destitute daily wagers and their families. The volunteer network of the Anti Hunger Squad distributes cooked meals, hand-sanitisers, disposable gloves, and essential food staples in various slums of Kolkata. They have so far organised 120 food camps for those who have been affected the worst by the current situation. You can help the noble cause by donating here:
Kolkata is the perfect juxtaposition of the old and the new. We hold on to its old-world charm and nostalgia while indulging in all that is modern. The world will look different after the pandemic gets over. And I am sure Kolkata will take all the changes in its stride and have its evergreen elements complement them. The City of Joy will once again welcome all wandering souls and make them her own.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.