City Walk – Corona-Era Lodhi Garden, Central Delhi
Old beauty in the new normal.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is super-crowded. Lodhi Garden. There are totas, bayas, kala papeehas, puhyas, mynas, babilas, kauwas, ullus, gaurayyas… bulbuls, koyals, the beautifully named ram chiriyas, kabutars and, of course, the white battakhs too—the last of them hopping by the pond, in massive groups, showing no physical distancing, not bothered at all by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of these birds cannot be seen, of course — it is late morning. The Lodhi Garden’s avian dwellers tend to emerge out into the sky from their hiding spots in the evenings.
But one can hear their sounds. And though it is impossible to distinguish the various species by their distinct chatter, one knows who they can be—thanks to painted boards dispersed across the garden with the names and illustrations of birds drawn cutely, like in a children’s textbook.
At a time when everything that seemed ordinary has become extraordinary, a walk in Lodhi Garden is turning out to be the stuff dreams are made of. Strolling along its tree-lined pathways gives a visitor, marooned for so long at home due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, the impatient energy of a spring uncoiling after long being compressed inside a box.
There is a tantalising feel of freedom.
The garden reopened just a few days ago following an ease in the lockdown. Entry hours are limited, for now—5.30am to 11am, and 4pm to 8.30pm.
While it continues to be risky to reclaim the wider city (the virus is not slowing its spread), the hauntingly empty Lodhi Garden is emitting the vibes of a private park in your backyard that you never had. There is barely any human presence. Hawkers of kettle chai, cold drinks, ram laddus and namkeen packets, who would constantly be popping out from behind trees and shrubberies, are missing from view. Even the grass seems wild and untamed. The many dogs are lying lazily on the muddy hedges, perhaps to stay cool in the sweltering temperatures.
Nothing has profoundly altered the garden in the two and a half months when it lay closed, and yet it is looking so different. Perhaps because of the long absence of its regular human visitors. At this hour, on any given day in the BC (Before Corona) era, the grounds would be filled with romantic couples of all ages who came here to escape the prying eyes of the world.
Their current disappearance illustrates another human toll of the pandemic—undoubtedly a very many lovers must have been unable to unite in these difficult times.
(Now a rare jogger passes by, without a mask.)
In the old times, it was almost always impossible to find a place to sit on any park bench. But at this moment, in the new normal, benches after benches are lying vacant. The saddest sight is to be found in the garden in front of Muhammad Shah Sayyid’s mausoleum (the same monument where every evening in the pre-corona days, a small group of calligraphers would gather to attend their daily Urdu calligraphy class). Here is an empty green bench under a tree, with dry leaves dispersed all around it—as if it had been ages since any person stepped over to claim the bench with a beloved or a book. The setting strongly evokes the feeling of an abandoned refuge.
You ought to at least toy with the idea of coming to Lodhi Garden now—carefully and with face masks and hand sanitisers—to experience it in its newly-acquired eeriness.
Lodhi after lockdown