City Life – Shaheena’s Lockdown Quietude, Old Delhi
The silence of the pandemic.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It was never so quiet. So quiet that one could clearly hear the chirping of birds at noon time, as if this were a bird-filled orchard.
For more than two months, the extraordinarily noisy Old Delhi went soundless. The coronavirus triggered lockdown sapped out all its voices. The Walled City lanes that never slept went into a long slumber. Residents would use the haunting word ‘sannata’ to describe the deathly stillness that would pervade the narrow alleyways from morning to night, and night to morning.
But now the lockdown is officially over in the Capital and on Monday, for the first time in the area around Jama Masjid, non-essential shops opened—the cloth traders sat in their cramped stores with topi on their head and mask on their face.
The lanes again stirred with the cries of itinerant hawkers, including of those men selling cheap masks from door to door.
As the old life wafted back, there was also the sense of a renewed loss—felt at least by one Walled City dweller. Shaheena, who describes herself as a woman first and then as “a wife, mother and grandmother.”
In her 50s, she lives near Matia Mahal bazar and admits she is relieved that things appear to be getting back to normal “but I had started liking the khamoshi (silence).”
Talking on WhatsApp video, she recalls the recent afternoons of the lockdown days when “I would hear nothing, everything seemed peaceful…. just the opening of fridge by someone in the house would feel a sound too loud for the ears.”
Shaheena spends most of her waking hours either in praying and reading newspapers or in cooking food for the family. “I feel sukoon (calm) these days”—she is of course worried about the pandemic but at least, for now, all her relatives and friends are reported to be well. In the pre-corona days, the bedroom window in her second-floor home would be shut “due to the noise coming from the street below… the cries of the machhli walla, kebab walla, biryani walla, kharbooj walla….”
But these days she tended to leave the window open.
“Late in the afternoon, just before the evening,” says Shaheena, “I would, without fail, start to hear the ho-ho sounds of people on rooftops flying their kabutars.” Pigeon-flying would take place in the pre-corona era too “but amid all the din during the old days, I would never hear that sound.”
During the lockdown, the ho-ho would be as clear to her as if it were emanating from within her own home. Which can’t be ruled out because Shaheena’s husband, Guddu bhai, is a pigeon lover and is himself a proud owner of a vast collection of birds, that he lovingly maintains on the roof of their house.
The only disconcerting bit of the lockdown silence, apart from the dreadful awareness of the virus that caused it, was the occasional “sobbing” of dogs in the area that would fill Shaheena’s heart with forebodings of fear. “We often used to hear their barking but never their crying.”
Regardless, the old sounds of the BC (Before Corona) era are coming back, Shaheena says. “I will miss the silence.”
But the next moment she partially contradicts herself, insisting that “silence is fine but I’m glad that the poor shopkeepers are finally able to open their businesses even if their shops are still empty of shoppers…. I’m truly happy for all the people who were fearing for their rozgaar (employment).”
Now she stands by her window for a photo shoot, as her son holds the phone steady.
Her fleeting peace