City Life – Ramrati in the Pandemic, Connaught Place
The living landmark returns.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Here she is.
“I came back one or one-and-a-half months ago.”
For years, Ramrati’s morning routine stayed the same: reading aloud passages from the sacred Ramcharitmanas, her upper-half rocking back and forth with the rhythm and emotions of the epic’s Awadhi verses. On the side-lane that connects Barakhamba Road to Kasturba Gandhi Marg, in Delhi’s Connaught Place, she was a living landmark. Clothed in either a sari or a gown, she would be seen sitting cross-legged on the elevated footpath from 9 to 11am, with the hardbound on her lap or on a wooden book-stand. Office-goers would walk past her. A few might glance at her, some slowing down momentarily, moved by her sing-song recital. A very few might respectfully put a ten-rupee note in front of her, or present her with a glass of fresh fruit juice from a nearby stall (she would ask them to confirm that it wasn’t jhoota). This elderly woman had the vibes of an archetypal neighbourhood dadi-maa who knits the socks, makes the mango pickles, keeps religious fasts and tells stories from the sacred epics. But she was without a house. She lived alone. This pavement was her home.
And then coronavirus arrived. The consequent lockdowns shut down the city and all the street life.
Ramrati too disappeared.
“I was in Prayagraj,” says the woman, referring to the city in UP also known as Allahabad. Taking a break from her reading, her hands clasped beside the book, her arms under a blanket, Ramrati recalls the initial days of the lockdown, when there were no trains to be found. “I boarded a bus.” And there in the city where three holy rivers meet, Ramrati lived beside the Ganga, she says. “Every morning I was reading from (Ramcharit)manas.”
Ramrati is from Raebareli, in UP, and some of her family still lives there. Why didn’t she stay on in Prayagraj, beside her “Ganga Mayya”, or go back to her native district for good? The lady looks puzzled. Shrugging her shoulder, she says, “But I live in Delhi.”
On whether she feels scared of the pandemic, she says, “Bhagwan Ram looks after me.”
Meanwhile the lane is filling up with morning commuters. Almost all are masked. Ramrati’s mask is slung under chin. “I can’t read easily wearing it,” she says, before restarting her recital.
Portrait of a woman