City Walk – Pandemic-Era Connaught Place, Central Delhi
Same place, different time.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Nothing has changed. The same white colonial-era columns. The same showrooms, with their immaculately dressed mannequins gazing by the glass displays. The same giggles of passersby. And wait, there are even two earnest-seeming young activists, boldly stopping strangers to collect funds for animal rights.
The pandemic-era Connaught Place (CP) feels the same. To some extent. But as this evening walk reveals, it exudes even more intense vibes. Indeed, this is the perfect time to take a stroll about the Inner Circle arcade if you, like many people, haven’t come here since the first coronavirus-triggered lockdown began in late March. Every little familiar landmark or corner appears to be permeated with a melancholic sense of what life used to be in the much freer per-corona era. This evening appears even more solemn due to the slight but steady drizzle. The large glass windows of an upper floor in A-block is lit up with a golden lamp, glowing palely, like a weak candle flickering under a dark cloudy sky.
The arcade is almost empty except for a few stray dogs lazily lying on the dusty floor. Two girls are seen walking fast, one of them excitedly murmuring to the other, “Lets do a chakkar (round)!”
Many shops are closed, but a few showrooms are open — and seem to be crowded with more masked staffers than customers. However, there’s a queue of about half a dozen shoppers outside the glass doors of a clothing shop that formerly used to be the site of two longtime bookstores. They shut down long ago.
If you gaze towards Central Park on your right, you will see the familiar flag mast installed in the center of the garden—but no flag, at least this evening. And now a little girl appears hawking a tray full of badges of Indian flag. “I always sell these when independence day nears,” says Varsha. She is 12. (This walk was undertaken a day before 15th August).
Further ahead a street seller is sitting on a bench with a basket of white flowers by his side. He is about to finish his chocolate bar. Too shy to reveal his name, he simply shrugs his shoulders, saying, “I was feeling bored… so I bought an ice cream.”
Nearby, two suited male mannequins are staring out of a shop window. One of them is in a mask. The poster stuck on the glass says—“Safe Sales.”
Next on the route: one of Connaught Place’s oldest restaurants. At this time, in the old normal, the tall glass windows would show blurry profiles of animated diners inside, probably feasting on buttery curries and tandoori rotis. But today the windows are cloaked in darkness. The restaurant is closed at the moment.
And here’s a much-loved secondhand book stall. It, too, is shuttered. An auto is parked nearby, with no sign of its driver. The lane is completely silent for the moment.
In the N-block arcade, a frail white haired woman is walking extremely slowly, carrying a bundle. Can she be a shopper? She stops by a bench, sits down on it, looks around, places the bundle at one end of the bench and lies down on the bench, making the bundle her pillow. She closes her eyes and seems to fall asleep. It is still drizzling and she is getting wet.
The time is only 8 pm, and Connaught Place is feeling like midnight.
CP in the new normal