Delhi Metro – First Pandemic-Era Ride, Yellow Line
Masked new world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Clean, bright and sanitized. And silent.
As the Delhi Metro reopened, more than five months after coronavirus changed the world, its scenery is weirdly reminiscent of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the classic Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie. Only a few people are milling about, in mask. Since this is Yellow Line’s Chawri Bazar underground metro station, one of the deepest in the city, it has two sets of escalators burrowing down to the basement tracks.
This is the third day of the limited re-opening of the metro services. A small queue has formed outside the station’s entrance, moments before it opens for its day’s second shift — at 4 pm this Wednesday, five hours after its midday break. Those familiar memories of spitting, sneezing, coughing crowds swarming into the station seem as unreal as New Amar, the single-screen cinema that originally stood on the station’s site. The commuters are entering as reverently as one might enter an international airport — on one’s best behaviour, eager not to needle the security staff.
A hushed atmosphere reigns inside. Around the security personnel, all sheathed in masks and face shields, the commuters are to follow a precise choreography. First, approach the sanitiser stand in the corner, and rub your hands under a sanitiser spray. Next, walk to the man checking the body temperature, before approaching the security-gate, while keeping a safe distance from fellow humans.
What happens next is surreal.
As soon as they cross to the other side of the security, the commuters disappear straight into the station’s vacant hugeness. Nobody is to be seen inside except for sudden glimpses of a station staffer popping up in some far corner.
Finally, a masked commuter is fleetingly spotted, quietly going down the escalators.
The experience of the silence is unreal.
The platform has perhaps less than a dozen people—though 27,000 people will be travelling on this line today. The train from Samaypur Badli to HUDA City Center in Gurgaon arrives. The announcer’s casual voice appears to be the only discernible leftover of the old normal.
Each alternate seat inside the train is plastered with a physical distancing yellow poster warning “Do not sit here.” The ladies coach has only two women. The one next to it has six people, one of whom is taking a selfie. Among them, plumber Babu Ram is going to Gurugram to collect payment from a building contractor. “Itna sannata hain (so hauntingly quiet here),” he remarks, before putting his finger on his mask, in the hush sign. Indeed, the new etiquette in the metro doesn’t want you to talk and risk spreading aerosol particles in the train. For that matter, every surface that can be hand-touched—the hand rail, the glass pane on the door—might seem, to an anxious eye, swarming with you-know-what. Though one does feel, at least if one has boarded the train at Chawri Bazar, that it is probably far safer inside the train than in the super-crowded market outside.
The train arrives at New Delhi railway station. A solo man steps into the coach. A few minutes pass and the train halts at Rajiv Chowk metro station. In the pre-corona era, the sprawling terminus would be pulsating with humanity, its air saturated with various harmless viruses. The staircase, that would be flooded by new waves of commuters with every fresh arrival of metro trains from other connecting lines, is empty. Further ahead, a masked housekeeper mopping the vast walkway is looking like a tiny cog in the giant wheel.
Now, a walk through a long empty passage, up the escalators, and outside into Connaught Place, and daylight. Palika Bazar is a few steps away. A poster on the glass doors to the market says: Body temperature check is required.
Like a space odyssey