Patna is a densely populated city with close to two million inhabitants. On a normal day, the crowded capital of Bihar turns into a hive of activity by seven in the morning.
Recorded religious songs played in temples invite devotees to mumble a little prayer before starting their working days. Yellow buses with students and teachers inside proceed towards schools. Small tea shops have customers, who sip their morning cup of addictive tea while discussing the morning news and gossiping with their fellow tea-drinking buddies. Newspaper and milk deliverymen deliver the two crucial essentials at people’s doorsteps. Vegetable vendors and small grocery shops start their business before most others.
At seven in the morning, in short, Patna is a busy city.
Difficult times create unexpected scenarios. As India battles the dreaded novel coronavirus, Patna is showing the early symptoms of a 21-day national lockdown that had come into force since midnight yesterday.
Awake since early morning since I need to purchase some essentials as soon as I can, all I can hear is the faint buzz of the odd vehicle that is disrupting the eerie sound of complete silence. Even the street dogs have stopped barking and birds aren’t chirping either, it occasionally seems.
The newspaper deliveryman hasn’t shown his face, and neither has the man who delivers milk at home. One vegetable vendor selling potatoes and onions is standing with his loaded cart, surrounded by customers with big bags. His vegetables are rapidly disappearing, and I am unlikely to get a kilo of each, which is what I need.
As was the plan, in other words, I must forget about self-isolation and step out of my flat.
The vegetable mart in Machuatoli, a locality about one kilometre away from my home, has many sellers who are charging astronomical prices for fresh vegetables and fruits. Nobody is practising social distancing, an urgent need of the hour. I buy whatever seems necessary, which includes apples selling for Rs 125 per kg.
Am I buying too much too soon? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that there won’t be any shortage of essentials during this national emergency. We have been asked not to hoard so that others with similar needs don’t suffer.
But then, how many believe that the delivery of essentials will be smooth and uninterrupted at a time when every citizen is trying not to fall sick? Vegetable vendors making quick bucks might flee if the situation turns worse. While I limit my purchase to quantities necessary for one week, I can see many others who are buying stuff that shall last for much longer.
I have been fortunate to find a rickshaw that is being pulled by a seemingly septuagenarian man on a day when few rickshaw pullers can be seen on the streets. The old man from Hajipur is being forced to work since he doesn’t have money that can be used during an emergency.
“I have been living off biscuits since yesterday,” he informs softly. “It is difficult to find customers and I can’t even go back home because I must earn.” His revelation is heartbreaking. I am sure many others like him are suffering in silence like he is.
Meanwhile, a big grocery shop rich in supplies is doing fabulous business. I walk into the crowded shop to buy noodles, pasta, bread and matchboxes. Once told that noodles got sold out some time ago, I buy ten packs of pasta, two packets of bread and matchboxes before stepping out of the shop.
I survey the rickshaw seat on which I have kept what I have bought. There is no need to buy anything else, for the time being, I convince myself. I sit on the rickshaw, which drops me home.
The old rickshaw puller looks at me as I take out my wallet to pay his fare. I can see the need in his worried eyes.
I give him one packet of bread, some oranges and bananas, and a hundred rupee note. I should have paid him fifty rupees and no more, but these are times of distress in which the poor suffer the most.
Once back home, I can’t help thinking that the lockdown has just begun. Those with money in their bank accounts shall deal with it with ease. But, what about those who need to earn on an everyday basis to buy food and other essentials for sheer survival?
Patna, like the rest of India, shall answer that question in the coming days.