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Sounds of silence in a bustling city 

The lockdown has turned my city Kolkata into a literal ghost town with barricades and not a soul in sight in even the busiest parts

Kolkata, the city of joy. It is the city I have spent the first 23 years of my life. I have grown up here, used to the hustle and bustle. The honking of horns, the rush of people on the street is something that I have associated with the city since childhood.

However, this trip home has been diametrically opposite of what I have been accustomed to. I landed in Kolkata on 23 March, a day before the nation-wide lockdown got formally announced.The West Bengal government had already announced a seven-day lockdown beginning that evening.

As I landed at the airport and went home in my car, I got a sense that something was different about the city. The 15-minute drive at that evening hour is usually one of the busiest drives in the city. One can see lines of shops, people on the streets and the hustle and bustle of Nagerbazar, one of the most crowded points in the city.

Now, everything was eerily silent, other than a few cars on the road. No shops were open, only a few street lights were twinkling in the dark. I could hardly believe this was the same neighbourhood I have been accustomed to seeing ever since I moved to this part of the city in 2009.

The dystopian feeling continued as time went by, and as advised by the government, I did not move out of my house for more than a month. I did venture out nearby to occasionally buy groceries or fish from the local market — which remained its usual crowded self.

The state of ennui ended when I was given a reporting assignment for a story on the plight of sex workers in Sonagachi during the lockdown. It was then I had to take my car to the area, and for the first time I was stepping into the heart of the city since the lockdown began.

I had to drop my father at his office in Minto Park in South Kolkata, and then pick him up on my way back. As I made my journey through the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, there were hardly any cars on the road. To put things in perspective, the EM Bypass is probably the busiest road in the city, as it stretches almost from the northernmost to the southernmost part of the city. Then we crossed the Park Circus crossing, another busy hotspot of Kolkata. This being a high alert zone consisting of many containment areas, there were throngs of police on the road,stopping our car and checking our purpose of travel.

From eating out at Arsalan to shopping at Quest Mall during the pujas, Park Circus has always been a special area, not only for me but for every citizen of Kolkata. To see the area almost empty except for a few policemen and barricades, the iconic eateries and the Quest Mall completely shut was a sight to behold.

A desolate looking City Centre Mall

As I drove northward towards Shobhabazar, which holds the infamous area of Sonagachi, I saw all the lanes and bylanes along the main road barricaded and heavily guarded by policemen. The area from Central to North Kolkata, is usually referred to as the heart of the city, and is certainly its busiest part. Traffic jams and honking of horns is a norm. But the roads were deserted, not a soul in sight.

This was not the city I grew up in, not the one I was accustomed to. It looked totally sanitised, deprived of its distinctive identity.

Once this assignment broke the spell, and Lockdown 4.0 started, I decided to take long walks in the evening to keep myself healthy. It decided to take the route my house in Nagerbazar to Salt Lake, around 7 km. I spent most of my graduation days in Salt Lake, as I used to take private tuitions here. The City Centre Mall was what you can call my perfect college adda. So I decided to trudge to the mall just to refresh some memories.

As I walked through the lanes of Salt Lake, it was as if silence had engulfed the area. It was only me and my shadow treading a lonely path. Yes, not a soul in sight again. As I reached the main gate of the mall, the silence was even more deafening — perhaps because I was not used to seeing it in such a desolate state. It was completely engulfed in darkness, it looked like it was well past midnight, when it was just 8 pm on my watch.

This was what a microscopic virus has done. A city, thriving with people and memories is now nothing more than a ghost city. It is not the city that I know and love, it has almost become a shell of itself.

I returned home from my walk, hoping that soon everything becomes normal, and Kolkata once again be what it has always been – the city that gives so much joy to its residents and visitors.

(Cover: An empty road in Salt Lake)