/A locals account of life in Kolkata, India under a 21-day lockdown – Business Insider

A locals account of life in Kolkata, India under a 21-day lockdown – Business Insider

  • Somdyuti Datta Ray is a freelance journalist living in Kolkata, India amid the 21-day lockdown onset amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
  • She says that local grocers and fresh fruit, vegetable, and fish markets are shut or selling food at higher prices, and many online sellers have stalled deliveries.
  • It’s eerily quiet, except for when residents clanged pans and cheered in appreciation of health workers at 5 p.m on March 22.
  • “Reporting on coronavirus has begun to take a toll on my mental health. A few days ago, I broke down in the middle of multiple deadlines, overwhelmed and exhausted. There are triggers all over the news that I can’t escape,” she shares.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

My Kolkata neighborhood has never been this quiet before.

I don’t want to admit that I’m scared. Maybe the word I’m actually looking for is restless. On edge. Uncertain.

This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a countrywide lockdown for 21 days from midnight. As of today, March 26, India had 633 active COVID-19 cases, as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data, and the death toll stood at 16.

I asked my friends if I’m allowed to feel fear. Can I still be a journalist — a writer — if I’m not brave enough? We’re supposed to be fearless, unbiased, undeterred by risks. We’re meant to reassure and maintain calm. So, what do I do when the worst finally begins to chip away at my will?

I told this to a friend, who replied: You are human.

I’ve been a freelance writer for almost a year. I work from home and telecommunicate with my sources. A pandemic and lockdown haven’t changed that — I’m still speaking to individuals across the globe. But my ‘City of Joy’— the cacophony outside my window — is anything but joyful. My neighbors aren’t watching their regular Bengali TV shows too loud anymore. I’m assuming they’re huddled around the screen, watching the updates roll in like us.

Somewhere in my city, people surrounded and queued behind a van unloading cooking gas cylinders, lest theirs aren’t delivered at home. Elsewhere across my state, I watched footage of the police charging their batons to disperse crowds; they ordered a group of men to perform sit-ups while holding their ears and drew Lakshman Rekha (a circle marked by chalk) in front of shops for individuals to maintain social distancing.

There is a slum near our house, and for once the boys aren’t swinging their cricket bats and the ball isn’t rattling against our iron gates. The streets are quiet, the trains aren’t whistling past, and the man who irons clothes in front of our house hasn’t opened the stall’s shutters in five days.

Somdyuti Datta Ray's empty Kolkata neighborhood amid the coronavirus shutdown

The author’s empty neighborhood from her balcony.

Somdyuti Datta Ray


Modi introduced what he called a Janta Curfew which was held on Sunday, March 22, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. to tackle coronavirus. 

“During this curfew, we shall neither leave our homes, nor get onto the streets or roam about our localities,” he said in his speech. “Only those associated with emergency and essential services will leave their homes.”

He asked us to gather at our balconies, doors, and windows at 5 p.m. to “clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells” for five minutes as a sign of gratitude to our healthcare workers, airline staff, police, media, and government personnel, and essential service workers.

I woke up from my afternoon nap to the noise of crackers bursting. My neighbors were still clanging their plates and blowing conch shells. It was well past 5 p.m. Friends and acquaintances on social media were sharing videos of residents clapping, ringing bells, and even singing “Amra Korbo Joy” (the Bengali translation of “We Shall Overcome”) in harmony with the chirping of birds. We were connected and disconnected even a thousand miles apart. And then surfaced the videos of large crowds on the streets across India — walking together, cheering, beating utensils, or dancing to the beat of dhols — defeating the very purpose of social distancing.

Later that day, the government of West Bengal announced a lockdown in several areas across my state, including my city, starting Monday at 5 p.m. until March 27 at midnight. All public transport, offices, commercial establishments, and factories were to be closed. Only essential services like banks, hospitals, groceries, markets, and medical shops, among others, would remain open.

Naturally, my family’s first thought was: We don’t have enough groceries at home to last us more than two days. There is something about the word ‘lockdown’ — even when notified as “complete safety restrictions” — that sends us into a tizzy. It shakes our conscience to really, truly, take note of our circumstances. Since Monday evening, our state went from being under lockdown for almost a week to one that extended until March 31, and eventually a nationwide lockdown until April 14.

A neighbor informed us that eggs are being sold at INR 7 each. Until a few days ago, we had bought them at INR 5 each. Online grocery stores that are supposed to be open have run out of food items or suspended home delivery temporarily.

We learned that the police were patrolling our neighborhood and questioning loiterers. Like most average Indian families, we have a domestic help who cooks and cleans our home. She told me that she snuck away for work when the police weren’t looking. 

There was a rumor that a resident of the nearby slum was diagnosed with coronavirus. One of the families dismissed her temporarily as a precaution. She called me in the evening and said, “There are police everywhere. The local boys are causing trouble.” She will be staying indoors for a few days.

I haven’t stepped out of the house in six days. My father and I barely discuss anything but COVID-19 these days. Then again, I’m privileged; I can afford to stay quarantined. I can survive a few more days without groceries. I worry for those who can’t do so. 

Reporting on coronavirus has begun to take a toll on my mental health. A few days ago, I broke down in the middle of multiple deadlines, overwhelmed and exhausted. There are triggers all over the news that I can’t escape. 

So, I borrow my strength from the healthcare workers who are healing round the clock. I borrow strength from my peers in the media, and those in essential services on their feet. And I borrow my strength from those who are lifting the spirits online: a friend singing “O Je Mane Na Mana”; my journalism professor playing “Oh! Pretty Woman” on the guitar; a classmate posting step-by-step recipes.

A lockdown makes the familiar seem strange. The next 19 days will test our patience and kindness as a community. We all fear what will come next. I know that I do — but I may not admit it.

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