Until the other day, someone wearing a mask in a public place invited curious glances, today someone not wearing one gets dirty looks. Welcome to the new normal. On Monday, people went about their work with their faces covered as Kolkata reopened after being under lockdown since March 23.
But in the sweltering heat, anxiety hung heavily in the air as citizens appeared to be acutely aware that the worst is yet to come as far as the spread of COVID-19 in the country is concerned. Even the children on Park Street who ask passersby for money saying they hadn’t eaten in days, wore masks.
Blown away billboards
It was not just the anxiety. Even the destruction caused by Cyclone Amphan was all too evident, with parts of the city now looking bald. The high-velocity winds that pounded Kolkata on May 20 blew away every single billboard dotting the Maa flyover, many of which hailed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as ‘Bengal’s pride’.
On Park Street, the city’s nerve centre, a few of those billboards are still intact but they no longer matter because lay Kolkatans, like their counterparts across the country, today have preoccupations more pressing than politics, such as protecting themselves from the virus and at the same time keeping their kitchen fires burning.
Restaurants were to open on Monday but none of the famed eateries of Park Street — with the exception of Flury’s — had opened at least till lunchtime. Flury’s, famous for its English breakfast, had opened at 7.30 a.m. and, according to the manager, even had a few customers. But when this reporter stepped into the place at lunchtime, when it would be packed during pre-COVID days, there was not a single patron. Here the reporter’s temperature was checked with a thermal gun — 97.5 — but at the Nature’s Basket next door, where well-to-do citizens shopped for groceries, the temperature had altered to 95.7.
Not necessarily to shop
While standalone stores remained opened but saw almost no customers, the sidewalks were completely occupied with parked cars, an indication that people were out on business but not necessarily to shop. The sidewalks of Dalhousie Square or BBD Bagh — the “office area” of Kolkata — too remained crammed with parked cars and bikes. Most of the shops were open and fruit-sellers had returned to their positions on the pavements.
Had it not been for the sight of fallen trees, it would have seemed that life has been going on as usual in Dalhousie Square. Even the yellow taxis were out on the roads, the only difference being that its drivers, notorious for being indifferent to those waving them down, were looking out for potential passengers.
“We are back to the days of traffic jams,” complained a sweating labourer to his companions as they waited at an intersection on Bentinck Street with a wooden cart laden with cartons.
Elsewhere in the city, Monday seemed like a Sunday in pre-COVID times, when traffic would not be heavy but not light either. Weekdays seeming as pre-COVID weekends: this could also be a new normal, at least for some months to come.