Photo essay – Of Tea and Grit: Kolkata in the Time of COVID-19

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis




by Nilanjana Deb (text) and Jishnu Basak (photos) (Kolkata)


For better or worse, Kolkata has leaned to the left in electoral politics. It is the quintessential people’s city, with a vibrant culture of public protest that dates back more than a century and a half. The British Raj ‘punished’ Bengal’s mass mobilization against colonial policies by shifting the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. What had been a vibrant port city on the river Hooghly was pushed into decline, sliding from its position as the second city of the Empire to that of a smallish metropolis that “didn’t quite make it” to the league of Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi or Hyderabad.

Dusk at the Victoria Memorial. In Kolkata, people now wear their politics on their face masks.

The city has been no stranger to crises – the violence of the Partition and subsequent influxes of refugees after Independence and the Bangladesh Liberation War, the massive student protests from the 1960s onwards, and the Naxalite uprising of the 1970s were frequently interspersed by famines and natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. Kolkata’s strategic position at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal was a major cause of its rise as a port city, but its location also makes it vulnerable to the forces of nature – especially now, in the era of accelerated climate change. Its proximity to water – the river, wetlands and the Bay of Bengal – may perhaps become the reason for its rise in the future, as other Indian cities like Delhi and Bangalore begin to face serious water shortages.

Boatmen wait for customers at the Prinsep Ghat on the river Hooghly during an “unlockdown”.

Over three decades of communist rule in West Bengal ended when the present Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, was sworn in on 20 May 2011. The anti-Centre stance of both the Left Front and Mamata’s Trinamool governments have cost Bengal dearly, as successive governments in Delhi have snubbed Kolkata’s pleas for more financial assistance. This was evident in the lukewarm response from the Centre as Kolkata was hit by an unprecedented triple crisis in 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic, super-cyclone Amphan and the return of migrant workers from all parts of India. This photo-essay is an attempt to tell the story of how the city is fighting all odds to survive and rise above the triple crises.

A sign at the deserted South City Mall in Kolkata warns visitors against entry without face masks.

For the elites and upper middle class of Kolkata, the pandemic has been marked by the ennui of work-from-home in lockdowns, anxiety at images of COVID-19 deaths on television, and dreary sanitization routines whenever goods are delivered at their doorsteps. Gated housing societies have shut out the world, creating “safe” spaces into which only domestic helpers, plumbers and electricians are periodically allowed. However, in less privileged neighbourhoods and slums, people go out for work as usual, using public transport or bicycles to get to their places of work. Construction workers and sanitation workers continue to labour in the humid heat, their phones blaring ’80s songs. One might well have titled this reflection on Kolkata “A Tale of Two Cities.”

A Kolkata Police sergeant, masked and on duty in Central Kolkata. Policemen went around the city singing songs to boost citizens’ morale, but as community transmission began, the singing was stopped.

As the city’s municipal, health and other essential services struggle with the grim consequences of spikes in infections, ranging from insufficient crematoria to overcrowding and overpricing in food markets between lockdowns, the city’s middle class has coped with humour. The love of food, and conversations (adda) over tea have been an important part of the laid-back Kolkatan’s daily life. The city’s location on the edge of the East Kolkata wetlands has meant that cost of fresh foods like fish is cheaper, and their availability greater, than many other cities in India. Politicians understand the Bengalis’ craving for confectionary – sweet shops were among the first to be allowed to open.

Fish shop at the Behala bazaar. One popular COVID-19 meme directed by the Bengali middle class at itself was an imaginary obituary for the people “who became extinct because of their compulsively going to the bazaar.”

The refusal of the people to change their food-centred way of life for a virus was captured by a much-televised interview of a man sipping tea at a chai shop, who, when asked by a reporter as to why he was outside during a total lockdown queried plaintively, “We cannot have tea? Cannot we have tea?” Many memes were generated by his puzzled response. True to the spirit of the city, when Kolkata’s netizens found out that the man was a poor daily wager, many were apologetic and sent money to help him out.

Kolkatans still frequent the famous Indian Coffee House, an old institution that has adapted quickly to the time of COVID-19

Public ire was directed at the city’s elites when the first person to be detected with the virus was found to be a bureaucrat’s son who roamed the city after returning from abroad despite knowing that he was infected. To many working class people in Kolkata, COVID-19 is perceived as a disease brought to Bengal by the much-travelled middle and upper classes. The pandemic reinforced the old faultlines of caste, religion, ethnicity and class across India. In Bengal and especially Kolkata, a stronghold of the secular left, many have been disturbed to find instances of people from North Bengal or the North-East being discriminated against for “looking Chinese.” Issues of untouchability have been linked with health, hygiene and safety, as sanitation workers, domestic helpers and the poor are pushed farther away in the name of social distancing by the otherwise well-educated middle class and elites of Kolkata.

Civic authorities have struggled to convince people to observe the rules of basic hygiene. People wearing masks often lower their masks to spit, or let it dangle from an ear, defeating the purpose of masks altogether.

Class inequality has been the cause of much online agonizing by educationists during the pandemic. While children and youth from families with smart phones can afford to do online classes or tuition, those from lower income families or from locations that do not have good internet connectivity have been left behind on the other side of the digital divide. As someone who works with slum children and youth, I have seen the way in which the children of the poor are becoming disconnected from education, and resentful at being left out of the online learning process.

A boy plays with a toy gun in a crowded neighbourhood along Diamond Harbour road. There seems to be no clear sense about what is to be done to provide intellectual and cultural stimuli to young people who have no access to smartphones.

The state government already had its hands full dealing with the rising number of coronavirus cases in the housing complexes and slums of the city when super-cyclone Amphan hit South Bengal on the 20th of May 2020, and ravaged Kolkata and its surrounding areas. A city under lockdown, with markets, small businesses and an unorganized labour sector reeling from the economic impact of COVID-19 was dealt a second blow by the natural disaster that has been described as the worst super-cyclone to have hit Bengal in a century. Thousands of trees were uprooted by the storm, causing blocked roads across the city and damaging property. Many city neighbourhoods remained without electricity for more than a week, causing people to come out on the roads in protest as civic authorities struggled to restore normalcy. Yet, as the city itself struggled with the aftermath of the storm, Kolkatans were starting to collect relief material for Amphan-affected people.

A book seller waits for customers on College Street. Many small bookshops in the book bazaar, already affected by the lockdowns, were damaged by the super-cyclone, with hundreds of books floating in muddy water.

The Central Government in Delhi refused to declare a national disaster, promising compensation that would not even cover a fraction of the cost of rehabilitation and repair work after the disaster. The evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people during the pandemic was a daunting task. Bengal’s improved disaster preparedness has meant that less than a hundred lives were lost due to Amphan, but the lower death toll meant that the plight of Kolkata stopped featuring on most international news channels within a few days. Kolkata’s people-centric ethos served as a catalyst of public response, and civil society played a key role in supplementing the already-overburdened government’s work, by collecting relief materials and fundraising during the crises on a scale not seen in earlier decades. With the monsoon setting in early, within a few weeks of the super-cyclone, relief work proceeded on a war footing. The onset of the rainy season has been a blessing for farmers, as the abundant rain will ensure food security for Bengal in the coming year. However, for the hundreds of thousands trying to rebuild their homes after Amphan, the coming of the rains, causing the slowing down of relief and rehabilitation work, offers no comfort.

A farmer looks at what remains of his home after the super-cyclone in Dhekua-Goalapara, Midnapore.

The extent of damage caused by the super-cyclone in the rural areas, especially in the Sunderbans, the districts adjoining Kolkata and close to the coast has been staggering. Official reports state that around 15 million people were directly affected by the cyclone, and more than 10,00,000 houses were destroyed or severely damaged. Rehabilitation work on a mammoth scale remains to be done: sea water flooded paddy fields in the Sunderbans area, and destroyed crops, roads, electric lines and fresh water ponds. Due to climate change, Bengal and Bangladesh have become increasingly prone to flooding. Kolkata will have to build infrastructure to absorb a large number of environmental refugees in the coming decades, and devastation caused by Amphan is being seen as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for a future time of coastal inundation due to sea level rise.

Chai after a monsoon shower. The return of customers after the lifting of each lockdown to the small snack shops across the city seems to have become one of the ways of fighting isolation during the pandemic.

From the middle of March 2020, when the first nationwide lockdown began, till the first week of May 2020, poor migrant workers in the country were not provided any transportation to return to their homes. News channels were reporting daily that most were out of work, desperate to return, and unable to pay house rent in the cities where they worked. The tragedy of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres, many falling ill or dying along the way in their attempt to return to their homes, shook the country to its core. There were many public denunciations of the fact that while Indians abroad were flown back in special planes by the government, India’s labourers were forgotten by the state.

Protests by migrant workers at bus and train stations in most metropolises finally led to the Indian Railways starting “Shramik Special” trains in May to transport migrant workers home. West Bengal faced a dilemma as trains began to bring migrant workers from other states like Delhi, Kerala and Maharashtra which had a high incidence of COVID-19 cases. After Amphan hit, West Bengal’s Chief Minister and Chief Secretary appealed to the Centre and to the Railway board to stop sending migrants back to Bengal, as it would not be possible for the state to screen and monitor incoming passengers when all personnel were working overtime to restore normalcy after the super-cyclone. The pleas went in vain, and Bengal had to now fight crises on three fronts, handicapped by a shortage of manpower and funds. Necessity is the mother of invention, it is said, and the West Bengal government has employed many of the jobless returnee migrants to rebuild embankments and other infrastructure damaged by Amphan.

COVID-19 has spawned a cottage industry of sorts. Jobless people are selling masks, sanitisers, gloves and face shields at every street corner. Many are trying to adapt by starting home delivery services for the elderly, delivering cooked food and essentials to those who cannot go outdoors.

Many migrant workers had not reached their villages after arduous journeys from other cities when the super-cyclone hit. Bengal’s villages have created makeshift quarantine centres for returning migrants, where they are made to stay for a fortnight before being allowed into their homes. The weather disaster created a logistical nightmare, as hundreds of thousands of people were crammed into storm shelters, while many migrants continued to return home in a situation where monitoring and testing were impossible. With the arrival of the monsoons in mid-June 2020, further pressure has been placed on health services as malaria, dengue and other diseases proliferate alongside COVID-19.  

Successive West Bengal governments have prided themselves on being ‘people’s governments’. The present regime has always been vocal in support of the hawkers and vendors selling wares on the pavements of Kolkata. The nationwide lockdown had deprived these vendors of income, and it became necessary to lift the lockdown repeatedly, to help small businesses stay alive. Footfall has remained low, and the cancellation of major city festivals has led to huge financial losses and further dispiriting of community morale.

Bazaar in lockdown – Most small shop owners do not have the wherewithal to make a transition to the online selling of goods.

The economy of the city receives seasonal boosts from the cultural and religious festivities that are a part of the multicultural city’s annual calendar. Festivals such as Eid, Christmas and the Pujas of various deities are a source of income for small businesses dealing in garments and footwear, illumination artists, sculptors, flower sellers, decorators, musicians and drummers. Many, such as the dhaakis (drummers) and kumors (clay sculptors) depend entirely on the city’s festivals such as the autumn festival of the goddess Durga, for much of their livelihood. The festivals are central to community life, and neighborhood committees plan months in advance for them. Since government directives have been issued against large gatherings, most communities in the city have scaled down, or cancelled their plans for celebrating festivals. The artisans and workers who traditionally earn their living from these face further impoverishment.

The artisans of Kumortuli and other kumor-paras (clay sculptors’ neighbourhoods) have been hit hard, as communities across the city have cancelled or cut down on celebrations of annual festivals due to the pandemic.

Until a vaccine is made cheaply and readily available for all, Kolkata – like all cities – will have to keep moving between phases of city-wide lockdown, limited lockdown within containment zones, and periodic easing of travel and other restrictions to enable businesses and institutions to continue to function. With each “unlocking” of the city, however, the pockets of community transmission increase in number. As people from different socio-economic backgrounds deal with the pandemic and its effects in diverse ways, Kolkata is learning to live with the virus. While many cab drivers worry at not being able to repay their car loans, a small number of cabs ply on the roads, and food delivery services are doing brisk business. People risk the commute to work on days when there is no lockdown, techies continue to work from home, against the backdrop of the grim and exhausting battle that health care workers, doctors, and others are fighting to save lives. And the have-nots, wearing their thin worn-out masks, after a day of hard work, stop at a roadside shop for tea.

“Oh come ye tea-thirsty, restless ones” – the proletariat’s love of tea and conversation transcends their fear of pandemics and the police.

Biography

Nilanjana Deb teaches in the Department of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, with research and teaching interests in cultures of protest, alternative modernities, diaspora studies, Indigenous and subaltern cultures and postcolonial/decolonial literatures and pedagogies. She has been working for over two decades with the BASICS trust and Vivek Vani non-formal school in Kolkata to educate youth from less privileged families. Email: nilanjanadeb@yahoo.com

Jishnu Basak is a photographer and visual storyteller from the City of Joy, Kolkata. After completing his Masters, he studied at the National Academy of Photography. His vlogging channel ‘Escape Stories’ brings together his passion for photography, travel and storytelling. Cafe Calcutta, his quaint coffee shop in Mudiali showcases street and wildlife photography by fellow photographers and himself. Email: jishnubasakphotography@gmail.com, jishnu_basak@hotmail.com. Twitter: @jishnubasak

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jishnubasak/

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