When the markets shut down, when the Delhi Metro trains stopped running, and those who had the luxury of a house exiled themselves within it; when the sky regained its blue, the streets emptied out, and all stalls that had no shutter to pull down had to close too, some left their phone numbers behind.
During the lockdown imposed on March 25 to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, mobile numbers etched on boundary walls or on makeshift boards hanging over tress and light poles stared at masked passersby on traffic-less streets and avenues like the detritus of civilisation that has abruptly vanished.
A wall in Green Park was scrawled with the ten-digit mobile number of a mat seller—there was no sign of him around. Did the seller have a home in the city to “stay at home” or was he one of the thousands who joined the exodus to their remote villages, leaving the city on foot soon after the lockdown was imposed?
A wall near Nehru Place poignantly displayed the number of a tailor. In pre-pandemic times, his stall used to stand on this corner of the footpath. In Roop Nagar, in north Delhi, a grey wall was stamped with a small poster advertising the number of a “full body maalish” provider.
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In Pamposh Enclave, the tiny metal hoarding of a chabi (key) repairman was tied to the railing of a park with an iron chain, as though its loss would lead to the annihilation of the repairman’s place in the world.
The most haunting sight was the barely perceptible number of a “Bijli Walla,” (electrician) scratched on a wall in South Extension with what was probably, the man’s fingernails.
Unlike the giant hoardings advertising products of big companies, these crudely drawn scrawls and itsy-bitsy banners subtly recreated the daily struggles of people who make their living on the streets. During the lockdown, the sight of these phone numbers seemed extraordinarily profound perhaps because they infused the banality of the old normal into otherwise very abnormal days.
In East of Kailash, a sign of Pop Singh Chik Maker listed his number with all bamboo blinds he specialises in. A tree trunk in the same area held the number of “Tiwari Rickshaw Walla”.
A revelation: there are real lives behind these numbers. For on calling the last, a voice answers: “I’m Shatrughan Tiwari.”
Unlike many who on being suddenly out of work, quickly left for their distant homelands, Tiwari stayed back at his house in Sangam Vihar. “I didn’t rush to my village in Sitamarhi (Bihar). I had an accident some days before the lockdown, when a car hit me near Paras cinema… I received 14 stitches on my head.”
But now Tiwari is back to work. Recalling his time in the lockdown, he expresses gratitude to the city. “I cannot lie. When my family and I were suffering, with no way to earn, so many people came to our help… including the bade log (big people) of Greater Kailash… they would call us to give rations and to find out if we needed help.”
As for Pop Singh, the ‘chik’ maker, “I left during the lockdown,” he admits on picking up the phone. His home is in Agra. “I will return soon,” he said, sounding uncertain.
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