Kaiyyum has been working as a security guard for thirty-two years. In all these years, he has never seen Kamalapur Railway Station empty.
It was a blazing hot afternoon when we met him at the station. Other than a few of the railway police officers and guards, the entire place was eerily empty.
It felt surreal because the only sound to be heard came from animals. Pigeons, sparrows and common mynas flew over our heads – some scrambled over the tracks for food.
Excited to see new humans, some of the dogs began to circle around us, but left after realising that we had not brought any food.
It was hard to believe that just in February, when I had gone out of Dhaka on an assignment, the scene was so different. The entire place was bustling with clamouring passengers and hawkers.
A man in his early 50s – clad in a pressed, khaki uniform – Kaiyyum, was cordial when we asked to talk to him. In his words, we were fortunate to witness such a unique time.
"I have never seen this place empty – even late at night. This is the first time in our country's history perhaps. Who would have thought this was going to fall upon us?," exclaimed a visibly upset Kaiyyum.
We had embarked on a day's journey to explore empty Dhaka. From the moment the government declared the shutdown from March 26, nearly a crore of its residents left the city.
While streets and major transit points – such as Kamalapur Railway Station and Sadarghat Launch Terminal – were empty, we saw some parts of Old Dhaka were busy as usual.
The Babubazar Bridge was full of commuters going to and from Keraniganj. Looking at their busy pace, it seemed that the shutdown had barely impacted them. Underneath the bridge, some small boats were also carrying passengers.
The warehouses in Shyambazar were working at their usual pace. Spices, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and betel leaves were being packed and loaded onto pick-up trucks. People and vehicles blocked the narrow roads. The crowd seemed oblivious to the coronavirus – social distancing seemed but a myth here.
One of the warehouse workers loudly spat near us. His cloth mask was pulled over his nose and he carefully wiped his fingers on them. In our good conscience, we refrained from talking to anyone gathered there.
We encountered two army trucks patrolling near Babubazar – where all the publishing houses are. A group of men, huddled on a rickshaw van, passed by them. One of the officers shouted, "Why are there so many people there together?" The prompt reply came, "Went to unload some products, Sir."
When we came near Malitola, we saw some of the wealthy residents distributing food to the poor – food being a styrofoam pack of tehari and a bottle of water. The ambiance was cheerful as the donors stood side by side and posed for the cameras in front of them. One of the volunteers yelped at the queue through a megaphone, "Maintain a distance while standing in line!"
One of them standing in line, under the scorching sun, was Sohel. He had left home early in the morning. He was selling masks at Tk10 per piece. His sweat-stained shirt and dusty sandals indicated that business was not going well for him. "I have not made even fifty taka since morning, I am glad that they brought me here to get food," he said.
Near Gulistan and Motijheel, we saw more people walking on the roads. With offices and schools closed down, where they were going, and why, remained a mystery for us. Near Zero Point, some bikers were waiting for passengers.
One of them agreed to speak to us, only after we reassured him that we were not cops. Mamun had been a bike rider for Pathao and Uber, but now that these apps are closed, he has been picking up passengers at random. "All these restrictions are not for us, we have families to run. I am not inconsiderate, I only ask for fares that would have shown up on the apps anyway," he said.
Motijheel and Farmgate, two of the busiest areas in the city, looked like the hartal (strike) days were back – somewhat empty but not completely void of people and vehicles.
Kaiyyum informed us that the last train had arrived on March 25, and after that it had been quiet like this. The guards still had to be on duty and maintain regular working hours. However, they longed for things to go back to normal.
When the whole world is battling against a deadly virus, our claim that we are one of the most resilient nations is meaningless. Our nonchalance towards the situation is alarming. What would it cost for those of us who can, to stay home and save lives? Judging by the nature of the pandemic, it might be some time before normalcy returns to our lives.