As the birds stop chirping after dusk, the relatively green neighbourhoods of Gulshan and Banani dive so deep into silence that one would almost think only birds lived in the area. Only security guards can be seen in front of the houses, some strolling, some standing motionless like mannequins.
The silence almost hurts.
As the Covid-19 shutdown tightens and the government bans movement after 6pm, Dhaka becomes a ghostly city at night. Although the rest of the city is not as stagnant as Gulshan and Banani, only the most desperate come out at night.
In the whole city, only a handful of rickshaws could be seen. A word with the rickshaw pullers revealed the utter desperation that brought them out. Salahuddin, 52, was waiting for passengers at Mirpur 2. He came out with his rickshaw at 2pm, and till 7:30 in the evening, earned only Tk110.
"What will I do? My wife and daughter work in a garment factory, they have not received their salaries yet. If I don't work, there won't be any food on the table. I would have gone to the village like other rickshaw pullers had my family not been working here."
He usually has to pay Tk100 to the owner of the rickshaw, but nowadays, the owner makes concessions. Sometimes, the owner does not even take any money if the income is not for the day is insufficient. Salahuddin added that the owner's income has drastically fallen too. "With Tk90, I'll be able to buy 2kg of rice. What could be bought with the rest Tk20?" asked Salahuddin.
He showed a Styrofoam box of cooked food that he had got from an army patrol team. He plans to share the food with his family once he gets back home.
The only places open in the city after sunset are the hospitals and pharmacies. And the rare rickshaw passengers are mainly health professionals. Even for the very small number of rickshaws, there were not enough passengers. At Satmasjid road, three or four rickshaw pullers who came out after dusk said they were yet to get any passengers.
Except for these few empty rickshaws, the otherwise bustling streets of Dhanmondi were vacant. Every few minutes, a patrol car would go by, working to ensure that people are staying at home.
Asked how difficult it was to keep people at home, Saimul Islam, a sub-inspector at Dhanmondi Model Thana, said that police allowed people to move only for emergency needs during the day. "At night, the people we intercept say they live on the streets. Where would we send them to?" the policeman said.
In Puran Dhaka, the scenario was a bit different. At Nazimuddin road, some teenagers were found playing hide and seek with the police. As the police patrol car approached, they disappeared behind a gate. As soon as the car passed by, they playfully peeped from behind their hideout. The patrol team eventually came out of the car, with sticks in their hands.
A nominal gathering of people was seen on the Dhaka University campus, the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Gulistan and Karwan Bazar. At Raju Chattar, in front of TSC, some university students led by a DUCSU member were distributing cooked food among the destitute in a very disciplined manner, abiding by the social distancing regulations.
In front of DMCH, some hawkers were selling green coconuts, betel nut, cigarettes and other stuff. Two kilometers away, in front of Sergeant Ahad police box in Gulistan, some street children appeared from nowhere, and flocked around us in the hope of getting something.
Asma, Yasir, Hridoy – all in their early teens – live in the Gulistan park. "It is harder to keep ourselves fed during the shutdown. There were restaurants that used to give away extra food to us, but they are all closed now. Who will give us food?" Yasir pleaded. The kids had no masks, and showed zero consciousness about social distancing advised by the epidemiologists.
Around the corner, in front of Golap Shah shrine, we meet Hossain Ali, a CNG driver. "I've been sitting at home since March 26. How would my family survive? I came out today," Hossain Ali said. Asked if he had got any passenger, he answered no, saying rickshaws get them all.
The Karwan Bazar roundabout was occupied by around 35 people, who were waiting for anyone distributing food or money. They all had lost work due to the shutdown. One young man, Billal, who lives in Begunbari, said, "I'm a rickshaw puller. I managed to earn a little money even after the shutdown had begun. But now the garage owner won't give me a rickshaw because the shutdown is being enforced more seriously."
Another rickshaw puller said the police often overturn the rickshaws and deflate the tires to discourage them from plying the roads. Yet, many patrol teams were found to be ignoring the small number of empty rickshaws in many parts of the city.
The streets of the business district of Motijheel were empty too. Streets in Kakrail, Moghbazar, Tejgaon, Mohakhali, Gulshan and Banani were totally deserted. In the whole city, no traffic police were found, as there was virtually no traffic on the roads to control.
Compared to a week earlier, even the alleys were much less frequented by people. The most people we saw were uniformed security guards. We spoke to a plain clothed pedestrian near Purana Paltan. Turned out, the man, Dilip Oraon, was also a security guard. He had had his dinner in some place and was on the way to his duty station. We found another man in Gulshan-2, Shariful Islam, who was walking back to his place in Basundhara, having finished guard duty in Banani.