First came the silence. Sudden and severe; like a somnambulist's world.
The honking disappeared. With that the constant loud scraping of a few hundred thousand rubber tyres on the bitumen. Their sounds picked up and amplified by the narrow widths of the roads and the tall
Reflective buildings on both sides. The hawkers' shrill voices went absent. The murgiwala, the sabjiwala and all the other-walas.
The city changed its notes that it has been coarsely singing for how many years we have forgotten to keep track of.
A city whose heart always pounded so loud and noisy had suddenly been sequestered from its soul.
You could hear the birds chirping as the mechanical sounds receded. The harsh cackles of the crows disappeared, replaced by a sweet whistle during the day. The sunbirds had returned, or they were there all the time, only the din of the city drowned them out.
And one night, the three o'clock silence was pierced by a cuckoo. It sat on the tree right outside the window and started calling so loud and clear that it kept piercing one's eardrums hours on end.
The dogs were jerked up from their sleep. They had never heard this note of the city in their lives. They were panicked. Confused. And even angry. Their barks were scared, furious at three in the morning.
The cuckoo persisted. And the dogs accepted it as a new normal. They finally went to sleep after a few days, undisturbed by the monotonous call of the cuckoo.
The note changed again.
It was of desperation. First it was demurred appeals for help from shy faces. Almost near murmurs you could ignore unmindfully.
Then the note grew louder and shriller. From B flat to C sharp and climbed on to E sharp. And the language too.
From help appeals the progression was to food appeal. First it were the adults – those who once were the backbone of the city's menial work world and the beggars who were robbed of their livelihood because there were no traffic jams and standstill cars.
The city changed its din again when kid's voices joined the chorus. They would arrive at 12 pm sharp and from then on the note would change to young desperation for food.
By this time, the cuckoo had stopped. Its sudden absence was starkly felt. It had succeeded in its mating calls and went into consummated silence.
The city was still tip-toeing around. Nobody really believed what it really meant. And yet everybody on alert. Everybody hunkering down. Holing up.
The note changed again as people started beelining to the relief- and low-cost food trucks. The length of the queue a measure of desperation.
Everybody was waiting with forbearing to make it to the truck, to the man on top with a mask on, measuring out the food. The restaurant worker, the bus helper, the rickshaw mechanic, the tailor in the neighbourhood. But how can they make it without the buses rolling on the road again? Without the tables set in the restaurants? Or the sewing machines whirring again?
The din slowly but progressively started returning. The various-wallahs returned. More in number than before.
The beef-wala's machete making that blunt unvaried sound on meat placed on wooden blocks. The cackle of the chickens carted around on rickshaw-vans.
And one morning, a broken alley left half-mended came alive with tukri-walas clearing the piles of dug-out earth.
The note had changed sharply. With the bazars swarming back to life. Even the tea-wala had returned with his flask and people yapped around him.
Now you can no longer listen to your movie at a turned-low level. You have to tap up the volume.
And you can hear the birds only in the morning.
But now the city's notes have picked various scales. More of realisation. More of practicality. And more of panic.
Realisation of the unbearable heaviness of economic stress. Contemplation of a nonworking lockdown. Practicality of dense living.
And the foreboding in some of its scared faces about what-if-I-am-next? Where to go and where to seek medical help?
The notes are now getting all mixed up, making for a discordant orchestra.