By Arvind Kumar
The ping on my phone read, ‘ The University will shut down from tomorrow due to COVID 19. All boarders are advised to vacate and return home to avoid the threat of any infection.’ There wasn’t a second tick-box, as I shared the news with my class-mates, each one getting busy packing, or booking tickets to their respective homes. Delhi, itself was no safer, and the threat of withdrawal of flights hastened my decision to be back in my house.
We were a month and a half into our final semester and with two months left to graduate.
The University had only one choice to clear the populated campus with close to 5500 members to avoid any untoward fallout. The same day I drove to Delhi and boarded a late-night flight to Kolkata. I was greeted by an empty airport, with only a few flyers like me making a spontaneous one-way trip back to their homes.
I landed in the wee hours Kolkata on the same night at 1 am. My man Friday and driver, Buddhe, was in waiting with the car at the airport. The intensity of COVID had not reached Kolkata until then, and my driver had only a bit of information on the ‘Chinese Coronavirus’ problem.
I reached home, my parents keeping awake and anxious, and my two pet dogs, who were the happiest to see me back. The abundance of time and comfort of home came unexpectedly. I could continue jogging and cycling as I used to do in my University campus for nearly two weeks in Kolkata.
The weather in Kolkata was still kind, the last traces of winter had not departed until then, and Spring was impatient to make an entry. Suddenly the hustle-bustle of the campus transformed into a near monastic quietness, limited to Jogging, cycling, and an occasional much at mouth-watering puchkas and my video-games. The University was mulling online classes, which would commence soon. Until then, I was like a bird in the vast wooded surroundings.
The entry of COVID-19 was slower and the number of cases lower in comparison to a few other places in India. The virus arrived from the passengers coming from various countries, which were already infected. The spread of the virus could not be ignored any longer, and some critical interventions were expected. Many countries had already cocooned themselves in ‘lockdown.’
On 19th March, Mr Modi, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, came on air to address the nation. It raised anxiety, reminding of the announcement of demonetisation a couple of years ago. The COVID issue was getting intense, “Modi aaj kya dhamaka karega?”, Chandu, our Bihari cook, hurriedly finished his chores to join us at the tv to watch.
The prime minister called on the citizens of the country to observe a self-imposed curfew on 22nd March, a Sunday, for one day. Modi, using his wordplay called it “Janta Curfew”, which meant not an enforced one, but a voluntary stay home kind. The curfew was 14 hours long, from 7 am to 9 pm. Essential services such as medical staff, police, firefighters, media and delivery services were exempt from the curfew. Modi also urged all to show their appreciation and gratitude to the essential service providers, doctors and medical staff in particular, by clapping and ringing bells from their balconies and doorways.
I woke up to an eerie silence that morning, not that I was not used to it in the Bandh-loving Bengal. The citizens listened and heeded to Modi’s call and had stayed indoors. The often heard honking of cars, even in empty streets were absent with a few or no cars.
The eerie silence piqued my curiosity as I decided to venture out with my bicycle. I cycled around the city, from Park Circus to Howrah to shoot a desolate Kolkata, which was unique in many ways. The cacophony on the Howrah bridge was missing; there were no rickshaws and no trams. The city was desolate with no soul in sight like pages out of Stephen King’s novels.
At 5 pm, the designated time for ringing bells, people were out on the streets in large groups, acknowledging the work done by the essential service providers. The activity sparked a feeling of a shared community amongst those participating. It was more like a celebration.
The Government, in the meanwhile, had planned a more extended repeat of the Janta Curfew experiment. A confident Prime Minister Modi explained the dangers of the COVID infections and announced a nationwide 21 days lockdown from the very next day. Such stay-ins were essential for defeating the spread of the Coronavirus, the PM claimed.
The country came to a standstill, and there was no activity to take place until the midnight of 14th April, unless circumstances get worse and the virus manages to spread, which might force the Government to extend the lockdown.
Like any home, we evaluated the stocks of essentials like rice, lentils, salt etc. and rushed to a large store. The store, reminiscent of pre-Durga puja days, was swarming with people despite it being a month-end. Everyone grabbing whatever they can lay their hands on and the queues at the cash longer than ever that I have seen.
We were ready for the 21-day lockdown. Unlike the Janta Curfew, section 188 was in place for the lockdown, which meant that the police were free to take action against violators of the lockdown. Videos uploaded on social media showed liberal use of ‘lathis’ by the policemen on wilful violators for enforcing the lockdown.
I come from a god-fearing family where we eat only after offering food to different gods first. My grandmother, 79, lives about 5 km away from where I live. Every Thursday, without fail, she would visit a local Sai Baba’s temple. She would also host a small gathering of her friends at her home for bhajans and refreshments.
It was the second day of the lockdown, a Thursday, and I was watching the news. My grandmother called on the phone, lamenting that she could not go to the temple. My mother requested me to go and deliver her some halwa, flowers as also some medicines for my grandmother.
Bereft of any work, I was getting bored in the lockdown, my jogging and cycling were disrupted. I jumped at the offer and armed myself with a bottle of sanitizer and an N-95 face mask. I successfully dodged the roving eyes of the Policemen and successfully reached my grandmother’s home. The roads were eerily silent and deserted, and the sound of cracking autumn leaves under my cycle’s wheels gave me company.
“Why did you have to take such a risk and come? What if the police catch you? I’m bored sitting just for two days inside the home, rued my grandmother. I realized the impact of the lockdown on senior-citizens like her and tried to understand her needs. There were tears in her eyes when I asked her not to worry about me because I would have to visit her frequently to deliver her medicines and groceries during the lockdown.
The episode set me thinking. My grandmother was lucky to have someone like me to deliver essential items to her at her doorstep. At the same time, there were many senior citizens in Kolkata, living in isolation with nobody to help. I shared this thought with my parents. They suggested I do something about it. It set me thinking, and the concept of ‘Cycle Soldiers,’ was born.
I made a poster on Photoshop and uploaded it on WhatsApp and Facebook. My messages on both these social platforms speedily travelled and shared by many. The Cycle soldiers reached different parts of the world to many relieved sons or daughters living abroad, with their old parents residing alone in Kolkata. With maids and servants retired to their homes, these senior citizens suddenly had none to help, for any emergency or needs. I decided to deliver essential medicines and groceries to senior citizens living alone at no extra cost and working 24x7 with my brand ‘Cycle Soldiers.
The next morning, I woke up to a call asking if Cycle Soldiers did exist. The caller was from abroad and wanted to ensure that it is not another fake news or spam to fleece the older people living alone. He was satisfied that I existed.
Encountering the police and explaining to them while commuting to various locations was a severe problem, which had to be resolved. I walked up to my local police station, Rabindra Sarovar Police Station. I met with the Officer-in-Charge, Mr Jayanta Mukherjee. I explained to him the aim and objective of Cycle Soldiers. “I am proud of youths like you, who even in these critical times of virus exposure is venturing out to help those in need. Most in your age might enjoy this time and sit at home and relax.”, said the OC. He asked me to meet with Mr Bodhisattva Pramanik, another officer who stamped the permit and wished me luck. Mr Pramanik assured me that the police would give all assistance when and where necessary. “If they stop you anywhere, I am only a call away.”, Mr Pramanik said while handing over his contact card to me.
I started receiving calls from all over the world, from London, Dubai, Doha, USA. Callers from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata too were seeking assistance. Many senior citizens had their children working in different cities and in different parts of the world, helpless and unable to join with families and parents due to the grounding of both domestic and international flights.
The stores could not manage the thronging crowds and had to resort to an entry-coupon system, which specified the time of entry into the shop. I explained the store Manager from Spencer’s Rashbehari of my plight - shortage of time and the need to service many senior-citizens. Not only appreciating my work, Mr Arindam, the manager promptly waived the entry strictures for me and permitted my direct entry to purchase items that were ordered by the seniors. I often had to go to the stores a dozen times a day. Next, he agreed that I WhatsApp the needs for the next day, which were ready, packed and billed, saving much time and resulting my taking more calls every day.
While I was out for delivery one day, I had missed out a few items, and I stopped at Bina Stores in Manohar Pukur Road. I purchased the items and paid Mr Rakesh, the owner of the shop 400 rupees for the things I bought. Out of curiosity, he asked me what I was doing, and I showed him the Cycle Soldiers poster on my mobile phone. He promptly cancelled the cash memo to redo another one with a hefty discount. He said, “ Although I wish to help, I cannot leave the shop and venture outside. Please pass the lower prices to the elders, as my humble contribution to their cause.”
The kindness showed by people during such a difficult time touched me. There were many hidden faces behind Cycle Soldiers, like the Police officers, Arindam or Rakesh (only to name a few), without whose help my work would not have reached the many senior’s homes. Many volunteered to assist me in deliveries in far off places like Salt Lake and New Town.
By charging blessings and well wishes as payment for Cycle Soldiers’ services, we have been able to deliver many essential commodities to hundreds of homes. The deliveries included not only medicines, fresh fruits and vegetables, groceries but also odd items like gas cylinders. In some cases, the seniors would want me to stay back for a while, only to sit and talk to lonely hearts. I knew, when a sweet octogenarian lady faked a need for some item, only that I visit her to taste her freshly baked cake. There was humanness abound everywhere and with everyone.
Experiencing and empathizing with the sufferings of people has reshaped my idea about serving the society and bring about a positive change as and when I can. People come to peoples’ rescue during trying hours like this, and the City of Joy is blessed with an abundance of kind and generous people.
Sweet shops in Kolkata were later granted permission to remain open from 12 pm to 4 pm and if you are unaware, let me tell you, sweets are as much an essential commodity as medicines or rice and dal for Bengalis. The elders were happy to find fresh Rosogullas and Sandesh delivered at their homes!
I thank the almighty, my parents and everyone directly and indirectly associated with my small endeavour to further enhance the sweetness of Kolkata with an opportunity to serve a part of challenged society! Cycle Soldiers is here to stay, in India and wherever I go!