“Dispatch from a Pandemic: New Delhi” by Chesta Wadhwani

The Ceiling (detail), Semer van Alten

I have been going to the terrace every evening at six for the last forty days. Today the sky is uncharacteristically blue; the clouds are scattered like dollops of vanilla ice cream. From my terrace, I watch a woman smoke a cigarette; a blue towel covers her hair. She watches two parrots sit by each other on a naked tree branch. We smile at each other.

corona samThe roads are deserted; the sirens blare and over speakers, police command the few masked people to return to their homes. Independent two- to three-story homes surround us. Few terraces appear well-kept with prim patio furniture; one stands out, neglected due to its dusty washing machine. Just across from me, a family appears to be spending their evening on their terrace: A child swings on a swing; a boy flies orange-colored kites against a now pallid sky; a lady jumps a skipping rope; a bearded man walks in and greets them with a tray full of yellow mugs. Above, a fleet of birds passes by twittering with all their might. Nearby, a tall, lanky person comes into his balcony; he speaks to his phone, and blows kisses.

As I assemble a to-do list in my head, the temple with the red-and-white colored dome chimes its bells; the bells echo just as the mosque via loudspeaker asks people to offer the Ramadan prayers from home.

Nearly two months ago, my toddler dropped my phone in the washing machine. The said phone has been at a closed repair shop since. Humans are social animals. So social that if asked to quarantine in isolation, the said human begins to have rapid monologues in the head.

Nearly every evening, the unfathomable, clean blue Delhi sky takes your breath away; so many friends had left the city before the virus on account of the city’s toxic air. They left the national capital renowned for its mystic dargahs, tombs, classical music, chilly winters, lawns full of squirrels, and omnipresent trees making green canopies everywhere you look.

Pollution has left this town and North India; the irony is we must wear masks to step out.

The world seems bereft of greed to acquire this and that.

On May 8, a goods train crushed as many as sixteen migrant workers to death in the city of Aurangabad; the train ran over them as they slept on the railway tracks. Their belongings were strewn near them. How we are to know, now, what went on in their heads as they closed their eyes on the tracks? The exhaustion, the fear for the safety of their families, the virus lurking quietly, the government apathy, and our collective lack of empathy failed them.

Social distancing is a luxury only for the rich who have homes, homes with toilets.

Every evening you are reminded of the things you once did with reckless abandon. Bags packed at a moment’s notice to travel, work, live, cook, study, surprise loved ones and vacation.

We are all migrants; we must not forget.

–May 10, 2020



Chesta Wadhwani was born in UAE and grew up in Bombay, India. She writes constantly (mostly in her head). She has worked as a journalist, copywriter, and an educator. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. A short story was published in a Scholastic India anthology.  She lives in New Delhi.