Nothing underscores the despondency of Diwali 2020 quite as much as the unsettling quiet over Delhi’s pottery markets in a festive season normally marked by the bustle of people buying diyas and idols to usher in the festival of lights.
In the weeks leading up to Diwali, pottery hubs across the city would come alive with the sounds of cars driving up and scores of people bargaining at stalls overflowing with handmade earthenware – including not just diyas of all sizes but also decorative flower pots, platters and vases.
The bright lights are strung up like every other year to beckon people but the customers are just so few. Though some people are stepping out despite the continuing fear of contracting COVID-19, the numbers are just a fraction of what they were.
“Earlier, the crowds would begin two to four weeks before Diwali and we barely had time to breathe. We would be so busy we couldn’t take a tea break. But this year the situation is really bad,” said Anita, sitting amid the heap of earthen lamps and pots and quite literally swatting flies.
Her makeshift shop on a pavement in south Delhi’s Hauz Rani market is overflowing. But there are no buyers. And the 60-year-old, who also stocks pottery from places such as Khurja in Uttar Pradesh, is despairing.
“We always ran out of our Diwali stock weeks before the festival, but this year I have barely sold anything,” she said.
In fact, she has barely had any customers at her shop since the lockdown was lifted. And nothing has changed even with Diwali just eight days away.
The fear of the coronavirus has taken over the festive cheer, leaving some of the most popular pottery markets in Delhi struggling to bring in business, even during what has traditionally been the busiest season in the year.
Delhi on Thursday recorded 6,715 COVID-19 cases, taking its infection tally to over 4.16 lakh. The relentless spread of the infection, eight months on, has taken its toll on millions of livelihoods across the country and in its capital too.
And Anita, who took over the 30-year-old shop nearly a decade back after her mother-in-law passed away, is just one of them. She said her shop is the only source of income for her family of eight, and the pandemic has made survival very difficult.
Located a stone’s throw from the Malviya Nagar metro station, the Hauz Rani market is essentially a row of nearly 30 shops running along the footpath, selling all things earthen and beautiful.
Anita’s neighbor, 38-year-old Seema who runs her shop in the same market with her husband, is frantic.
“Business is not even 25 percent of what it used to be,” Seema said.
The shelves are lined with beautiful items of ceramic crockery in shades of blues, pink and yellow and rows of Ganesh-Lakshmi idols, screaming to be picked up, admired and purchased. But there are just too few takers.
She added that she buys all the items on loan from wholesale shopkeepers in places such as Khurja, Jaipur and Kolkata and pays them back once she has made the sale, keeping the profit for herself.
“This year, it looks like we will barely make enough money to pay the shopkeepers back, forget about earning anything ourselves. There are so few customers coming in that we have to sell items at prices lower than what we bought them for,” the mother of three said.
Livelihood in the aftermath of the lockdown has been hand-to-mouth. The Diwali season, which is when they make the most sales, was the sliver of hope but that too is receding.
“We dipped into our savings to survive through the lockdown and months after that, hoping that business would be better during the festive season. But we just manage to make enough to run the household on a daily basis,” Seema said.
While those like Anita and Seema face an unprecedented crisis because their shops are the mainstay of their earnings, there are some who are better off – if only marginally.
Like Pankaj and Rahul, who own shops at the Sarojini Nagar pottery market a few kilometers away from Hauz Rani but also have jobs. While Kumar works at a leather export company, Rahul is a mechanic.
As in Hauz Rani, here, too, the small, makeshift shops sell a mix of earthenware and ceramic stuff ordered from other vendors.
The Sarojini Nagar market is a lane of 50 odd shops that sell pottery items like flower pots and earthen pots for water throughout the year and bring in additional supplies before Diwali. Many said they had preempted the possibility of low sales by just ordering less.
Pankaj, 45, a third-generation owner of a shop, said he was always expecting a poor turnout of customers. Business is bad but some of his loyal customers have returned.
“For us, the festive season starts from Dussehra. The business has been at least 50 percent less than previous years but I think it’s still good considering the current circumstances. I ordered only half the stock that we usually get for Diwali,” he said.
Rahul, 30, too, adopted the same strategy and brought in only half of his stock from West Bengal, Gujarat and Agra.
“It used to get so crowded here before Diwali that one could barely find a spot to stand. This year, I am lucky if one customer stops. No one wants to touch the products in the shop,” he said.
“Through the year, my mother sits at the shop and I am at work. It is only during Diwali that I am here because of the rush,” Rahul said.
Standalone shops face the same fate.
Madan Lal Yadav, 64, who has been setting up his shop of Diwali items at the Green Park market in south Delhi since the late 1980s said the business couldn’t be slower.
“I have been opening shop every day since Dussehra but there’s really no one stopping by.”
While potters count their losses, customers are just looking at the rising trajectory of the disease.
Aditi Khandelwal, for instance, has decided to go online for all her Diwali needs, including diyas.
“I have been buying diyas and candles from local/roadside vendors, but this time, I have shopped for things online and have begun preparing hand-made decorative items. I am just avoiding stepping outside,” the 25-year-old said.