By: Aastha K Pant
Picture: Tanmayee Chakraborty
The writer of this piece narrates, beautifully, a story set in the early days of Covid-19 in the city of Mumbai, and the difference in narratives for the citizens who experienced it. The piece below has a vignette-like quality to it, giving its reader a clear window into the different ways in which a global situation can impact two women of the same city while addressing the riddles of class, and compassion. The tale truly captures the essence of September’s theme, ‘Narratives’.
Laxmi was done for the day and asked Nalini if she could leave. She wiped her hands on the hand towel that hung off a nail on the kitchen wall, specifically for her. Nalini replied saying, “Thank you didi. Wait! Have you kneaded enough dough for rotis for the next few days?” and wandered into the kitchen with her empty cup of tea, intending to rinse it before keeping it back on the steel rack hung tangentially above the sink. Laxmi leapt forward, taking the cup from her hand so she could wash it herself, saying “Yes didi. Kneaded enough to last you a week.” Nalini nodded and thanked her with a smile.
“How will you manage without me didi?” Laxmi asked. “Bhaiyya wants rotis at least for one meal every day and you don’t even know how to make them.”
Nalini smiled and said “He’ll manage, Laxmi didi. He knows how to prepare rotis better than me for sure. They may not be round but are good enough to eat.”
Laxmi seemed slightly taken aback at the suggestion that Raghav would be making his own rotis. He was never known to return home from work at a decent time, and sometimes worked weekends too. She never understood that part, though. Nalini and Raghav both worked in the same field of ‘shooting business’ but she was often told by Nalini how late Raghav had returned home from work, at times even at 2 in the night, while Nalini was often back by 7 or 8 PM. She thought Raghav must certainly be getting paid way more than Nalini. And why shouldn’t he? After all, he was the man of the house and had to support himself, his wife, and perhaps his family back home too. The rent for this house must be quite expensive.
Once, during an afternoon gossip session during the lunch break that they took between home chores, she had been sitting in the cool shady car parking bay with Sheila. Sheila had told her that the rent of houses within that particular society was nothing less than forty thousand and went as high up as fifty-five to sixty thousand, to her knowledge. She had heard of this through Bittoo, one of the chatty guards who was on day duty at the fanciest towers in the complex. Laxmi was suddenly jolted out of her maze of thoughts by Nalini calling out her name.
“Where did you get lost again, didi? The cup got clean about 2 minutes back. You’ve been running the water needlessly again!” Nalini admonished her gently. “Haven’t I told you not to waste water and be careful?”
Laxmi smiled and said “Sorry didi. But thankfully you don’t have a water shortage in this society, so why worry?”
“I may get an uninterrupted water supply now, but I’ve told you we’re facing a water crisis. And more than me, it’s you lot who will be affected. Consider it my contribution to ensure you get water.”
Laxmi wiped her hands off again as she replied, “My fate is bound to be the same, whether there is more or less water. Anyway, now when do I come back didi? They say this is going to go on for a while?”
“Yeah, it is a pandemic after all. This is going to go on for a long while now. The madness is just beginning. And people are yet to realize the severity of the situation. That’s why I’ve been telling you to keep the bottle of sanitizer I gave you in your potli. Carry it and use it frequently. And don’t lose the mask I gave you… and wear it properly covering your mouth and nose. This is a terrible virus and you never know where and how you can get it. So please take care.”
“But didi, what about work? Won’t I be able to resume work any time soon? How will I feed my family?”
Nalini assured Laxmi she would be paying her salary of four thousand rupees every month, for as long as required and wouldn’t be cutting any money.
“But how long will you also give me money without me working for you? Who does that?”
“I’ll do it for as long as it’s required. In any case, you won’t go hungry for sure. I will take care of that at my end. You leave now, and take care of yourself and your family. Stay safe.”
Laxmi nodded, thanked her for being so kind, picked up her potli and opened the door to leave. But she stopped and turned around to tell Nalini, “You and bhaiyya also take care, didi. Let me know if you need any help from me (Aap aur bhaiyya bhi khayal rakhna didi. Kuch madad chahiye ho toh batana)”.
Nalini marvelled at Laxmi offering to help her when she knew she had far less means than her for sure, but she acknowledged her offer with a smile and a polite return of the same offer, asking her to call if she ever needed anything.
Laxmi left for the day, not knowing when she might be able to return to work at the Tripathi residence.
It had been forty-five days since the lockdown had begun. Nalini’s eyes opened at the usual 7:30 am, as a force of habit – but not to the sound of Laxmi ringing the doorbell. The new reality of their lives was very different. The usual morning rush of leaving for office had been replaced by the languid pace of organizing breakfast, and prepping for lunch before logging in on the laptop for work.
She yawned, stretched herself like a cat, patted her husband on the head, who was still asleep in a foetal position next to her. Hauling herself out of bed, she set about her new “Lockdown” routine – wash face, brush teeth, head to the kitchen, have a drink of warm water with lime, go to the bathroom, head back to the kitchen to make ginger tea and prepare a quick breakfast, wake the husband and have tea together, wrap up the prep for lunch, before settling down for a day of pointless tasks set by her megalomaniac, workaholic boss in his effort to keep them all “in the mood for work,” as he put it. She was frankly quite tired of this but had little choice in the matter.
The lockdown had adversely affected everyone. People across industries were either being thrown out of jobs, suffering salary cuts, and receiving botched appraisals if at all. She needed to cling onto her job and its regular monthly salary, for life in Bombay was hardly ever manageable by a single earning member. That is, if one didn’t want to live in a shoebox. Raghav kept pretty busy, too, with multiple zoom calls, but his timings were rather erratic.
Amidst all this, however, both of them, particularly Nalini, was thankful that this lockdown had given the two of them sufficient time to spend together, which was a rarity during regular life. What with erratic office timings, a huge workload and the time of travelling to and fro, it was difficult and adversely affected their relationship.
They had been finding it very difficult to connect and bond, for the last couple of months, compared to their dating days when it seemed living apart had worked wonders for them to dedicate time for each other. Comparatively, living together had caused frequent friction and them taking their time together for granted. She had thus been enjoying the new practice they’d set for themselves, of watching a film together, every night, post dinner. She would ensure she had finished all her work by then, so she could keep her phone aside, not allowing anything or anyone to disturb her during those precious couple of hours.
That night however, she did get disturbed. An unknown number had been ringing her repeatedly. As a rule, Nalini avoided answering phone calls from unknown numbers having suffered a shuddering incident of a stalker like fellow, back when she had been in New Delhi, for college. But that night, the caller just wouldn’t stop. She finally asked Raghav to pause the film that had been playing on their TV, and answer. Raghav did so and within moments passed the phone to her, telling her it was Laxmi. Nalini exchanged a nervous glance with him, who beckoned her to go on and talk.
“Hello didi? I am sorry, did I disturb your sleep?” Laxmi’s nervous voice came over the phone.
“No Laxmi, we were up,” Nalini answered, “What happened? And what is this number you’re calling from? I didn’t recognize it so I didn’t answer earlier.”
“I’m sorry, this is my friend’s number. Didi, I need some help.”
“Sure, how much do you need? Are you unwell, or is it your family?” Nalini asked presumptuously.
“No didi, I don’t need money. I need a favour please,” came Laxmi’s voice, sounding almost guilty.
“Okay, go on?”
“Didi, if you don’t mind please can I come over and stay at your home for tonight? Just for tonight?”
Nalini paused and glanced at Raghav, who narrowed his eyes and motioned his head as if asking what she said. Nalini asked Laxmi to hold on for a second.
“She’s asking if she can come and stay over here for tonight. I don’t know what to say,” Nalini whispered to him unsure.
Raghav thought for a second then replied saying “Ask her the reason. Why does she suddenly want to come here, that too for just one night?”
Nalini nodded, and asked Laxmi over the phone “What happened Laxmi, why do you suddenly want to come here just for tonight? Is everything okay?”
There was a pause and Laxmi apologetically said “Never mind didi, I’m sorry I asked. I’m sorry I troubled you, I’ll manage.”
“Wait, wait! Hold on Laxmi. What happened? At least tell me? I can’t just allow you to come over without knowing the reason, na? You know how strict societies are right now. They aren’t allowing anyone to go in or out freely. I’ll have to inform the secretary, seek permission and do all those formalities. So, I need you to tell me the reason first, please.”
Laxmi breathed into the phone and had a clear moment of hesitation before saying “Didi, my husband has taken off, on foot, for his village on the outskirts of Maharashtra, with our child. He just left me alone with just a note about it,” Laxmi broke into sobs as she told her tale of woe.
An uncomfortable Nalini exchanged glances with Raghav who had also been listening.
“Why don’t you report it to the police?” Nalini ventured.
Laxmi immediately let out a yelp and said in a desperate tone, “No, no didi! Please do not tell the police. They will find him and beat him up and my child is with him, didi.”
Nalini calmed her down and assured her she wouldn’t tell the cops but repeated her question as to why she needed to stay over at theirs for the night.
“I will leave early tomorrow morning didi. My friend’s brother has a scooter. He lives in Khopoli and is friends with a constable. He will get permission, come and pick me up and take me to our village. I can’t stay alone in my home tonight because…”
“Because…” Laxmi answered hesitatingly, “I’m scared of being alone, didi.”
Nalini scoffed looking at Raghav. She said, “What do you mean scared? And you have your friend, right, whose phone you are using to call me? Can’t she let you stay on for the night if that’s the case?”
Laxmi sadly said, “Didi she already has a family of 12 people living in her small hut and no space for me. The other neighbors have refused to take me in. I just thought I’ll call you and ask since you had told me to call you if I needed any help. But I’m sure I’m causing you trouble, I’m so sorry, didi.”
Nalini felt bad hearing Laxmi’s sad tone. Raghav nodded his head telling her to agree and so Nalini answered saying, “Yes I did say that. Okay Laxmi, wait. Let us figure out necessary permissions and I will call you back in 10-15 minutes, alright?”
Laxmi agreed and told her to call back on the same number as her phone had been taken by her husband. Nalini agreed and hung up.
“What do we do, Raghav?”
“What do you mean? You know what needs to be done. I’ll drop a message to the Secretary, Mr. Virk, right away and ask if we can talk to him.”
“I don’t mean that! We can always tell her we tried and didn’t get permission, can’t we?” Nalini said.
Raghav gave her a look as he asked, “So your offer of helping her out was meaningless, was it?”
“Of course it wasn’t! Haven’t we given her full salary, even though she didn’t come to work throughout the month? Haven’t we answered her phone call, in fact? People haven’t even done that much. Mrs. Mutreja next door was telling me just yesterday about how most of the people in this so-called posh society have been consistently ignoring phone calls of their domestic help. They have not been giving money for basic groceries too, forget salaries.”
“Wow, so that’s the standard you want to compare yourself to? So all the talks of donation, tithing, gratitude is all what? Superficial? This is why I don’t like all this dramebaazi. You guys want to do weekly meetings, chant mantras and share pearls of wisdom over Whatsapp. But when it comes to doing actual work on the ground, y’all are comfortable with giving money, thinking it can solve most problems. And if it doesn’t, then too you’ll rest comfortably in the farce of having ‘done your bit’, right?” fumed Raghav.
Nalini shot back saying “Do not question my spiritual practice Raghav, at least I have one. I’m not a lost agnostic, atheist, whatever be the term, like you!”
“And what good is that even doing in this moment of an actual test?”
“How is this a test Rags? The woman has a house of her own, she’s not homeless! She’s just being a child – not wanting to sleep alone, it seems! That’s what you’re going to tell the secretary? Please allow us to let our maid enter and stay in our house for tonight because she is scared of sleeping alone! How ridiculous! Are you delusional about the time we are living in? What if you do get her to enter, and she’s a COVID carrier, and she ends up infecting us, and our society is fuming mad at us for bringing the virus in? Have you thought about that?”
“So tomorrow if one of your Bandra or Andheri friends or that other one you claim is often depressed and lonely, wants to just shift in here, will you apply the same logic? Or is it just because Laxmi’s a domestic worker? Show some humanity, Nal! It’s the matter of one bloody night, and we’ll take all precautions before she enters. Ask her to sanitize herself. Be a good human, for god’s sake! It’s not even that much of a task, what you are facing. People are out there feeding hungry, homeless people, putting themselves at risk while doing so. All we have to do is give shelter to this poor woman for one damn night, in our hall, and she will leave in the morning. Anyway, it’s up to you! I’m done arguing over this. So, what is it going to be? Do I make the call or not? “
Nalini was indignant at the point Raghav had raised but his words had fallen on angry ears, not deaf ones. She pondered all that he’d said, then asked him to make the call to Mr. Virk.
About forty minutes later, the bell rang. Nalini put on the satin robe that had come with her new night coordinate that she had ordered just before the lockdown, and headed to the door. Raghav stayed inside.
She opened the door to see Laxmi standing there in a familiar-looking saree – she had five in all, Nalini had noticed – over the last year she had been working for them. She was holding her small potli in her hand. Laxmi bowed her head and with a smile thanked Nalini again for the umpteenth time. She removed her slippers by the side of the door and made a move to enter but before she could, Nalini quickly asked her to use the sanitizer she held out. Laxmi confirmed she’d used the one in the lobby before taking the lift but Nalini insisted.
Laxmi obliged and Nalini led her inside the house, motioning to a mattress that had been laid out in the hall for her, by the side of the window that had been slid open to let in the fresh air. A water bottle and the demarcated cup kept aside for Laxmi since she had started working for them, sat next to it on the floor. Laxmi again thanked her and Nalini nodded, making a move to head back inside the bedroom, but not before telling her to use the detached washroom outside and asking her to ensure she threw water over the toilet seat and then washed her hands each time she was done. Laxmi nodded and made to settle
down. Nalini stopped however, and after a moment asked her if she had eaten anything. Laxmi nodded saying her friend had given her a cup of tea.
“I asked if you have eaten anything…”
Laxmi looked down and shook her head but insisted she wasn’t hungry. Nalini sighed and told her to wait. She tied her hair up in a bun, and made her way to the kitchen putting a saucepan on the stove to prepare tea, while popping some bread slices open onto a plate and slapping on slices of boiled potato, cucumber and tomato on them, that she had cut and kept aside in boxes for their next morning’s breakfast earlier that evening. Laxmi scurried to the kitchen and insisted she would do the needful but Nalini told her to stay put in the hall and wait for a couple of moments.
A few minutes later, Nalini came out holding a tray with two cups of tea – green for herself – and a sandwich. She told Laxmi to have the tea and sandwich as she sat facing her, on the sofa, beginning to sip onto her own cuppa.
Laxmi thanked her profusely for her generosity, yet again.
“Didi, thank you so much. You are really great. So many people said before the lockdown they would help me whenever I needed and that I could call them. But funnily, you are the only one who even picked up my phone call, gave me my salary and then showed me such generosity by letting me stay at your home for the night. May God bless you and bhaiyya with all that your heart desires, truly.”
Nalini simply smiled and after a few moments of silence had passed, she asked a question.
“Why did your husband leave like that though, without you?”
Laxmi’s face fell as her munching grew slower. She swallowed the mouthful she had and said, “Because I argued with him about not leaving town. I told him let’s not leave and put ourselves and our child at risk. But he doesn’t listen didi, he never listens to me.”
“Because I earn more than him na, didi. That’s why.”
“What does that have to do with anything? I also earn more than Raghav does, so what? We run the house in a partnership, and that’s how it should be.”
Laxmi’s eyes widened as she said, “Really didi? I thought bhaiyya earned more because he’s always away at work. You’ve only told me how long and how hard he works, so I assumed…”
Nalini chuckled answering, “That’s the irony. He surely works harder and for longer hours than me, but the final amount is still a couple of bucks lesser than I receive.
But never mind that, why is this a problem for your husband? As long as someone’s getting money to sustain the family, what’s the problem?”
Laxmi shook her head saying, “No didi. That may be the case amongst you people. My husband comes from a very strict thought process. He believes the man of the house must provide for the family and earn food that we eat.”
Nalini shook her head letting out a laugh, “It’s 2020. Why is this thought process still going on, I just don’t get it.”
“In our villages time moves slower than it does in cities, didi. Things are still done and accepted the old way. I, luckily, come from a family where my father educated both his daughters. My elder sister thankfully worked hard, picked up skills and became a beautician and is doing well for herself. But she never moved to the city. I always wanted to be a nurse. I was always good at studies and worked hard too. But by the time I reached 10th, my father had an accident and passed away. My single mother could barely manage to make enough money to feed us.
My elder sister was married off by then and her husband helped out but wasn’t interested in spending on my education. So, I had no choice. I had to drop out, get married to Rakesh, and come to the city with him. That eased the burden off my mother but I could no longer achieve my dream. Rakesh initially got into bad company and lost whatever money my mother had given him as part of my dowry, in liquor and gambling. Then I had to start working as a housemaid. Eventually, because of my hard work, I gained more jobs and there came a time when I earned more than him. He was often thrown out of jobs because of his drinking habit.”
Nalini had been listening to her with interest. She had never spoken this much with Laxmi previously and had hardly ever bothered to get to know the inner workings of her life. “How did you have a child then – rather why?”
Laxmi let out a laugh and said, “Didi, what sort of a question is that? Of course, one has to have a child after marriage. I’m sure in a year even you and bhaiyya will.”
Nalini scoffed at the mere suggestion of that and said “Definitely not!” Laxmi’s eyes widened as she asked, “Why didi? Won’t your in-laws say anything?”
Nalini answered with a smile, “This is my body and my life, Laxmi. No one really has a say over it. And I definitely don’t want a child, neither does Raghav. We both believe there is enough population on earth and enough pressure on resources without us adding on to the burden. And we definitely aren’t ready for such a huge responsibility. So no, we aren’t planning on having any children,” Nalini sounded definite. After a moment’s pause though, she continued, “We may just adopt a cat or a dog though. Let’s see. We haven’t thought much. Who’d look after it when we’re both away at office though,” she mused more to herself, it seemed, than to Laxmi.
Laxmi looked at her with amazement in her eyes, and a mix of horror and admiration. She didn’t understand how Nalini could talk that way. Her in-laws would have probably beaten her with a stick had she not delivered a child within the first year of marriage, Laxmi mused. Thankfully she had, and a son at that. If only she’d ever had the luxury of such a choice.
Nalini interrupted her trail of thought. “Laxmi?”
Laxmi looked up a bit bewildered.
Nalini asked her, “So you were telling me about how your husband didn’t get a decent job for long. How did he get into this last job then?”
“Another house I work at, in B wing, the bhaiyya there spoke to some colleague of his who had been looking for a driver to drive his son to tuitions and back, after school. Rakesh got a job there. But with the lockdown, schools shut and so did tuition classes. So, again Rakesh is out of a job.”
Nalini nodded, taking it all in. Then asked, “But why did he take off with your child and start walking back to the village? Don’t you’ll know a strict lockdown is in place and there are restrictions on movement?”
Laxmi smiled sadly, saying “Yes didi, I told him. But he kept insisting on going back to his village. He said he didn’t want to rely on my little income or spread his hands before me. He said he could get far better comfort, food and a better life for Munna, back in his village. I didn’t agree with him. I remembered all that you’d told me about this disease, didi, trying to explain to him but he wouldn’t listen. So, he took off without telling me.”
Nalini sighed and said, “You should have let me tell the police. He wouldn’t have reached far and they could have helped to catch hold of him and send him back home.”
Laxmi hesitated then said, “Police does not always help people like us, didi. I was scared they might beat him and take my child away. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“What rubbish! Police is there to help people. Why would they unnecessarily beat him up and take away your child?”
Laxmi quietly said, “Didi my friend Lata told me that her brother had returned home yesterday with stick marks all over his back.”
“Of course, cops aren’t going to encourage anyone gallivanting during such a time. He must have done something wrong, for sure. What was he even doing, out and about?”
“He had gone to fetch medicines for their mother who’d been having severe pain in her legs for the last two days.”
Nalini didn’t know what to say. After a couple of seconds passed in silence, Raghav called out to her. She shot back telling him she will be right in. She glanced at the fitness band on her wrist and noted that a quarter of an hour had passed in their conversation. Nalini told Laxmi to settle down, sleep well and wake her in the morning before she left, by knocking on their door.
Laxmi nodded and bid her goodnight, thanking her yet again for her and bhaiyya’s generosity.
The next morning, Nalini’s eyes opened to a snoozed alarm, at 8:30 am. Silently cribbing to herself for sleeping in, she suddenly remembered the previous night and that Laxmi was probably still asleep outside. There had been no knock on their bedroom door. Nalini had never asked her what time she’d be leaving, she recalled.
She noticed it was still raining outside. It had been on since last night. She made her way out of the bedroom, and to the hall, ready to wake Laxmi up and ask her what time she would be leaving.
But to her surprise, the hall was empty and the mattress had been rolled up and neatly set aside. She looked around wondering if Laxmi was in the washroom, but her potli was gone.
Nalini made her way into the kitchen and was surprised by what she saw. She found the envelope of money that she had put out for Laxmi last night before going to sleep, was lying untouched. There was a pot of tea on the stove, a box full of their favourite aaloo parathas hiding a pile of 12 rotis, and a bottle of freshly ground chutney sitting by its side on the counter. She opened the fridge to see a box with freshly kneaded dough. She was touched to see Laxmi had gotten up early and done so much, before she left, without anyone having asked her to do any of it.
Nalinin made her way back to the hall and found a note lying atop the shoe rack which stood against the wall adjacent to the main door.
The note was written in Hindi, in a pretty handwriting.
You did a lot for me, Thank you for that. Sorry for troubling you a lot. I don’t know when we might meet again, because I don’t know when I’ll be back to the city from my village. But I’ll always remember yours and bhaiyya’s generosity.