A Helping Hand

The downpour was relentless, washing away layers of grime and filth from all around. Though Ratna was glad at the arrival of the monsoon, the overflowing potholes and inundated approach to their hut in the ‘kutcha colony’ was worrying. It was upsetting that many times God seemed to show great apathy towards them. The rain was welcome as it made sure they stopped seething in the unbearable heat. However, it did also seem like God got busy enticing the earth dwellers with this spectacle called “Rain” and in this display he forgot to think about the petty few for whom excess of anything was intolerable.    

Ratna felt overwhelmed with distress to see her dwelling dripping from every possible crevice. The limited utensils were giving their best to catch every single drop falling through the sunken and decaying roof. She was on the verge of being rendered homeless for the second time……the first was an insensitive human and now it was the heavens above. These were the times when it felt like a crime to be born poor, raised poor and then to top it all married off poor. She had achieved nothing, nothing at all being married. Instead, her meagre savings from the house maid job vanished along with the vanished husband.

The husband’s disappearance left her miserable and hopeless, but it was momentary and she had moved on. Her full time job as a housemaid in a business man’s lavish bungalow was satisfying. She was sure there would never be hungry days. The routine was all hunky dory till one day she overheard the Madam of the house briefing the head cook. She moved closer to the kitchen door pretending to be dusting the cabinet next to it and pressed her ear hard.

“Ramesh, please be extra careful with whatever you purchase from the market and bring home.”

“Madam ji, why the extra caution and worry? You seem to have something weighing on your mind.”

“Arrree…..what to say! There is talk of a new disease in the country. It has travelled from abroad so there is no treatment for it”. A deep sigh followed and then quickly catching up on her breath she continued, “The most dangerous thing is that it spreads very easily through touch, talking or even laughing.”

“Whatever groceries you get home have to be properly sanitised from now on. Sahib ji is sending some special disinfectant through the driver when he comes to collect the lunch. I will guide you on how to use it.”

“Moreover, you all have to keep washing your hands repeatedly.” I’m worried that the staff who come from outside especially from the ‘kutcha colony’ may bring the disease along”, saying this Madam was whispering and Ratna could barely catch a word now. She gave up trying to eavesdrop and carried on with her work.

As her hands glided over the varnished teakwood furniture, Ratna’s face now had glimpses of worry. “What was the hush hush talk Madam was having with Ramesh?” 

“Why did she mention words like ‘staff’, ‘caution’ during her interaction?” 

Getting the details out of the cook wasn’t going to be easy. He was very tight lipped and secretive about what went on in the house. Probably he was paid extra to do that. She herself had been working in the house for the past one year but Madam and other family members kept a visible distance from her. Actually it wasn’t just her. There was a clear demarcation of the staff that had access to the family. This however never bothered Ratna. With the daily chores clearly defined, she was happy in her own space. Not the kind to engage in gossip or even casual banter, her stay at the big mansion had been fuss free so far. What mattered most was the cash in hand at the end of the month. Yes….money, the ‘need all’ that would sustain her home and hearth.

Ratna felt the floor beneath sway as dizziness took control. A glance around the extravagant sitting area was reassuring that there were no witnesses to this state. She quickly withdrew to the verandah that also served as the resting area for the temporary staff. The washerwoman, a driver and the gardener were definitely immersed in some well meaning discussion for neither of them noticed her. Slouching into a corner with her hand on the forehead, she was sure she was getting a fever. Just as she tried to massage her forehead for some relief, the gardener exclaimed, “Arrre…Ratna…what is wrong with you?” “You don’t look very well. If you were feeling sick, you shouldn’t have come only. Madam is very strict…..she says that we just walk in sick and leave traces for others to catch and fall sick too.”

Though Ratna had never experienced this tone from the Madam, she sure had heard others complain quite frequently. Turning a deaf ear to the gardener’s chatter, she continued massaging the forehead. The actually worry and weight was of what she had overheard in the kitchen. It was important to find out details of this new disease. Was she being presumptuous or was there a danger of losing the sole income source. How would she survive? What about the children? The monsoon was approaching and the hut where they lived would also demand basic repair to see them through the incorrigible rains of Mumbai. Finding an alternate source of income was not an easy job in this city.

“Am I over reacting?”    

“Probably, it’s just a passing phase!”

“Maybe, nothing bad would ever happen?”…”maybe…maybe…maybe…” mumbling, Ratna slipped into a trance like nap. 

It wasn’t long before the reverie was broken with loud thuds and clatter of footsteps. There were hushed voices that trailed into the surrounding noise. However Ratna’s sharp ears caught some words, “corona virus”, “area sealed”, “team of doctors”. Ratna was still recovering from the hangover of the nap when the cleaning maid shouted into her ear, “Arrre…wake up Ratna! If Madam sees you napping at this hour, she will create a ruckus. You know very well that she dislikes rest time other than the designated lunch hour. C’mon quick! And why do you look pale? Are you well?”

The bombardment of questions irked her and she walked away in a rush. 

“I have million things to think of before answering your questions”, she mumbled.  She was pretty sure she had heard the word, ‘Doctor’. It was disturbing since now her sixth sense told her there was definitely something wrong. 

Her next stop was the kitchen, where only persuasion had hope given the arduous cook. The hastened footsteps to the kitchen came to a screeching halt, when she spotted the cook hanging out of the kitchen door, calling out, “Ratna….Ratna…come to the dining area. Madam wants to talk. Just rush, without wasting time.”

Ratna’s heart sank. “It is not even salary day”, she mumbled. “Then what else could be the matter?”

Shunning the crowding thoughts she hastened towards the kitchen.

“Yes Madam”, Ratna blurted adjusting the saree pallu over her shoulder.

“Ratna, from tomorrow you only do the outside dusting and cleaning. As of now we will manage inside work.”

“Madam, what happened?” “Is my work not upto your liking?”

“No, no, nothing like that. I think we are overstaffed. It is high time, I review the work allocation.”             

“Ramesh will give you any further clarifications.” The sentence was said halfway as she strode down the corridor connecting the dining area and the spacious visitor reception.

Ratna’s gaze shifted towards Ramesh, earnestly, as if wishing he read the questions in her eyes without her having to say them out aloud. And thankfully he did. “Don’t worry, there will be no salary cut for this month.”

“But what is the problem Ramesh Bhaiya? Isn’t my work upto the mark?”

“No, No….” and suddenly his voice reduced to a whimper as he took a step closer to her.

“There is a very contagious disease that is spreading around. Just to keep everyone safe, this step is being taken. Madam ji will be allowing very few people inside the house. Maybe only those of us who stay within the estate.”

Ratna stood perplexed. 

“If that be so, how can I expect to be paid full salary?” “I have three children and a mother-in-law swinging between life and death.”

Ramesh tried to calm her, “Listen Ratna. I don’t know what the future holds. Don’t think too much and just follow the orders. They are big people and we can’t be sure of what goes on in their minds!”

These words sealed all doubts. But it was wiser to wait till the month end. After all it was just another ten days. She completed her work hours and walked back home, taking the much needed time to herself, recapitulating the unfolding of the entire day. Lost in thoughts, reality struck only when her feet hit the mucky brown rain puddles. Yes….it was ‘Welcome Home’.

Home……she smiled, the first time since morning! Even for us, the petty on earth, home is warm and welcoming. It doesn’t matter, whether it has no dry spot in the rains or sun in the winter but ‘Home is Home!’ 

Without wasting time, the water pots were collected to fill water from the municipal corporation water supply point. She was already late by an hour and that would mean a long queue. Anyways, that should give her ample time to catch up on gossip. She scurried without delay and neatly tucked herself into the serpentine queue. It wasn’t long before the women began talking……..everything was discussed. Here and there chit chats to ‘lucky madams’ of the big mansions, till the discussion finally moved to the ‘new disease’ which was spreading its tentacles fast. The disease they say begins with a cough and cold and could be life threatening.

“There aren’t enough hospitals in the city”, she heard some lady from the front say.”

“So we are returning home to the village. At least we will be safe and in the comfort of our loved ones. Moreover, it is a disease of the city so villages are safe.”

“My madam has told me come only once a day now”, shouted another woman.

“And worst still she has halved my salary too!” “In this time of rain and disease, it will be very difficult to make ends meet”.

“My husband’s work days have also been reduced and so has his salary!” screamed another one.

“So it is definitely getting bad”, Ratna stated to the woman ahead of her. 

“But why should we suffer? We are not bringing the disease. Anyone can get it.”

 “That is what the problem is, the big madams think that it is only us who can bring the disease because we stay in dirty areas and are not hygienic”, replied the woman.

Ratna continued, “It is unfair to be termed as unhygienic. Don’t we know how to keep clean!”

Deep in her heart she was scared beyond words. The noise around her was helping enough to silence the inner noise of her conscience. She returned with water and was informed by the kids that the schools had been closed till further notice. Another burden on the meagre finances since they would need food in the afternoon too. School days meant food was taken care of by the school. 

Her face turned grim as she decided to head towards her brother-in-law’s house in the same colony. 

Ever since her husband had deserted them, the brother-in-law had never been open to the idea of caring for the mother. As a result, the old lady was left to be her responsibility. Ratna had taken on the responsibility silently, never uttering a word, for she knew very well that all lives mattered. So what if it was that of a frail old woman hanging halfway in the grave. She had toiled hard and managed to give decent care to her. But now in the coming days, expecting the situation to worsen, things may have to change.    

Having rehearsed her dialogues mentally several times, she strode right through their door and started, “Bhaiya ji, please shift Mataji with you as I maynot be able to manage her during the approaching times. You too must be aware that the situation may get worse due to this new disease. I fear I may lose my job too!”

Having said her part unabatedly, she waited for a response. To her utter disbelief, the brother-in-law and his family were busy packing. The brother-in-law looked up, “We are going back to the village tonight.”

“Let us accompany you then”, said Ratna.

“That maynot be possible. You also know that the village house is in ruins and needs repair. We will have to manage in the only liveable room. If you all come along it will worsen the situation especially now that the rains are on.”

Ratna was aghast at the response but did not want to pester him further. However, he definitely had a duty towards his own mother. So she spoke up, “then take along Mataji.”

The response was quick, “She is better here since the village has no medical facility. Here at least you can reach the hospital anytime.”

By now it was clear to Ratna that there was no point arguing further as these people had made up their minds. Infact she cursed herself for walking upto them. When they had never ever extended a morsel of help till now, why would they do it now?

She just turned around and left, ignoring the voices behind pouring in justifications of all sorts. 

As the days passed, they were in for another hit. The state government had called for a complete lockdown and imposing of curfew. This was done to discourage movement and curtail spread of the disease. This was another major blow. She lost all hope but decided to call the bungalow for monetary assistance. With trembling hands she dialled the number of the cook.

He was prompt in answering. “Ratna, come to the bungalow in another hour without delay. The curfew begins at 12 noon and you should be able to get home before that.”

Without wasting time she rushed. As she tapped the kitchen door, she was ushered in to face the Madam. 

All the time, Ratna’s heart kept skipping beats and she felt faintish. Stepping back she tried to lean on the wall to support her for what was going to happen! 

She couldn’t believe her eyes when a perfectly manicured hand extended towards her holding a wad of currency. She just heard her name being called, “Ratna…..Ratna……Ratna, are you okay?” “Why don’t you sit down? It was only when the cook shook her, she came to her senses.

“I’mmm, I’m fine Madam.” 

“Okay, take this money. It is two month’s salary. On your way out, pick up the dry ration box from the gate. It should last you two months of this lockdown period.” “Stay at home for now. It may take a while before you physically return to work.”

Ratna couldn’t help folding her hands and thanking her again and again. As she walked towards the gate securing her money in the tattered bag slung across her shoulders, she heard Madam again.

“Ratna take this fifty rupee change for the rickshaw. You will need one to carry the ration along.”

She looked around and touched Madam’s feet while accepting the fifty rupees. Her worry and apprehensions dissolved, she felt much lighter. 

As she rode the rickshaw home, she folded her hands upwards and said a silent prayer, “Yes! All lives matter. Whether the wealthy or poor, we matter on earth.”

The heart of a human is neither wealthy nor poor,
The heart of a human reaches out to everyone,
At times even those who maynot be very dear!
Extend a hand of love, of hope, of care and concern,
This is what binds humanity in the long run.
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*Kutcha Colony – an urban slum
** Verandah – Covered Patio
***Saree – Indian garment worn in a wrapped around manner
****Pallu – The end of the saree
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Saravjot Hansrao
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