The Sanguine Kaleidoscope

The Sanguine Kaleidoscope

The warm infusion of the brink pink
She was the intoxication transcending a drink

The tiny by-lane in the dark, bustling leather industry of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, vibrated with the shrill cry of a newborn girl. While some archaic views, including the midwife who only cared about her now elusive ‘baksheesh,’ crunched their noses in disdain at the gender, it wasn’t the case with the girl’s father.

Bhola looked at his new offspring under the single bulb of their shanty as she wailed announcing her arrival. There was only a charpoy slanted against the plastic tarpaulin wall in the corner to hold it in place, the coir haphazardly wrested out and indulgingly spread all over it. Bhola had gathered rags to cover the baby after birth and had painstakingly washed them. They now hung on the charpoy, just like his existence on the strings of poverty. 

The cluster of tarpaulined huts screamed to let air pass through them, but an ecstatic Bhola had the world at his feet.

Detaching a crumpled fifty-rupee-note tied to the end of a tattered towel dangling around his neck, he gave it to the grumbling midwife. For a daily wager, an illegal migrant from Kolkata, it was huge. He would have thrown a lavish dinner of Macher Jhol and steamed rice along with the sparsely available liquor to everyone around him. However, circumstances had tied his hands, and that nasty cough troubling him for months had depleted both his meagre saving and vitality.

But at that moment, Bhola felt like a king holding his princess. Falling instantly in love with the bawling baby, whose dusky skin glazed enhancing the reddened hues on her little cheeks, he christened her Laali. Then, shuffling through the assortment of rags he had gathered, he picked up the stunning shade of red he had found thrown outside that boutique frequented by the monied people in their vast cars. The cloth had a soft feel to it, probably costing an amount he would only dream of. 

Wrapping his quieted bundle of joy firmly in the ‘rich’ sumptuous cloth, he placed her next to his frail wife Tara, who had plunged into a deep slumber as soon as Laali had emerged. The midwife had given the baby the formula prescribed by the municipality hospital, and Laali now looked like an angel. Bhola remembered the folklore from his hometown in Medinipur as nostalgia filled his heart.

He wondered what Laali’s innocent mind might be dreaming, probably having a chat with the onyxed carmine moon as it appeared from the busy city. Would she be requesting it to rock her to sleep even as the wind ruffled the waves of the dew, or would she be demanding the ambrosial Hilsa sporting a cerise belly, caught in the nets of silver and gold?

As a renewed bout of cough caught him in its throes Bhola rushed outside his shanty, afraid Laali would wake up. Spitting out thick phlegm into the stagnant mephitic open drain, he thought his daughter deserved better than this fetidness. He stared at the glittering lights from a nearby Navratri pandal and joined his hands in prayer.

he maa Shakti…Aami prarthna kari….Laali is now your responsibility. Please take care of her….”

He returned to his humble abode an hour later with food and complementary medicines and formula from the municipal center nearby. However, Tara never woke up again, leaving him heartbroken.

It was a herculean task for Bhola to bring up Laali. He dropped her every morning with the neighboring maami, who fed her and put her to sleep. Then, in turn, he gave the septuagenarian twenty rupees and half a bottle of hooch or the betel leaf that had already left her mouth flaming. It was such a contrast from Laali ‘s rubicund complexion, Bhola often chuckled. 

Thus began Laali’s less than humble beginnings amidst dire poverty and despair.

Laali soon was a top contender for the begging mafia. Her daily earning of 200/- was more than what Bhola made, given his persistent cough and failing health. Laali was a pleasant child to be with and didn’t need sedation like the other babies. 

Bhola didn’t want that for her, but the guys running the racket lived close by, and at least his Laali got clothed comfortably and fed nutritiously every day.

The signal flares in its rusty red
But that provides her butter and bread

By the time she was four, little Laali, who was recognized from afar by her perennial reddish clothes, was methodical at the signal business. A quick learner, she had mastered the art of making fast deals when the signal cardinaled. 

Her tiny hands held the little floral strings for the deities stuck on the car dashboards, and many of the people purchased stuff from her more for the sheer amusement of watching a little chattering girl. She was supervised by her Savi didi, who taught her the nuances, and Laali’s acumen put the most experienced corporate sales executives to shame.

For the next few years, Laali’s day began at the crack of the dawn as the Sun spread its amber hues, smiling down upon her shanty, the azaan from the nearby mosque being her perfect alarm. Her father cherished her in his little way, but little Laali was worried about his deteriorating health. He barely ate these days, his elucubrate coughs being the perfect lullaby for her tired soul. 

Dressed in her trademark rosy-red frock reaching just above her knees, she waited for the signal to change color. She had the maximum sales whenever she sold garlands embellished by the vibrant red Hibiscus.

Laali soon realized the lustrous Cinnabar was her calling card to make her fortune.

Her lips shine with the crimson vivid
Life-changes she finds are lurid

Tragedy struck as Bhola succumbed to the dreaded TB, medicines not working at all on his enfeebled body. Savi didi took little Laali under her wings, and though she missed her father, Laali loved living with didi

Savi didi’s house was bigger, more robust than her old plastic and paper home whose roof, leaked every time the rain Gods smiled. There was an in-built toilet, so she no longer had to curb nature’s call, especially after dusk. Savi didi enrolled her in the local municipal school, and Laali thrived. Her job at the signal notwithstanding, she was happy and contented.

“You have to study well, Laali, not just for you but for me as well… remember, we have to get out of this mess.” Savi didi always said. At six, Laali didn’t understand the depth of her statement, nor could she fathom the forlorn look in didi’s eyes.

Savi didi also taught her to anoint make-up, and the bright glistening cochineal lipstick particularly piqued Laali’s curiosity, which would be smudged around Savi didi’s mouth every morning. 

Every night after dinner, Savi didi would lock her up in the tiny bedroom. Moving the thin blanket just beneath her saucer-wide eyes, Laali would stare at the peeling rusty paint of the shut door and wonder what the moans and grunts were all about till they lulled her to sleep.

Many times, Laali would see Savi didi covered in red welts, and besides shedding a tear, the latter would be back to business.

By the time she was thirteen, Laali had come of age, and the darkened rose ebony ichor she shed every month reminded her of the threshold that she had crossed towards womanhood. Her respect for Savi didi also grew when she now knew what the young woman had to endure to survive and protect her virtue.

One day Dharavi was abuzz with the arrival of a foreign couple, and even as half-clad skinny children scampered after the big car unmindful of the dust it left behind in its wake, it halted outside the slumlord’s office. The entire slum society had converged close by trying to gain bytes about their newest guests. 

The producer couple was making something called a ‘documentary,’ and almost everyone in the area wanted a two-bit role in the movie. Of course, everyone hoped to repeat ‘Salaam Bombay’ given how the characters became household names. But, most importantly, it generated work in the area for the duration of the shooting.

Laali was selected to play the central character. Savi didi, who had tried hard projecting Laali’s skills, was thrilled, and so was the signal lord Ranga, who touted himself as her ‘agent’. 

Dressed in trademark coral coloured bridal wear with the unmistakable rich tangerine hues adorning her forehead, she fit the role of the child bride forced into prostitution to the t.

Having ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ the part first-hand, Laali’s acting was par excellence. The documentary ‘Red De-light’ was a superhit catapulting Laali to heights of fame and glory.

She sashays adorning Red-Imperial
No less bedazzling than a nymph celestial

Red came calling again when the documentary was featured at a film festival in Italy, and Laali walked the exquisite royal carpet along with the producer couple. The world wanted to know more about the ordinary young girl from the slums and her brilliant character portrayal.

The foreign couple, who received accolades from the world over, funded Laali’s education and provided her a new home in the busy suburbs of Mumbai. 

Laali moved into her new abode with Savi didi. She was flooded with acting offers, and Savi didi, who took up her guardianship, was only too happy to play hard to get.

Laali featured in music videos, ad films, and numerous side roles in blockbuster Bollywood movies. Her rustic looks and the ‘desi’ street dialect gave her a different mass appeal. Every alternate day newspapers carried a segment on Laali

‘Girl finally slummed-off old life.’
‘Rags to riches story of the original Slumdog.’
‘Traffic signal to tinsel town…’
‘From selling flower garlands to selling her skills, the dusky lass has come a long way….’
‘director’s pet fawned over by thousands across the world….’
‘Move over fair plastic beauties… here comes the dusky maiden….’
‘Bronze delight lights up Bollywood….’

At 18 she was the most sought-after character actor. Innumerable dating prospects also pursued her, and though Savi didi held her reins tightly, Laali had her secret rendezvous. 

Eventually, Laali was bored of the stereotypical portrayals she was molded into and soon ventured into the world of adult cinema, a euphemistic depiction of pornography. The surreal world welcomed her with open arms, her dusky lithe figure with beautiful features sky-rocketing viewership as she rocked it both literally and figuratively.

The heat quotient in the raunchy romps in the sack increased notches higher when she added the acting element into it. 

Skimpily clad in a red two-piece, her sensual amble along the private Goan beaches made her famous as the ‘the imperial siren,’ making her steadily climb the pinnacle of success.

Her forehead beams with the vermillion scarlet
All hues turn to showers of claret

With every rise comes a decline, and Laali was no exception to the rule. Savi didi tied the knot and settled into matrimonial bliss, and Laali was happy for the woman who had saved her life in every sense of the word.

Laali was now lonely in her paradise and took to the bottle. What began as a means to emerge out of break-ups with flings soon snowballed into full-on compulsion. Her now voluptuous chassis didn’t leave her many options in the adult-film industry in fluxed by cut-throat competition. 

Savi didi found Laali sprawled in her vomit when she had come over to inquire, following no answers to her phone calls and messages. Laali was admitted to a local nursing home near Savi’s house to escape the media’s prying eyes, where no one knew her as a celebrity.

Here, Laali met Dr. Ruhaan, an intensivist currently on locum for a friend in the nursing home. He was in charge of her case, and for the first time, Laali found herself chatting with someone who didn’t first look at her plump lips or plus-sized assets. 

Instead, they spoke about everything under the sky whenever he visited her room. She was surprised to reveal before him her mysterious connection with red color.

Laali found that Dr. Ruhaan had given up the most lucrative postings in the city hospitals and worked in an HIV-TB rehabilitation center. His center provided free, comprehensive, and individualized treatment at its independent clinic in Mumbai to people living with HIV and those with severe forms of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB). 

He aimed to start a unit to provide the patients with food and stay for the duration of the treatment, so they completed the course.

Savi didi had told Laali years ago why her father had stopped his medications midway. The dosages were potent, and he didn’t get enough nutrition to sustain the compounded effect on the TB bacteria and his general health, which was already hanging on tenterhooks.

That evening following her discharge, Dr. Ruhaan walked with her to the newly enshrined idol of Maa Shakti in a local pandal close to the nursing home. As she stared unblinkingly at the beauty of the Goddess, her eyes filled. Her father was an ardent devotee and believed in Her till his last breath.

“Do you know Laali, Shakti is traditionally associated with energy, awakening, and unfolding of consciousness. The color red is also symbolic of bravery and protectiveness, two of the most intrinsic traits of Shakti….” Dr. Ruhaan turned towards her and continued. “…Don’t ever forget that you are an embodiment of Maa Shakti….” 

He walked her back to the nursing home, where Savi didi completed the paperwork. Laali pondering over Dr. Ruhaan’s profound words looked at the posters on the wall and stopped at one of them. Ruhaan walked up to her and smiled.

“These were the awareness posters from way back on 24th March which marked the World TB day….”  Dr. Ruhaan explained.

“What… what is this…?” Laali asked, pointing towards the poster that had arrested her attention.

“This is the testing procedure. Blood test to be precise….” Dr. Ruhaan chuckled. “… After Ziehl – Neelsen staining, the red TB bacteria provide the different brightness levels, from brown, dark red, to pink. The right color segmentation is necessary for the accurate classification to distinguish the image of TB bacteria versus non-TB bacteria, and also the background.”

It was as if a thunderbolt struck Laali. Turning to Dr. Ruhaan, she held his hand.

“I want to work in this field. Will you help me?” She asked earnestly, tears filling her eyes even as Savi didi moved behind her. The older woman patted her, and for a change, agreed with Laali.

Her attraction towards the red shades finally made sense. The Sanguine hues had trailed her from childhood, but she hadn’t discerned the fact. That day, it felt Maa Shakti had given her a purpose in life, and finally, she had found her true calling.

The spectrum hazing from a tint to the rose taupe
Coloring her life with renewed vigor and hope.

Three years later

Laali smeared a pinch of sindoor in the partition in her hair and gradually used her index finger to spread it further into the groove as she stared at her facsimile. Her face beamed with deep delectation like never before. She saw her year-old husband Ruhaan struggling with his tie and chuckled silently. For a charismatic man who changed the lives of thousands of patients, he was clumsy with the neckwear.

Today they were invited as guests on a TV show that focused on the deadly MDR-TB and the steps they had been taking so far to lessen the fatal effects.

She adjusted her saree pleats and sighed, reminiscing about her journey in the field so far. 

After release from the nursing home, she had enrolled for a Bachelor of Social work, a distance learning program at IGNOU. 

She dated Dr. Ruhaan and also helped out in his center, learning the nuances. From helping patients cope with the trauma of diagnosis, assuring their family that it wasn’t the end of the world, and helping them understand the medications and the importance of eating right, she did it all. 

She pooled in her savings to let the flow of ration continue, especially during the pandemic when the donors dried up. 

Last month, the state government had recognized their efforts and had acknowledged their center as an authentic one. It gave their work a colossal impetus, and people came over to volunteer and pool in resources from far and wide. 

Laali’s connections from showbiz helped to plan and execute documentaries showing the ill effects of TB, which wasn’t treated completely. 

Laali had found an amazingly supportive partner in Ruhaan every step of the way.

As she gave a final glance at her form in the mirror, she smiled and closed her eyes, muttering a mental thank you to her father and Maa Shakti, who finally gave her life’s ship the much-needed anchor.

The purity of RED that abstractionists speak about doesn’t exist
Abominable or desirable, it’s the temperamental catalyst!!


Author note:
When tuberculosis patients are resistant to two of the key first-line TB drugs (isoniazid and rifampicin), they have multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). Extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) is a rare type of MDRTB that is resistant to these first-line drugs, plus any fluoroquinolone and at least one of three injectable second-line drugs (amikacin, kanamycin and capreomycin). Both MDR-TB and XDR-TB are more difficult and more expensive to treat than standard TB, with treatment taking up to two years and potentially causing side effects such as deafness and psychosis.
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4 thoughts on “The Sanguine Kaleidoscope

  1. Beautiful penned.. I am speechless Priya.. The emotions are so well brought out.. The birth of a daughter is welcomed but the path ahead is so treacherous.. But the strong determination and trustworthy support helps one come out of any problems in life.. A lovely message dear.. Loved it to the core.. God bless you 🤗

  2. Moved beyond words. Loved the story. One can ride over the tides in his life and rise again. This is so informative. Thank you dear for explaining everything so beautifully, the medical conditions n all. ❤

  3. I love the way Laali’s life curves up and down the graph line from rags to riches to rags to riches. The ups and downs are well portrayed and the narrative style is very captivating. I loved the story all through

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