An Aaya in Trap of Corona

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A 2020 March morning at a Clerk’s house in a suburban town in West Bengal.

The world is shaken by the spread of the deadly, highly contagious coronavirus. Over one lakh fifty thousand people of different nationalities are reported to have been infected across the globe, and thousands have died in its wake. Countries have shut down malls, multiplexes, and public gatherings. Checks, screenings, and quarantine facilities are installed at airports, ports, and borderlines. Citizens are warned to travel to foreign countries. Schools, colleges, and offices nationwide are partially closed for a fortnight. Business houses order their workers to work from home. Even religious places are also closed.

People are scary. They prefer to be confined within four walls.  Streets are deserted. Trains and buses are empty. The town is cheerless. Parks, tea shops and restaurants have a few visitors. 

The clerk’s office is closed for a fortnight. The Clerk, aged around forty, short, well-built, and workaholic, has an abrupt and unexpected holiday at a stretch. But as per government direction, he should stay home and finish files from home, too.

The lady of the house is a schoolmistress. So they keep an aaya for their toddler Prince.  

“Rumi, don’t put your bag on balcony. Take paper and wrap it up, and keep it on the high stool,” instructs the Mistress while unlocking the door.

The Clerk, sitting on a sofa, is flipping today’s paper. He looks worried. One has died in City Hospital. He had returned from Arab and was suffering from fever and cold. He is doubted to be a victim of corona.

“Rumi, is the bus crowded?” asks the Clerk.

“No, dada it is empty. First time in my life I get a seat by the window,” Ruma joyously confirms.

The Clerk and his wife look relieved. They think of dismissing her for days. But she is a widow and has a school-going daughter at home. Her husband fled with an aged woman a year ago. Her life depends on her work. Moreover, she is good—punctual, knows when to talk and when to keep lips tight, is regular, takes prior permission to leave, dances, and sings with Prince. A good Aaya is a lottery. Many were hired and freed—quarrelsome, irregular, irresponsible, dirty, and diseased. But Rumi is freed from all. So they are suffering from indecision.

 “Rumi, change and take a bath,” Mistress advises, staring at her.

“Why? At dawn I have shampooed in a pond?”

“Pond?”  Mistress is taken aback. And the Clerk jerks up from the sofa.

“Our tube well is not working for a week, Madam,” plainly Rumi put. “But you know, without a bath, I don’t leave home,” Rumi boasts.

  “Do you know the gizzard-tap?”

“No, Madam.”

“Right one. Discard your used soap. Take this new one,” Madam offers a lifebuoy soap case and returns back to her husband.

Sounds of splashing and pouring water, coughing and sneezing are heard in the bathroom.

“Free her for a fortnight,” Madam anxiously put.

“But…”

“No ifs and buts. The money we sacrifice. Prince is our only future. His safety we seek first,” Madam exhorts. “Don’t you know they are too low, living in diseased ghettos and slums, and have no sense of hygiene? Give her…oh! Calculate. Fifteen days into two hundred…three thousand.”

“Money is not falling from tree, honey! Not a paise government gives me extra,” the Clerk defends. His face is tight. He looks annoyed.  

“What can we do? After long, harrowing times, we fortunately have Rumi. If she leaves, we have to shed tears. Your Boss will chide you, and my headmistress will wear a glum face. Fed or unfed, I hate a sullen face. It’s so irritating! Disgusting!” Mistress goes to the bedroom, lifts a side of the net, carefully covers Prince with a light cotton chadar and kisses his forehead.

Rumi comes out of the bathroom. Mistress checks if the toiletries, buckets, and mugs are in place. Everything is in disarray. She is shocked and shaken.

“Have you used my face wash?” angrily Madam asks.

“Why do I so? I carry my face wash in my pouch,” she retorts and takes a small bottle of violet liquid out of her dusty bag.

“Go straight to basin, and wash both hands with hand wash,” Madam shouts.

“Rumi, Keep it and take rest for a week or two. Don’t visit fairs and friends. Take care of Munni. Cook food and eat within walls,” the Clerk gives her a bundle of clean notes.

“Babu, I never take advance. I sweat, and I claim.” Rumi takes two notes and returns the bundle. “Ask me when you need. And meantime if any home I get, I will serve for now. ‘Babu apnara boddo valo aachen…apnara dakle na kemon kore bolbo’ (Babu, you are too good. If you call, how can I say ‘no.’”

(Taken from my book, Aakhir and Other Stories)

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Freevoice

I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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