“Poonam, finish your work quickly. It’s late.”
Yes, bibiji*. I’m sorry that I’m late today. My little one is unwell. She kept crying at night and fell asleep at 4 AM.”
The lady of the house sympathized. With four children, she knew it wasn’t easy for her domestic help. She worked in four houses and only reached home late in the afternoon. Her oldest daughter all of fourteen, took care of the little one until then, though schools were shut currently. There were two more girls in between.
“And listen, use the Dettol liquid soap before doing anything. The disease is spreading,” bibiji warned.
“Yes. I heard too. I’ll pick up some vegetables on my way back today. There was a huge crowd there in the morning.”
“Okay. Here keep two hundred rupees. Pick up anything else for the children if you need.”
Poonam smiled. She was thankful to work for this kind lady. Most of the houses where she worked weren’t bothered about payment. Not her. She kept giving small treats for the children, now and then.
As Poonam trudged home with a handkerchief tied to her mouth, she noticed that the streets were quieter. Most people were working from home because of the disease. A disease that could spread like wildfire if left unchecked. It was like viral fever, with cough, fever and runny nose. Only ten times deadlier!
“Bhaiyya*, some cauliflower please.”
“I only have tomatoes, cabbage and wilted methi* now. People are buying everything. PM Saab* is addressing the nation tonight. Everyone is wondering what it’s all about.”
Poonam quickly bought whatever was available. On the way, she placed an order for rice, dal* and atta* at the grocers for a week. Her salary was due next week.
Her mother-in-law looked up as she trudged in through the door. Poonam was tired and sweaty from walking in the hot sun. After washing her face, hands and feet, she settled down with a glass of water. Her husband lay asleep in the corner, recovering from a broken arm and jawline due to an accident. Operated upon for the jaw, the doctor had said that it would be four months to full recovery. She decided to make a dal soup for him. And some rice along with it for the rest of them.
At night, they huddled together to watch the PM address the nation on television. He warned that times were tough and the government was trying all means to contain the disease. And yet, he needed their help. His Deshwashis*. He wanted them to lock themselves up in their homes for 21 days!
Poonam went numb. She needed money to feed so many mouths for 3 weeks. How was she going to manage that?
The next morning, Poonam left early to get money from bibiji. Barely making it to the corner, she was intercepted by a police van. The policemen enquired where she was going. She said that she was going to work and they never let her complete her sentence. The inspector in charge yelled at her for not obeying orders. Waving his baton, he said that a lockdown meant that people had to stay at home. No work. She tried reasoning out that she needed money, but he refused to listen. Teary-eyed, she turned back.
Since she knew the local grocer, he agreed to give her milk on credit during this lockdown. But milk wasn’t enough to fill so many stomachs. With the ration at home, she would manage to stretch it for 10 days at the most.
And after that, what? She shuddered at the thought.
The days passed in a blur of cooking, cleaning, washing. Even the girls refused to listen. They wanted to play outside and she explained to them again about the disease. But what do you expect from a seven and nine-year-old?
As day eight went by, Poonam looked at the emptying tin of atta. That night she barely ate. The dal was also watered down further. She looked at the morose faces around her, while they ate.
“Bhaiyya, please give me some atta, rice and dal. I’ll pay you as soon as this lockdown is over.”
“I can’t. There are so many people here with the same problem. And supplies are low. Even I have mouths to feed. I’m sorry.”
Poonam begged and pleaded, but he didn’t budge an inch. Feeling helpless, Poonam pondered, What’s my children’s fault? Why isn’t PM Saab helping us out? Do we even matter?
“Ma, I’m hungry. Please give me something,” the seven-year-old tugged at her saree.
Without a word, Poonam hugged her. The last of the watered-down milk had just been divided between them all. She had made a rice kanji* for her husband with the last handful of rice and divided the porridgy rice between the children.
What will we do tomorrow? It will be another twelve days before the lockdown ends. What do I do? The tears wouldn’t stop.
Poonam sat up with a start. It was dawn she realized. She had tossed and turned to fall asleep around 2 AM after the kids fell asleep hungry.
Knock, knock! There it was again.
Bleary-eyed, Poonam opened the door.
A man stood on her threshold, wearing a mask and gloves.
“Didi*, here,” he said, shoving a bag into her hands.
“What is this?” she asked, trying to give it back to him. He had made some mistake, she guessed.
“No, it’s for you. We are from the nearby NGO and are distributing food packets to all the members who reside here. We will be back next week with some more,” and he walked away.
Poonam couldn’t believe her eyes upon opening the bag. Atta, rice, dal and oil. Some biscuits too. It would last more than a week.
With tears rolling down her eyes, she looked up to the heavens. There was a God out there, after all!
Bibiji – Madam
Bhaiyya – Brother
Methi – Fenugreek leaves
PM Saab – Prime Minister
Dal – Lentil
Atta – Whole wheat flour
Deshwashis – Fellow Countrymen
Kanji – a soup of starchy water extracted from rice
Didi – Elder Sister
Photo By: Camille Fredereriksen
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