Hope in a City
by Nuzhat Khan
“What is this Mummy, why do I never get a second helping of something I like? It happens every time!” Young Minu complained to her mother. The naïve five year old did not understand which her older siblings had understood and accepted years ago. Poonam swept the rest of the Baingan-bharta from her plate with her hand and dropped it on Minu’s plate. The delicious item made with roasted egg-plants was kindly given by her Madam. She knew that the quantity given of a left-over food would not be sufficient for a family of six but how could she deny the relief of feeding her family with a little more of anything she could never afford to cook.
The family income combined together was a little more than they managed to feed all the members from. But that little more often disappeared with the arrival of a high fever or torments of nasty rains which then would demand a constant fixing of the leaky roof. So whatever extras her employers felt to bestow, Poonam never complained.
“She should learn to feel content with her share. Being greedy could never help a girl of her fate. Don’t spoil her Poonam.” Ramu chided his wife with stern eyes but he failed to hide the remorse in them.
Poonam half smiled at her husband, “She would also learn like the others. Let her grow up a little more and she would also learn to let the desires die before they are born.”
The eerie silence during the dinner in their make-shift hut on the divider underneath the fly-over spread like smoke. The occasional honks of the vehicles passing by were filling up the gaps between their multiple-course meals. Soon it was finished with a spoonful of powdered jaggery but the night grew lazily. The mosquito-repellant coils were lit, the curtain made up of old, torn saree made drawn to part the limited space in to two sides and the children carefully adjusted themselves on the floor with heads in north and south alternatively.
After cleaning and mopping at five houses for two times a day, Poonam felt utterly exhausted but she knew however dreadful it felt, she still had to perform her duty as a wife later in the night. Even after years, getting pulled out of deep sleep and hushed by her husband’s rough hand was still annoying.
Sixteen years and nothing much had changed. Her fragile frame had not grown fat but swollen at many places. Excessive labor and half-fed stomach on most nights had done the damage. She cursed herself for not raising voice at the time when it could have saved her.
“Two boys are a must. Look at me I have also raised four kids. God will give food to every mouth he creates.” Her mother-in-law told her when she expressed to stop after her son was born after a daughter. But who would have heard her pleas? Her husband was a good man but he was a coward too. He could never dare to tell his family that feeding and raising so many
members in the family would be ever challenging.
The life in the village was easier. The farmers were willing to accept helping hands for some work or the other throughout the year. But then the benign fellow villagers could not offer more field jobs as the harvest reduced with every passing year. The Nilgai had destroyed the farming, the affluents still managed to grow whatever they could salvage and wouldn’t even flinch but the destitutes had to sell their farms and move to the cities to find jobs.
“God is our friend.” They told each other and left the thatched roof in the village for the plastic stretch in the town. And they were lucky. Ramu with the help of his cousin, who was already settled under the flyover, got a job of a rickshaw puller for school-kids. And Poonam found out about the house help rich women require. The oldest, fifteen-year old would stay at home with the youngest and finish the chores while the parents go out to earn a living in the city. The two kids, the second son and the third daughter, they decided to send to the school till the time they could feed them properly. Otherwise, hunger was the first basic need.
After her husband was done, he turned and within minutes started snoring. With a sore body and heart she stayed supine gazing at the starts or just the idea of the stars through the tiny holes in the roof above. Her mind was full of worries. One of her employers had threatened to cut the pay if there would be any absence without prior notice, another one was leaving for two months with an assurance to pay half of what she deserved after coming back. The days ahead were going to be tougher. While school holidays were a happy time for many, it was the worst time of the year for them. With schools closed, Ramu too would have to work harder and longer as a daily-wage labor. All the children would be at home, either fighting with each other or learning bad habits from older ones in the neighborhood. The God too wasn’t willing to show any mercy, the summers were already sucking the life out of their poor bodies; the mosquito infestation had been worse causing fevers of numerous kinds. It was going to be contentious every day at the hand pump with people needing more water.
The life would be easier if she tried to accept it, she told herself. The future could be brighter but this day was as real as the cracks in her fingers. Her husband turned and snuggled her in his sleep. She let out a sigh and closed her eyes.
The morning ablutions were made at a reeking corner and the day began again with half a cup of tea, a shared bidi and the leftover roti with salt, green chilli and a drop of mustard oil. The hope accompanied one on the rickshaw and it decided to shuffle feet with the other with worn out slippers two sizes bigger. ***