By Sushma R.Doshi
Her face looks pale. How do I console her?
It started with the onslaught of Covid and the sudden imposition of the lockdown. Fear enveloped the city. The otherwise congested city of Kolkata bore a quiet and eerie look. Rinku, our maid, who stayed in our servant’s quarters and worked in a couple of other houses apart from ours, was suddenly jobless.. Most households fired their part time maids without a thought and without a salary. The part-time maids were the ones who traveled by public transport or walked to work everyday, from their homes. Without any means of transport, they were unable to reach the houses they worked in.
The only domestic help who retained their employment were the full-time residents of the houses they worked in. Rinku was still fortunate. She had a place to live and continued to work for us and the old couple, the Ghoshes, who lived in the apartment next door. We didn’t fire her. It wasn’t because we were better human beings. The reason was that she lived in the servant’s quarters downstairs, and she wouldn’t bring in infections from other places. The Ghoshes retained her because they had no choice.
” Why did the rest of the houses chuck me out? Dipu da and Mishti di phoned me and told me not to work at their houses anymore…at least till Covid is over…Why?” Rinku asked me dismally. “I stay in your house and walk it down to their place. It takes me twenty minutes. I could easily have continued to work there.”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her that the urban educated upper classes of the city assumed that the maids coming from the ghettos and slums and traveling by public transportation were the carriers of the virus. Even those living close by in a tenement or in a servant’s quarters were not welcome anymore.
“Thank God that Ghosh jethu has asked me to continue working for them,” Rinku finished with a tinge of relief in her voice.
The Ghoshes lived next door: Mr Ghosh, eighty-five and his wife, eighty-two and undergoing chemotherapy. Breast cancer — we had been told about a couple of years back. We would watch as Mr Ghosh, struggling with his arthritis, would walk down to the market to buy the week’s provisions. Treatment was expensive and appointing full time help or a cook on their pension was beyond their means. Rinku washed the utensils and mopped the floors in their house. On a good day, Mrs Ghosh would help her husband to cook and do the rest of the chores. On other days, the old gentleman would plod through the day with stoicism. The lockdown instilled fear in everyone but the Ghoshes couldn’t afford to let Rinku go.
“You people are old, more prone to infections…don’t let the maid in,” they were advised by every well-meaning neighbor.
“We can’t,” Mr Ghosh stated dryly. “We simply cannot manage without help.”
Some not so well-meaning neighbors advised me not to let Rinku work in Mr Ghosh’s house.
“Why are you letting her work in their house? She stays in your house…Just threaten her with eviction…tell her she can work for you exclusively if she wishes to stay in your house.”
I couldn’t be so ruthless. I knew Rinku was under financial stress and that the Ghoshes needed a maid badly. I just decided to be a better human being this time around.
Rinku continued to work for us and the Ghoshes. Fear continued to rise with the news of the rising number of cases and subsequent rise in death rates. It was then that I heard the news.
“Do you know? Mrs Ghosh has tested Covid positive…she has been hospitalised,” Anita told me over the phone. “I’m told she visited the doctor in the hospital for her treatment. People are saying that’s where she got it from.”
I felt a cold chill in my bones. This was the first case in our locality. The news spread like wildfire. Had Mr Ghosh also contracted covid? What about Rinku? What was I to do if Rinku developed symptoms of Covid? Had I made a mistake by allowing her to work for the Ghoshes? I should’ve insisted she only work for us.
Fortunately, with contact-tracing that the government enforced, Mr Ghosh and Rinku were tested and the results were negative.
I wasn’t sure who was more relieved…. Mr Ghosh, Rinku or I. Then I felt guilty. My thoughts flew to Mrs Ghosh. Eighty-two, frail, sick and alone in the hospital.
“She’s as good as gone,” Anita told me soberly.
Yes. We knew. We wouldn’t be able to see Mrs Ghosh ever again. The neighbourhood fell into a melancholic mood. Phones buzzed with reminisces about the Ghoshes. People talked about the stories they had heard about them — how they had moved into the apartment, how desperately they wanted a child, undergone every treatment available to conceive but failed. Their love for each other withstood all trials and tribulations. They didn’t have anyone except each other.
“Remember the lovely sarees Mrs Ghosh would wear during Durga Puja and how Mr Ghosh would look at her?”
“She used to sing really well. I’ve heard her accompanied by her husband on the harmonium.”
“Her fish curry was incomparable…of course, before the cancer destroyed her.”
We all called Mr Ghosh to find out how his wife was faring in the hospital. Poor chap…he seemed dazed…at a loss.
“I don’t know much…this lockdown…can’t visit the hospital…they just keep telling me they’re doing the best they can,” he would say.
“Please pray for her,” he would finish softly.
I don’t know whether anyone in the neighborhood prayed for her. We were too busy worrying about ourselves. As a fortnight passed by, we stopped calling Mr Ghosh. We mused amongst ourselves whether it was best that Mrs Ghosh pass away peacefully. But how would Mr Ghosh manage? His life centered around his wife.
“I’ll take up the job of the cook in his house….in any case I’ve lost most of my jobs…I have ample time on my hands, ” Rinku said as she heard me discuss this over the phone with Anita.
“Yes. It’s a good idea,” I agreed.
“Have you spoken to him?” I queried.
“I did…but he didn’t answer…I don’t think anything is registering…seems to be totally lost,” Rinku replied sympathetically.
“How much money do you think I should ask for cooking in his house?” Rinku asked me the next day.
“You are just going to be cooking for one person…so not much I should think,” I shot back.
Rinku flushed. She understood the note of reprimand in my voice.
“I’m really hard up, I really need another job,” she retorted defiantly. “With his wife gone…he won’t have to pay for her treatment…I’m sure he can easily pay me what I deserve.”
I didn’t answer.
Another week passed with mounting deaths. We read and watched horror stories unfold across the world. On television, on our phones…everywhere. There was nothing else to read, talk or think about. People lost loved ones and heard about it on their phones. I lost a cousin and a friend to Covid. They were survived by their elderly parents, spouses and children. We all grieved our losses within the confines of our homes. Somewhere in the corner of our hearts, we were glad it wasn’t us or our children. We just prayed to survive tomorrow.
“I’ve heard the government is not allowing proper funerals for those dying of Covid. …because it’s so contagious…they’re just cremating all the bodies together…Is it true?” Rinku asked.
I nodded again.
“God…this is so wrong! Dark times indeed!” Rinku sniffed. “The soul is not liberated until the rites are performed…Ghosh jethu is such a religious man…he will be so disturbed if he cannot perform the last rites for jethi.”
I didn’t know whether religious rites brought peace to the dead. More important than what followed death was the way one met death. To die alone, in fear amongst strangers in a hospital was not the way anyone should die…certainly not Mrs Ghosh.
It was a hot sultry day. Rinku was mopping the floor. I was lazing on the bed. I heard the ringtone of my phone. I wore my spectacles to read who wa calling. It was Mr Ghosh.
I swallowed. News of death. Again. I pick up the phone. “Hello Ghosh da,” I spoke softly.
Rinku had stopped mopping the floor. She was unashamedly eavesdropping…as she usually does. Her eyes awee big and sympathetic.
“Sushmita!” Mr Ghosh’s voice rings out clearly. Elated. Euphoric. “She’s…I mean…Ronita…she’s recovered. The hospital called me. She is coming back tomorrow.”
“Recovered?” I shout in happy disbelief. “That’s great…God has been kind!”
“Yes!” Mr Ghosh.”Bye now…. I’ve to call the others.”
I swivell towards Rinku smiling. I stop. Rinku has heard the news. Her face looks pale. How can I console her? I can’t tell her….”I’m sorry your hopes of being appointed as a cook in the Ghosh household have been dashed because Mrs Ghosh is alive” — life’s little ironies. I am not sure whether I should feel sorry for Rinku or just chuckle and say — there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.
The Ghoshes continued to live in the apartment next door. People say that it was her husband’s love that brought back Mrs Ghosh from the dead. The pandemic is over or so they say and Rinku is not so hard up anymore. She continues to live in our house and work at the Ghoshes…mopping the floors and washing the utensils …. only. She works in a couple of other houses and manages to get by. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
 Elder brother
 Elder sister
Sushma R Doshi acquired a PhD in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She dabbles in writing fiction and poetry. Her short stories have been published by Contemporary Literary Review India, Writefluence, Culture Cult Magazine and Press and Sweetycat Press amongst others.
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