A Real-Life Story — Part 2
It was December 1, 2016.
The cool weather has slowly set in, with the usual fog and really, more smog, due to the clay ovens still used in numerous households, and wood chip urns millions of slum- and street dwellers and roadside eateries use in Calcutta.
Add to it the city’s archaic and dilapidated state and private buses and trucks that run mostly on leaded petrol and diesel, accompanied by an enormous number of private cars, auto rickshaws, and motorbikes. And the countless, underground battery recycling places, where boys of twelve or thirteen years of age use sulphuric acid to clean the used electrodes.
We call them underground, but they are truly not. Nothing is underground in India — good, bad, ugly or evil. It is perhaps the most transparent country in the world.
December and January evenings, in cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Agra, Bhopal and Bangalore, you cannot breathe outside of your home: the air is so thick with pollution that you can vomit, faint, or go blind. Your lungs burn. Especially if you’re from outside. Indians and Bengalis do not vomit, faint, or go blind. They die slowly of cancer or diabetes or heart problems. Like my mother, who died of cancer at the age of forty-two.
Well, this is not my memoir, and definitely this story is not about my mother. This is today’s story.
On December 1, 2016, at seven in the morning, the middle-aged maid named Lakshmi’s mom showed up at the Mitra residence. Everyone calls her Lakshmi’s mom, as nobody ever asked what her own name was. She has been working in this household for the past fifteen years. When she started, she was a married woman with a working husband and two little children named Kartick, and of course, Lakshmi. Her husband Jibon worked in a lathe factory.
After fifteen years of working as a daily maid with this family, she is still married, but Jibon lost his job when he lost two fingers under the lathe machine at the shop, which went out of business, and Jibon got zero compensation. He now stays home, and cooks and cleans. He has developed asthma. They live in a slum just outside of Calcutta. Needless to say none of them has any medical insurance. They can’t afford it.
Lakshmi was married and sent off to a village in the state of Orissa, but came home one year after, abused by her husband and in-laws. She stayed for a couple of years with her mom and helped out, but she was very beautiful and soon fell prey to a Calcutta thug’s lust. What happened then to her, nobody really knows. Sujata, Deb’s wife, came to know, but she would not tell anyone except for Deb. They gave Lakshmi’s mom two thousand rupees. Neither the Mitra family, nor Lakshmi’s mom, talks about Lakshmi ever since.
Kartick is now eighteen years old, and works part time at the basement storage of a wholesale clothes store near the Sealdah rail station. He makes 2000 rupees a month, at 25 rupees an hour — way below the living wage. But his employer is a Hindi-speaking man from the state of Bihar, and prefers his country people over Bengalis. He often cheats Kartick, miscalculating his hours, a phenomenon we call wage theft here in America. Kartick, however, never heard of this political term. He did not go to school after seventh grade, and he is slow in arithmetic. In fact, he is a slow kid. It’s real easy to cheat him.
Today is the first day of the month, and Lakshmi’s mom is expecting her monthly salary from Deb and Sujata, after work. It’s Sujata, a primary school teacher, who normally pays her. Fifteen years ago, when Lakshmi’s mom began working at this family, her pay was 125 rupees a month. Now it is 600 rupees.
Deb’s father Hari Sadhan grumbles: he calls it “daytime dacoity,” which in America is known as high-noon robbery.
“Six hundred taka (rupees) for the cleaning maid? Bouma (daughter in-law), what age are we living in? Do you know my father made eight rupees a month?”
Sujata smiles. She knows it’s meaningless to explain inflation to an 80-year-old, who rose from a very humble beginning. She knows silence is often the soothing layer of ointment on soreness.
But kind and patient Sujata is, today she cannot pay even that 600 to Lakshmi’s mom. Since the scrapping of 500 and 1000-rupee notes on November 8 by prime minister Modi, banks and ATMs ran out of cash. The 100-rupee notes are scant, and people are holding them very carefully like their sick children. And they are running out fast.
Sujata now only has seven 100-rupee notes and two 2000-rupee, newly floated notes. She doesn’t want to part with all the 100s.
She pulls Lakshmi’s mom on one side and whispers, as if she committed a crime, “Lakshmi’s mom, I can’t pay you in full, okay? I have no money. Take two hundred now, and I will pay you two hundred more next week.”
Lakshmi’s mom didn’t know about prime minister Modi and his demonetization speech that made rupee bills useless like scrap paper. She only knew she had to buy food, oil, coal, and asthma medicine for her crippled husband.
She was speechless, and then she was angry. She broke down in tears.
(To be continued)