FOR A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
FOR A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.
- Ecclesiastes 3:19
Amenla spooned up the oily chow-mein and washed it down with sweet tea at the grubby food trolley below her lodging in the crowded urban village of Chakkarpur. With its crowded lanes, overflowing drains, squalid eating joints and matchbox like dwellings, Chakkarpur was a total antithesis of its rich cousin- Gurgaon’s famous MG Road a.k.a the mall-mile which was less than a kilometre away. Well, that was the paradox that India’s Cyber City was!
Amenla herself was a paradox in many ways. From far away Nagaland, a wannabe nurse at one point of time, leading a simple and happy life in the picturesque little town of Mokokchung….and now less than two years hence, here she was working fourteen hours a day in a beauty parlour in Sahara Mall and living in a damp and cramped room which she shared with three other girls. From the time her father Jezebel, a school teacher, had suddenly died in a road accident a couple of years ago- life had not given her many choices. First, it was her dropping out of Nursing School, then doing a short beautician course and finally setting course for Delhi and picking up a beauty therapist’s job in Gurgaon to support her mother and only sibling Joseph, who was spastic.
It had not been easy at all- in the beginning the racial slurs, lewd comments, lecherous looks and groping by disgusting men got on to her and she used to cry herself to sleep each night, but over a period of time she had got used to it. Only saving grace for all her hardship was that, the money was reasonably good. She was able to earn upwards of twenty-five thousand rupees a month with her salary at the parlour and the occasional freelancing home visits she did for a few known women customers.
She entered her room and waved to Kanta, the Nepalese girl with whom she shared the room along with two others. The others were busy glued to their mobiles with earphones plugged in. “I don’t know how these girls find the time and the energy..” she wondered tiredly and after changing to a comfortable tee and shorts and made a short call to her mother Anung. As usual her mother was as cheerful as ever. Some woman she was…losing her husband suddenly, a spastic child in tow and yet she managed to stay cheerful …. almost like a ray of sunlight seeping through dark clouds. Her mother was Amenla’s strength and just talking to her made her forget all her worries and insecurities and made her work seem meaningful to her-in spite of all the hardship, extended working hours and occasional indignity she had to endure. The significant part of today’s conversation was that she urgently had to send back home at least Rs 5,000/ since her brother Joseph’s therapy sessions were due at the hospital in Kohima in a few days.
Shabnam, the owner of the parlour and her employer was not a great person but she paid somewhat better than the others around (though she was invariably late in paying wages- the last month..February’s salary was yet to come in-though it was almost end of March).
She suddenly heard yelling in the street below and could sense a commotion. Kanta went down to check and came back with a look of shock on her face. “Girls! Quick let’s stock something to eat …kal sey kuch nahin milega (you won’t get anything from tomorrow) she said. Amenla and the other two girls sat up not able to comprehend what Kanta was saying. “what happened?. Will you tell us or will you continue to blabber like a mad woman?” asked Ritu, the Bihari girl a little irritated.
“Modiji was on TV just now….there will be a complete lockdown across the city and the country for the next three weeks starting tomorrow morning…can you believe it everything will be closed…no shops, no offices, no travel on the road…” Kanta said almost hysterically. “You must be nuts…I’m sure you didn’t hear it properly ..why would anyone do that” Ritu retorted back.
Pushpa the second Bihari girl was now on an animated call with Arif, her boyfriend. She disconnected the call and tuned to the others with an enlightened look on her face…”The lockdown announcement by the PM is very much true. Haven’t you guys heard about a new disease called Corona or something like that, which is spreading across the world like wild-fire and has no cure. It has started spreading in India too and hence the Government has announced the closure of the whole country for some days”. The girls looked at each other in shock and trooped downstairs to the market to pick up a few meagre rations to stock up for a few days. They pooled in whatever little monies they had and picked a little rice, potatoes and lentils. The shops were already crowded by anxious residents panic shopping for groceries and veggies.
A week and half went by and it was well into April…Amenla was all alone in her dwelling now. The rest of the girls has scooted back to their villages by whatever means- buses and the few trains that were running. But Amenla had very little choice. Shabnam had not paid her last month’s salary and she still did not know what she would do back in Nagaland with no employment. Hence, she had decided to wait it out in Gurgaon. Of course she was out of work now as the Salon was closed and Shabnam had stopped taking her frantic calls asking for money. She had transferred her Rs 2,000 five days back but that was it. It was of course nice of her landlady, an old Bengali widow, who was okay with her paying delayed rent this month.
COVID had started spreading fast as was people’s desperation. In the various news channels streaming into her mobile She could see graphic visuals of migrant workers literally walk it down to their villages in UP and Bihar, people from the North-East crowding into trains in Bangalore- in brief it seemed a hopeless situation. But it strengthened her resolve to stay on and weather the storm, though she really longed to get back home in Mokokchung. Her mom and Joseph were fine so far -but they too needed money urgently.
It was 21st of April, and things began to get despairing for Amenla. The real bad news was that Shabnam had died of COVID a couple of day ago. She came to know when her daughter picked up the phone when Amenla called her for the nth time to enquire about her unpaid wages and also when they would be opening the salon. Her wages were definitely in the limbo now as the girl snapped back saying that she did not know anything about the accounts and how Amenla could even ask her all this when her mother had passed just two days ago.
April too went by. Her mother Anung had started sounding a little anxious now, the landlady too was a little less polite while reminding her for her overdue rent, her rations had practically run out and Shabnam’s daughter had blocked Amenla’s number. She felt like running away somewhere- but even that didn’t seem feasible as the lockdown had been extended for two weeks more and it was a fact that Nagaland was really far away.
Two mornings later- while she was staring into emptiness and contemplating what to do next. Her phone suddenly rang and broke her stupor. “Why is Mrs Sethi calling me?....” she wondered. Mrs Sethi was a middle aged lady who stayed alone in a big house Sushant Lok and had been one of her regular home service customers.
“Hello! Yes madam...” Amenla gingerly picked up the phone. Mrs Sethi’s voice at the other end sounded a little hoarse, “Beta (child) are you free?.” “ Yes of course. Thanks to the lockdown I’m at my room only for the last many days” said Amenla. “Can you come over home? I have some work for you” said the voice at the other end. “Sure ma’am..when should I come..and would it be the usual?” she inquired. “You can come at noon today and you may get your entire kit” said Mrs Sethi.
Mrs Sethi was quite lavish is spending on her beauty therapies and Amenla did not want to miss the chance to earn some money after so many days. She could even try her luck in asking the lady for a small loan. Of course she would have to evade the cops en-route—anyways since Sushant Lok was walking distance, she could do that easily.
She quickly wolfed down a dry slice of bread with some black tea and got ready to leave for Mrs Sethi’s house. She locked the door of the room and stepped out. Suddenly she realized that she had not worn a mask and irritatedly opened the door again and pulled on a cloth mask on her face.
She rang the bell of Mrs Sethi’s house and heard someone shuffling up to the door. Mrs Sethi opened the door and with one look Amenla sensed that something was not right. The lady looked haggard and sickly and could barely speak. “Yes, do come in….” she said in a wheezy voice. Amenla instinctively winced and asked her “Ma’am are you okay?” Mrs Sethi broken into a fit of cough and said “I’m not well and need help…I think I’ve got COVID”. Amenla froze in horror and almost turned around and ran. Seeing her face Mrs Sethi slumped on the ground and looked at Amenla with pleading eyes. “Please help me. The servant ran away back to her village …and my only son is in the US. He is unable to come as there are no flights….” She said between coughing fits. Seeing that Amenla was still horror stricken and not convinced..she held her hand desperately and said again “…I have no kith and kin here and will die otherwise. I called you as I could think of no one else. Of course- I will pay you well- I’ll give you Rs 2,000 per day”
The temptation of earing a tidy sum of money, Mrs Sethi’s offer to pay off the small sum she owed as outstanding rent for her room and her instincts as a former-nursing student somehow made Amenla agree to shift into Mrs Sethi’s house (which also meant free food and lodging) though she knew that it was a very risky proposition.
Mrs Sethi was very sick, running a high fever and was coughing continuously. Amenla wore two masks and gave her medications which had been prescribed a doctor over a video consultation. Mrs Sethi’s son too would be on video call thrice a day…though he seemed more irritated rather than concerned. Three days hence Amenla was miraculously still okay but Mrs Sethi’s oxygen level began dipping alarmingly. The doctor video consulting Mrs Sethi wanted her to be put immediately on Oxygen support. Mrs Sethi’s son in the US was trying to arrange a hospital bed for her but the health system was overwhelmed by end-April and all treatment had to be done from home itself. The doctor sensing that Amenla had some para-medic training told her to arrange an oxygen cylinder urgently as Mrs Sethi would collapse otherwise.
Amenla surfed the net to find out about oxygen cylinder sellers. She got a WhatsApp forward (a multiple forwarded message) giving a number where one could contact for an oxygen cylinder. She desperately called the number…a male voice at the other end told her it would cost her Rs 10,000 and she would have to pick it up from Sikanadarpur (another urban village in Gurgaon). Mrs Sethi counted and gave her the money and held her hand in gratitude. Amenla went to Sikandarpur on a e-rickshaw (a few had started plying). She trudged down the filthy lanes of Sikandarpur which looked even more dystopian now, trying to locate the address. She cringed when local loafers cat-called her with obvious racial slurs- “See there goes Corona! It is due to these people only that Corona has come to our country….”
She reached the rendezvous which was a dingy shop. An sallow looking man took the money from her and gave her a dirty looking and dented cylinder with a regulator and gauge which had seen better days. The equipment looked industrial rather than medical. “Will this work and is this safe?” she asked. “Should work..this is all I have, take it or leave it. There are many others who will buy it otherwise” said the man rather rudely.
Left with no choice- Amenla transported the cylinder back home. Thankfully it seemed to work and Mrs Sethi was put on oxygen support. Mrs Sethi’s son came on video call and asked her to show the cylinder. Seeing the condition of the cylinder- he flared up. “Are you mad and are you trying to cheat my mother. You paid 10K for this unhygienic junk….”. Amenla was as it is stressed out and she could not bear it any more “Why don’t you come yourself and take care of her. I will leave…” she blurted. Mrs Sethi’s son sensing that if Amenla actually left there would be no one to take care of Mrs Sethi –immediately calmed down and short of apologising..told her that she was doing a fine job and said that he was trying to come to India the earliest.
It was the 6th of May and more than a week since she had moved into Mrs Sethi’s house. With all the precautions she was taking and definitely with a lot of good luck..Amenla was still okay. But Mrs Sethi’s health was fluctuating up and down. The oxygen cylinder needed constant filling up. Amenla had found a cylinder filling point just across the road run by a Sikh Charity and had to stand in a queue for over 2 hours before her cylinder was filled each day. She was mentally and physically exhausted….she just wanted the money which Mrs Sethi had promised her and then go back to Nagaland as soon as possible. She pined to see her mother and Joseph.
On 7th May- Mrs Sethi’s son informed her that he would be coming down from the US on 10th May on a repatriation flight (Amenla didn’t know what that meant). Mrs Sethi seemed visibly happy through the oxygen mask- though her condition had deteriorated over the last few days.
Three days hence a car stopped outside the house and honked. Amenla peeped outside and found a man getting down from the car dressed from head to toe in PPE. It was Mrs Sethi’s son. He took hesitant steps and reached the house..and entered the house. He went up to his mother’s room without acknowledging Amenla’s “Good morning” and spoke to the lady..”Mom I’m here. I have arranged a hospital bed and we will shift you there tomorrow first thing”. He thereafter rushed out of the house without spending much time and after spraying himself with sanitiser got back into the car and sped away.
That night Mrs Sethi died. Amenla too had developed a mild fever and a cough. What happened after that was a blur… a lot of people came in PPEs and took away Mrs Sethi’s body…and a flurry of workers busied themselves in sanitising the house. Mrs Sethi’s son curtly told Amenla that she could leave. “Sir, my money..which madam had promised me” she said..amid a bout of cough. He looked at her in horror and disgust. “Don’t come close. Here, take this and just go” and gave a Rs 2,000 note. “Sir, madam had promised me Rs 2,000 per day. I had taken care of her for 11 days..”protested Amenla. “Well Madam is dead now…. Don’t be so greedy. Just take this and get going..I’m not going to give you a rupee more” he said throwing another Rs 2,000 note on the table before rushing out of the house. Amenla looked shocked and was shaken out from her daze when a sanitary worker picked up the note and gave it to her..”Didi (sister), this must be yours…we have to seal the house. Please step aside”.
Big warm tears flowed down her cheeks. Her body was racked with fever and her throat ached as she trudged down the street with her meagre belongings packed in a battered air-bag. She passed by the Sikh Charity and the burly Sardar there waved at her recognising her. She walked up to the kiosk and without saying a word- dropped the second 2,000 Rupee note which Mrs Sethi’s son had thrown at her into the donation box of the Charity and walked away.
The e-rickshaw dropped her off in Gurgaon railway station. Amenla bought a ticket and walked through the platform labouring to breathe. The platform was crowded with a lot of desperate people looking to get back to their villages in the hinterland and smelt of sweat, urine and utter despondency. She flopped on a bench on Platform 2 and waited for a train which would take her back to the North East- at least the air would smell sweeter there.