The Labourer13 mins 184 13 mins 184
We couldn't exactly say that Biplab was a labourer. How could we? He was a stacks and operations supervisor, managing an entire floor, at the Great Western shopping mall. There were ten workers at his disposal. And all of them addressed him as “Sir.” Besides, he was a graduate. His pay was more than sufficient to provide him with rented accommodation. Earlier, he was staying in the company’s boarding facility with the other workers. To a literate supervisor, that was distasteful. How could he live with them, reluctant to identify himself with these mere labour class people? After house-hunting for a while, he had found a small one-bedroom flat at the Ganesh apartments. The owner had stated a mandatory precondition of renting his flat only to married couples. Instantly agreeing to his demands, Biplab had paid the deposit.
His wife, Bijli, was living in his village, far away in the eastern state of Odisha. It had been more than a year since they got married. The couple was under a lot of social pressure to have a baby. But they had spent less than a month of their married life together. Biplab had been thinking of getting his wife to stay with him. Thus, the owner’s precondition became his catalyst in bringing Bijli to her new destination.
Hearing the news of his wife’s arrival in the newly rented house, Biplab’s subordinates had demanded a feast. The celebration was arranged at the small eatery inside the shopping mall at a special staff discount. Bijli was delighted to meet the girls and boys who behaved so friendly with a sense of respect as well. Out of courtesy, they also met the mall manager, Basanta sir. The middle-aged man had no inhibition in praising Bijli. He compared her beauty to that of the goddess of wealth and fortune, Laxmi. Biplab was relieved. Unlike others, the comparison was not with any film heroine. He thanked the manager’s decency, of course, in silence. The manager also enquired her qualifications and skills if any.
Within a few months, his wife transformed the house into their beautiful abode. One day, when a delighted Biplab returned from the mall, Bijli showed him the two lines of her testing kit. His happiness doubled.
“We are really lucky Bijli! God has heard our prayers. We are going to be parents soon! And, guess what, there is another good news. Basanta sir, the mall manager, wants to appoint you as the data entry operator in his office. Would you like to work?”
Before answering him, Bijli dashed towards the basin. Her nausea culminated in bouts of vomiting. Biplab brought a piece of lemon from the tiny refrigerator they had bought on instalment from the mall. Both of them remained silent.
He did not meet Basanta sir for a while. One day he summoned Biplab and asked him for their decision.
“Yes sir, she is very interested. But please give us two more months,”
“No. The office needs to fill this vacancy soon. Jobs aren’t fruits hanging from branches, that you can pluck at your will. So you may forget my offer. I cannot wait.”
Days passed away. Bijli had completed three months of pregnancy. She did not have morning sickness anymore. Basanta sir, once again, asked Biplab about their willingness for the still-kept vacancy. The truth was neither he nor Bijli felt comfortable accepting a proposal from the man who had praised her beauty on their first meet. But society keeps moving with its fair share of indecency and people adjust their dignities within those boundaries. She knew her husband’s pay was not enough to show off the lifestyle of a supervisor. She convinced herself for the job.
“Don’t worry, my dear. I feel better now. I can handle the job. I mean, I can handle everything within the dignity of a working woman.”
Biplab appreciated the grace of his wife.
After a week, Bijli started working. Neither Basant sir enquired about her health nor did the couple reveal her pregnancy. It would take a while for the features to be noticeable. They kept on pushing at life with their child sheltered within the safety of the mother’s womb. They hired a part-time maid to share their household chores. Occasionally, they would bring food parcels from their favourite restaurants. They lived happily.
Happiness has an expiry date. After two months, the severe flu - the Covid-19 pandemic, started spreading throughout the world. The country went under complete lockdown. The Great Western was no exception. Businesses and private employers were urged by the government to retain their employees and their livelihood. But the mall owner declared his incapability to pay the employees. Biplab and Bijli lost their income. But they had sufficient groceries for a month and enough money to survive for another six months. The government had requested house owners to excuse the monthly rents of their tenants in this difficult situation. Biplab’s house owner obliged and the couple managed.
In the initial days of the pandemic, housing societies harbouring medical professionals started panicking. What if they brought the disease, from their hospitals to our doorstep? Two of Biplab’s immediate neighbours were contractual nurses. A doctor couple also lived in The Ganesh apartments. They had helped the community several times. Even though Biplab and Bijli were aware of their medical needs in the near future, the fear of infection propelled them to join the others in driving the health professionals out of their society. But the couple did not realise that they had axed their own feet.
The flats, vacated by the nurses, belonged to Biplab’s house owner. All his savings, and retirement benefits, were invested in these three small flats. His son’s business had tanked. His wife was a cancer patient. How would he manage without the rent? He informed Biplab about his decision against exempting the rent.
Biplab’s calculations fell short. Bijli felt sorry for driving away the health professionals. The owner’s difficulties weighed heavier than their own. They had not paid the rent for two months. The couple understood his situation and cleared all the pending dues. This emptied up a big chunk of their balance.
Back in their village, the condition of their families was severe. Biplab belonged to a family of barbers. They had a small shop in the village. Due to the lockdown, all the barbershops, including theirs, had gone out of business. And Biplab had stopped sending money since two months. To add to this, Bijli’s cousin fell sick. He used to work at the spinning mill in the neighbourhood. Biplab had to take care of him until he was tested Covid-19 positive. Soon, the news broke. The contact-tracing team came for the couple. When they were leaving for isolation, the apartment inhabitants gave them a ‘No Return’ notice. They saw their house owner, begging with a gesture that he was not in a position to return the deposit. Biplab and Bijli realised, how similar was the health professional’s evacuation!
Luckily, both of them tested negative and came out of the isolation centre. But their apartment had orphaned them. Cousin’s treatment had dried up their accounts. They had to move to the temporary camps meant for the homeless workers. To the literate ex-supervisor and his wife, the only option left was to live with these mere labour class people.
Soon Biplab, which literally means revolution, became the leader of the labourers in the camp. He raised their issues through various helplines. He requested the governments of the host state, the states of the labourers, and the centre for help. But nothing changed. They kept on giving him sweet assurances. The caretakers considered him a threat to their corrupt practices. They dealt with him using controlled aggression. Whenever the labourers tried protesting on the streets, the police would come and chase them away. As time passed by, more and more inmates started testing positive. The camp authorities did not have enough resources and facilities to quarantine all of them. The number of cases started rising alarmingly. There were many symptomatic cases that had not been tested. The situation was extremely chaotic. Everyone was desperately wanting to go home. Few of them headed for their states on bicycles. Some middlemen started arranging bus tickets and fake medical certificates for the inmates to return home. Initially, Biplab tried counselling others against it. His several discussions with the stakeholders had given him false hopes. Eventually, he gave up. He wished he had enough money to purchase the tickets. But they had lost everything before entering the camps.
Meanwhile, the authorities shifted the camp to a school campus, citing better discipline prospects and improved facilities. The couple was allowed to stay together in a small room. This was the school’s NCC room, the logistics suggested so. This also had an attached washroom. Compared to the other camp dwellers, they were lucky. But the situation did not change. Biplab did not let his wife come out of their room. He was worried about her health, and the health of their unborn child. When the caretakers decreased the food amount, he started having one meal a day. For the rest of the meals, he would pretend that he has eaten in the camp, and feed his share to Bijli. He knew that his wife should not remain hungry.
Only a woman can hide her hunger from a man. A man has no such skills. Whatever might be his relationship with a woman, she can perceive his hunger very easily. How could she not? God has bestowed that instinct on her. And that instinct was ripening in the womb of Bijli. Her pain was excruciating. Yet she tried controlling it. She was afraid that the baby inside her might feel the pain. She felt helpless. She did not want Biplab to remain hungry. But she also wanted to feed her baby. She wept through her helplessness and agony, in silence.
Basant sir hadn’t stopped calling her. She used to put him off as a thing of her past that would never come to their aid. But now she had no other option. He was her last hope. She, from the solitary confinement of her hopelessness, started responding to his calls, requesting him to help her financially. Biplab did not know. Bijli wanted to do her part alone. And Basant sir obliged.
Helplessness is the father of exploitation. The Great Western mall manager wanted Bijli’s help in setting up a video conference to communicate with the government. He conveyed that to her husband. Previously, he had called Biplab, a couple of times, to know their state of affairs.
“So what, if the mall is closed? I have enough money to help you. Come on Biplab, take some money from me.”
Biplab had never given any importance to the manager’s alcohol-influenced generosity. But this new proposal seemed real. Basant sir arranged police passes and sent a vehicle to pick them up.
The camp authorities were initially reluctant. After talking to the mall manager, they allowed the couple to leave. But the condition was, Biplab should come back immediately and represent the labourers in a meeting to finalise the standard procedure of return to their home-states. Biplab looked at his graceful wife. Her motherhood was overtly promising. He saw the Goddess Laxmi in her. But Bijli wanted to go. They left. Biplab escorted his wife to Basant sir’s office and returned after showing his respects to the man.
The day passed away gradually. After a long time, Biplab had two sufficient meals. Most of his proposals were accepted in the meeting. He was aware that he had no money to book tickets for him and his wife. But, as a leader, he had a responsibility to carry out for the greater good of the community. He returned to his room after the meeting was over. He remembered that he had flu-like symptoms. Bijli too was having the symptoms since a couple of days. But there was no point in revealing the same. So many people had these symptoms. No one bothered to get them tested. Nevertheless, he regretted letting his wife go to the meeting. What if she was infected? She might be a source to the others.
In the evening, Bijli came back. She presented herself with a smile hanging from her lips. She had a cough. Her smile and happiness teased Biplab, but her cough worried him.
“Bijli, are you well? Did you remove your mask in the office? Did you cough there? How do you feel now?”
“Mask!” she sighed.
All of a sudden, she became conscious and said, “Everything went fine. I did not cough. Do you suspect Corona in me? Didn’t we test negative? What’s the point? So many people are having the symptoms. Nobody is testing them. Let’s presume that we are infected and be happy about it. We will recover. We will definitely recover. I am not afraid. You should not fear as well. Come, hug me. Wait, let me have a shower first. I want to feel fresh again.”
She entered the bathroom, throwing her purse on the floor. A bunch of five hundred rupee notes fell out. Biplab looked at those notes with surprise, but without much interest. Dogs started barking outside the room as if they were chasing something. A black cat hurried in, through the partly-opened window and ran atop the fallen bunch, further dispersing the notes. It reached the corner and sat there, still and soundless. It looked at Biplab. He thought of it as an ominous sign and wanted to drive it away. But the dogs were still barking. He looked at the cat once again. It seemed fearful. Its eyes moved his heart. It was pleading for a safe haven. The picture of his unfortunate self and his wife came to his imagination. They were once forced to vacate their beautiful life in that small one-bedroom home.
The dogs stopped barking. His wife came out. The cat left the room, cautiously.
“Oh! You saw these. I wanted to hide them from you. Who knows, tomorrow someone may beg your help. No! You will not help anyone. You should not. Let the world go to hell. We will leave this place with this money. You were lying to me for the last several days, keeping yourself hungry. I have tolerated that. How can I face your mother? I cannot. We should leave this place as soon as possible. We will repay this borrowed money to the pig. We are barbers. We are the clever ones, aren't we? We cannot afford to be stupid. We will work in our fields and in our cowshed. We will revive our farming. We have never remained hungry in the history of mankind. Even the king has remained hungry during the war. And so has everyone else. But we, the clever ones, have never remained hungry. Why should my husband remain hungry? Come, my sweetheart! Hug me, my love!”
They embraced each other for a long time.
Soon they purchased the train tickets. After a week, they were in the quarantine centre of their village. Testing positive, they were shifted to a COVID hospital. After getting cured, they returned to their home and handed over the money, they had received from the government to his mother.
One day, Biplab’s phone rang. One of his juniors had called him to inform that the mall manager had died of Covid-19. He was a diabetic. He could not fight the novel virus. Biplab conveyed the news to Bijli. She was filled with joy.
“The pig is finally dead! Thank God! we do not have to return him the money. We never had to. Why should I pay back my hard-earned money?”
She whispered to herself so that the world doesn’t hear her, “Mask? How can a mask help when the soul is polluted? When everything is sucked out of the helpless, how can the mask help? The world can never face a mother. The mother can never be impure. I claim that I am pure. I claim that I am untouched by impurity. And I claim that I am a mother; the mother to my hungry husband, the mother of the labourer, and the mother of his baby inside me.”
The labourer never investigated.
It was wartime. It was a nightmare, and it was over.