Head Under Water
Head Under Water
The buds had blossomed into flowers, saplings into plants. The earth was drenched in blue and green for as far as the eyes could see. Flora and fauna had got a new lease of life after the scorching summer heat.
But most Homo sapiens were not happy in the torrential downpour.
Raghu looked outside his single-room rental house and cursed no one in particular. The incessant rain made it impossible for the daily wage housekeeping labour to go to work. A pool of slush filled the narrow exterior lane. The waterlogged path made it difficult for him to step a foot outside the house, let alone pedal the bicycle to work. They had run out of ration; his family of three will have to go hungry today. It wouldn't be the first time.
Raghu worked in one of the dazzling tall skyscraper residential buildings that dotted the landscape of Mumbai. The structure was visible from his humble dwelling in the slum that adjoined its periphery, making it appear closer than it was in reality. It took ten minutes for Raghu to reach the place on his bicycle, with his wife, Sarita, riding pillion. Sarita's hands had gone coarse by washing dishes and sweeping floors at multiple apartments of the same building.
But lately, Sarita preferred walking to the building with Sukanya, the couple's ten-year-old daughter. Sukanya had also picked up cleaning jobs at households, much against Raghu's wishes.
"What good will studies do to a girl?" his wife had said when Raghu had given his views. "Look at me, I haven't studied beyond Class III, but am I not a good wife to you and mother to your child? One can't waste time dreaming on an empty stomach. Let Sukanya work in other houses. She will supplement our income and learn about household management. That will help when we start looking for her marriage." Thus, his daughter had joined the burgeoning workforce of child labour in the country,
"Baba, you look worried. Don't worry, I will not be hungry," Sukanya said and sat down on the floor in front of him. Raghu smiled at her angelic face. The larvae had grown into a butterfly too soon, getting no time to experience the innocence and carefreeness its tender age.
"This wretched rain," he muttered. "If only I could go out of this house."
"I love the rain and the fact that all of us are together in the house for so long. If only you and Ma were in a good mood," Sukanya said.
A ringtone shattered the peace in the house. Sarita's mobile rang incessantly.
The lady of the house, busy with cleaning her hearth, hurried to her phone.
"The Bibiji of 701," she declared to her husband out of habit and took the call.
"Namaste, Bibiji. How can I come, Bibiji? There is so much water outside my house. I will not be able to walk. Plus, I will get drenched from top to toe in this rain."
She listened to the verbiage from the other line.
"What is my fault, Bibiji? I want to come but am not able to, in the rain. There is nothing to cook at home, and I am not even able to go out to the ration shop to get some supplies," Sarita said.
There was a flurry of words from the other end before the line went dead.
"Bibiji says that she will hire someone else for work if I don't reach her house today. How do I do that?" She was on the verge of tears.
"She will not get anyone else. No one in the world will venture out of their home on the face of this onslaught from nature," Raghu remarked. "The dishes for the last two days would have piled up and hence this empty threat. Do not despair."
Sarita calmed down at her husband's words.
All three could hear the pitter-patter sounds on the roof. The incessant rain showed no willingness to relent.
"I am more worried about what you and Suku will eat today," Raghu said to Sarita. Instead of the careworn face, he saw the happy-go-lucky girl of the village, resplendent in the beauty of her youth, with whom he had fallen in love.
Raghu had promised her the moon before they had got married. "We will go and live in the big city," he had told her. "We will have a big house which you will look after when I go to work." Now both of them, and their child, were working in the glasshouses of others. Initially, the dream was to have a small dwelling of their own. Over time, inflation, poverty, and lack of education came in the way, and now their endeavour had reduced to surviving in the big city.
"I will make some tea with extra sugar. We will not feel hungry that way," Sarita remarked.
"I should have come alone from the village all those years ago. At least you and Suku would not have to take tea for a meal," he lamented.
"Suku would not be here if you had left me behind," Sarita reminded him. "We are better off living together."
"I like it here, Baba," the young girl said. She clutched her father's hand in an attempt to comfort him. Raghu's eyes grew moist.
How do folks in the big houses, who do nothing but stare at the computer screens throughout the day, have the luxury of earning money sitting at home when people like him, who toil out in the sun for their daily wages, are bereft of a decent meal?
"Let us all play ludo, Baba," Sukanya's words penetrated his thoughts. "It has been so long that I had played it with you and Ma. Now we have got the time."
Yes, ludo was an excellent way to kill time.
The world outside had gone bleaker. The evening seemed like a night with no end to the rain in sight. The flickering candle on the floor was the only source of light in the house.
Raghu dialled his supervisor in desperation. The call went through in three attempts.
"It is not my fault that you don't have food at home. You should have listened to the news warnings about cyclone Tauktae and stocked up on provisions," the supervisor admonished Raghu.
"I was too busy working to watch TV or listen to Radio. I wasn't aware of the cyclone. You could have warned me when I was on duty two days ago."
"Should I work or spend my time talking to fools like you?" the voice at the other end of the line growled. "Anyway, I can't help now. When the storm relents, and you resume your duties, I will give you three days advance against your daily wages."
"I have money with me. I need some food now." Raghu almost screamed.
The line went dead. The phone's battery was drained.
"There's no way we can get help till the light comes back on," Raghu bemoaned to Sarita, "with both our phones discharged."
"Nobody will come to our help. The weather will need to relent so that we can go out and help ourselves," his wife replied stoically.
"It is all my fault. Should have kept my ears open about the cyclone and stocked up on food," Raghu berated himself.
Sarita didn't say anything. Both of them looked at Sukanya, who was fast asleep. The girl had taken five cups of tea and happily played ludo with her parents for most of the day, complaining not once about hunger.
Raghu had not considered himself to be poor, until now. Poverty was a state of mind, and his mind was impoverished, watching his wife and daughter go to bed on empty stomachs under his nose. Bereft of energy, his body felt like a heavy mass that his soul struggled to drag around.
"Come, get some sleep now," Sarita remarked. "Tomorrow is another day."
The next day didn't seem any better. Dark clouds hovered in the sky. The rain had not relented; electricity continued with its vanishing act.
But something was different. Raghu sat up on the bed and looked sideways. Sukanya was sound asleep. So was Sarita. In all these years of their married life, he could not remember a time when his wife had woken up after him. He had always got up to the sound of the prayer bell or banging utensils. Now the silent house was making a deafening noise in his head.
"Sarita," he shook his wife by her shoulders. Her body was boiling hot to his touch.
"Uh-uhhhhhhhh-Ah," she murmured. "Not able to get up. Please make some tea for yourself. I am sorry." He could see that the attempt to turn her body was too much of an effort for her.
"Is there some medicine at home?" He walked up to her side of the bed, concerned.
She shook her head.
"I am going out to get help," he declared.
"How will you go?" she asked.
"I will wade through the water to reach the glass building where we work. I will knock at all doors there. There should be one good samaritan inside the gargantuan complex willing to help."
"Baba, don't leave us alone." Little Sukanya pleaded, half asleep. "We will feel scared without you here."
"We need food for us to eat and medicines for your mother. Staying here won't help." He determinedly got up, took the umbrella that hung on the bare walls of the house, and opened the door.
Water trickled inside the house. Somehow the chest-high liquid had not penetrated his front door earlier. He had now triggered the avalanche.
Raghu quickly closed the door. But the incessant water continued to engulf the floor of his house in a slow but steady motion.
"Let me make tea for both of you," Raghu declared, resigned.
He went to the gas stove, lighted the fire, and put the last of the tea leaves to boil. There would be just enough for the three of them.
Man comes into the world without any possessions, and he departs without any. In his case, he was not left with anything to take with him.
He poured the tea and dropped some white crystals into each cup, arranged them neatly in a tray, and went to bed.
"Here, Sarita, Suku, have some tea."
"I am not hungry, Baba," Sukanya said, afraid for some reason.
"I don't feel like taking anything," Sarita echoed.
"We need to have some energy in our bodies, till the time we are here on earth," he said firmly. "Drink it, you two."
Sukanya reluctantly got up and took the cup offered to her.
Raghu looked at Sarita, who was too weak to get up without support. He leaned down into her and gave her his hand. His wife held it in the manner of a drowning soul lunging at a sturdy log, and got up.
Raghu held her by the shoulders and gently brought the cup to her mouth. He saw his wife take a sip, then another.
"The tea tastes different," she said.
"Used the last bit of tea leaves in the house. Maybe because of that," he shrugged.
"Baba, I have finished my tea," Sukanya said.
"Good daughter you are," Raghu said. Tears trickled down his eyes.
"Why are you crying, Baba? Everything will be fine."
"Yes, dear, everything will be fine soon," Raghu said in a confident tone.
"There is water everywhere inside the house. What should we do?" Sarita asked in dread. She had just noticed the steady flow of the liquid forming a layer beneath the bed. Raghu's feet were barely visible under the water.
"There is nothing to do; we will stay together," Raghu said.
He looked at the two women in his life, both appearing older than their years. The youth of hope, joy, and dreams was crushed beneath the despair and despondency of reality. The community feeling in the village had given way to loneliness and isolation in the big city. They were earning more but saving less. He had condemned himself and his family with his one misjudgement.
"I am sorry," he said to both.
"Why are you saying this?" Sarita asked. She started to get up, but her arms and legs were rigid. Her body was frozen.
"I can't move," she screamed.
"Don't worry. It will be over soon," Raghu replied.
Sarita looked at him as comprehension dawned on her. She started to say something but was interrupted by the sounds emanating beside her. She looked at Sukanya.
Their daughter was having difficulty breathing; her entire body convulsed with the muscle spasms that overcame her. Tears coursed down her cheeks.
Raghu swiftly went to his daughter's side and supported her to lie down on the bed. His eyes were full of love and concern for her.
"I am fine, Baba," she said, trying to put up a brave front.
"You are very courageous, Suku." Raghu kissed his daughter's forehead. Sukanya's body involuntary jerked in a violent motion before going still. She lay motionless with the delicate hint of a smile on her face.
"Why?" Sarita asked, too stunned to shed tears.
"It is better to die swiftly rather than die a slow death of hunger with our heads underwater. What was there in this life anyway? I am sorry that I was not a good husband and father. I will make up for it in the next life."
Sarita's body contorted painfully. Raghu engulfed her shaking body in a tight embrace. Minutes later, she breathed her last on her husband's lap. The water that touched their bed top by now appeared to give an ode to their lives.
Raghu gently lowered the body of his wife on the bed. Nature would take care of the last rites of his family soon.
It was time for him to join his wife and daughter in another world. He hoped that the world above will be a better place compared to the miserable existence of this one. He drained the contents of his cup at one go and sat beside the dead body of his wife to await his inevitable fate.
Raghu had found the rat poison on the pocket of his trousers as he had reached out for his bicycle key out of habit. His supervisor had given him the money four days back to get rid of the rodents that bothered the inhabitants of the glasshouses. Raghu had purchased it on his way back home that day but could not go to work afterwards due to inclement weather. The white crystalline powder had remained in his pocket since.
The packet came into his hand the same time that the water started to trickle inside the door. He executed his thoughts before he could change in mind. There was nothing to be scared of in death; it was life that was frightening.
Raghu could see the water everywhere- on top of him, beneath him, besides him. His wife and daughter floated as cherished mirages underwater. When authorities discover their bodies, they will be added to the statistics of the deaths caused by a devastating flood. No one will bother to uncover the more pertinent cause- living under an illusion was easier than confronting the harsh reality.
Raghu's body gave a last jerk as a contorted cry escaped from his lips. He smiled in his last breath as his soul, carefree at last, abandoned his body.