The alarm clock struck 4.00am and its jarring sound set sent jitters through Ganga. She snuggled into the warmth of the blanket cuddling into the comfort of Varun’s strong arms. The winter was pretty severe this year and it was freezing cold in the early mornings. Fifteen minutes and the alarm began buzzing again. Grace time over! She dragged herself out of bed, her eyes still drooping from the deep slumber she had awoken from. She chanted a small prayer, a prayer she knew by heart, that her mother had taught her many years ago as a little girl asking the Almighty to take care of everything and take them through the day hale and hearty.
She bustled about with her chores of the day. She had it all planned out. Idlis, for breakfast, a vegetable pulav and raitha for lunch and chappathis with fried tomatoes for dinner. She set about chopping vegetables, steaming idlis and kneading for the dough all at the same time. Sometimes she wondered how she managed to cope with all the house work in addition to her responsibilities as a Sr. Manager at the Indian Development Bank in the city. Yet she was only one of the millions of working women around the world who do a wonderful job of managing their families, taking care of the house work, teaching the children besides doing a commendable job in their work places. Viva La femme! On this note of happiness she even began humming an old melody as she got along with her work.
“Hmmm…… singing in the early hours of the morning! Looks like my pretty wife is in a very good mood today.” teased Varun. His deep throated voice sent a shiver of excitement down her spine, as always. She loved these stolen moments of togetherness they shared. Varun would now jostle about with his share of the housework. He would now systematically arrange the vessels stacked in the wash basket, put the clothes in the washing machine out to dry and get busy with the ironing. She could just close her eyes and visualize his movements. The “viva la femme” slogan lost a bit of its luster as she gave a part of the credit of her efficiency to Varun’s help.
Christmas holidays were on and so the children did not have school, Thank God! It was disheartening waking them up early morning, hurrying them to get ready, cramming breakfast into their little tummies and rushing them to the bus stop at 7.30am and that too, on these winter mornings. “Let them take their time to wake up, poor dearies. “Kiran has a slight cold. I must take him to see the doctor today”, thought Ganga. That would mean leaving office a little early. She planned all that was to be done in office when the milk cooker whistle blew at its loudest to inform that the milk was done. She quickened her working pace but in her mind she was steadily scheduling works in office that would allow her to leave a little early.
She was nearly through with the house work when “Basanti bai” turned up. Basanti was her part time help who did a little baby sitting too when the kids didn’t have school. She would come at 8.00am and kept their tiny flat spic and span, washed the dishes, and was a dear with little Kiran and Kavitha. “Behanji, did you hear about the rape case in a bus yesterday evening? Do you know Behanji, the girl lives two houses away from where I live” Basanti’s daily gossip kept Ganga informed of what was going around in the neighbourhood. But Basanti was not of the loose tongued category who gossiped about love affairs and illegitimate relations.
She had been educated till her matriculation and was then forced to stop her schooling to help her parents take care of her younger siblings. Both her parents worked in the nearby potato farm in the tiny village of Rawatpur.. Basanti had been a very obedient girl, good in her studies and performed all her duties as a responsible child. She took care of her siblings, did the cooking, cleaned the house and also collected water from the nearby village well where the women in the village gathered for their evening talk. Basanti’s parents though poor, never discriminated among their children and both sons and two daughters were given equal status at home. Perhaps it was because of this that Basanti became aware of a preference for the boy child very late. She read about it in her eighth standard text book and it shocked her beyond words to think that female feticides were actually destroyed not only in her country but also in other places around the world!
“Why don’t parents want girl children ma?”, she asked her mother that night as they all sat down to a frugal but happy meal of rotis with a potato baaji. “Now who told you that beti”, her mother looked at her lovingly. “You know ma, I read about it in my school book today. I think women do all that men do. Here in our village girls help with the house work, look after younger siblings, do well in their studies and later in life they work in the fields, bear children, take care of them…… what is it they don’t do?” In big cities, we read of women who are doctors, engineers, who fly planes, go to space and what not! Then why don’t some want girl children?” Basanti imagined loudly. Basanti’s mother looked up at her daughter and smiled. “People are ignorant beti, they do not have as much sense as a twelve year old like you has. A boy is believed to be the one deemed to carry the family name; the only one who brings in earnings, the one who can marry and bring in a “dahej” or a dowry. These are all misconceptions beti. They are the hallucinations of a perverted and narrow minded society. Daughters like you are a pride to the society and you need not worry. We will marry you off only to a boy and into a family that can respect a woman and can care for her. For, no family can be happy and content unless their women are happy. Women are the strong foundation on which the family finally rests upon. For all that she bears and suffers, a few realize that a woman, if she wants, can make life miserable for the entire family and the society.”, her mother’s words were imprinted deep in little Basanti’s heart.
Seven years later she met and fell in love with Ajay. Ajay was a trained welder and worked in a construction company in the city. He worked hard and sent a part of his earnings every month by money order to his parents in the village. Ajay and Basanti were a handsome couple and after marriage Basanti made it clear she wanted them to be together, whether living in a zoppadpatti in the city or in their village. Ajay had no other option but to take her with him. A strong willed young woman who spoke her mind, Basanti soon became popular in the small “basti” they lived in. She spoke up for the weak and fought against injustice wherever she encountered it. She was not one to idle at home too. She helped Ajay run their small family of four and still continued sending money to their aged parents in the village.
Ganga admired Basanti for her pluck, the sincerity she put into whatever she did and the hope and charm she spread to those who came in contact with her. She felt lucky to have Basanti to taken care of Kiran and Kavitha.
“Yes Basanti I did hear of the case. It was in the news yesterday. Ganga was aware of the case and she winced at the thought of the torture and humiliation a group of four drunken and drug addicts had put a young girl through. The girl was on her way back home after work and had got into a local bus where she was manhandled by the bunch of miscreants.
“She lives in my basti Behanji”, Basanti’s eyes welled with tears. “The poor girl, the poor girl…………..” , she fought for words. “She was like my daughter, a very sweet and good girl. She was working to help her father run the family and was also studying. Many a day I would see the lights in her room on, hours after the Basti was asleep. She sat late making notes and studying. She wanted to become a District Collector and I would always tell her she must set things straight in our Basti first. “Sure auntiji, just you wait till I become the collector. I will see to it we get proper water supply and there would be proper garbage disposal system in our Basti”, she would say. “The animals! How could they be so cruel? And they say the one who caused the most harm is still a minor. Are they joking Behanji? A minor!”, Basanti voice was calm but she was seething with rage. “They dare call the animal a minor. In our village sometimes wild animals rampage the village and kill the villagers. Such animals are hunted out and killed aren’t they? No one waits to see if they are majors or minors. The brutes!......... all four of them, cannot be counted as humans any more. They are worse than animals, cannibals and they must be dragged out, flogged and killed for terrorizing and torturing a poor innocent girl. It is a serious offence behanji. We will not leave them, that is for sure. The doctors say the girl will live. Yes, behanji, the Lord Krishna will help her. She must live and she will tell her story. We believe in justice and we will see to it that there is justice. She will outlive this tragedy and get on with her life. She will study and become a Collector. She will live her dreams and get married and have children like others. But, woe on those who have done this to her! They will regret to live their remaining lives and if they do will live with shame and grief all their lives.”There was strength in Basanti’s voice, conviction in what she planned to do and Ganga looked at her with a new found admiration. “I will join you at the protest tomorrow and will also bring others who want to join. This is not a problem of your Basti, Basanti. It is our problem, our fight. We will do what we can. If you need any help in correspondences with Departments, let me know. I can help you out”, said Ganga.
“I am also a part of this society and I may be very busy as a wife, mother and a career woman, but I have my responsibilities as a citizen of my country and of the world. It is my duty to get involved and take part in social issues of the society rather than do lip service to it.”, thought Ganga as she rushed to get ready to go to office. She was quick, as usual to get ready and looked smart in a pair of blue jeans , a flowery top, a dab of rouge and a tinge of red lipstick. Varun would give her a lift till the railway station from where she would catch the local train to her office. She had already packed lunch for herself and Varun in their colourful Tupperware boxes. Varun would have preferred to have a lunch of spicy biriyani from the non vegetarian hotel near his office, but Ganga simply wouldn’t hear of it. She gave permission on Thursday though. “You must cut down your pouch”, she always joked. “I’m not letting you gorge on too much of meat, honey”, she would always say. A vegetarian diet of more wheat and lentils with lots of fruits and vegetables was Ganga’s idea of a healthy and balanced diet. Varun was in awe of his smart wife and was damn proud of her too. She had a solution to almost every problem he could think of. He easily got irritated when the kids got fidgety, was nervous when they got sick and was tense when things wouldn’t go too well in office, but Ganga was as cool as a cucumber in all situations and she saw them through thick and thin. As for Ganga, she viewed things from a different angle. She had been a timid village belle at the time of their marriage and migrating from the cozy comfort of her village and the secured life she had led as the only daughter of her parents and falling into the fast track groove of the city had been possible only because of Varun’s support. He had held her hand whenever she faltered, helped her boost her confidence levels and moulded her to the achiever she was today. She felt sorry for many of her friends who were “single” as they could not get along with their spouses. Every day she thanked God for the perfect match he had found for her.
Bye Kiran, bye Kavita…….. She waved as she blew flying kisses at them. They were already busy with their colouring and activity books which they enjoyed while Basanti pampered them to drink their morning glass of milk. “Bye ma………… Don’t forget to buy my hair clips. I want pink ones”, said Kavitha while Kiran added “My chocolates too ma”.
Varun dropped Ganga at the local train station from where it took her about 45 minutes to reach her office. Her friend, Aarti joined her five minutes later. Aarti and Ganga had worked together for the past five years and were very close. They shared secrets, gossiped about colleagues, went out together for movies and were the thickest of friends. Aarti’s husband Rajesh worked in Dubai. Aarti had volunteered to stay back, so that she could continue with her job, take care of his aged parents while their two children went to a nearby school. Life wasn’t all that easy for Aarti. Mom in law was a toughie. However, despite comparisons, complaints, a little harassment and loads of bossing over, Aarti managed to keep her calm and so things sailed smoothly. She poured out her heart to Rajesh over the phone, when things were going out of hand and whenever she felt herself respect was at stake. She threatened to leave the house with the children but Rajesh was a good listener and an ambassador of peace so he always convinced her it was best to forgive and forget. “But why should I be the one to keep quiet all the time”, she would reason with him.
She repeatedly poured out her woes to Ganga “It feels awful when you aren’t allowed to wash your clothes in the washing machine or cook for the family, when dishes you’ve washed are rewashed as if they were not done properly or when your capabilities are compared to some nitwit. The most ridiculous part is when Rajesh and his dad don’t interfere at all” Though Ganga admired Aarti and her sacrificial way of handling her family affairs, she simply couldn’t agree to it. “I disagree to your diplomatic methods. If you are unhappy you must let it be known, if you are hurt let others know you’re being hurt. Rajesh should know about what’s happening and so must Rajesh’s dad. After all no one has the right, to trample on another’s self respect. You were also brought up as a very special person by your family weren’t you? Imagine your daughter in the same situation. My dear friend, there’s no harm in reacting intelligently and with dignity to any situation”, Ganga always advised Aarti. “Yup, I’ll tell ma you said that and that’ll take care of all her fondness for you”, Aarti beamed at her while Ganga rolled her pretty eyes feigning fear.
So the rest of the day went without many hassles. It was a very busy day for Ganga, she had lots of statements to submit, a few meetings and a presentation. In office she was a thorough professional and those who reported to her were kept busy all through the day. Yet, she recommended timely increments and was lenient once in a while, which made her popular.
She was through with the day’s work by 4.00pm, got permission from Sundaram Sir, her boss, to leave early. On the way she dropped in at the grocery to pick up some vegetables and fruits and took a rikshaw back home. She took the same rickshaw to take Kiran to the doctor and was back home by 6.30 after which she relieved Basanti. Getting back home by 6.30 was pretty early and since the children had no school, there was no homework or studies to cater to. “Who wants banana fritters?” The children squealed with delight. They loved banana fritters and so did Varun. “I’ll help you ma”, said Kavitha……. “me too” said Kiran. Ganga combined the rice and wheat flour, poured enough water, a pinch of sugar and a teaspoon of sugar. She allowed Kavitha to use her hands to mix the flours to a smooth batter. She was aware there would be a big mess to clean up once they were done. But, Ganga loved involving them in small activities which they enjoyed. She loved to see the “grown up” face Kavita donned on a face when she was helping her mother. Ganga cut the ripe plantains to thin strips and allowed Kiran to dip them into the batter, which she deep till their golden brown, crisp banana fritters were ready. “Three for papa, two for ma four for me and four for Kavitha didi……………..” Kiran distributed.
Ganga had also made ready their favorite hot chocolate drink to go with the fritters. She prepared tea, poured out a cup for herself and poured Varun’s into the flask so it would remain hot. She then stretched herself into their comfortable sofa and turned on the television. Kiran and Kavita curled in with her, nibbling at their snack. The cold was beginning to set in and Ganga was feeling very homely and nostalgic. Her mind went back to the delicious vadas, bondas, murukku, her mother used to prepare at home. She looked forward to the home visits they paid once in a year. She missed the greenery of her village, the paddy fields, coconut trees, the simple village folk, the women in their bright saris with lots of flowers in their hair, their small worries, the colouful weddings and most of all she missed her Appa and Amma. As she thought of all this, she felt over whelmed by the wave of sympathy she felt Kavitha and Kiran, who were left on their own for most of the time. They shuttled between school and home, spent time with Basanti Bai, were forcefully put for swimming and tennis classes so that they wouldn’t turn out to be couch potatoes, tortured with personality development classes and dance lessons by teachers who claimed to be the best in their respective fields just because neither Varun nor Ganga could find ample time to spend with them.
As her mind dwelt on these thoughts she caught a fleeting glimpse of what seemed like a bomb blast in a news flash on television. “I wonder where it will be this time”, she was just beginning to wonder, giving more attention to what was being said. The reporter was giving a detailed report about the blast which had occurred in an office building near the parliament. Many were wounded and there was blood everywhere. The blast had just occurred and a lot of smoke seen and cries could be heard on television. The report said the attack was by a militant outfit.
With a sinking heart Ganga realized it was Varun’s office building! Her heart missed a beat and she felt numb with the blood draining from her face as the realization of the worst slowly sank in. She simply couldn’t move and for the next few minutes it was as though she lost consciousness. Dazed, she pushed Kiran from her lap, holding on to their sofa so that she wouldn’t totter and fall. Her head was reeling and her legs felt wobbly as she reached out for her mobile phone to ring up Varun. “This must be a dream, a very frightening and horrendous dream from which I will wake up any moment”, she kept wishing as Varun’s phone kept ringing and ringing at the other end without any answer. “Please Varun pick up the phone, oh! Please Varun just pick it up………….. my lord Krishna please make Varun pick his phone”. She shivered from the cold, all her strength draining out and every ounce of her was terrified. She felt all alone, with no one to reach out to.
“I can call up Aarti but what can she do? Rajesh’s parents were also too old and would not be able to help out.” “Oh where are you Varun? She was sobbing by then. She let her tears flow and did not even bother to wipe them away. The children panicked. “Mama what’s wrong? What wrong?” They ran to her. They had never seen their mama in such a ruffled state. She held them close not knowing what to do, whom to call, where to go or what to do!” A heavy burden tugged at her heart making her feel it would break soon. She was in a trauma but she needed strength; she needed to think on the next course of action. “Where was Varun? “ She had to find him. The children switched off the television knowing by now something had happened. Something that had broken their mama’s heart………. Something that concerned their Papa………….. but what it was, was beyond their comprehension.
The worst has still not happened till it happens. Ganga lighted the prayer lamp. She harnessed all the confusing thoughts that ravaged her troubled mind and closed her eyes. There was pin drop silence as even the children remained quiet. It was as though the whole world had stopped dead in its tracks. Then, silence slowly invaded the chaos that clouded her thoughts. She folded her hands and bowed her head before God. And she prayed………….
She stood there like that with the children for some time. How much time she knew not! Her phone rang. She opened her eyes. Mental agony still wrung her tortured soul. It was her father. She received the call, “Appa………..”, she answered with an unearthly still in her voice. “Are you alright paapa? I just heard of a bomb blast in the news”, he asked her addressing her fondly as he always did; right from the time she was a little girl. “I’m fine Appa and so are the children but Varun……………….”, her voice broke as she stifled to hold back tears. She gathered all her courage and steeled herself to say “I’m yet to hear from him Appa. The blast occurred in his office building”. She had communicated her worst fears and there was silence at the other end of the phone. “Oh! How she wished she was a little girl again and could run into her Appa’s arms so that he would pat her back and say “It’s alright paapa, I’ll set things right for you.”
Ganga then sprung into action! She immediately called up Basanti and asked her to come over to take care of the children. It was an emergency and Basanti was at their door in the next five minutes. “I’ll be with the children”, she said but not a word of comfort about Varun, because Basanti knew from the news reports that survivors in the blast were only a few. Ganga took the first rickshaw she could catch to the blast spot. The blast spot was furore, with a high note of tension in the air. A frightening calm ruled the spot from where only the cries of fire engines, ambulances and police sirens could be heard. Policemen and volunteers were hectic, working frantically and with urgency carrying survivors on stretchers to ambulances lined up one after the other. It was like a scene from an action movie only that there was not just one hero but many! No one climbed walls or jumped buildings on slings to rescue those trapped, but groups of people worked together as a team trying to help as many as they could. A heart rending scene it was! The building that was razed down had been a commercial one with lots of offices, a mall and lots of eateries. Being Christmas time the mall had been crowded with families including little children celebrating their holidays. Besides, there were so many offices functioning, being a working day. There were still many trapped under the rubble.
Everything brought down to ashes for what cause? Precious life, a gift of God wasted for no reason at all! If only we would see more reason, behave a trifle more sensibly; be a little more tolerant and not let our emotions get the better of us. If only we would reach out a little more to the finer aspects in life and more delicate feelings, savouring the rich experience of just being alive, enjoying life as it comes, relishing simple things like the fragrance of a rose flower, the vast blue sky, the warmth of sunrays, the anticipation of dreams to be realized, the hope for better things that lie ahead. If only we wouldn’t complicate things and rake up issues in the name of religion, politics, gender caste and creed, oh! what a wonderful world ours would have been! If only we would let go of destructive complexes and stop digging up new found meanings to religious philosophies which divert our thoughts and leads us to think of harm even to our brethren! Why are we wasting time instead of working together and concentrating more on eradicating hunger, epidemic, ignorance, malnutrition, drugs, environmental pollution, global warming, corruption and a whole lot of real issues that are actually affecting human existence!
Ganga was now a part of a rescue operation team. She joined hands with others carrying wounded children on stretchers. They were all crying for their mothers. Some were too hurt to even cry out loud. It was the most saddening and Ganga cursed those who were the cause. What reason could they have for hurting little children? Which God would forgive such cruelty? What was the use of the heart and head for those who could behave so insanely? Her telephone kept ringing as friends and colleagues tried to get in touch with her after they had heard of the blast. She wouldn’t accept any call for …………… what if Varun tried to contact her?
As she had just transferred one more child to the ambulance and turned round, she saw him. Their eyes met for a moment. He was amidst the other volunteers doing what she was doing. Varun looked exhausted and haggard. He was covered with grit and soot and yet there was determination as he worked un tiredly, devastation and horror of having lost colleagues and friends and misery at the suffering that was evident all around him writ all over his face. He saw Ganga too and saw the huge wave of relief that reflected in her eyes, yet he was still perturbed. He had just left for an important meeting and when he got back what he beheld were the ruins of what had been his office building. He was yet to get over the shock.
It was well past midnight when Ganga and Varun were able to get back home. The drive back was a very quiet as both of them were sober after the episode. It was reassuring just to sit in the car together. Back home their family reunion was still happier with the children rushing out to hug Varun. Their neighbours had all woken up and had been waiting with the children. Basanti slowly slipped out and so did all the visitors leaving the family alone to spend time in peace after the harrowing experience. They had a late dinner and went to bed after winding up all the washing and cleaning as usual.
As Ganga closed her eyes and slowly drifted into sleep, her mind recalled the events of the day. All what she had felt, seen, heard, thought of and finally what she or rather they had been through. She turned to Varun’s side reaching out to him just to touch him and reassuring her he was there. She realized how very narrowly she had nearly lost him. Her heart went out to the families that had been shattered today. Dreadful as it was, this was not an isolated incident. Yet, another day would dawn tomorrow and everything would be forgotten. Just as the sun rises every morning, as the earth revolves and there is day and night, the metro would rise up to a new day tomorrow, the devastation and the tragedy that occurred today forgotten. Tomorrow would be just another normal working day. For, in the metro there never is time to stand and stare………………………
Indian words used in the story:
1) Idlis, pulav, roti, chappathi, raitha – Indian food items
2) Behanji, Didi – Sister
3) Bai – A lady who does cleaning/ washing for others
4) Vada, murukku, bonda – South Indian snacks
5) Ma – Mother
6) Baaji – curry
7) Beti/ Paapa – Daughter
8) Zoppadpatti – A tin house in a slum
9) Basti – street
10) Papa – Father