I rang the doorbell and was feeling the warmth of the hearth already as my fully drenched self was fighting best to shrug off the shivering. It had been raining relentlessly for five days in a row with temperatures plummeting to usher in the relief from coastal sweaty weather that the city was accustomed to. At that very moment, however, I yearned for some warmth, not just of the dry clothes but the one that would wrap my dimming spirit with love and care.
I heard brouhaha from behind the door, a very familiar one, the one that gave my sinking spirit a hand to look forward to sunshine. I was not surprised when Mishika answered the door accompanied by Mittu. Together they made a prosaic hubbub which played out like piece of melody for my tattered soul.
“Here she comes…mommy darling…welcome to your home…Why are you so late? We have a surprise for you…Oh but you are wet!”, went on my daughter Mishika, a seven-year-old bubbly kid, as she opened the door. All her animated talk was punctuated by the whines and growls in equal parts by Mittu, our pet dog, as she scampered around me.
“Ladies, please allow her to breathe! She will choke under shower of your love if not under the weight of her wet clothes”, intervened the better half as he joined Mishika and Mittu in the hallway and handed me a towel, while trying the gauge the enormity of the emotions hanging like bales of cotton on my heart.
“Oh…oh!”, sighed Mishika while taking my handbag and making a way for me to finally get in.
“Take a shower till I make you a hot cup of coffee. Mishika, don’t forget to plate your surprise”, said he while entering the kitchen. Clapping all the way, excited, Mishkia and Mittu joined him in, and why she shouldn’t be? For she had helped her father bake a surprise for mother. Baking together had bonded the family amidst uncertain times.
A soothing hot water shower relaxed my tense nerves while the aroma wafting from the kitchen, of freshly brewed coffee filled my listless existence with life, so did the pretty sight of aesthetically laid out Choco-chips muffins on the glass plate! Probably it was more of the love of my family, the warmth of the house that helped me tide over the trial and tribulation of the past few hours and helped me play the hand dealt.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, had stated Leo Tolstoy famously, only to make me appreciate his wisdom with my first-hand experience that day. It all had started with a call early that morning from the city police station as there was tip off about a possible child abuse from one of the slums dominated by the migrant workers. Being a Woman and Child Welfare officer, I had to join the police team to the site.
Pandemic had added gloom to the already dark alleys of the slum, as if the one due to the torrential rain was not enough. Maneuvering our way to the shanty that matched the received description, carefully avoiding the overflowing nullahs, fighting off the stink that had audaciously defied the masks, I walked behind the search party comprised of lady constable, sub inspector and an inspector. Once near the shanty which reeked of foul smell, I was not sure what sight awaited us. The rat-a-tat of the rain on the tin roof sounded ominous.
The constable knocked on the tattered tin door. There was no answer nor any hint of movement inside. She banged the tin door again, this time with more force; the sound of which spooked a pair of pigeons that had found shelter under the roof from the downpour, making them fly right above us, flapping their wings and startling us in return. A faint stream of diminishing and slurring words, more of a gibberish was all that we could hear as a response to loud banging on the door.
The constable turned around to the inspector who was standing a step behind. The inspector nodded. Without losing a moment, the constable kicked the door hard. The ‘barely there’ door caved in, making a way to the revolting noxious decomposing smell to greeting us. So did the disheartening, funereal darkness of the small confines of the shanty. Few seconds into adjusting the sight to the darkness, there we were, witnessing the repugnant picture.
A man, half naked, lay facing the roof, oozing with smell of alcohol; his eyes closed, hands and legs making some involuntary movements every now and then. A little north to him, on right side, lay a decomposed body of a woman with insects and flies hovering over it. Right beside it sat a petite, fragile, bare bones figure with no sign of life what so ever, in what appeared to be a blood stained shabby, ripped frock. The commotion at the door did no difference to her. Quickly gathering the courage, I stepped forward towards the child.
Once near her, I wrapped her in a blanket that we had carried in the rescue kit. Moving my hand gently over her disheveled, scruffy mop on the head, I attempted to make a connect. She appeared no more than six- seven-year-old, someone of Mishika’s age. A pair of big black eyes met me as she turned her head up. The spark of life was strikingly missing from them, as if it was a barren land of dry, forlorn desert without a hope of respite from the sizzling, merciless heat. Probably she had a swarm of questions which spoke the language not known to me, which I could witness but was utterly helpless to provide any immediate answer, forget the solution. I sat next to her with my arms surrounding her in a warm assuring embrace; one that of humanity, one that of compassion, one that of a mother. I extended a pack of biscuits to her which she failed to notice as she was still lost in the desert of her life. I let few minutes pass by without uttering a word, without seeking any response from her.
Suddenly, a loud wailing cry escaped her fragile self, piercing the stillness of the room, tearing apart our hearts. Holding her all the more tightly, I let her cry till it subsided to infrequent sobs. This time, when offered, she took a biscuit from me. It must have been an hour later that I emerged out of the shanty, holding her in the cradle of my arms. We were escorted to the jeep that would take us to the police station while the inspector and sub inspector were busy waking up the man and coordinating for the ambulance to carry the cadaver of the woman for autopsy after finishing the Pachamama.
After helping the girl by washing her face and a cup of hot tea, she opened up to me. She was Dulari. Her father was a petty migrant worker and mother a domestic help. Pandemic had brought calamity to their household which earlier was a happy home though with lot of hardships. The mother had lost her house help job as the lock down was declared across the city. The father, a compulsive alcoholic, was adding to the woes, as he had no means left to tend to the family needs and had turned abusive. In a bout of rage, he had hit the mother on head with an iron rod which they used to secure the door, as she denied his sexual overtures. It turned out to be fatal. The mother’s body was left to decompose, for the father went on the drinking spree, partly out of remorse and mostly out of compulsion. Dulari was helpless and scared. This was not all. The demon inside him, along with alcohol holding his moral on a tight noose had deluged abuse on Dulari once her mother was no more to safeguard her. Her cries of mercy had fallen on the deaf ears and dead soul of the hungry monster. A neighbour had heard the cries and had alerted the police.
Pandemic one day sure will be eradicated with vaccination. Can anything however eradicate the scars the pandemic has left, with its indelible ink, like the disfigured tattoos, on the tender minds and hearts of the affected; my broken heart wondered. This very unanswered question continues to stare me in face, reminding me of the eyes of Dualri, gnawing at my conscious and following me doggedly, for days on end…