That Basket of Food
Dr Bhupati Das
Manu was walking slowly to Mahajan’s house. He was feeling low and depressed. Memories of last few days were crowding his mind. He could clearly see the past events in his mind as if seeing a horror film through a kaleidoscope. He was not sure whether he was feeling sad or bitter. He knew he was definitely angry with himself. Oh, what had he done! How foolish he was! The sun was right on top of his head and he guessed it was around noon. He had the premonition of a bad day ahead as even his shadow hid under his feet. He hastened his steps realising that his two sons and the baby daughter would be waiting for him to return with some food home, hungry as ever. He was still bothered by the irritating bouts of cough under the face mask. A bitter smile clouded his face as a pedestrian coming from the other side tried to maintain as much distance as he could while crossing him on that narrow village road. Memories of the dreadful days of the recent past played out in his mind without any invitation.
“Manuram Kalita, I cannot give you the full salary in the lockdown period, I will give you fifty percent. I am losing heavy money in my business due to the situation arising out of Covid-19 pandemic”, Mahajan’s stern voice was still ringing in his ears. Whenever Mahajan had to announce any bad news, he always addressed Manu by his full name. Manu vaguely remembered mumbling back, “How do you expect me to feed my children? Things are difficult as it is, Mahajanbabu”. Mahajan did not give any heed to what he was saying. “If things don’t improve, I will go bankrupt!”, he exclaimed as a matter of explanation and withdrew to his office. For a few minutes which looked like an eternity, Manu stood still. The face of his hungry baby-girl kept invading his mind. A biting rage seems to have consumed him completely. Angrily he walked into Mahajan’s office towards the back of his hardware store and blurted out, “I will not work at 50% salary. I resign as of now”, he stormed out fuming. On the way out, at the backyard of Mahajan’s house he came across Mahajan’s young wife. She was a kind soul with a beautiful face. From the gesture of her hands, he could make out that she had overheard the conversation. She offered him a bag containing some vegetables and a few grocery items but he refused though he realised that it meant going hungry for the day. His ego overrode his current reality. While walking back home, he felt repentant not accepting the provisions given by Mahajan’s wife. He recalled she also came from an impoverished background same as his and that Mahajan married her at his old age only because she was young and good looking. Naturally she empathised with him. He was infuriated by Mahajan’s apathy and at that state of mind, he thought, to his peril, he needed no sympathy from anyone. In fact, she should look for sympathy, she having to go through every day the ordeal of putting up with the idiosyncrasies of the devil of a person like Mahajan. The fact that her offering food items was an act of compassion got totally lost on his enraged mind.
Next few days passed by in utter hardship. Manu and his wife, Savita, practically starved while keeping their children fed minimally. He tried to get some daily labour job but in this pandemic period it was hard to come by. The fact that all daily wage-earners were facing the same fate because of the pandemic-induced lockdown was no consolation to him. Often he regretted the fact that he had such a large family without any assured means to feed them and now much more so. Savita was against having the third child as they were barely living hand to mouth and had a hard time even raising their two sons. But it happened by accident and in his mind he managed to shy away from the burden of any responsibility for this by simply blaming God. Complications arose during the pregnancy and at the time of delivery for which Savita suffered badly and he had to incur heavy expenses for medical help which he hardly could provide. By the time Savita came back home from the Government hospital with the cackling baby-girl, Manu had sold his pan-shop to finance the treatment and took up the job of a helper in nearby Mahajan’s hardware store. Life was even harder from then on and it was a struggle for Manu to make both ends meet with his meagre salary. Then the pandemic struck.
His mind went back to the incident that happened two days after he walked out of Mahajan’s office fretting, fuming and muttering, “I will never again set foot in this premises”. By this time, his indignation had subsided on the face of the harsh reality of imminent deprivation, Government’s pandemic-driven initiative of providing minimal ration notwithstanding. He started having second thoughts about his heat-of-the-moment response to Mahajan; after all, half the salary could have half-extinguished the fire of hunger! While dithering on the thought of begging Mahajan with folded hands to give his job back, he happened to witness an incident which, he thought, brought a ray of hope. He was coming back home from his daily work-searching rounds when he saw an ambulance and a police jeep parked in front of the thatched house of Raghu, a small-time merchant in his village. A motley crowd had gathered there. He overheard someone whispering that Raghu was diagnosed Covid-19 positive and was being taken by authorities to the hospital. Bitten by curiosity, he jostled through the crowd who by now had become quite noisy and craned his neck to have a better view of what was happening there. The dedicated Government staff wearing PPEs were going around doing their drill professionally. They brought out Raghu, who was staring blankly at his howling family, in a stretcher and put him carefully in the ambulance. For no reason, the crowd clapped heartily as if it was a show put up by aliens from the outer space. Manu thought he had enough of this spectacle because he realized with a sense of sadness that he should not be whiling away his time as he had to seriously attend to his urgent business of earning a livelihood. As he was about to withdraw from this strangely interesting scene, his eyes fell on what he thought was the most important act in the whole incident. He saw an officious looking person from the Government delivering a huge bag, overflowing with provisions and vegetables, to Raghu’s family which temporarily brought down by several notches the pitch of their full-throated collective crying. This happened a bit after an officer hung a signboard on the gate proclaiming it to be a containment zone. When someone remarked feebly that the bag contained essential food items for Raghu’s family for 14 days’ quarantine period, a bright spark flashed through Manu’s mind. He was engrossed playing around with this idea all the way back to his dilapidated home. As expected, there was no food waiting for him. He found Savita sleeping on the floor possibly exhausted by hunger and the children quarreling outside over a single mango possibly gifted by a pitying neighbour. That made his resolve even stronger and his mind started working on the bright spark that was slowly taking a concrete shape. He analysed the various aspects of what he thought as the bright idea and by the end of the day he made up his mind to put it into action.
Next few days, Manu made it a practice to loiter around Raghu’s impoverished house which was not prone to real barricading and also on the road. Whenever a pedestrian passing by sneezed or coughed, Raghu promptly removed his mask with a silent prayer. After about a week of such feverish activities, one lucky morning he woke up coughing with a mild fever. He waited impatiently till about 10 AM and then walked briskly to the Covid-19 center to give the swab-test hoping against hope that he would test positive and his family would be taken care of for at least 14 days while he would be treated free of charge in the hospital. He waited with bated breath for the test-results. In between, the family had a celebratory dinner with the whole family sitting on the make-shift dining table noisily, having a rounded meal. But the ambulance never arrived and after three days of waiting, he was heart-broken to receive the news that he was tested Covid-19 negative. All hell broke loose. He felt depressed and dejected as if someone had died in the family. He kept tossing and turning in bed the whole night thinking about his failed attempt to get infected by Covid-19, which he thought was a heaven-sent solution to get relief from hunger, at least temporarily. By early morning he came to the inevitable conclusion that he had no option but to approach Mahajan to get his job back at any terms. Swallowing his pride, he consoled himself self-talking, ‘no place for pride in a hungry man’.
His nightmarish thoughts deserted him rudely when he reached Mahajan’s shop. He saw from a distance Mahajan’s wife swiping the earthen forecourt of their house, adjoining their hardware store. She stopped in mid-stride when she saw him and her face lit up. He ignored her and walked into the store. Mahajan was working in his office with his accounts books. He looked up and stared at him, the obvious question unmistakable in the raised eyebrows. “Mahajanbabu, please take pity on me and give me my job back. We are starving.”, Manu pleaded gulping in the last vestige of his self-pride. “Why don’t you give Manu his job back? He was always loyal to you and now he has apologised for his mistake of talking back to you last time”, the low voice of Mahajan’s wife sprouted from behind. Mahajan looked up in surprise. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, he announced grandly, “I will give only half the salary like I said last time. If you agree, you can come back to work from tomorrow.” An expression of sadistic satisfaction enveloped his scheming face. Manu said yes sheepishly and hurriedly left Mahajan’s office after taking an advance of Rs 100. As he treaded back home to his hungry family clutching the hundred rupee note, those life-saving words of Mahajan’s wife kept playing hide-and-seek in his carefully careless ears.
Formerly Managing Director of Numaligarh Refinery Ltd and subsequently also of Bharat Oman Refineries Ltd, a multinational company, Dr Das presently works as an independent consultant, coach and trainer. He had also served a tenure of two years as Emeritus Professor of Dibrugarh University. He is an acclaimed poet and a fiction writer and writes in English