JAYANTA MADHAV, [email protected]

“I have asked Malati to come to work from Monday,” Namrata said, taking the tea cup from the table, a hint of compassion in her voice. Pranjit was somewhat surprised at her sudden change of heart. He didn’t immediately react, though, trying not to appear too concerned about her utterance, but he was glad Namrata had finally come around her reservations on the issue.

“...and 45 people have been arrested so far in connection with the SI scam. The police today recovered a huge amount of cash from a house in Barpeta...” The deafening roar from the speeding Rajdhani Express drowned every sound in the apartment. Pranjit winced. “Now that these channels have got an issue, they will go on and on, as if they are the ones doing all the investigation!” He grabbed the remote and flipped onto an English news channel. Turning back to the dining table he leaned out from his chair, trying to make out what one livid panelist was yammering about the Sushant Singh Rajput case, when Namrata appeared from the kitchen and placed before him the day’s assortment of snacks that she had prepared after her afternoon online classes. Pranjit bit on a piece of nimki, flicking off the crumbs from his lap. “Very crispy,” he said with an appreciative smile, taking a slurping sip of his tea. “Yes, prepared this after quite a while,” Namrata nodded, “In fact, first since the lockdown.”

These were the moments Pranjit always looked forward to – sipping tea in the evening with Namrata after a long day’s work, sharing all the happenings from his day at the office. On her part, Namrata would tell him all that transpired in their apartment block, which relatives had called up in the day to check in on their health, also filling him in on which parents had called her to share their children’s progress through her Maths tuition classes and how concerned they were about their studies because of the closure of schools during the lockdown. The tea session would then be followed by some more time together, moments spent lazing on the sofa, watching a couple of serials on the Assamese entertainment channels, whereafter Pranjit would slip off to his study for a little ‘me-time’, sprawling on the armchair with a book or the day’s newspaper, while Namrata went for a walk downstairs with some other ladies of the Society.

With the lockdown, things changed though. As the contagion spread, Pranjit was required to work from home. This is when the Society Management Committee decided not to allow entry of any outsiders into the apartment. No maid, sweeper, paper hawker, fishmonger or anyone else was to be allowed inside the building. An urgent notice was circulated, requesting all residents to comply with this strictly.

Namrata could understand the anguish in her eyes in those moments when she told Malati about the Society’s decision. How would she run the family comprising of her widowed mother and son? How would she provide for the needs of her six-year-old Alok? Could she even manage to get him his school necessities? Namrata was able to read her mind behind that stoic resignation. After all, it was Malati who had been working for them ever since they had moved into their new flat about six years ago. Over the years Malati had become thoroughly conversant with Namrata’s requirements regarding the cleanliness of the flat, knowing every corner of it, every nitty-gritty, and how and where to stack every utensil after washing. On the days that his school was closed, Alok would accompany her mother to work and Namrata would give him this or that to eat or drink, or a pen and a book to write on. She also helped him with his English and Arithmetic quite often. An easy, dependable bond had taken root between the two over the years. But it was a collective decision of the Society and there wasn’t anything Namrata could have done about it.

After Malati had finished her tea, Namrata gave her two months’ extra wages and told her that she would take her back as soon as normalcy returned, and assured her that she would not engage anyone else in her place. In any case, she could always call for any help, as Malati lived not very far from the apartment. A tinge of helpless remorse came over Namrata as Malati padded towards the elevator.

After the spread of the virus had eased a little, Pranjit was back to his old routine, going to office. The Society, meanwhile, had also decided to allow the maids and sweepers back into the premises. Though most families recalled their maids, Namrata and a couple of other ladies thought it better to hold on till the pandemic showed some more signs of letting up. Seeing the pile of work Namrata had to do each day – cleaning, cooking, washing and dusting, and also that he himself had to chip in with the chores, Pranjit had exhorted Namrata more than once to call back Malati. But each time she would put her foot down, saying that she would manage till she physically could, rather than risking the disease. And so when she told him that she had asked Malati to rejoin her work, Pranjit couldn’t figure out what had made her change her mind!

Actually, on her way to the nearby grocery store earlier in the day, Namrata had found Alok pleading with the roadside vendor. There was a suppressed grin on his face as he saw her coming his way. Namrata smiled back and asked him what it was that he was talking about with the man. “I want that bigger chocolate,” he had mumbled after some initial hesitation, a hint of a glint in his eyes. “But I don’t have another five rupees he is asking.” Namrata bought him the chocolate and enquired about his mother and grandmother, and also about his studies.

“Tell Ma I will call her in the evening,” she said, tousling his hair before leaving, handing him a 50-rupee note.

Fiction entries should not ?exceed 1,800 words.