It was a bright Sunday.
The clouds were unusually blue.
The birds were chirpier than ever.
And Lakshmi, my maid stood smiling at my bedroom door. That was a usual sight on Sundays.
Oh, dear lord! Why do I have to wake up to my maid! Such a bad omen! Wonder what's in stock for today!
"What's happening Lakshmi? Is your husband back yet?", I asked knowing it would irritate her. One of those sadistic pleasures.
"No Amma", she smiled again.
"Then, what's with the smile?"
"It's just a nice day Amma. It feels good."
That's true. It was a Sunday. Sundays are supposed to be nice.
No client calls.
No deadlines to meet.
No deadlines to meet.
But would she know! She just had to come in and sweep and mop and wash.
She had no targets to meet.
No long appraisal forms to fill.
No power-up meetings.
She gets paid, whatsoever.
Unaware of my thoughts, Lakshmi continued to sweep the floor.
I was having breakfast, when she was leaving. Mom told me that it was her birthday. She turned 23. I tipped her with a 100 rupee note. Mom gave her a saree - something I had bought for myself, but never worn. One of those 'spur of the moment' purchases, which I regretted later on.
Her eyes beamed. She seemed happier than she was a while ago.
I wondered what would happen when a happy person became happier. I mean, what was the highest you can reach in happiness? Was there any measure to it? Was there an end to happiness?
Mom tipped her with another 50 and sent her off.
"Mom! Do you have to be so generous?"
"What about the Rs. 2,000 you spent on your friend's birthday party last week?"
"Well... errr.... Lakshmi is just a servant! And, my friends are different..."
"No, It's not! It's the same! She deserves it more than your friends."
"Mom, you better keep away from her. She is spoiling you."
"Geethu, I think you should talk to her sometime."
"About what? Advertising and strategic planning? Please! Gimme a break!"
"No my dear! About life..."
"Mom! She is 23. Stranded with 2 kids – a 2-year-old with a hole in her heart and a 4-year-old. Her drunkard husband ran away with whatever gold she had, about a year ago. And she totally deserved it! Who asked her to elope with her dad's driver, that too at 18? She made her choices. Now she must face the consequences. She is a loser. Whereas I – am an MBA graduate, working with a reputed firm, earning a 6-digit salary, can speak 4 languages, have no kids to take care of, and yeah, I write blogs too! What do I have to learn from HER?"
(Wait a sec! Just this morning I was cursing my employer and complaining about my targets... But, who cares!)
"You have to learn time management from her. You have to learn negotiation from her. You have to learn multi-tasking from her. Most of all, you have to learn to smile, from her!"
"Oh! Mom! Please!"
"Geethu, have you realized that you never smile? You don’t enjoy your food? You don’t talk to me because you are busy on your phone always. You don’t ask me if I have eaten yet. You expect my headache to vanish with a Crocin but will bring the house down when you have one!"
"Now, now mom! That is not true. I care for you. I love you. I am your daughter!"
"I know. But you have changed. You just exist. You have stopped living."
"Hahaha! Now, that’s a new one! I wonder what the difference is. Anyways, enough of Gyan. I need to go for that school mates’ lunch meet at the Taj today. Have spent a fortune for the reservations. I will be late. Don’t wait up."
The car broke down. That too, in front of the government hospital.
I hate hospitals. Thankfully, there was a mechanic shop nearby. I was waiting for it to get fixed, when I saw Lakshmi pass by. Her 2-year-old on her hips and the 4-year-old was dragging behind. The baby was crying.
Wonder what's up?
Do I ask?
No... I don’t want to be late for my lunch meet.
Humanity knocked hard on the doors of my conscience.
Fine! I will ask her.
Lakshmi seemed happy to see me.
"Amma, the baby has been crying nonstop. Had to bring her in. Can you please come with me to the doctor? I don’t understand half of what she says."
Oh, no no no! The hole in the heart can wait. My lunch meet cannot!
Reluctantly, I accompanied her.
Did I say I hate hospitals? I really do!
The corridor was crowded. Lakshmi seemed to know the place in and out. She led the way. As we waited, patients – across varying age groups, skin tones, wounds kept walking in and out. The only visible link amongst them all – poverty.
The wards were overflowing with patients and houseflies. The sight was pathetic. Women crying as they fed their near ones. Men who seemed lost looking at bills. When our turn came, we walked into a small room. The Doctor looked familiar.
She looked the same. Except for a little grey hair.
She looked perplexed.
Not bad! She recognized me, despite my 'rebonded’ hair, ‘green’ contact lenses and 'mild' make-up.
"How come you here?"
"Oh! I have come with my maid, Lakshmi. Her kid is sick."
I didn’t have to ask her the same. I always knew Manju would end up like this. At some NGO or orphanage helping people.
"I know Lakshmi quite well. So, you are who she works for! She keeps telling me how you have been helping her financially."
(Is it so? That is not me then. I need to keep a check on this! Mom! Let me get home.)
I managed to force a smile.
The kid was still crying.
She was given some injection and medicines.
"That should ease the pain for now..."
"What's wrong with the kid?" I asked for courtesy sake.
"Well, she seems to be recovering well. A minor operation will fix it forever. Lakshmi has been delaying it for want of money."
The baby looked drowsy with the medicines. The elder one started crying now. Lakshmi looked at me for help. I offered to hold the younger one. A sleeping devil is always better than one that's awake.
The kid was pretty weightless. She slept on my shoulder, clinging on to my hair. I felt her heartbeat.
Her heart with a hole.
"How much will it cost?"
"Around fifty thousand rupees for the surgery. A couple of thousands more for the medicines and recuperation."
My phone rang, "Where are you? We are all here. Waiting for you..."
"I will be late. You guys can start with the lunch"
"Don’t tell us you work on Sundays as well..."
"Listen, I will have to call you back..."
"How soon can we do this operation?"
"I have spoken to my friend who works with a private hospital. I have already made all arrangements there. We can have it done, as soon as the money is ready. Lakshmi has been saving money and handing it over to me for safekeeping. But that’s not enough."
I remembered vaguely how mom mentioned she was scared to sleep alone at her house, with men scavenging around for whatever they could loot from her.
"Please arrange for the operation soon. I will bear the expenses".
I thought I felt a heartbeat skip.
Was it the baby's heart?
Manjula looked shocked.
Lakshmi's eyes widened.
I was in a deeper shock. What did I just say?
"This baby deserves to live. Please leave the expenses to me".
I said it again.
"Right. I will have it fixed soon".
I was holding the baby as we walked back. The car was repaired. My phone kept ringing. I would have thrown it away, had I not spent a good thirty thousand on it.
I drove back with Lakshmi and her kids, and dropped her home. She cried as I handed over the child. I asked her name for the first time.
It meant ‘rebirth’.
"Amma, you are a goddess."
"No, I am not. You are. You live happily. Despite your sorrows. You look forward to a brighter tomorrow. Your targets in life seem unachievable, yet you never stop trying. You never give up on your kids. And most importantly, you never stop smiling. Thanks Lakshmi!"
Mom was surprised to see me home for lunch.
"What about your friends?"
"They can wait."
She was moved when I praised her sambhar and cauliflower fries.
I asked her what she did all day and offered to take her out for a drive in the beach, something she had been longing for months now.
She noticed the difference.
It was Lakshmi's birthday.
But it was I who was reborn.