Her fingers gently trace the curls on her daughter’s head while she suckles noisily. Whatever the tempest raging in her mind, an unerring calm always descends over her when her daughter is latched onto her breast. Her Bhagyalakshmi. Her baby. Her innocent, defenseless baby. Did she even suspect her entire universe was about to collapse around her?
As long as Bhagya’s father was alive, there was hope. He would recover and come home from hospital. She would nurse him back to health. They would move back to the city. She would take up cooking jobs to support themselves. She could even do some embroidery work on the side to earn extra money to send home to the family. They would be happy together. Someday, Bhagya would get a younger brother. They would have his namkaran in the village.
But it hadn’t happened that way. Bhagya’s father didn’t recover. He was in hospital for a month. He was fighting. He seemed to be getting better. They said he would be released in a few days. Then he suddenly got worse. And today, he died. He was gone. Her anchor was gone. She was a widow with a baby girl. She had nowhere to go.
His family blamed her. Blamed her for seducing their son. Blamed her for bringing bad luck on the family. Blamed her for bringing the disease into the family. Blamed her for falling sick. Blamed her for infecting the entire family. Blamed her when people began to die; Sasurji, Devar, Sasuma, Jethani. She blamed herself too. But she hoped they would forgive her.
Now he was gone. What would happen to her?
Her baby opens her eyes and looks at her. She kisses her on the forehead and gently shifts her to the other breast. She latches on and started suckling. Her baby is constantly hungry. Her milk is no longer enough for her. Soon she would be ready for solids. How would she manage? Would things have been better if they had remained in the city. If they hadn’t come back when the cases started rising?
The memories of last year were still fresh. They were living together when Lockdown was announced. He had no money; he used to send all his savings home. They survived on her savings and the goodness of strangers. When lockdown was extended, he wanted to walk back home. But they knew his family would not accept her. He could not leave her behind, so they stayed. They begged their employers for money. Only one Madam obliged. On many days, they went to bed hungry. They didn’t think they would survive, but somehow they did.
They were ready to give up and go back to his village when one house she worked in called her back. She begged them to pay her in advance. They agreed. Gradually, she got a few more jobs. Her husband was not so lucky. He was a driver, but the family he worked for didn’t want him back. He couldn’t find another job. He drove an auto for two hours every day when the owner took a break. Sometimes, he was hired as a driver for half a day. Once, he drove a family to the mountains for a holiday. They had chicken when he returned.
Last year, it had been just the two of them, so they managed somehow. Now, with Bhagya, they knew they could not survive another Lockdown. Already, her husband’s earnings had started to come down. The old lady she had engaged to mind Bhagya while she went to work came down with COVID. Their neighbours were falling sick. They had no choice; they had to return to his village.
She looks down at her sleeping baby. Feels her soft palm pressed against her breast. Her tiny chest rises and falls with every breath. She gently caresses her baby’s fair cheeks; traces the curve of her long eyelashes. Her daughter is prefect in every way but one; she was not a boy.
He hadn’t been able to contain his joy when she told him she was pregnant. “When the child is born, my family will accept you”, he told her. They got married in the temple the very next day. She could not afford a new saree, but she felt like a bride when he draped the red chunni on her. “You look like a Rajput princess”, he told her when she gazed shyly at him from under the chunni. Who knew? Maybe she was a Princess; all they had told her was that she had been abandoned outside a temple. Orphans like her do not have a history.
If he was disappointed not to have a son, he didn’t show it. “She is Bhagyalakshmi. She will bring us luck”, he declared. He got the Punditji to cast her horoscope and sent it home to his family. They hadn’t even acknowledged it, but he continued to send them money every month.
“If I were not an orphan, your family would have accepted me”, I told him often. “They will when they get to know you”, he would assure her. But they hadn’t. And now they never would. She was on her own, with Bhagyalakshmi.
A wave of grief lashed over her. The anguish of losing her husband- the handsome man who had won her heart; the tender lover who encouraged her to move in with him, the kind hearted partner who refused to abandon her, the brave warrior who fought so hard to stay alive. She pushed it aside and surfaced. Now was not the time to wallow in self-pity. She had to think of staying alive and keeping Bhagya alive.
She couldn’t stay here any longer. She would have to return to the city. She was efficient, she was clean, she was honest. People would employ her. But what about Bhagya? Who would look after Bhagya while she was at work? How would a single woman with a child survive on her own in the city? How would she keep Bhagya safe when she grew up?
No, she wouldn’t be able to take Bhagya with her. She would need to secure her future before she left.
She holds her baby close. Then wraps her in her red wedding chunni. She kisses her on the eyes and lays her reverentially in the wooden chest. She places a Mata ki Tasweer and prays to her to watch over her baby. She takes one last look at her beautiful baby, slides the horoscope under her head and closes the lid of the chest.
With the moon as her witness, she will float the chest down the Ganga. When they finally find Bhagyalakshmi, they would know that she is the daughter of a Kshatriya family; she will not be a nameless orphan like her mother.
The next day, when the family wakes up, they will find that she is gone.