The Gulmohar tree was tall and wide glowing with blossoms and green leaves. It gave a shelter as good as a home for some. The old woman sat under the tree from morning till evening with a bundle of clothes and beddings she needed. She slept under the tree using the bundles as her pillow. People and passers by would leave some food and fruit for her.
Where was her home? She had one at Rupali basti which was burnt down in a fire. Where was her family? She had a husband and two children. Where were they? They, too, were burnt in that fire. The government officers asked her repeatedly to return to her home and identify the bodies of her family so she could claim compensation from the Government - to live in comfort for the rest of her life. Kind missionaries had given her some wool and needles to knit scarves which could be given and distributed to those in need of it in this blistering winter.
Her needles went click clock click clock knitting from morning till evening when finally sleep took her away from her present position and she fell into a deep but tired sleep.
She refused to return to her hut to identify the melted bodies of her beautiful babies and her dear husband. What torment was this?
Her mind went back to a spring time years ago, to the day of her wedding. She was dressed in red and gold resplendent and her husband in sherwani. They were a handsome couple. In the wedding ceremony the promise glowed “as never to part” and singed her today as her loved ones lay burnt.
No, she will not go back to identify her loved ones burnt to ashes, just so she can get a government sanction for compensation. People’s persuasion failed to move her from the static position she occupied under the tree.
Work, incessant work kills feelings. So she kept knitting “click clock click” with her needles. Beautiful scarves to give away to the poor in this winter wind.
She was known as a helpful social worker in her community as with any call for help in mishaps of injury or delivery she would run to assist the patients. Till they were safely placed in an ambulance.
Her desire to help was always uppermost. Today she sits numb without feelings, click click, as the needles move to produce scarves. The missionaries were very pleased to get those for the poor and in return they served her with food.
The old woman’s life had the soothing effect of an automaton. Where the hours were divided into manual work and cleaning, eating meals served to her, and lastly a long dreamless sleep.
Days and nights passed this way for her in this, static living. Then quite suddenly one day another slum area reportedly was on fire. The sky turned orange, red and yellow… Screams and cries of children tore the sky with mothers wailing.
The old woman heard and saw what she never wanted to see. She knitted faster “click clock” to draw the sound of a weeping humanity not far from her.
She was a born helper. A trained midwife, a woman known for her kindness and efficient service. Will she ignore this crying, this wailing? Will this catharsis not incite her?
She dropped the needles. Unknitted scarves flew in the wind as she ran towards her basti to give her skilled help to people who were in need. She was moving briskly from patient to patient, placing them in the ambulance, bandaging some and soothing others, and inviting some in her hut which she now turned into a temporary clinic.
The old woman came to life again.
Kay wrote this story after the recent fire in a slum area in Dhaka.