Shishir (Winter) 2020 Stories - Raunaq Saraswat


Theft in the pandemic

By Raunaq Saraswat


When Manisha pressed the doorbell on the sunny Sunday morning, she was greeted with an exceedingly cold face of her mistress Lata. “Why did you touch the switch? Didn’t I tell you to announce your arrival by calling my name?” Lata scorned, before unleashing a fountain of the sky blue sanitizer over the switch, and thereafter, at Manisha’s clothes. “Come in now, and don’t pull the mask down,” she reminded her.


The day marked the reinstatement of the maid servants of the society, who had been disallowed from entering the premises of the gated flats for the past three months of the lockdown. Now that the cases had begun to decline and unlock announced, the secretary had permitted them to come back. His comments in the meeting though, had raised some eyebrows, particularly when he said that it was about time for the workers of the household to return, for the husbands couldn’t assist their wives any longer.


One of the uncles who laughed at the mockery went ahead in sharing the secretary’s words on the Whats app group of the society, to which more husbands emoted in support. “We have so much more work to do,” Raman, whose wife was a regular volunteer for the nearby healthcare centre, said while seconding the message.


Lata’s home was tidier than most houses Manisha had worked in the past. It would often confound her as to why Lata needed to spend money on a maid. Even on this Sunday, the bed sheets were well in place, the floor shone brightly as usual, and there were no dust marks on the decor shelf - leaving little for Manisha to do. Just as she began to mop the living room, she heard her mistress yell from inside, “Begin with the balcony Manisha. You’ve forgotten the order in this break it seems.” “Okay Madam and she drifted to the balcony.


The balcony was as splendid and neat if not more, potted with daisies and roses, with a grass mat running across its length. “What do I clean here?” Manisha wondered while fondling with the grass cover.



Lockdown had proven to be a curse for Manisha and her family. A day before it was announced, she had gone to the digital parlor in the village and bought a smart phone for herself, expending a good part of the savings at her long-pending desire. She had after all always wanted to be in the league of the scroll-ers and the tapp-ers, as she called the city people who brisked past her, with their heads sunk into the glowing screen. “I’ll save fiercely in the months to come,” Manisha had promised herself.


Till it happened, there were no cues whatsoever of the impending closure of the nation. It stunned her, as did the entire village when they saw the news on the eve of the declaration. “Why weren’t we given more time?” she muttered to herself before setting onto the local grocery stores for a hoarding spree.


The very first call on Manisha’s new phone the next day was ominous, whence the secretary of the society asked her to not come for work until further message. “We can’t afford any risks at the moment,” he said before hanging up. Foreseeing a financial crunch, Manisha inquired if she could return her phone but was told that the digital parlor had been shut owing to the restrictions and would not open anytime soon. The leftover savings and ration in the home were barely sufficient to sustain her family for a month, of which she was the sole breadwinner.


In what was a rather pulsating start, the poignant days gave way to weeks, and weeks to the first month of lockdown. Early into the second, Manisha began noticing the near-empty jars at home - with pulses and spices turning alarmingly low for three meals in a day. The lockdown had, quite severely, torn apart their hand-to-mouth cover. “Why did I bring this phone?” Manisha lamented, blaming herself for inflicting the miseries upon her family.


She banged the vessels and lit the candlesticks as and when told, in unison with the entire village. But some days later, when a hopeful Manisha paid a visit to the village ration shop, she was told that the stocks hadn’t arrived yet. “How are we supposed to survive then? By clanging our empty plates?” she lashed out at the shopkeeper.



“Manisha, rinse the plates only after wearing the gloves. I’ve kept them on the door side,” Lata continued to pass the orders. Manisha, meanwhile, had taken to cleaning the bedroom, that which carried the giant wall painting of Lata’s family - of a size greater than Manisha’s rooftop. Manisha was seeing the room after three long months. Its whiff had turned somewhat unfamiliar, its contours unseen.


She rolled her eyes to check the contents, all of them at their place, firm and neat. The bed, king-sized, appeared poised with its creased covers and lavish pillows. The almirah and the home theatre, both of which hadn’t been there prior to the lockdown, sizzled with a brand-new like spark. “Oho, why do they even call me?” she flustered.


When Manisha began sweeping the bedroom, she put to use the pattern she had conceived in her first day at Lata’s - cover the desk-chair area first, bedside stools next, and the rolling chair at the last, for a rolling chair would never stay at its place and make screeching noises whenever Manisha tried to mop beneath its legs. There were chances that it could lose balance and fall on the sandalwood vase in front and earn her the wrath of her mistress. Manisha preferred taking due care to avoid minor troubles.


As soon as she had wound up the bedroom, she headed to dispose the gatherings before pausing to take a look at what all it contained, what all had come out of a bedroom that was finer than most others. In it she saw strands of hair, long, short, black, and white too, tiny scrapings of the aging wall paint, particularly of the red color, and the dust that was otherwise invisible. Her gaze though switched directions very soon and inadvertently turned at the purse that was kept atop the almirah - partly open.


Two purple, novel notes worth four thousand shone out of the embroidered purse. Manisha mulled over the different options she had seeing them, and realized there were basically two, either to let it be or gain their possession. Four thousand, she knew, could band aid their losses in the lockdown, fulfill the costs of the medicine, and give them a chance to eat other than the ration pulses and rice. A montage of the life back home crossed her imagination: her ailing father, dilapidated shanty-like house, the everyday struggle to live.


But the dilemma really was to be or not to be, for a thief was not the label Manisha wanted to see herself with, and negotiating with the conscience was becoming tough by the moment. She tried to force herself into believing that she hadn’t seen it, turning around and clinching her eyes. No sooner had she done this did she begin to hear the echoes from home, of her father and son and herself, reeking with sorrow aplenty. And on the spur of the moment Manisha pulled ahead, gripped the purse, hid the two notes underneath her kameez, and ensured that the purse was kept back in the exact same angle.



When it became clear that the rations would not reach the village in time, Manisha turned to her neighbors for help, only to discover that their reserves too were bleeding. It was already a month and a half into the lockdown, and the village men and women had begun to circle around the government offices, with some of them banging plates with stones in protest and a lot others clamoring for their rightful rations. “Where is that relief scheme which adorns the first page of the newspaper?” Manisha interrogated the store in charge “It will come madam, very soon.” “You’ll feed us if our grains get over before that?” she retorted.


A week later, the stocks finally arrived, just in time to prevent the families from starving. Manisha rushed to the store upon receiving the information, and carried the free ration - gram and rice, to her home. There was little variance in the family’s meals from here on, for all they had was the gram and rice largesse. Manisha though, was baffled for response whenever her little son would ask for something else. She would stare at the empty jars, not knowing how to explain him what the adults hadn’t come to terms with yet.


The days that followed carried little hope to bank on. Manisha shuddered at the thought of having to choose between family’s daily essentials and her father’s medicines, for the latter had to be repurchased in the coming month. The plight rendered the passage of time painfully slow, creating an almost stationary portrait of life. Manisha pondered on what could be, rather, what could be the worst outcome. She would stare at the heavens at dawn and dusk and twilight and midnight, all of which now seemed similar to her despairing lens.


Somewhere in the third month came a call on her new phone, and the secretary asked her to come back at work. There ensued ripples inside her numb-turned-head, accompanied by the rustling of the nearby Peepul. She recalled that monsoon was around the corner. Rains, she hoped, would bring back the lost liveliness.



Manisha peeked into the space where she had hid the money, standing upright even as she cleansed the vessels in the basin below. She had lost count of the times she’d done this after coming out of the bedroom - her face riddling with the fear of revelation. A part of her jostled with the other, pushing her to confess the grave offence she had committed. On the edge of it stood hope, hope that she could get away unnoticed and the act would fade, fade away into the distant land of unhappy memories, and blend with the many months that had so passed. Few more minutes, and she would be out of the house, she told herself.


Commotion was the first sign, hush-hush sounds of Manisha’s name the second, and finally appeared the figure of Lata and her daughter, pretending and failing to not gaze Manisha with suspicion. Manisha meanwhile kept at what she was doing, while trying to calm her petrified self. The question came soon thereafter, as Lata scorned at Manisha, asking her if she had stolen the money from the purse. No avail.


She asked again, this time almost asserting that Manisha had indeed stolen the money. Manisha wailed in pain at this instance, her head bowed down with guilt, and her lips stitched in self-pity as she handed over the two notes, crumpled after being stuffed into a small corner of her kameez. She said sorry in a broken voice and was asked to leave immediately.


By the time Manisha reached the entrance gate, she had played over the sequence, the precise moment when she had stolen the two notes, uncountable times in her head. She vainly hoped that it could pan out differently and that she would have kept the purse back as it is. She imagined the proceedings post her departure from the house, in that Lata would have phoned the secretary and told him everything, and a call must be on the way, where she would be told to never come back.


A sense of concern that of the very survival, gripped Manisha, deeper and grimmer than what had been up till now. The road upfront buzzed with cars, and men and women and other small vehicles that were fighting for space in its chaotic design. “Why, why did it happen to me?” she cried in despair.


Meanwhile, a verbal spat had transpired in Lata’s home. When her son became aware of what had happened and how, he was infuriated. “But Manisha stole the money son,” Lata repeatedly reminded him, until he flung the door open to retreat to his room. “No, her haplessness stole her dignity first. That is the theft you can’t see. How can you not?” he spoke in astonishment.


Raunaq from India is a junior undergraduate at IIT Delhi. His works have so far been published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday & Ibaarat - a literary magazine by Baatein


Our Contributors !!

Some of our writers!

  • We occassionally invite writers to send their musings. Do send in your work, and we will host it here.
  • Do visit the Submit page to submit your work.