2 July 2011

Rajamma's Box


The young doctors at the hospital were taking off their coats and leaving their consultation rooms. After 5 hours of OP duty, it was finally lunch time. As they slowly ambled out on to the corridors, Rajamma briskly walked past them, her work had just begun. She went into Consultation Room no.5 and turned off the fan. As usual it was a mess.  She has been a sweeper at the hospital for more than 10 years now.

She mechanically went about her work, pushing around old dusty patient files, boxes of medicines, pieces of cotton on the rickety wooden table when she knocked over a small white plastic container. As it fell to the floor, Rajamma was startled to find a severed finger. She was quite used to the blood and gore having worked in the hospital for so long now, but she had never seen anything like this outside an operation theater. On closer inspection she realised that it was a thumb. She picked it up with a piece of cotton and put it back in the container, placing it on the shelf next to the door.

As Rajamma resumed her sweeping and swabbing duties, her mind wandered. Most often this would mean worry about her children and her own deteriorating health. But sometimes, she would allow herself to think about her younger days. When her husband  left her 15 years years ago just after she gave birth to their son Kumar, and she was left to fend for herself. When Rajamma and her husband had fallen in love in their village, he promised her that the differences in their caste would not matter  when they go to the city. They would escape their stifling rural existence and would be free. He would get a good, stable job and they would spend their evenings eating sundal on Marina beach. Sundays would be spent shopping for vessels and clothes in T Nagar. They may even manage to build a small house within a few years. Eventually when their parents would come around and accept their union, evenings would mean all of them eating sundal on marina beach. Grand parents, grand children, the works.

Rajamma could only smile when she thought of her husband, Ravi. To this day, neighbours and friends would always curse him for abandoning her.But deep down she knew that it was the seemingly insurmountable circumstances that led him to alcohol abuse and worsened his depression. After they ran away from Bodi, Ravi's class mate from the polytechnic who was from Madras found them a small house in Ambedkar Nagar in Royapuram. They settled comfortably into their small one room residence. But the freedom and bliss was short lived. It took only a few months for both to realise that things were not going to be easy. Unable to find a job despite his diploma, Ravi was forced to work as a server in small hotels. He would often pick fights with the supervisors and would come back home broken and defeated. Rajamma tried to stay supportive, but she knew that her husband was more disillusioned than her and quickly realised she would have to find work to support their family. As Ravi retreated in to a shell spending most of the day sleeping and drinking, Rajamma managed to find work at the government hospital.

Rajamma snapped back to reality as a nurse ran into the room and frantically began searching for something on the table. Despite offers to help, the nurse ignored her. Nobody would talk to the sweepers unless it was to complain about their lack of efficiency. The young nurse ran out panicking and spoke to a doctor in loud whispers outside the door. She could not find it, it was gone! Third time this year! It didnt take long for Rajamma to figure out that they were talking about the severed finger, but she kept silent. The nurse and the doctor walked away and Rajamma went to the table and looked at the severed thumb. On closer examination she saw that most of it was crushed and she knew that it would be futile to attempt to re attach it.

The cleaning was finally over and it was time to go home to rest and have lunch before she would come back for the evening shift.  She carefully took the thumb from the container, wrapped it with a peice of gauze and walked out covering her hand with pallu of her saree. She hurriedly exited the hospital compound reaching the the main road where she would turn into the bye-lanes to go her house. It was 2 pm, she still had two hours before her son came home from school. 

Usually Rajamma would be joined by atleast four or five of the women from her neighbourhood when she walked home. They would walk at a leisurely pace disucussing events of the morning. Most of them worked as maids in the bungalows owned by retired IAS officers and would be returning home. They would often swap stories about how their employers treated them and Rajamma would inevitably advise them on how to negotiate an increase in salary or bonus.She had a reputation of being quiet but feisty. But today was different. Rajamma ran past her friends, and when they enquired about why she was in hurry, she just rushed past them giving indiscernible and senseless excuses.

15 minutes later she was home. As was usually the case, the street was deserted except for two old women sitting on the steps of the house opposite hers. Rajamma opened the door to her dark one room house. It hadn't been changed in anyway for more than two decades since she first came here. The only difference was that there was one less occupant.  She latched the door behind her, wiping the sweat dripping off her face and took a moment to catch her breath. She climbed on the bed and reached for the big green box at the back of the loft. It was the only thing she brought back from her parent's house. She carefully took it down and placed it on the bed. It was one of those big green trunks that military men would use, it belonged to her father. She had spent Rs. 100 on a godrej lock to which she had the only key. As soon as she bought it several years ago, she strung they key to her thaali so that she would never lose it. Nobody could see the contents of that box, nobody would understand . . .

The box.

With a loud creak, the lid opened to reveal an old tattered lungi that had belonged to her husband. She carefully removed the cloth and inspected the contents within.

First, a severed ear. It belonged to Lalitha, a young teenage girl who grew up in their street. Lalitha was her parent's only child. When she heard from her friends in college that the new mobile phone factory was looking for young women to work, she was thrilled. Who would have thought that someone like her would work for an MNC.  She knew that both her parents were in debt and were constantly worrying about her marriage.  Lalitha was as a free spirit, but she also yearned to be independent and take responsibility for her future. She had convinced her parents to allow her to discontinue her studies and work there. Along with many other girls from the area, she would travel everyday to the factory by the company bus.

Nobody in the neighbourhood really understood what their daughters did at the factory and the girls would never explain. They would often joke about how the machines were like robots. Six months back, one of these 'robots' had caught Lalitha's head and refused to let go. She screamed in pain on the factory floor in full view of 300 other young women who looked on, unable to set her free.When the body was brought to the hospital for an autopsy, Rajamma heard from Lalitha's co workers that the supervisors refused to let them rescue her. The machine was too expensive to be damaged, they had said and waited for 20 minutes for technicians as the girl's head was crushed to pulp.

Second, a foot. This one belonged to young Vijay who also grew up in the neighbourhood. A couple of years back, when Vijay's uncle told him that the new car factory was looking for young men to work, he immediately applied and was hired. The two hour commute everyday did not matter only because the company promised all employees free transport. Vijay was sincere, hard working and efficient. He would often help to train the new apprentices and help them finish their work after 5pm. Vijay anna as he was popularly called would then run outside and catch the bus back home.

On one such day, Vijay was delayed by 15 minutes and he knew that if he missed the company bus, it would mean a 4 km walk to the nearest bus stand and 3 bus rides. As he ran, he tripped and fell down, the bus behind him ran over his foot. Rajamma was on a tea break when Vijay was brought to the hospital by his co workers where the doctors were forced to amputate his foot. When his supervisor came to visit him and shoved a bundle of money in his hand telling him not to come back again, he lost his mind.

And now, the severed thumb. Rajamma unwrapped what would be the latest addition to this box. Everyday at the hospital, she wished she would not find anything that would necessitate her to open this dreaded box. But earlier this morning when Rajamma was sweeping the corridors  she had seen the woman screaming in pain, blood dripping through the saree with which she had wrapped her hand. She was quickly ushered into the emergency room. The man accompanying her was the manager of the tailoring factory where she worked and was talking to the doctors, telling them he did not want trouble, admitting that it was an accident and begged them not to involve the police. He handed the severed thumb to the doctor and left, asking one of his underlings to 'take care' of the matter.

Rajamma realised very early that she would not allow her self worth to be determined by the Rs.1500 she earned for 8 hours of back breaking work at the hospital. Everything she witnessed at the hospital only lead her to believe that lives of people like her literally ceased to have value when it became inconvenient for someone.

Lalitha's parents never fully recovered from her loss and went back to their village. She heard conflicting reports of how much money the company had given them during the funeral. After Vijay was sent home from the hospital, he was so overcome with anger that he plotted with his friends to assault his supervisor. While thrashing the supervisor temporarily assuaged his anger, the thrashing that he received from the police was far more damaging permanently. He was now a pick pocket and drug addict, constantly getting into trouble with the police. And as for the woman who lost her thumb today, Rajamma would have to wait until this evening to find out her fate.

She placed placed the thumb in the box, closed the lid and locked it. Just as she was putting it up on the loft, the door opened. Ammmmmaaaa  shouted her son, dropping his huge school bag on the floor.  Rajamma smiled as she went to the kitchen and dished out some rice and sambar on a plate. As he plonked himself on the floor and began to devour his meal, she glanced up at the green box on her loft. She wondered if her son would ever understand what those severed body parts in that box meant to her. Each was a possibility. A possibility of a promising, perhaps even happy life that was nipped in the bud. It was her duty to preserve those possibilities. She walked out of the door with the sad smile. It would not be long before Lalitha's ear, Vijay's foot and the thumb would soon have company in her green box. It was 4pm and time to go back to work.


  1. Hey!

    Thanks a lot for sending me the link. :) I've seen your blog before when Jeny was reading. This story, is brilliant. Why? Firstly, it is normal for this kind of a story to be written in first person, the voice could have easily been Rajamma's. But, you wrote from a spectator's voice and that worked wonderfully. Two, I read a lot of supposedly political fiction and all those related genres, but this took the cake, because it is sooo honest. I am not great at giving critiques or don't hold myself in any position to do so. What actually floored me was when I read this I could see yourself enjoying writing. Thanks, seriously, for sending me the link.

    For the past week or two, I have been writing daily, a bit or a lot. Over the week, I have this assorted 13000 words all in separate documents. I simply just love writing. But, I usually don't write like this. Do you write everyday? If you don't you should try writing at least for half an hour everyday repeatedly.

    I am going to continue reading the other pieces, before I say too much. :)

    Thanks again,

  2. Sam, thanks for your quick response. Really appreciate the feedback. I write very sporadically and only when I have a fairly complete idea already in my head. I really never thought I could write fiction, but I think I am going to keep at it. writing everyday also is an interesting idea, i will give it a try...Who knows what kind of ideas it may lead to. Will keep sharing stuff that I write, some of it may not go on blog :)

  3. I think only 5% of my writing actually makes it on the blog. Very hard to get something out there. We should definitely exchange writing sometime. :)