6 May 2020 – “Kemon achho go, didi” (How are you), she asks me, with a smile, broom and bucket in hand, as I hand over the previous day’s garbage bag to her. I usually don’t do this. My father does. Till 4 years back, my mother did – every day at 8 am, for all the 38 years that she lived, in this flat in a small housing complex in North Kolkata. And for all those 38 years, at 8 am, Kajol came to pick our bag and clean our building (Block B) after finishing with Block A and before she went to Block C. She has continued with that routine almost 4 years after Ma’s death (and that of several others in the complex); and I know she will do so till her death.

She is the cleaner, after all. She will have to work till the day she dies. Age brings no comfort to the likes of her. Life is what it always was, and will be.

When I was a 4-year-old, trotting off to school at 6.45 am, I hardly saw her, because I would already be in school by the time she came to Block B. Sometimes, on weekends, I did catch a glimpse of her from our balcony – rushing from one building to another, her hair tied up in a severe bun sideways, her sari hitched up to her knees, her voice loud and raspy as she spoke to people always from afar (answering to some resident’s question from a building she had just left or pissed off with a durwan’s stupid joke). From afar, she always sounded angry and intimidating, but the moment she came into view, you would see a wide grin spread across her face, making you feel she is genuinely happy to see you. I haven’t seen that grin wane from age 4 to my mid-40s.

There are times I have wondered whether I am lucky with her smile because I have seen her so little in all these years: after school, things didn’t change much in my college-university years as well, at least as far as Kajol was concerned. I went to my institution much later then, no doubt, but also woke up late, much after Ma had deposited our garbage bag to her. And then for 18 years, I was away, first living in a different home in another part of the city, and then in a different continent. I did visit my parents during those years, but never stayed much with them. Kajol was never on my mind in those rushed visits or short stays.

It’s different now, in the (almost) 3 years after my return. I see her everyday, because she comes in just when I am rushing out with Srishti to drop her to school and then on to work. She quickly gives me way, if we happen to bump into each other, swiftly pushing her buckets away and widening her grin a tad bit more for Srishti.

Srishti loves to see her work on the day she does the building “dhowa” – washing the wide landings on every floor with soapy water and then draining the water down, floor by floor. Though I want to save Srishti from the dirty water pouring down the rails, the effect is actually not very different from rain on dusty streets or our playground. The detergent used (no, it’s not Nimyl or Lizol or any of the fancy disinfectants that we use at home) fills the air with a faint smell; and the landings look and feel wonderfully fresh when the water glistens on them and clean after the water evaporates. Srishti actually likes the exact same thing as I did as a child!

The last such “dhowa” happened in mid-April – just before ‘Poila Baisakh’, the Bengali New Year. All our domestic help was on paid leave then, and continues to be so in the extended lockdown. Only Kajol can’t afford to have any.

We won’t survive a single day without her.