3 June 2020 – The electricity of the building was gone immediately after the storm hit Kolkata on 20th May. The balcony that serves as the entrance to their third floor apartment in Salt Lake (bang opposite City Centre I) got flooded in no time, overflowing into the drawing room and her father’s bedroom adjacent to it. It couldn’t flow down to her bedroom and the kitchen at the back… but she had no time to feel thankful about it. Her father’s room had to be cleared right away at any cost, for he wouldn’t sleep in any other; and she couldn’t allow an 80-year-old man suffering from leukemia to sleep in a room with rising water. She had to think fast. She first threw in as many heavy bedcovers as she could on the floors, to soak in as much water as was possible by the available fabric. She then got down to the task of clearing out the water with a long-handle mop – a difficult task as the wind blew hard and there was no light. She had two cellphones, but the torch of one was not working. She asked her 8-year-old daughter to hold the other phone-torch above her head, and told her father to stay the door with his hand so that the wind couldn’t blow it shut as she kept pushing the water into the drain with all her might. This continued for a few hours; when she finished, it was past midnight. Her father got to sleep in his bed, after all.
For Runa, her father has always come first – before herself, her husband Sudhir, even her daughter Anaya. That’s why she left what was in every sense a “good life” – a successful career, a happy family, an active social life – in Riyadh, to come and look after her father in Kolkata. The year was 2016. What followed have been 4 very long years… and they seem to stretch away indefinitely….
This unusual choice was made by an educated, responsible daughter, out of an overwhelming sense of duty. Crucially, it was actually suggested by Sudhir, who continues to be supportive of Runa – though it has meant missing out on family life himself (except for holidays), missing out on seeing his daughter grow, and living alone in a foreign land.
Sudhir suggested what he did because it seemed to him the only solution at the time. In 2016, Runa’s widowed father was diagnosed with leukemia. He had been living alone since 2012, but it was not possible to leave him like that anymore. He needed an in-house care-giver, and Runa took it upon herself to be the one. Her younger sister, Ruchira, who had left for the US in 2007, was pursuing a Ph.D there. Runa couldn’t disrupt that, so she disrupted her own life. This was however not the first time that she prioritized her father. In 2010, when her mother died, she had come and lived with him for a year. Anaya was born in January 2012, and Runa got to live with her husband and child in Riyadh for the next 4 years – her “bonus years”, as she terms it. 2016 changed that scenario completely – she came to Kolkata and never returned.
The first casualty of that decision was her career – a flourishing banking career, spanning three cities and two countries. Runa had started working quite young in the late 90’s after her graduation from Jyoti Nivas College (JNC) in Bangalore (her schooling had been in Kolkata, in La Martiniere) – first in Bank of America, then in ABN-AMRO in Pune (which is where she met Sudhir, then working for Citibank, at a bankers’ meet), followed by a short stint in Standard Chartered in Kolkata, and finally HSBC Insurance in Riyadh (after marrying Sudhir and moving with him to Saudi Arabia in 2006).
Sudhir is a Mangalorian Christian, Runa a Bengali Hindu. This could have been a potential problem, but was not. Starting a new life together in another country also went well for them – as both continued with their careers unabated and built a social life they enjoyed. Only, it couldn’t last….
In one fell sweep, her father’s disease changed everything for Runa. It changed everything for Anaya, too. She missed her dad, their home, their life in Riyadh. She didn’t like staying in Salt Lake, in an old house with an old man who couldn’t engage with her. And she was furious that she couldn’t live with her dad because her mom’s father was not well. Runa’s father lives in the same building as his brothers, each with a separate flat. While Runa has a good equation with her cousins, the dilapidated building requiring heavy maintenance is a frequent headache for her. For Anaya, having no playmates her age in the building is a major deterrent. Runa’s maternal home at Gurusaday – a spacious, cheerful place – is more amenable to both mother and daughter. No one stays in that house any more, Runa’s grandparents having passed away and her uncle settled in the US. Runa and Anaya are used to spending the weekends there (Saturday morning to Sunday evening), but the lockdown has put an end to that, too. It has also squashed their summer holiday – the longest time that they spend together in the year.
The last four years has been incredibly tough for Runa: she is not only playing out the role of a dutiful daughter, but also, in effect, having to live the life of a single mom. Anaya’s school routine – everything from pick up and drop to homework and extra-curricula’s – is solely her responsibility, which in itself can be pretty exhausting. Her father’s long servicing, live-in, male domestic help is helpful, no doubt, but his overall function, in terms of Runa’s life, is restricted. There is just too much that only she can do; only she will have to do.
This year has been particularly cruel for her: her father’s relapse earlier in the year has meant frequent hospital visits for chemotherapy. This came at a time when she was just thinking of taking up a job, at least something part-time (a resuming of the career she once had not being possible), especially since Anaya’s school-time will increase from Grade III. But this modest plan, too, has to be shelved now. The chemotherapy is stalled at the moment due to the lockdown, but it will be resumed at the earliest possible opportunity.
As the walls close in on Runa from all sides – locked down in Salt Lake with no opportunity to escape to Riyadh on holidays, or seek weekly respite in Gurusaday in the city, or even think of a possible partial engagement during the day outside of home in the near future – there is one remarkable transformation that has happened in Corona times: Anaya has woken up to a new understanding of her mother’s predicament and is eager to ‘help’ her these days. This is how children grow up – beyond height, weight, and body mass!
(P.S. – This is part of a much longer post. A part of ‘Single Mothers’ Inc.’. To be continued….)