My wife was fretting and fuming. It was already 10 in the morning and Shilpi, our maid, had not turned up. The household chores were held up. “Let her come. I’ll teach her a lesson this time,” she fumed. Her patience ran out soon and she packed me off to fetch Shilpi from her house.
Shilpi’s ‘house’ turned out to be a small jhuggi on a bed-sized mud platform. Last evening, just before the rains, some men with a bulldozer had razed all the jhuggies in the vicinity. A couple of blue plastic sheets hung precariously as a roof, a handful of cooking utensils and a few plastic containers were lying scattered outside. A deity’s picture was placed carefully on a dented steel box.
Shilpi, with a small child in her lap, was struggling to light a fire with some dry twigs to cook food for her young children, who had missed their meal last night. They had spent a sleepless night in the open while it rained. The children were crying with hunger. The family sat around helplessly trying to pick up the fragments of their threadbare existence. Were they doomed to lead this life of uncertainty and despair forever? She narrated her tale in tears. I stood there for a while, speechless, looking at the mess.
As I was driving back, a chain of thoughts started lashing my mind. Once upon a time, I too had built a house on land that was completely illegal. Suppose I were living in it? Suppose the authorities had bulldozed my house too and thrown away my belongings on the roadside? What was Shilpi’s crime, and how was it bigger than mine? Why was she punished and I spared?
Oh yes, there was a big difference after all. The shrewd coloniser had assured us, “Don’t worry sir, this land may be illegal but many politicians, senior bureaucrats and advocates have constructed their houses here! Nobody would dare touch you here.” He was right. No one had.
When I reached home, my wife’s anger too had subsided. She was reading HT City’s Take 5 on Shilpa Shetty’s favourite dishes. They included exotic cuisines like chicken schezwan, fish mayonnaise, baked corn, chocolate pudding and so on. As my wife read out the mouth-watering recipes to me with a relish, I wondered if Shilpi had been able to light the fire and provide one square meal to her family.