Wearing her trademark Colgate smile, Sarita placed the bundle of ironed clothes inside my car and handed me the hangers with smartly folded dupattas and crisply ironed saris. "My face is sunburnt through long hours of working in the sun, didi, please get me a sunkreen (sunscreen) of your choice." My new driver looked on in amazement at the informal banter outside Sarita's shack. My former driver was used to it. He knew that Sarita shared her children's report card highlights and her family's medical bulletins with me.
My family teases me mercilessly at the liberties they thought Sarita takes with me. She could be moody on occasion and admittedly burned holes in our clothes more than a few times. My folks joke that I am Sarita's 'highly qualified assistant', for I get involved in her children's school admissions and try to help out when she requests me to speak to doctors for what she calls, "acche se dekhne ke liye" an extra five minutes with the doctor after the serpentine queues in the OPD of our busy public hospitals.
Her husband had been an on-and-off alcoholic and we succeeded in getting him registered at the free deaddiction clinic. A stern Dr Bali put the fear of God into him. Now Ramprasad reports to Dr Bali every two months with 'clean' blood reports and to Bajrang Bali (the calendar-art Hanuman on the wall above his coal-press) every day before he opens shop. The episodes of alcohol abuse have stopped and so has domestic violence. Sarita claims that my two-minute stopovers every third day have had a positive impact on her husband, for he looks upon her with greater respect.
Last week, at bundle drop-off time, her college-going son Ronaq and daughter Riya brought some books to me. Sarita asked me to explain how Riya could manage good grades under the CBSE's new CCE system (Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation). I got Riya to understand a few must-dos and to work closely with her teachers. Government schools in Chandigarh are among the best in the country and the top six among them are the kind you and I would happily send our kids to if we were not brand-conscious, to put it bluntly.
Helping underprivileged families get the benefit of ongoing government schemes brings great satisfaction. What little I have been able to do for Sarita brought some comfort and security into her life but also added meaning to mine. As I settled the week's accounts, Riya brought me a glass of Rooh Afza with a twist of lemon in it. "She watches all the cookery shows on TV, didi", says Sarita with a laugh. On a hot summer evening when the air stands still and birdsong is a rarity, the familiar ruby-red liquid calmed my mind. I noticed that my driver also drank deeply out of the glass Ronaq offered to him.
I must make sure I do not forget Sarita's 'sunkreen'.
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