By Savitri Narayanan
“There you are, Lakshmi! What happened? Why are you late?” asked Sonal answering the incoming call.
“What to do! Was about to step out when Charu mausi and Meenal maami walked in,” said Lakshmi. “See you tomorrow!”
For the past month or so, every evening they met up in the park. Both, Lakshmi and Sonal looked forward to their hour of catching up. This park bench under the Ashoka tree was their favourite spot. Missing Lakshmi’s company though, Sonal opened her bag, pulled out the knitting needles and continued with the muffler.
The children’s park was a good meeting place for the young and old alike. As the children played in the play area, their escorts hung around, making friends and exchanging news.
Sonal was there for a different reason. Recently retired from the sales tax office, she had moved in with her son and daughter-in-law who were put up in the nearby housing complex. With both of them glued to their computers and video calls, the family interactions were very functional and infrequent. There was an air of expected silence at home so Sonal all the more relished her evening time in the park.
The park was slowly coming to life. A few children were in the play area busy with the swings, slide and the see-saw. Their escorting mothers and grandmothers looked equally happy to meet up and exchange news. A couple of babies in their prams gazed at the sky as their maids chatted away.
At the far end were older children who devised their own games. Those who had rackets played badminton while a football attracted some. A few girls with skipping ropes demarcated their area. An enterprising boy pretended to be a dog and chased the others with his funny bark. There were minor tiffs but they found ways to resolve the issues and continued to play.
“Auntyji, I am thirsty,” a little boy in his black shirt and fancy cap approached her.
“Drink from your water bottle,” said Sonal affectionately.
“Auntiji, I didn’t bring mine,” he said pointing at a girl in a printed frock. “Look at Neenu! Her bottle is full but she’s not sharing!”
The little girl ignored him completely and looked the other way.
“Neenu, promise I’ll drink just one sip,” he pleaded.
The girl stood her ground and acted deaf. She offered no response to the thirsty boy’s pleas. They were losing precious playtime and the lull was turning unbearable.
“There’s a tap there,” one boy pointed in the direction of the Ashoka tree, “There’s water there beyond that bench! Go drink!”
“Of course not! You can’t drink that water!” said another boy.
“That’s not clean water!” agreed the others, “that’s only for watering the grass! Nobody drinks there!”
“You’ll get dysentery if you drink tap water; Mummyji always boils the water.”
“My Mummyji also boils water; every day!”
“Why didn’t you bring your water bottle?” asked one boy.
“I forgot,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone,” I am very thirsty now!”
Neenu did not relent. She looked away in dignified silence.
No solution emerged and they were eager to get back to play.
“You run home; drink water and come back!” said one boy.
Within seconds the group dispersed and headed back for their games. The ground turned noisy as they laughed, shouted and made fun of each other. The thirsty boy went away for a while and was soon back playing with his friends.
The sullen little girl in the printed frock didn’t join any game. She sat on the stone near the sandpit chewing her water-bottle’s strap, her eyes lost in thought.
Sonal put away her muffler and went near the sulking girl. She sat there defiantly, her eyes lowered, lips pursed, waiting to be reprimanded.
“Tell me beta, what’s the matter?” Sonal asked, “Why are you not playing?”
“They are angry with me,” she said tears about to roll down.
“Tell me the truth,” said Sonal, “why didn’t you share your water? Usually nobody ever denies water to a thirsty friend?”
“My mother said never to share the water-bottle with anyone,” she said, “that’s how the virus spreads!”
“Your mother is right and good of you to follow her advice,” said Sonal. “If everyone follows the protocol like your family, soon there will be no virus!”
“But they don’t like me; they don’t play with me,” she said on the verge of tears.
“That’s because they don’t know!” said Sonal, “It’s up to us to spread the word and stop the spread!”
When Sonal beckoned, the children came running, eager for any new task or activity. They also liked Sonal – the way she spoke kindly and was approachable.
“I know you are all upset with Neenu for not sharing the water,” said Sonal. “But what she did was right! Neenu has a reason – a real, genuine reason for not sharing water, can anyone make a guess?”
There was silence. What a question! What’s happening! First Neenu, now Sonal aunty, too! They exchanged amused looks.
Sonal continued, “Neenu, in a way you opened my eyes! Thank you for sharing what you learnt from your mother; will you please share with your friends, too?”
Neenu felt very important as she recounted how the virus spreads through touch and how easy it was to stop the spread if one is disciplined.
“Be aware and responsible like Neenu, carry your own water bottle.” Sonal concluded, “It is the duty of each one of us to stop the spread.”
Neenu glowed in the newfound respect in her friends’ eyes.