It was her last day in the office.
For her, work was singing and dancing with children, pleading with men in their sober moments to send their children to school and convincing women that they were not challenging their husbands if they worked to earn a second income or went to school with their children.
Her work was persuading the swaying man on top of the building he was helping build, to climb down. She understood his ego was hurt when his child was beginning to read and write, while he, the master of the house, remained illiterate. She told him his family would die without him. She made his child and wife yell from eight floors down that they would never disobey him. She apologized for not seeking his permission before enrolling his child at the little school on the construction site. He let them help him down.
Early next morning, before he left his 10X10 tin shed for work, she was there forcing him to look her in the eye. The low of shame had replaced the high of the drink. She made no accusations; offered no apology. Her hands around his son sitting on her lap, she asked the father to choose. The boy could grow up to carry bricks and cement bags or study and hope to escape. And even support his parents one day, she added softly. The father broke down; she did not. At least not until the mother hugged her and thanked her through her tears and the boy looked up at them both in confusion.
Then she rushed back to her own house, to prepare lunch for her own son to carry to school.
Getting them to give
Her work was in standing up to her own colleagues so that a hundred workers could live in a decent shelter and the women did not have to trek beyond the hill for the sake of dignity. She boldly inspected filthy toilets, where even men no longer went. She stood guard near a water tank until someone covered it with a tin sheet, so that no little child could fall in and drown.
Her work was to stand aside and clap as those who did what they had to only because she made them, walked away with shining corporate awards for “serving beyond their duty”.
Her work was in discovering the glow beneath layers of grime and snot. Then she sang, danced and played with them to fan that flame to chase away shadows lurking around their lives.
Her scooter took her all over the city as she looked for schools and hostels for the children to stay safely in and study, regardless of where their parents worked. She pulled all the strings she could so that those children, her children, could stay tied to a more secure future. Day and night she fretted, pleaded and threatened as little children escaped, back to the familiar, the not-so-demanding insecurity of home.
The grateful ungrateful
She wasted more fuel and time to gather experts and their films to talk to workers, “uncivilised and ungrateful” as their employers described them, about addiction, personal hygiene, health and HIV.
The supervisors growled at her for taking their workers away when they had concrete to pour and bars to bend. They did not understand her thrill when a worker shyly confessed to her that he had given up tobacco.
As she gathered the last of her things that belonged to her and not the office, the phone rang. It was the mother of the girl, who had topped the class in studies and sports. Other mothers were eager to send their children to school, but could she come and help them with the admissions?
As gently as she could, she replied that someone else from the office would definitely help.
After a minute of silence, the question came, “Are you leaving, madam?” The reply was a sob. “Don’t leave us madam, we will find you another job. We need you.”
Yes, she would need another job for her family to survive. However, as long as she cared, as long as they needed her, she would always have work.
After this was posted exactly four years ago, she did take up one job after another. Not all of them matched her idea of her true work. Last I met her was at an astronomy event, excitedly looking through the telescope and asking if she could just reach out and grab Saturn and preserve it in a bottle. Her health has not been keeping up with her enthusiasm but she continues to reach out, to help and to learn.