Dhanashree from Diva: a caregiver who brought home to me the meaning of 'resilience'

...beyond the clichés thrust upon the city of Bombay when it has endured a crisis

Dhanashree from Diva: a caregiver who brought home to me the meaning of 'resilience'

Sampurna Chattarji

Up until 2019, Diva was just a name to me. That was the year the Barvi dam overflowed, synchronously with heavy rains. In Diva, thousands were evacuated. Images of boats, gunnysacks, islanded huts and trees, orange vests, ropes that may have been lifelines or livewires, sparking with potential death. Of all these images, one had the most tenacious hold on me—an entire apartment block—eerie with stagnant water, entirely empty of residents, one of whom, I now realise, may well have been Dhanashree.

Dhanashree came to us all the way from Diva. A day-carer sent to my parent’s tiny 1BHK to help my mother look after my father, who had just been released from a horrific contactless time in a Covid ward. Dhanashree did more than her job demanded—she infused a hospital-stricken home with herself. When she left at 8, never failing to wish us ‘good night’, handing over her charge to the night person with an almost stern ‘dhyaan rakhna’—from then till the moment she rang the bell next morning dot at 8, my mother and I missed her and looked forward to her radiance.

Thinking back to that hard time, when the Covidian-Parkinsonian double-bind had visibly squeezed all normalcy out of my octogenarian father’s life and wrenched joy out of all our hearts, I wondered where Dhanashree’s buoyancy came from. What were her secret reservoirs of strength? What could I learn about her, and from her? I wanted to chronicle everything—from her mannerisms to her cats— as if that might provide clues to such unthinkable resilience. I wanted to turn reality into fiction—the only place of refuge I knew.

Dhanashree’s cats were her jaan. Jenneri, Chichi and Mao. She said so herself, despite the three daughters and one son whose dance video she did not fail to show her new geriatric, the one she’d been caring for since March. He was a Good Geriatric, and that was why she stayed, even though it meant travelling every day all the way from Diva to Bombay. Even during Covid ward duty she hadn’t bathed the men. That was the ward boy’s job. But this man, he was almost a child, wrinkled, and shrinking daily. She bathed him, cooked pao-bhaji which he loved, and chatted to GG’s wife, a Little Lady so bright and beautiful she reminded her of Chichi, the same sparkly eyes, and delicate way of folding herself into the corner of a sofa.

Chichi was her favourite. The day she vanished Dhanashree’s worry was contagious. GG and LL worried with her, and heaved a sigh of relief when Dhanashree bounded in next morning with a smile as radiant as her yellow silk sari, saying “We found her!” Dhanashree made puranpoli in celebration of Chichi’s return. In the evening, which was the fallow time, she crocheted. Green and yellow torans which she grew out of green and yellow threads like a magic plant. To put on the door, like so, she explained to LL, it’s auspicious.

That’s right, I thought. What she brought was not only the efficient ministrations of her capable hands that could whisk away undersheets like conjurer’s new person in what seemed like a matter of minutes, without any shortcuts, or ‘phaankibaji’. She brought a festival of doing and being well. How could I link that robust, gregarious personhood with the precarious stories of her neighbourhood?

In January 2020, there was a massive demolition of tenements in Diva. The previous year’s flood had, it seemed, revealed the massive illegality of those homes, built on mangrove land in 2007- 2008. Already ravaged by water (the natural reveng of the city) the inhabitants of Diva, who had bought their homes from developers in cahoots with local land sharks, believing themselves to be legal homeowners, found themselves stranded, a second time. For almost a decade, they had bought into the ultimate Bombay dream—a home of one’s own.

In times of life and death, there’s nothing abstract or metaphorical about knowing what matters. Caregiver was just a term till I saw the thousand little ways in which she eased the daily attritions of caregiving. Diva was just a name, till Dhanashree filled it with family.

Starved as we were of the outside world, Dhanashree’s photos and videos were sensorial sustenance. Travelling to DMart to buy clothes. Going home to Ratnagiri for pujas. The routine of readying herself for Covid duty. Layer upon layer of PPE. It took ten minutes to gear up, she said, and longer to disrobe. We would boil inside our kits, and we couldn’t even drink water. My husband said: Stay there, in the dorm the hospital had arranged. Easier.

Was it scary, I asked, trembling from the ineradicable memory of my father being wheeled into the Covid ward. Yes, Dhanashree said, it was, in the beginning. The first time someone died, I fainted. A ward boy brought me water, the nurses gave me glucose. Then I got used to it. We had no choice. The money was good. I saved up.

Dhanashree saved more than money. She rescued a plant from dying. She nabbed the empty Vitamin C tube en route to the bin and said, I’ll keep my crochet needles in it, easy to carry on the train. And yes, she saved my elderly parents and me from despair—simply by reminding us that there were other ways to survive— with ebullience, and empathy, and smarts.

She had the smarts of knowing when to act—overruling my mother’s hesitations and calling me out of an online meeting in an emergency. That night, as she spooned soup with a Dolo mixed in so fine Baba could swallow tiny spoonfuls with no fear of choking, I saw tears in her eyes when she left. She and the others—Sadhana, Sangeeta, Praneeta, Tejaswini—cared for my Aai-Baba, as if they were their own. I shall never forget what I owe them, this band of secular sisters.

When they materialised in our home, they pulled entire ecosystems out of the news into our lives. Their villages came to us, along with the practical, robust, routine support systems that Bombay unthinkingly relies on. They helped not just by doing their jobs, but by lending us their tender, funny, familial strengths. They were a floating population—coming and going in surges dictated by currents invisible to us. We mourned their leaving, we even raged at times. Praneeta returned to nursing, Tejaswani got a job as a receptionist, Sangeeta went back to vegetable vending. And Dhanashree? She packed up her sleep mat, her crochet kit and vanished where she had come from.

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