There are cosmos, daisies, hibiscus and several varieties of roses in my 80 sq ft garden but the red roses are everyone’s favourite. Beside the garden, in a niche of the front yard, I do my suryanamaskaras every morning.
One usual morning after my suryanamaskaras, I noticed a fair thin pretty girl looking through the gate. I noticed that she was liked the garden. I went and opened the gate. She smiled and said, “I love the red roses.” She told me that her parents are construction workers and that they are working at new construction site at the rear end of the long road. Her name was Santu.
I invited Santu into the house but she refused to come in. She said she hadn’t informed her mother and promised that she’d come back later.
That afternoon, I saw her again at the gate staring at the red roses. She came in and said. “Amma (addressing me, ‘mother’, respectfully), I told my amma that I’ll play here.” I smiled and went into the house and brought some fruit and sweets for her. She hesitated to accept them and I insisted that she must take them if she wanted to play in the garden.
Santu would come every day to play in the garden. She would stay until evening and help me water the plants. Sometimes, Santu’s mom would come and share about her village, near Wardha, a district of Maharashtra. She would speak about her work contract, her siblings, and her deceased parents.
Santu’s mother said, “If my mother were alive, I would have left Santu with her and come. My in-laws refused to look after her becuase she’s a girl child. Anyways, for the next contract, only my husband will go out (out of their state). I will stay back in the village because Santu will go to school. We want to educate her. She is our only child.” Santu’s mother told the story of how they were childless for five years and her mother-in-law wanted her husband to marry again. She said dramatically and proudly, “My husband said to my mother-in-law firmly, ‘You are Lord Rama’s devotee, how can you ask me, your son, to marry another lady while his wife is alive? Even if your Lord Rama marries another woman, I shall not!”
The couple then offered prayers to Santoshi Mata (Goddess of Happiness). They made a vow and undertook ‘deeksha’ (performing ritualistic prayers including a rigorous fast) for forty days and then they were blessed with Santu – Santu was named after the Goddess, her full name was Santoshi (Happiness).
It inspired and surprised me to see how gently Santu touched the plants. Every day, I would look forward to her visit. One day she didn’t turn up and I decided to go to the site where her parents worked to check if everything was alright.
Just when I stepped out, I saw Santu in bright clothes walking down the street along with her mother. Santu’s mom said, “Today is her birthday amma, sixth birthday…I’m going to buy some toffees… Santu wants to distribute them to you, her uncles and friends.”
I smiled and asked her to come in and pick a red rose of her choice. Santu refused; she said she didn’t like plucking flowers. My heart filled with admiration for the little girl.
Santu’s mother said, “Santu doesn’t want a new dress this time amma, she wants a potted red rose plant just like yours, for her birthday. She’s been asking so many times, amma, but where will I get a potted red rose plant now?” Santu hid herself in the long pallu(robe) of her mother’s sari with embarrassment. Santu’s mother continued “Even if I buy it, where will she keep it? The place we work is full of cement and even one drop of water with dissolved cement will kill the plant.”
Santu said softly but firmly, “I’ll protect it from cement.” Santu’s mom said, “Have you heard her amma? She’ll protect it and grow it.. do you think it is possible? Anyways, there is no nursery nearby to get a red rose plant for her…”
I couldn’t bear the disappointed look on Santu’s face. That evening, Santu got her birthday gift – a potted red rose plant with two red rosebuds. Santu smiled and thanked me. Her bright eyes said everything. She held the heavy pot to her bosom and insisted that she’d carry it herself to the back of her makeshift house.
I looked at the surroundings and thought the plant would not survive there for long. I was worried that Santu might be upset when the plant dies. I wondered if I should ask her to keep her pot in my house but then, she had already made room for it.
When I added rosemix to my plants, Santu would pack some and take it for her potted red rose plant. Surprisingly, Santu’s red rose plant flourished and blossomed in bunches in the construction site. Santu did protect it. It was a pleasure to see her little hands water it, move it to different places to protect it from the cement constantly falling from the building. She didn’t allow even a pinch of cement to contaminate the soil in the pot.
One morning we woke up with the news of nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid -19 virus. I rushed to the stores to get things for home and prepare for the lockdown. Santu hadn’t come to play for the past two days.
I wanted to check if Santu and her family needed any help during the lockdown. On my way to the construction site, I saw Santu’s broken pot and the plant with a bunch of red roses on the street. I picked up the plant. I was puzzled. Something made me feel sick with worry.
I went to the site to see that all the temporary houses were vacated. There was no one there except the chief mason who was shouting angrily, “Those idiots won’t listen, let them get lost!” I asked the mason when they had left. He said, “Just now.”
I rushed home and asked my husband to take me to the main street to look for Santu and her family. My husband asked me what I was going to do about it… I said that I just wanted to meet Santu…once.
We found thirty migrant workers walking along the road to the railway station. We stopped our car next to them. I got off and looked for Santu. She came out from the crowd towards me. Her angelic face was sad and her cheeks were stained with tears. She saw me and burst out crying. “The red roses pot was too heavy to carry, I wanted to hand it over to you, but my angry uncle threw it on the road. The pot is broken and the plant will die”, heartbroken Santu said, between sobs. I hugged her and said that I picked up the plant from the street and promised her that I will never let it die. She asked me, “You found it, didn’t you?” I said, “Yes.”
My husband gave them some money and I looked helplessly at them walking towards the deserted railway station.
Now, every time I see the red roses, I will remember beautiful Santu, her love for red roses, her tender hands nurturing the plants, the care with which she grew the red roses in the most unfavourable conditions, protecting them from the poisonous cement.
And every time I see the red roses, I will remember how little Santu must have walked hundreds of miles to her village in the harsh weather with no footwear, no proper food and water.
And every time I see the red roses, I will remember how miserably, we as a community and a nation failed to protect our migrant workers from the calamity of lockdown and how we allowed the hardworking innocent men, women and their little children to suffer and break down.