“WAJAHAT Saeb, Eid chhe, kharcha gotcs (Its Eid. I need something)”, Manzoor or Manne Kaak, as I would fondly call him, would quietly ask me. “Manne Kaak, Peya tratt, Kaami tsoor chuk (Manzoor, damn you, you’re a shirker)”, I would humorously and jovially tell him. In a stentorian tone of voice, my Manne Kaak, would equally jovially then laugh with me.
Manzoor or manne Kaaak, was not a moonlighter in the conventional sense: he had no regular job. He sometimes worked as a school bus conductor, sometimes as a day labourer, supplementing his meagre income by stitching shawls and so on. In the harsh Kashmiri winters, we (my family) would engage him to look after our house. Manne Kaak’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago. The cancer worsened after he, instead of proper medical treatment, sent his wife to a local pir for what he believed would be better treatment. The entire burden of looking after the family, which includes a young school going daughter — cooking , washing, shopping and earning, fell on Manne kaak.
A handsome man with sharp and elegant features, Manne Kaak started growing weak and haggard as the burden of life and poverty fell on him. A back surgery that was performed on him due to disc issues left him incapable of doing daily wage labor. The sources of income were dwindling and life’s troubles were piling up. But Manne Kaak soldiered on, battling the odds and hand dealt to him, bravely. He would never seek charity nor would he crib and complain over his condition.
“Wajahat saeb, why don’t you establish a business? I would be the first person to work for you”, Manne Kaak would say to me. “Here business people are ruthless. They don’t care for us poor people”, he would add. ”I will help you, Manne kaak”,’ I would reassure him. The prompt response from him would be an emphatic no. “No, No, Wajahat Saeb. I will not accept anything unless it is for work”
As time wore on, Manne Kaak grew weaker still. To assuage his dignity, I would send him on errands, slip a note in his pheran or kurta after he would return. Manne Kaak would loudly protest and a battle of words and wit would ensue which I would win. “Wajahat saeb, yi haz gov galat. Be chuss tuhunz kaem karaan kyazi ki tse chuk mye tott. (This is wrong. I run errands for you because I love you; not for money)”, Manne kaak would protest.
Manne Kaak must have been in his mid or late forties but looked a sixty-something. Life's troubles were draining him. Looking after his sick wife and raising his daughter under great adversity added to his troubles. But society looked on. Manne Kaak bravely and courageously fought his battles alone till the day he lost his battle with life. Manne Kaak was broken within and without but he never showed it.
On the crisp 14th June morning, I was woken up by the shrill and incessant ringing of my mobile phone. A harried, sobbing woman broke the sad and tragic news to me, “Manne Kaak passed away during the night”. Numb with shock, I asked, ”How?”. The answer was all too familiar for our times, “He complained of breathlessness, oxygen levels dipped and he died”. I disconnected the call, and tried to make sense of Manne Kaak leaving us so early. Tears welled up in my eyes. “Manne Kaak, I let you down. Society let you down. Sorry, Manne Kaak. Please forgive me”, is all I could think.
I suspect that Manne Kaak died of Covid that must not have been diagnosed at the right time. But, it could be something else. Did Manne Kaak really die of Covid? Was it trials and tribulations that killed him? Or did the bottled up stress that he as a proud man of dignity hid, took his life? Did stress, mostly financial and largely emotional, diminish his executive functions and thereby worsened his chances at life?
I wonder to myself, who would take care of his ailing wife and young daughter after the mourning period is over?
These are questions that I ask myself and pose to broader society: do we not owe an obligation and duty of care to our weak and vulnerable? Are they not equally human as us?
I know the answers but beyond some very sparse help to Manne Kaak, neither I nor society could do anything for him.
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