| Latika De, with infant in arms, at the Swiss Park construction site that is now her home. Picture by Amit Datta
A widow, living in a south Calcutta slum, has been thrown out of her rented home for refusing to strike a deal with her landlady — when she was pregnant — to sell the yet-unborn baby to her for Rs 500.
Forty-year-old Latika De now spends her nights at a Swiss Park under-construction building, where she works during the day, with her daughter, who is now all of six weeks old.
With no shield against the March weather (her “floor” is yet to find walls) and at the mercy of the contractor for the Rs-70 daily wage (which she did not receive on Sunday), De confesses that there have been moments when she regrets not having taken the easy way out.
From landlady Malati Ray’s unsuccessful attempt to strike a deal to the betrayal of a neighbourhood rickshaw-puller, who refused to marry her after making her pregnant, the past few months have been “extremely tough”, she admits.
Now, however, she has been able to steel herself somewhat. A member of the State Women’s Commission, Bharati Mutsuddi, heard of De’s sordid saga from her own domestic help and the commission is now trying to find her a “proper accommodation”.
Her travails began with the death of her husband a couple of years ago, says De. Amal was a bus conductor and they had five children. Her own income — odd jobs, sometimes as a domestic help — supplemented her husband’s and life was “sometimes happy”.
The eldest of her daughters (Gauri) got married before her husband’s death, leaving De to look after four children. Buddhu (the youngest) is now five, Sushama is a year older, Mahua is 10 and Mouri is now 15.
Then began the relationship with Babu the rickshaw-puller. When her pregnancy began to show, her landlady “approached” her. “She told me to promise her the child I was carrying and wanted to strike a deal with Rs 500,” De recounts. But she refused. That was when Babu was still around and De was dreaming of setting up home with him.
“I told my landlady that I was not really pregnant,” she says, narrating her “stupidity”.
Ray corroborates this: “She explained that the swollen tummy was because of accumulation of water.”
She also admits promising to pay Rs 500 for the baby. “My friends, a childless couple, needed the baby,” she explains.
It was after the failed deal that Babu showed his stripes. A few days after De turned down her landlady’s proposal, he told her that he was “committed” to the family he already had. “I was devastated,” says De.
The child was born in end-February. And then, her landlady struck. Ray ordered De out, explaining that “a widow with an infant” would bring disrepute to the locality.
But she was “kind enough” to let De’s four children stay back, for the monthly rent of Rs 50. De then took up work at the Swiss Park project.
“It, at least, shelters me from an open sky,” she says, pinning hopes on the commission’s intervention.