My Chhoto Dadu (grandpa) loves to play with words and quiz everyone around him. He is not my real grandpa, in fact he cannot be grandpa of anyone for he is a bachelor, but I and my husband Biren have been calling him as Chhoto Dadu ever since the time we knew him.
We lost touch for some years and then suddenly, one Saturday he landed up at our Noida Sector 50 apartment along with a friend by the name of Prafulla Sarkar. He had found out our whereabouts from some common friends and decided to surprise us by paying a visit to us. We were delighted to meet Chhoto Dadu after so many years. Chhoto Dadu had come all the way from Bhagalpur, Bihar, along with eight of his friends for Delhi Darshan. Four of his friends have gone to the homes of their relatives while Chhoto Dadu and four others have checked in to a guest house.
Biren, somewhat hurt, said, “How can you do this Chhoto Dadu? Are we not your relative? Please stay with us for few days.” After a lot of persuasion, Chhoto Dadu agreed to spend the whole day with us. We ordered Delux Thalis from Haldiram that included Pulao, Parantha, Dal and three more sabjis beside a Gulab Jamun as dessert. After a fulfilling lunch, the adda began in the living room. I decided to serve tea at 4 pm, yes only tea because Biren said, he will get freshly made Samosa and Jalebi from the corner sweet shop around 5 pm when it is freshly made and then we can have another round of tea or coffee.
On the dot of 4’O clock, the doorbell rang. “I think the maid, Suravi has come. I’ll ask her to make the tea” saying so I got up to open the door. On the other side of the door were Suravi and her daughter Keya. The mother-daughter duo silently entered and went to the kitchen. I followed them too. Suravi took off her new flowery saree placing it neatly on the side rack and wearing the kitchen apron she started the process of making tea. She was wearing a matching blouse and a new petticoat. Meanwhile, Keya had gone and checked the number of people in the living room for making tea and accordingly has set up the cup-n-saucer.
I asked Keya “You didn’t go to school today?”
“Yes, I had gone to school and we are coming from there only. The Boudi of C-Block had given Ma the evening off as she was to go to my school today.” I remembered, Suravi had mentioned in the morning that she will be going to Keya’s school as it was result day and the Principal had summoned all the parents. The New Dawn School in our sector 50 runs classes for the children of nearby JJ clusters in the evening after the regular school is over. Suravi had gone to the school all decked up to get her daughter’s half-yearly result. Last time, the class teacher had rebuked her for not able to sign her name on the result card. The guardians are supposed to sign on the result card. So, this time, Keya had taught her mother how to write her name, only her name.
“Did she sign her name?” I asked Keya.
Keya silently gestured that she didn’t sign. In fact she did not even enter the classroom, she sat outside the room and Keya’s cousin who is senior to her had signed as her guardian.
In the living room, the adda is in full flow. Chhoto Dadu is telling some funny anecdotes, Biren & Prafulla Sarkar is laughing out loudly. I explained the chores to Suravi and went to the living room to join the adda. A little later, Keya entered, with tea and biscuits nicely placed on the tray.
“Who is she?” asked Chhoto Dadu.
I introduced Keya and said, “She has done very well in half-yearly exams. Results came out today only.”
Chhoto Dadu addressed Keya, “Okay, let me test how good you are in maths? Question is Twenty Six soldiers are going through a street where twenty mangoes are lying, how many does each of them get?
I could see the poor girl is trying to divide 20 mangoes amongst 26 soldiers and feeling frustrated. Chhoto Dadu has a look of amusement in his eyes as are Biren & Prafulla Sarkar too. We all know the answer; it is the way of asking that is confusing to the candidate. It is actually Twenty Sikh(s) soldier going through the street where twenty mangoes are lying. So, each of them get one mango each.
Thereafter, Chhoto Dadu quizzed her English prowess and Keya passed with flying colours. I gave a few books to Keya, “You have done well in the exams, and these are your prizes.”
Then I asked her “Your mother did learnt to write her name, so what happened, why didn’t she meet the teacher?”
“She got nervous, said she wouldn’t be able to write her name in front of the teacher.” Keya replied.
“That means, your mother needs to practice more.” I said. Keya silently agreed and went back to the kitchen.
Now, Chhoto Dadu focused on me asked in Bengali, “Tell me what is Biral – toro – stambho?”
I was completely at loss, Biral in English is Cat, toro translates into Big or Bigger that means something bigger than a cat. The only thing that came to my mind was Tiger or Lion and Stambho means pillar, so this has to be Ashoka Pillar with Lion emblem, I concluded.
“Is it Ashoka Pillar?” I asked.
Both Biren & Prafulla Sarkar laughed out loudly. Chhoto Dadu with an amused expression explained “It is like in Sanskrit, Biral – Biraltoro – Biraltomo and just like that in English Cat – Cater … and Stambho is Pillar. So, if you join the words together, it will be Cater+Pillar= Caterpillar!”
I felt cheated but in a loving way. I don’t like caterpillar, the very sight of it makes me cringe. But, butterflies with their colourful appearances are wonderful.
Looking at my confused face Chhoto Dadu said, “The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is a very amazing phenomenon, isn’t it? Something similar happens with humans too. Who can predict if this little girl, Keya one day becomes Vice President in a big MNC or she can be an IAS officer too, say in next twenty years!”
What Chhoto Dadu said, made an impression on me, even I have seen such transformation in human beings, viz. Ramsewak. When Ramsewak came to our house, he was barely 11 or 12 years old, malnourished and weak. Normally, children of this age exude a kind of innocence but Ramsewak had none. The lady, who supplied us fresh buffalo milk, brought him to us one day for doing sundry odd jobs. Apparently, he came from her mother’s village where famine had stuck that year and many people had died due to hunger. The entire family of Ramsewak had perished and said she would be much obliged if we could accommodate him in our home.
Out of motherly emotion, my mother agreed to keep him for odd jobs. Although, Ramsewak was thin and weak in appearance, in reality he was a tough nut or nut case.
Within a week of his coming in to our house, Ramsewak got bitten by the street dog. There were about 5 or 6 dogs in our neighbourhood but he could not identify which one bit him. So, my father suggested that since it could not be ascertained if the dog is rabid, Ramsewak be given the full course of Rabies anti-dote. My uncle who had come on vacation from Indian Army took him to the hospital for treatment. A few months later, Ramsewak fell from the balcony of our neighbour Gursharan Singh and fractured his arm and leg. We, in all these years did not knew that one could easily jump in to their balcony from the rooftop of our kitchen. After this incident, Gursharan Singh erected a wall on his balcony to prevent trespass. My mother said “If he had done this earlier then Ramsewak wouldn’t have hurt himself.”
After school, I joined the college in Patna and became a hosteller. I would visit home only on special occasion like Durga Puja/ Dusserah, Diwali and other festival time. Every time there was a new story about Ramsewak, how he manages to destroy things that are otherwise indestructible. My mother would often say, “If only the fellow was smart enough, I would have sent him away. But this stupid fellow won’t last a day in the outside world.”
Five years have passed since Ramsewak came to our house and his antiques have become legendary, no one can dare send him to fetch sweets or other eatables from the market, half of it will go to his stomach even before reaching home. My uncle said that once when Ramsewak was sent get some Rosogolla, he had tasted each piece before putting it back in the container. I couldn’t believe this but at the same time did not wish send him to fetch the favourite sweet.
By this time, Ramsewak had started smoking but never in front of us and for this he also started stealing pennies from the money for daily shopping of grocery and veggies. Once he said that his maternal granny is unwell and he wants to visit her at Sasaram. We had no clue about his granny or any living relatives. Ramsewak said that his granny was not aware of his whereabouts all these years but have now come to know about him through some common acquaintances. He took 2 days leave and went to meet his granny. The two days became two months without any news of Ramsewak and then one day Dad got a postcard that said Ramsewak was in jail for ticketless train travel.
Biren & I and our two kids, were at Pathankot those days and even though I tried to meet my parents every year somehow two years had elapsed before I could visit them. I got to know of the above incident while visiting them. Mother informed that Ramsewak had gone to meet his granny and got stuck for two years and have come back now. She refused to divulge that he was in jail for two years for some serious crime instead of just ticketless train travel. May be keeping with the family tradition she did not want me to know the bitter truth, just like I was not told about my father’s incurable ailment. I was naïve enough not to notice the apparent ill health of my father. Unable to run his business, he had wind it up and stayed home only, meeting friends in the evenings. I thought, he had made enough money in all these years and now wanted to enjoy his retired life. Many changes have taken place in these two years; Ramsewak had become the chief concierge at our home. And this irritated me after knowing truth about him from the neighbours but my parents shrugged off all my protestations.
My husband, Biren left the govt service and decided move into private sector. First, we moved to Nigeria for three years and then to Australia for four years. My children were in boarding school and would visit us in Sydney during holidays. In all these years my contact with parents remained on phone calls only.
After spending many years in foreign soils, Biren found a job back in Bangalore, India. We settled down in a nice, peaceful locality and looked forward to visiting my parents during Durga Puja. I, alone flew down to Patna and from there took a three hour taxi journey to Arra.
On reaching my parental home, I was shocked to see the state of the house. The house crumbling down in the absence of proper maintenance, most of the rooms remain closed, unused. My father was bedridden completely and in his last few days. I spoke to Biren and decided to stay back to take care of Dad in his last days. The house that once was noisy with loads of people and merriment now stood like an ancient structure ready to submerge into mother earth, just waiting for one thunder strike.
As I had noticed, most rooms remained unused and closed. There was practically no activity in the house most of the time. My mother would spend most of her time at Dad’s bedside and would get up only prepare food for Dad and her. The third person in the house was Ramsewak who would come at fixed time like when mother would be in the kitchen, he would sit by father’s bed and read Hindi newspaper in a low voice. Once my mother would bring the food he would go away and come back in the evening. He also did errands for my parents, now and then but his main occupation was plying cycle-rickshaw.
Looking at my saddened face, Mom said, “You are mistaken, we didn’t needed money from you. Your father had the best treatment but you know when cancer strikes it will take the person along. Your father did not want to tell you all these years for you would have remained sad in the foreign soil.” May be she was right, my parents always wanted me to remain happy and guarded me against all unpleasant events and news. I wouldn’t have known the last days of my father if I had not come down for Durga Puja celebrations!!
On the ninth night my father passed away in his sleep. Ramsewak, who used to sleep on the veranda, called Dr. Verma, Dad’s physician and Mr. Shiupujan, Dad’s friend. They were the only regular visitors to my ailing father. Dad knew about his inevitable death and had made all arrangements for Mom after him. Once the last rites were performed, I wanted Mom to come over to Bangalore with me but she said that she would spend some time with her brother in Kanpur. My maternal uncle was a saintly bachelor, extremely learned person, spending his time, energy and ancestral money in social causes through his NGO.
Biren had come on hearing the sad news and his presence helped in sorting out things easily. Ramsewak spent most of his time at our house helping us with all sorts of odd errands. Biren was very impressed with his devotion to my parents and the work he had put in without being a paid employee of the family. When I told Biren about his past, he said, “Ramsewak has done the actual true duty of a son all these years. Your mother had given refuge to an orphan and he had paid back every penny to the family.” Earlier, if anybody referred Ramsewak as my mother’s son, I would feel angry, irritated but today I was flooded with an emotion of gratitude towards him.
We dropped my mother at my maternal uncle’s home in Kanpur and then went back to Bangalore. Before leaving Arra I asked Biren “Can’t we do something for Ramsewak.” Biren said, “I will try and get him an office job.” When suggested Ramsewak to come to Bangalore with us, he refused point blank and silently cried. I tried to give him some money but he refused that too. My mother cried too.
Three years later, my mother too passed away. After that we never visited Arra. The house was sold off and all my connection to that place ceased to exist completely. My mother kept up the correspondence with Ramsewak till she was alive. He used write to her in Hindi and she would ask someone to reply back in Hindi only.
Many years later, at a party I chanced upon Manisha, Dr. Verma’s daughter. She was visiting the city with her husband who had come on a project. After a few pleasantries she asked, “Have you heard about Ramsewak, poor fellow?”
“Why? What happened to him?” I asked with genuine concern in my voice.
I was shocked to hear what Manisha narrated.
Ramona Park in Arra is frequented by the morning walkers. Some time back, the daily walkers could feel a bad putrid stench coming from a section of the park that had become a sour point due to dumping of garbage despite the municipal corporation putting up a notice against garbage dumping. When the stench became unbearable, someone had informed the concerned department who cleared the mess. There was carcass of cow or bull that was the cause of the foul smell.
Ramsewak was not aware of such news. He was content in plying his rickshaw during the day and sleeping on the veranda of the Jain Mandir on Jail Road. The temple authorities did not mind his sleeping in their premises for he was like an unpaid guard of the temple at night.
Like any other day, he had picked up his passenger, Karim Miyan from the station to drop him at Milky Mohalla and then proceed to his night shelter. As they reached Ahiri Tola, he could see a small crowd has gathered and blocked the thorough fare. Ramsewak was irritated at this kind of hooliganism. He asked, “What happened? Why is the road blocked?”
A few people from the crowd came over to his rickshaw and asked Karim Miya to get off. Ramsewak protested at this and said “What are you doing? Leave him alone.” One of the guys told Ramsewak that they won’t harm him but they want Karim Miyan to come with them. They want him to pay for killing a cow, Karim Miyan doesn’t deserve to live another day! Ramsewak tried to save his passenger in vain and in the process got fatally injured and died in hospital after two days.
An enquiry committee was set up to probe the rioting incident. The investigation concluded that morning walkers had complained to the municipal authorities who had visited the spot and cleared the garbage and the carcass. The witnesses confirmed that some people had started the rumour of killing of a cow to start a riot and disrupt communal harmony in the city. However, their efforts did not work, the rioting was curbed immediately. Only two innocent lives were lost for no reason.
We had given our Bangalore address to Ramsewak asking him to communicate if he needed any help. Biren had asked him to come over to Bangalore where he would arrange a permanent job for him. But he never took advantage of our invitation. Perhaps, he had sensed something artificial, non-genuine in our invite. He did not want to take any help from us. His relation with my parents was beyond money and material, it was a relation of heart that remained unchallenged, unbroken…
I got this story in one of my WhatsApp group long ago but did not read it at that time. Recently my phone got hanged and I needed to clean up the memory and there I found this story. In view of the recent cultural or moral policing with regard to individual’s food and dressing habit to clamping down of slaughter houses and wine vends and pubs, I found this very relevant. I do not have any clue of the original Bengali author, so could not possibly take the permission for translation but hope she will understand and forgive me for this intellectual trespass….