Thursday, 10 June 2010
The company I kept
When we were children, parents had little time for their offspring. Except on Sundays, I saw little of my father, and my ma was always busy. I grew up in the company of domestic helps, much like Rabindranath Tagore, although unlike Tagore's family, ours was enormously middleclass. A friend, Dilip Paul later summed up the scenario neatly when he said, “We grew up like weeds.”
My first mentor was Motilal-da. A tall bony man in his fifties sporting a toothless smile, he walked with a slight stoop. He was always in a clean white half-sleeve kurta and dhoti, but was a colourful man otherwise. A vegetable vendor in the morning, he was father’s handyman for the rest of the day. He read, wrote in a neat hand, bought our provisions, maintained accounts, and fudged them. He lived in a tiny one-room hut alone, but often talked about his other house in the village, which incidentally was a mansion. He also spoke about the fish that were aplenty in his pond, his fields of golden wheat and the glorious cows that produced tanks of milk. Besides, he was in intimate terms with some leading film stars.
With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think he lied. Rather, he lived in two worlds. And who can say that the world that can be touched and seen is the only real world? Motilal-da enlightened me on many things, from Yuri Gagarin’s visit to the space to how people lived in villages to how biscuits are made.
Once I called him a son of a pig, which is a popular abuse in Bangla. Motilal-da left our house, never to come back. Under interrogation, I admitted what I had done and got the thrashing I deserved. Father went to Motilal-da’s house, apologised, and brought him back.
A carpenter, whose name was possibly Sukumar, was a regular visitor to our house. Father was fond of tinkering with whatever little furniture we had, and Sundays would come alive on our terrace with the sound of sawing and hammering. What had been a cot before turned into a partition one day courtesy Sukumar-da. A few months later, the same thing might be reborn as a bookshelf. In the hugely wasteful world of today, children are taught in school the three new R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Fifty years ago, they were axiomatic ways of life.
Sukumar-da was hard of hearing. While he worked, from time to time, he would imagine someone was calling him and would shout back, ‘Eije! Aami jachchi.”
While Sukumar-da worked, I watched with fascination sweat dripping from his brow and the deep concentration on his face. He became the work he was doing. Much later, one evening, while I was seeing Ali Akbar Khan play the sarod, Sukumar-da's image flashed through my mind.
At times, I would volunteer to help by holding a piece of wood he was working on. Overtime, Sukumar-da took me as an apprentice and would allow me to first scrape things with sandpaper and later to use the plane to smoothen a surface, and so on. Later, when I had to learn carpentry in high school, I found the work easy.
But more than learning how to use a chisel and saw, seeing him, I began to respect manual labour. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), an African American leader said: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Americans learnt the lesson long ago. During my visits to that country, I felt four things separate them from us: honesty in everyday transactions, hard work, discipline, and respect for manual labour. There, the people who work with their hands are not considered intrinsically inferior to those who work with their head. The plumber who cleans the gutter of your house speaks with no less assurance than the architect who designs your building. It is perfectly normal for an American woman college teacher to marry a bus driver.
In our country, Gandhi tried to spread the same message through his life, but failed. Even today, we hear “educated” Indians with swollen heads calling IT workers “cyber coolies”. There is little doubt that our intelligentsia’s aversion to and disdain for physical work – a throwback to our caste ridden social order – keeps pulling us backwards.
Rajen-da was my first nurse, Sudha-di’s husband. He had been a signwriter in baba’s firm once upon a time. When he became old and frail, he did odd jobs – like mentoring me – at our house. The childless couple lived near our house in a ten by eight feet room with a solitary window looking out into a crowded road where girls played hopscotch and women collected water from a standpipe. One of the four walls in their room was hidden behind a neat pile of Betar-jagat, the fortnightly periodical published by the All India Radio giving schedules of their programmes and a few short articles. Rajen-da’s only earthly possessions were those periodicals and a radio, of which he was an avid listener.
In our house, Ranjen-da had little work and used to read most of the time. He would read aloud poems of Rabindranath. When he came across an unknown word, he would say there was a misprint and replace Tagore’s writing with a word that he knew. Rajen-da was fond of speaking English. Elders often had a hearty laugh – behind his back of course – at his many malapropisms. But my English being more or less at the same level as his, I didn't see what was so funny about them.
Once, when I was slightly bigger, I hurt my leg while playing football. The last three toes of my right leg got bent and I couldn’t wear shoes. The injury was not considered serious enough to be reported to parents. Rajen-da massaged my foot for months with hot mustard oil until everything returned to their rightful place. Neither the patient nor the physiotherapist had heard about dislocation of a bone. Or maybe, the therapist knew, but didn’t mention the word in order not to frighten the patient.