Chapter 10: Those Who Served and Loved
Three Muslim employees working in Opana's house at Daska remained etched clearly in his memory, standing for something priceless that was lost through Partition. Bholi, Mehran and Baba Wadhaya were part of the household. Bholi, as was the custom, was
called phuphi or aunt (father's sister) because she belonged to Kandan Sian. She was a widow and a companion to Opana's mother. She did chores like cleaning the wheat before it was sent for grinding into atta. She picked out the seeds from the cotton fluff with a small belni (rolling pin), spun the cotton into yarn on a spinning wheel, washed the household linen and lent a hand in tending the children. Her only son was a general handyman in the house. He was a sort of carpenter, mending charpoys (string-cots), working on wood to make pitcher stands (ghadvanjis) and churning-sticks for curds (madhanis). He made the open fire ovens, tandoors, and fixed them into the brick moulds surrounded by sand for retaining heat and he carried out the annual pre-Diwali white-washing of the house. He was also a bit of a blacksmith and mended locks and cattle-chains, and sharpened knives and the to^asused for chopping hay for the cattle. Bholi used to have a visitation from a double-mouthed snake twice a year. She seemed to know the schedule of her serpentine visitor and would sit on a cot dangling her feet. The snake would emerge from somewhere and bite her on the feet and go away. She had become immune to the poison. The snake-bite merely left a light blue scab on her foot which disappeared in a week. It was generally believed that if once a two-mouthed snake (domooye) has bitten somebody, he or she would always be visited by the same snake every sixth month. On the day of the expected visit the body of the victim would exude a special smell which attracted the snake and there was no getting away from it. Bholi was quite philosophic about it and bore it all with great fortitude. How far all this was true will never be known.
Bholi was blind of one eye and even the other was only partially effective, but her dexterity in cleaning and spinning was phenomenal. For her services she received an annual grant of wheat, a small monthly dole of money, a daily supply of buttermilk, vegetables and fruit, and a gift of clothes for herself and her son on the regular festive occasions. She was very cheerful, sang songs for every one and merrily bantered away about not eating 'food cooked in a Hindu home'. She remained faithful to the last and the family had to leave her behind at Daska with a heavy heart.
Mehran was one of the ugliest creatures imaginable. She was hunchbacked and had a large neck swollen with goiter. Her lower lip was at least one inch longer than the upper and she was deaf. She could walk about only with great difficulty and when she sat down she looked like a bundle of rags. She had nobody to look after her; the only daughter she had was married and the girl's husband did not like the mother-in-law. Opana's mother, out of sheer pity, took her in as a piece of adornment for the back courtyard and that is where she sat all the time as if nailed to the ground. She did a few small chores like spinning or darning or mending old clothes.
Mehran was very proud of her daughter and always talked of how very pretty she was and how indeed she would light up any room she entered. When asked whom her daughter resembled, she would answer without hesitation "most daughters take after their mothers, mine is no exception". Much hilarity was aroused from time to time by shouting the same question at her: "do you want to marry Mamoo?".
Mamoo was Bholi's brother and this challenge was thrown at Mehran at Bholi's instigation. This always started her off. Her counter attack was rendered with great dignity and choice phrases to express her affront: "Mamoo should marry his mother, Mamoo should marry his own sister who is so pretty, Mamoo should marry his own daughter". The monotone would go on and on till everybody got tired of the joke and left her alone for a while. In her own deaf world she muttered on, showering abuses on the poor unfortunate Mamoo who knew nothing of these pranks for he lived in another village, far away. This poor, unloved woman spent the last years of her life in the house, perhaps the only years of some security. Everybody had grown quite fond of her. She even tried to tell stories which were so jumbled that nobody could understand them and anyway half the words were lost in the accompaniment of wheeze and cough. Suddenly one day she died, was carried away, with Opana's elder brother and father among her pall-bearers, and was buried in a forlorn grave with no kith or kin to grieve for her family's departure and bade goodbye with tears in his eyes.
Baba Wadhaya had some important duties — to tend the milch-cows and the buffalos, to feed them, bathe them and milk them and also to draw water from the handpump. The rest of the time 1 he spent in restful contemplation in company with his hookah 1 (hubble bubble). He and his hookah made a serene picture of repose I — a serenity that even his photographs exuded, long after he was no more. He was a man of few words but had great worldly wisdom 1 and was full of human kindness. He, like many other men, had lived a life of celibacy, not by choice but because he never found a wife. He was very fond of Om Lai and Dev Lai — as he called the brothers, Opana and Deva. He would hold them by the scruff of the neck and make them crouch close to the buffalo he was milking, to treat them to the fresh milk spurting from the udder. He refused to milk the buffalo when the boys were not at hand and waited till they came.
Every morning, for three hours, Wadhaya would be busy '] drawing water from the handpump. He pumped the handle up and down, wearing a relaxed smile, both hands working in perfect rhythm and without pause. Everybody had their baths either straight under the pump or by lifting potfuls of water from a -1 small tub which Wadhaya kept filled to the brim. Later the water would be used for washing the floor or watering the cattle. When Partition came, Baba Wadhaya stayed till the last hour of the Baburam the household servant was an institution.
As far as Opana's memory went he had always been there. He was the cook, the butler, the milkman and the general handyman. He was vested with much authority as far as the children were concerned. He could admonish, scold and if angry even punish them. However, every now and then, he used to stage a walk-out from the house — announcing with a flourish that he was setting up his own business and leaving service. Every time he came back — after a spell of 'business'. These periodic escapades were accepted as part of his character and the spells of enterprise fortunately were not too long. He was a versatile cook and especially good with kulfis, potato chops and chawal chole or rice with gram curry. These were the specialities he would start vending in the bazaar, depending upon the season. When the children of the house passed through the bazaar, he wouldn't even talk to them for the first two or three days. Later he would stop them and offer his delicacies — free of charge. The free snacks went on for a week or so and after a fortnight or so he would walk back to the house, carrying one of the children in his arms, and without bothering to ask for permission, start working in the kitchen. Any substitute employed meanwhile, would leave pretty soon, hastened by Baburam's threats of a good hiding. This was a settled routine — a sort of periodic blood-letting, and no one ever tried to change things.
He too carried on as if nothing had happened and the next six months would pass off peacefully.
During one of these truancies of Baburam, a man called 'Jagga' was engaged for work. He was a big burly farmer from Siranwali and was blind of one eye. He was untainted by anything modern or sophisticated, had a robust fund of rustic commonsense, was steeped in folklore and taught the children a number of folk songs and tappas (couplets). He was another of those unlucky ones who saw no prospect of getting a wife in their given circumstances. He had lost his parents early and his uncles had appropriated the land his father had left. So he had joined domestic service to save up money for paying bride-price. Before joining service, he had worked as an unwaged labourer and lived on the so-called munificence of his uncle. In domestic service he found not only a home, but also an easier and better-paid job. The servants, although they did all the work, were never treated as inferiors in home. Children welcomed them as playmates and looked upon them as grown up friends who told stories, taught folk songs, played with them and did their share of the work in the family.
One fine day, Jagga got an offer of marriage. Somebody had offered him his seven-year old daughter for a payment of only two hundred rupees. Jagga was nearly twenty. This proposal was greeted with a lot of mirth and fun. The children teased him about how he would have to carry her about, wash her nappies, feed her, sing lullabies to put her to sleep and look after her till she grew up. All this ragging finally made him abandon the idea. Jagga was a thrifty man and saved his entire wages of fifteen rupees — a sizable sum in those days. When ultimately Baburam walked in after his latest tantrum and edged him out, Jagga had put away nearly one hundred and fifty rupees in savings. He bought a piece of land with this and became a landed farmer. He put in some hard work and ultimately acquired more land and also a wife. Thereafter whenever he came to visit the house, the children never failed to remind him about the lost opportunity of bringing up a child wife.
In the evenings, after they returned from school, the children were offered a choice of nashta (snack): either chapattis, left over from the midday meal and covered with a thick layer of butter dusted with sugar or freshly roasted sun-dried seeds of tender corn or gram. The roasting was done at the bhatti(o\en) run by a mehri(z menial) woman called Jamuna. In her bhatti, she kept sand heated up in an iron pan, using dry leaves as fuel. Her charges for roasting anything were a fifth part of whatever was to be roasted and this portion was put aside as soon as the corn or gram was handed over to her. In addition, she used the simple artifice of letting a part of the stuff fall over the sides of the pan which of course had to be shaken vigorously to get all the seeds done evenly. When this was over, she would tilt the finished snack into the shirt tail held out by the child who would then go off to play, munching the hot corn seeds or gram mixed with^z/r (jaggery). Villagers would easily munch up a full topa (a volume measure approximately equal to five pounds in weight) of this roast at one helping.
Jamuna, the mehri, had a scandal to her name in the neighbourhood. She had an elderly husband and despite her unattractive looks, her name was romantically linked with a number I of men who were single — not by choice but due to circumstances. There were occasional brawls on this account. Her grown up sons I would beat her and her loud wails and cries of help sought from anyone passing by only added to the scandal. Bihari, the court peon, was one of the alleged lovers she had collected. Bihari had jet black skin and always wore spotlessly white, neatly tailored salwar-kamiz, a white carefully wrapped pugree on his head and white socks with his black pump shoes. He was sniggered at as chune men kan (a crow dipped in whitewash). He had drifted into Daska as a young boy from some place in Uttar Pradesh and had attached himself to the court. He was one of those persons of indeterminate age who always looked thirty. He grew very fond of Deva who was then a | baby and after court he would spend all his time looking after the | child, almost like an ayah. Deva grew up and years passed but the appearance, dress and efficiency of the man remained unchanged to the day when he was suddenly taken ill. Presumably he had cancer: he was confined to his bed and Deva nursed him right through the illness from which he never recovered, and his poor ravaged body which he had kept so clean and erect during his life, was consigned to flames, finally.