Bahadur was a legend to us, the children, a hero and a saviour in ways more than one; he was there to chase away the neighbour’s menacing Pomeranian, there to light up a happy bonfire on cold winter nights, dancing and singing around the fire while we clapped and laughed, and save the best of pears and peaches when the harvest had to plucked. Bahadur had always been there, until one day he was not.
Bahadur used to live in a teeny hovel in the backyard of my uncle’s house. Surrounded by a mustard plants, a lemon tree, seasonal cabbages and cauliflowers, and mint shrubs, which he and my uncle’s mother would toil upon, his hovel, a rusty old structure rose unceremoniously in the middle of the garden and was shaded by the vines of pumpkin and squash. How did he fit inside the tiny structure? Was there room to sleep? Were not the rains harsh, leaky that the walls always looked? Did he have anything inside his hut other than his conical bamboo basket, a bamboo broom and his eternally brown grey shabby clothes? I still ponder. An oversized coat, patchwork of a pullover, a woollen cap, tattered pants and shoes sans any lace, were his only raiment, the way I remember him. He would be up before dawn, sweep the front-yard, gathering leaves and litter, the backyard later, plucking off weed from the garden, unclogging drains and then head off to the neighbourhood repeating his chores. In the afternoon he would emerge outside the kitchen and placing his aluminium dish and a white plastic cup upon a step outside the door he would call out to my uncle’s mother, ‘Maiji’, (Mother) for his meagre share of dry chapatis and a cup of tea. Did that suffice? I know not.
I remember the eager grin upon his face when he would watch us play cricket on lazy Saturday afternoons, breaking into a run to chase the ball, and retrieve it from places that were forbidden to us. He had once constructed a swing for us-a simple structure made with bamboo poles to support the coconut rope that served as a swing and an old pullover for a seat. Delighted he showed us his masterpiece and what followed was an afternoon of laughter and merriment. Taking turns, all of us, the children, aimed higher while Bahadur watched us gleefully from a corner.
Often snatches of the songs he would hum on contemplative winter nights, nights when Bahadur lit a bonfire, echo in the realms of my mind. Sitting across the fire, tossing twigs and dry leaves into the crackling fire, he would sing. His voice reflected the mystery of faraway mountains, whistling winds, chirruping birds, rustling of pine forests, and of a lost home, his lost home! I remember his face when he would sing, shadowy, reflective, lit by orange, blue flames, while his hazelnut eyes glistened with sorrow and nostalgia. We had asked him one such evening, ‘Bahadur ghar kahan pe hain?’, (Where is your home Bahadur?). Pointing out to the silhouette of hills yonder, dark against a darker pin-pricked starry sky he replied ‘U pahar’ (the mountains there) and then without a warning broke into a happy-mad dance, singing, laughing!
He would comically salute at us, winking, while we imitated him, but, in quite the military fashion, he would, chest out, tummy in, salute at my uncle, a man he respected and adored and my uncle would cheerfully ask him, ‘Kya re Bahadur?’, (What’s happening Bahadur). Calling him ‘Bade Saab’, (Elder Master) he admired my uncle like a child worshipping his hero! And now when I think of it, a time lost in the folds of my memory, my uncle was someone who had never looked at Bahadur condescendingly, while everybody treated him as though he were an eye-sore, a tiny, irritating thorn, that needs be plucked out at once! He was scolded, berated, shouted at and one hysterical woman had claimed that Bahadur had on purpose touched her, a grave sin for he was an untouchable. Men found pleasure in beating him up-on nights when he would be tipsy after the cheap country liquor, shoes were flung at him, curses and kicks. Yet he woke up the next morning and got back to his chores restoring the vicious routine of life.
One balmy evening a scooter ran over him injuring his leg. Stopping, the rider threw curses upon Bahadur for coming onto the road and hindering his ride and then gathering a crowd, he began beating him up along with the men, who find comfort in beating others, crushing his broken leg. I remember his cries from his hovel for days until he was taken to the city Civil Hospital and dumped there. He was left neglected upon the shabby corridors. And he succumbed to his injuries, we were told.
There were no prayers for his departed soul, no hymns, no eulogy, no gathering. But I would like to believe him singing; I imagine his songs are attuned to the melody of chirruping birds, to the whisper of whistling winds and perched upon knotty pine branches, I picture him, humming, singing, smiling. I would like to believe that his soul roams joyously, unscathed, free across the mountains, over his lost home and that Bahadur is, for the last time, not an expatriate.
Image Credit : Dr. Ayan Banerjee