The twinkly-eyed 9-year-old with a toothy grin was dodging his brother’s arm. In the background, he heard his uncle and parents talk about life in ‘Dilli’ and of the money to be made.

“He can go by bus. I will go with him. He can come for Diwali and New Year.”

In response to Ma’s whisper, the uncle said: “No, he is too old didi. He will get into bad habits. Better he works here. Lakshman. Lakshman is the one. Right one.”

Lakshman slowed down on hearing his name. He stopped his play, and walked past the elders, to the tiny space between the water tank and the thatch-roofed two-room house. He could hear his mother and his mama much better now. His father sat silently, gnawing at the ground with his big toe.

“He is just 9,” his ma sobbed.

“And he will earn more than his father… don’t you want that?”

“Lakshman, come and play now before it gets too dark to find the ball.” His bhaiyya’s voice at a distance didn’t distract him from the interesting conversation he was now privy to.

“Who will give you 150 rupees for a little boy? And to live in Dilli. He will get good food three times a day. Clothes. It’s just housework. Not some factory work. Don’t you trust me, his mama?”

“What about his school,” he heard his father ask in his raspy voice.

“He is going to become a manager-saab and drive a big car?” the uncle taunted. “Let him do something useful.”

Lakshman slunk back, and sat down, resting against the tank. True enough, he didn’t enjoy school much. And class 3 was more difficult than class 2 had been.

He had never left his village, let alone Nepal. To go to India, and that too, to Dilli? Not some small town in Bengal, but Dilli. With all the imagination of a 9-year-old who grew up on Hindi films, he starts weaving a life of his own in the big city. Raymond pants and polyester shirt. Black shiny shoes. Sun glasses. And who knew, maybe even see a film star or two. No, no… they all live in Mumbai. Maybe, he can even go to Mumbai and see them.

With a searing pain on his forearm, he comes out of his reverie. The ball bounced off his arm and lay next to him, and his brother was towering over him with a big smile. “What happened, scared of losing?”

{***}

He had perfected the routine. Wake up at 5.30, make tea. Clean saab’s car. Then help madam with breakfast. Take munni to the school bus. After that he would be able to find some time for himself. To play marbles with the boys in the neighbourhood between trips to the market; Day dream on the terrace while putting the wash out to dry; From the terrace he could grab some jamun fruits from the neighbour’s tree.

It got busier in the evening, and by the time he went to bed at 11pm, he had no energy for even a fleeting dream.

The Bengali family was good to him. On Sundays when they went out, he would watch a movie on their TV, and on some days he was allowed to sit and watch TV with the family if all the work was done. But he didn’t like their food. Fish everyday. And mutton only once a month.

He was used to this schedule by now. The first few months were difficult. He missed his ma and bhaiyya. He missed the daal, chawal with green chilli and raw onions. He missed the hills on which his home stood.

Once a month, on receiving his salary by money order, his father would write a short letter to him. Last month they sent a photo of the 4 of them that was taken before he left to Dilli. He folded it neatly and slipped it into a transparent polythene bag, to be taken out and gazed at every time he felt homesick. His belongings were in a worn out duffle bag under the staircase leading to the terrace. This is where he slept.

In the last six months he had seen his mama just once. The Ghosh family didn’t encourage regular visits from the uncle. Were they afraid he would ask me to steal, Lakshman sometimes wondered. But quickly brushed the thought away. After all he was from a good family and behaved well, there was no reason for anyone to suspect him.

Then one Sunday morning, when the family had finished breakfast and Lakshman was clearing the table, the doorbell rang. His uncle stood at the door.

“I have to take him immediately. His mother is not well and I have to take him back to Nepal.”

Lakshman started packing his meagre belongings, tears rolling down his cheeks. Shirts discarded by Ghosh-saab, many sizes too big for him, was packed along with the new pair of sandals the family had got him last month. He bid a sad farewell and walked down the street with his uncle. Munni was wailing. As soon as they took the turn to the main road, his uncle spoke to him sharply. “Stop crying. Your mother is fine. I’ve found a Punjabi house for you. They will pay you 250 rupees.”

{***}

It was a much bigger house. A much bigger family. There were 3 brothers and their wives and children, and the matriarch. But, there were also more servants in the house.  All the younger servants were crammed into one of two rooms in a corner of the garden. The maali and maharaj shared the other. The aayaa who took care of the children slept in the nursery. Lakshman and two other boys – Biharis – took care of the cleaning and marketing. Lakshman with his ready smile and sharp eyes was the favourite errand boy, which meant he was more overworked than the others. Yet, he was eager to please the large, noisy family.

He sometimes missed the quietness of the Ghosh household. The concern madam had shown him when he fell ill. And on Sundays he was practically free there, just a few hours of work in the morning and a few hours in the evening. But the Punjabis always had parties and guests, and weekends were the busiest. The only advantage was that because there were so many servants, he could skive off work without anyone noticing.

The matriarch – dadima – was a mean crone. When she sat on the verandah watching over the servants cleaning the house, she pelted them with stones, if she felt their work was not up to the mark. And then she made them collect more stones to add to her stash. She had a poor arm, and often the stone landed on the wrong boy.

It was now nearly two years since he first left Nepal, and Lakshman was increasingly homesick.

He spoke to the kindest of the three bhabis asking her if she can help him visit his family. She promised him that after Diwali she will send him, but until then it would be difficult for the household to manage with one less servant.

On Diwali day all the servants got new clothes, a small packet of sparklers, one atom bomb, and a bonus of 50 rupees. They also had unlimited access to boxes of sweets. This was Lakshman’s first big Diwali, the Ghosh family was not really into celebrations.

The day after Diwali he approached the kind bhabi and reminded her of her promise. She nodded distractedly, as if she didn’t quite know what he was talking about.

His mama who was friends with the maharaj visited regularly, and Lakshman took to bothering him about visiting Nepal. “You wait. If you leave now you won’t have a job when you come back. They are getting Biharis for just 150 rupees.”

But the following month his uncle called him aside and asked him if he wanted to become really rich. Lakshman stared blankly. After all, his entire salary was sent directly to his family. In this house of course he collected tips from guests, and with the Diwali bonus, he had nearly 200 rupees sewn into a pocket under his mattress.

“What do you mean rich? I keep working, but everything only goes to ma and dada.”

His uncle chuckled. “There is a Marwari family in Mumbai. They are very rich, and they will pay you 700 rupees. Direct to you. You send how much you want to your family and keep the rest.” Just short of 12 years, the amount seemed princely to him.

“But I want to go home and see my family before I go to Mumbai.”

{***}

On the bus to Nepal, he kept patting his shirt to check if the money was still there. Two bhabis and the nasty-tempered dadi had all given him 50 rupees each. The maharaj had given him a box of parathas to eat on the way.  He was wearing his Diwali clothes. In the bus stop near the border he will buy some biscuits and juice to share with his brother.

He suddenly remembered the sun glasses he wanted to buy. “Maybe in Mumbai. I will have so much money then.”

After changing buses, he landed in his village. The bus stop that seemed large and intimidating when he left nearly three years ago looked tiny and inconsequential.

His father was standing under a tree, more stooped than he remembered. He recognised him all the same, though he wasn’t quite sure if his father could pick him out in the crowd.

He walked up to the old man who was drawing noisily on his beedi. “Dada.”

His father gave him a big toothy grin, a reflection of Lakshman’s own, only browner and rotted by paan chewing.

They walk silently down the road to this home. His father carried the pink Mickey Mouse school bag – discarded by his employers’ youngest child – into which Lakshman had packed all his belongings. The plastic bag with chips, biscuits and cartons of Frooti, he held on to.

Walking in amicable silence, they reached home in 15 minutes. He saw the gas stove perched on a rickety table outside the house. One of the many small things his time away from home had made possible.

His mother gave him a warm embrace, dabbing her eyes with the end of her saree pallu. “Did you eat, are you hungry?”

“Where is bhaiyya?”

“That useless fellow must be somewhere smoking and lazing. Works one day and takes a break for a week.”

His father shushed her. “Don’t start.”

The house looked even more dilapidated than he remembered. There was colour TV in one corner of the house, carefully wrapped in a saree to keep the dust away – and the evil eye too, he knew.

There were about half a dozen hens in a coop by the water tank. In almost the exact spot where he first heard of his scheduled travel to foreign lands.

“Your mama said you have to return in 10 days. Can’t you stay longer?”

That took him aback. 10 days? He was told 1 month. Maybe because Mumbai is far, he reasoned to himself.

It was dusk before his brother came home. With a loud laugh, and great drama, he hugged his little brother. Bhaiyya had become really tall. Almost as tall as Ghosh-saab, a grown man.

They sneaked out of the house with a packet of Frooti each. His brother lit a cigarette and offered him a drag. Reluctantly he took one, not wanting him to think he had learned nothing in Dilli.

The ten days passed quickly, and the 400 rupees he had saved up even quicker. He was ready to go back. The constant bickering between his mother and brother, the counting of rotis and measuring of dal, the not-so-thinly-veiled requests for more things to add to the household… he was ready to go back. To Mumbai, where film stars lived. Who knew, he might even see Madhuri Dixit or Manisha Koirala. The latter was Nepali, and he would exchange a few words with her.

{***}

The Marwaris had even more servants than the Punjabis. And the family was big. They ate only vegetarian food – ghaas-phoos. Not even eggs. But in the very first week, the maali had directed him to a street-side shop that sold chicken and egg sandwich for just 2 rupees.

The work was not more than he was used to in Dilli. He received only 600 rupees, as the saab said 100 rupees went for his food and shelter.

The first month Lakshman sent back only 250 rupees. But his father wrote back saying his mother was unwell, and needed more money for medicine. Lakshman was sure his uncle had told them he was earning a lot more, so reluctantly from the next month he sent back 500 rupees. He spent 50 rupees on food from the street stalls, and saved the rest in an empty Emami talcum powder tin.

But every few months his father would write asking for more money, and the stash would diminish. After nearly a year and a half of working for the Marwaris, he had only 800 rupees saved. He did not like working there. The old watchman was always hitting the younger servants based on all kinds of made-up accusations – you scratched the car; you stole the mango; you were staring at the neighbour’s daughter…

Next to the sandwich shop was a beer bar, and the boys working there said they earned 500 rupees, but received a double that in tips. The owner was a genial young man, but did not want to employ someone as young as Lakshman.

Lakshman persisted, begging him to change his mind. Finally, he gave in. “Work in the tea shop. Tips won’t be much, but you will earn quite a lot. And when you are older, I will let you work in the bar.”

He ran away from the Marwari house the very next day, forfeiting the salary for 10 days of work that month.

In that small part of Mumbai, in a district called Borivali, Lakshman bloomed. He liked serving people, and he liked to talk and laugh even more. Things that were frowned upon as a servant. The tea shop catered mainly to employees at two office towers in the area.

Ravi Shetty, the owner of the bar and tea shop had grown very fond of Lakshman.

He took an interest in the lanky boy – too tall for his pants, too thin for his shirt, and a smile that belied his situation.

“Here, work on this whenever you have time. When you move to the bar you need to write bills, speak a bit of English, read the menu,” Shetty-saab said, thrusting a book into Lakshman’s calloused hands. Learn English in 30 Days.

Every day he woke up a little earlier and went to bed a little later, trying to continue where he left off five years ago, in class 3. He struggled with the letters… the b and d, p and q… If nothing else, Lakshman was uninhibited and stubbornly spoke in English even to those clients who insisted on responding in Hindi.

Shetty-saab spoke only English to Lakshman, correcting him only when what he said made no sense. In eight months Lakshman was able to rattle off the menu, take down orders, maintain a steady exchange of pleasantries with clients in English and actually be understood.

At this point he was practically wealthy. 1500 rupees salary, and tips that went up to 15000 rupees a month. Every 18 months he went back home, increasingly affluent. Sun glasses and shiny watches. And then the prospective brides lined up. In 2007 he married and brought back the chosen one to Mumbai; he moved from a shared room, to a single room with a common toilet in a chawl. Still, more privacy than his family had known.

“What to do, life is not perfect. Had a wife. Had a good salary. Then my father gets cancer,” Lakshman laughs, with a sense of self-mockery.

Savings go towards treatment, wife moves to play the role of a dutiful Hindu daughter-in-law – nurse, cook and caretaker for her ailing parents-in-law.

“But I am lucky,” he smiles, placing the green tea with lemon on my table.

“A Konkani gentleman, regular client at the bar-cum-restaurant, whose car I used to clean for some extra money, asked me if I wanted to go to foreign.”

In a few months, he arranged for his passport, and Shenoy-saab got him his visa for a country near Dubai. Qatar.

{***}

“That was 2008. The driver came to take me to the room. Six of us were sharing it. They said 800 riyals, but they cut 200 riyals for room and transport. It was less than what I got in Mumbai. It’s so hot here. Not much to do on weekends. And also so far from home,” Lakshman starts the story of his life in the Qatar.

“I was a tea boy who didn’t know how to make tea. But I learnt. Red tea. Karak. Zaatar. I learnt quickly. I remember people’s taste. Everyone wanted me to make their tea in the office. In every office I moved to,” he says, sitting up in the chair, a look of pride.

The astrologer had told him he would earn a lot more, and Lakshman was now determined to prove him right.

“I now clean homes before and after work. I make a lot of money. First I was going to Indian and Pakistani homes. But they won’t pay much. Now I clean ‘foreigners’ and ‘Arabi’ homes. I make so much money. Every year I save more. I sleep for five hours. But I save 5000 riyals even some months.”

His dreams come true in the longs hours he is awake. A young son in an English-medium school, a home of his own, and a steadily growing stash with which he hopes to buy a bus.

“Always one’s own country is best. But I am here. And my home I left when I was 9.”

 

Glossary

Dilli: Delhi

Didi: Elder sister

Mama: Maternal uncle

Saab: Sir

Bhaiyya: Brother, usually older

Bhabi: Sister-in-law. Also used as a respectful term for married women

Maharaj: The head cook

Maali: Gardener

Dadima: Grandmother

The region-based descriptions used are of the interlocutor’s. Names where used have been changed.

 

In this series, I attempt to tell the vibrant stories of those who are least heard.

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