In these ten years of solitude, exactly ten this November, the longest anyone has stayed with me has been Joginder – one whole month.
He leaves the day after and I look back and smile – sometimes guffaw – at the many outrageously funny and subtly profound conversations I have had with him in the balcony and along post-dinner walks. I shall remember those for a long time, like I shall remember all the care he provided without asking for anything in return.
He felt a lot like Kaku. After being done with the usual cooking and cleaning, Joginder would look for hidden corners that needed dusting, or decide to make the mirror shine brighter. One day I saw him sitting on the floor, deeply engaged with my shoes. I protested, told him I didn’t like anyone cleaning my shoes. He laughed, said, ‘It is dirty, needs good cleaning,’ and went back to the shoes.
As simple as that.
(I sneaked out just now to see what he was up to. He is intently trying to get the air bubbles out of the frosted sticker that we had put on our glass balcony.)
I am hoping I shall not miss him as much as I imagine I might. I was hoping he’d want to stay back but he has a wife and three little kids in the village.
Let’s begin with the kids.
One day I asked him how many and how old. He said, ‘Three kids … two, four and six.’ This was clockwork family planning, I thought.
The other day I took him to buy toys for his kids and asked their age again. ‘Didn’t I tell you the other day? One, three and five.’
‘Joginder, the other day you had said two, four and six.’
It’s the same thing bhaiyya, he said.
He didn’t want to buy toys but gave in after some persistence from me. He bought a small car and a bag of rubber animals for his sons. For your daughter? ‘She is very little,’ he said, while looking with fascination at an imitation Barbie. I got him that and I think he looked happy. Joginder is not given to expressing himself much.
Something for your wife? Bindis? ‘Naah, she doesn’t like anything I get her.’
I asked him if he needed clothes. ‘I have many, I have two trousers and two pairs of shorts, what will I do with more?’
The only time he expresses himself freely is when he is dismissive of what he thinks are useless things – like the McDonald’s where his brother works.
He went there once to visit his brother and I told him that he must try the burger and fries. When he came back the next day, I asked him how it was. ‘Totally useless it was, that pav-bhaji. I make better pav-bhaji. And they give some strange type of cool drink from a machine that doesn’t taste like cool drinks, and very big fries. Where do they get such big aloo from?’
No idea, Joginder. And you are right.
Last week, after a spell of rain, when we went for our usual walk at night, we saw a crab, a relatively large fist-sized crab, crossing the cement road in the township.
Where did this come from now, I asked aloud.
‘The pansokha dropped it,’ he said with great confidence.
‘Yes. That thing like an elephant’s trunk.’
‘It comes in the sky after rain. It is like an arch and has about four colours – red, green, yellow and white.’
You mean indradhanush (rainbow), I asked?
‘Yes, it is also called indradhanush. It sucks up water and creatures from ponds and rivers, and then drops them somewhere. Kaku’s younger brother was telling me it dropped big fish in Dhanbad recently.’
I have not stopped ribbing him about the pansokha since, and he thinks I am just an urban ignoramus. ‘How will you people know about such things?’
The only time he asked for something was a face cream. ‘My face feels parched after I shave.’ I got him a small Nivea. Didn’t work. He wanted the good old Boroline. We couldn’t find it easily, and we even looked once in a big store. I pointed to the shelf of moisturizers and lotions and asked if any of it would work. He started looking for Boroline.
‘This, people use in the village, many women do.’ He was pointing to Fair & Lovely.
Does it work?
‘Of course it works.’
Do men use it too?
‘No no, men don’t. Men are made to use turmeric and mustard oil before their weddings. Makes the skin smooth. But I have seen my brother here uses a gent’s cream called Hi Hansum.’
Joginder came here to help me move. The place I lived before was very close to the beach. I showed him the ocean and he gazed at it for a while. After some time, he came to me and asked where the village was.
‘One can always see a village across water.’
This is not a river, this is an ocean, Joginder. It stretches for hundreds of miles. You won’t be able to see a village across the water.
‘I think it is a bit foggy today, that’s why you can’t see the village.’ I am still wondering how to explain an ocean to him. If you think an atlas or a globe will work, try with someone who dropped out after the third standard.
Why did you drop out, Joginder?
‘I didn’t enjoy studying. I liked fishing and farming.’
He works as a mason now, a daily-wage earner who lives in my uncle’s house in Patna. Once in a while he does special assignments, like this one month with me. His family lives in Naubatpur, two hours by bus from Patna.
Why don’t you come work with me?
‘I like being a mason. I enjoy working with cement.’
Cement is bad for you Joginder.
‘It is not bad,’ he said, pointing to his foot. The skin was peeling off. ‘See, when you work with cement, the old skin peels off and then new soft skin, baby-like skin, appears.’
I was going to try some more. Get your family here too, Joginder.
‘Then who will cook for my parents?’
His brother visited for a few days, he was tempted to come work with me. The three of us discussed the pros and cons, and the pros of his staying with McDonald’s looked bigger simply because of the medical cover – one hundred percent, according to his brother. He was hospitalized once and they paid for his entire treatment and stay. His brother also explained about the provident fund.
‘See, they also get pencil,’ Joginder said.
‘Yes, in some jobs, after you get old and retire, you get money. They call it pencil.’
One day, while driving back from somewhere, I showed him the Santhome church.
‘It is a mandir (temple)?’
No, it is a church, Christians go there.
‘Oh ok. They have what they call god na?’
Last night when we went for a walk, he showed me his photo on his Chinese touch-screen phone. ‘It has come out good na?’ Yes, very nice. ‘Took it in the garden in this park.’
This township does have one of the nicest parks I have seen in this country. It has basketball and badminton and tennis courts, a children’s play area, a terraced garden, and several gazebos where you could sit and watch.
Done with the photo – he does like preening himself – he asked me what ‘customer’ meant.
I explained, and then asked him why he had asked.
He said when he had come with his brother to the park one day, two men came up and asked if they were customers here. He didn’t understand, just nodded, and was asked to leave the park.
Something somewhere had obviously been lost in translation, but I guess he had been asked if he had meandered from outside the township.
Time for dinner and walk now. He has decided to make sattu parathas and bhindi sabji tonight. If there is one thing he is proud of, it is his cooking.
We found a Hindi-speaking cook from Bihar yesterday, just in time for her to get coached by Joginder. ‘Don’t worry bhaiyya, I shall teach her everything. I will tell her that it is very little oil and no red chilli in this house. I shall also tell her how to make rotis.’
When I came back from work last night, I asked him how it had been with Mamta.
‘She is very good, bhaiyya. She cooks better than me, and faster. I tried her food, it is very tasting.’
The food was very tasting indeed. Mamta was obviously a consummate cook and I am relieved that the transition happened smoothly, and in Hindi too. In my life, good fresh simple home-made meals are a feast.
I will try my best to look ahead and get excited, but deep down I know I will miss this little guy sorely. The little guy who I could not spot at the railway station a month ago because I had forgotten that he was littler than I had remembered.
The little guy who carried with him a small backpack which had all his stuff, and a large wooden carton of mangoes for me.