“April is the cruelest month”-T.S. Eliot
They’d named him Arish, it meant sunrays in Arabic but sounded like a Hindu name, so it was a well-bargained settlement, although everyone called him Babu, like every second child in a local household was called. I remember his childhood distinctly, Kajal didi bringing him to work every day, and over the years, how he’d grown up from eating dates to learning not to colour outside the lines in my used colouring books, while she moped the floors, did the utensils, helped Ma dust the furniture. Arish had a terrible weakness for sweets, his mother would teach him to politely refuse if people offered food, and he obliged, he was an obedient child, but to sweets, he could never say no.
So he sat there, six days of the week, not old enough to go to a government school, eating kaju barfi, or whatever sweet Ma brought home on the way back from office, but never the rabri. Rabri was a delicacy only privileged children could relish, and even with the amount of generosity my parents showered everyone with, it was a luxury they could not afford to share. Arish waited patiently till 5 pm, roughly the time Ma would be home, while I spent hours perfecting Neer bharan kaise jau sakhi ab, practicing the same raga twice a day, trying so hard not to miss the sur, taal, laya, while he sat there, never uttering a single word. Quietness was a virtue he so easily acquired, that most children of his age did not even understand.
Ashfaq mian was a fishmonger, Kajal didi, a cook with average skills but heightened enthusiasm, so when she told Ma she would do all the household work AND cook our meals, too, for a decent amount, Ma was more than happy. She was a jovial young woman, in her late-twenties (I’d later learn why the poor married their daughters off early), and the cheer in her voice while she told us stories about other households she worked in, made up for the lack of salt in her half-boiled cabbage fry, and we never complained, Ma, grateful to rest for the evening, us, grateful to see her relax. Ashfaq mian had married her when they both were teenagers, it was nothing extravagant, they fell in love while didi had gone to buy fish from the market, until going to the market every day seemed like a necessity to her, today, for lemons, tomorrow, for the fresh fruits, her excuses never ending, even when her parents’ suspicion had begun. Their religions clashed, and even though she sometimes tells us she thinks religion should only be for the rich, they had to elope, lacking the support of their kin on either side.
Theirs was a family of three, just like ours, but different in every conceivable manner. Even though they lived from hand to mouth, you could see that they were happy. Every evening, after didi finished her chores, Ashfaq mian would come to pick them up in his bicycle, and even though secondary school economics taught me that human wants are unlimited while resources are limited, I’d like to believe some people knew how to make adjustments perfectly.
Time flew by, with me moving to a different city and my father’s retirement, and with Adam Smith’s invisible hand making the necessary changes in the market, our household lacked the requirement for a household help anymore. Kajal didi worked in double the number of houses now, and Ashfaq mian was to buy a second-hand motorcycle the next month, even if that meant them having to continue staying in an unhygienic neighborhood for another year, or maybe more. Arish had started school, and two months into it, he was already the class topper, he was a fast learner, and I’d already taught him the alphabet and a few simple multiplication tables the week before his classes started. So when Ma told didi that she’d have to leave, she didn’t mind much, except, she told her that they felt like her own parents, never treating her like a domestic worker, and even though she had no idea about the conspiracy of rabri, she told Ma no one else ever offered Arish any mithai and she was certain he would miss us terribly. She cried a little when she left, said she would come visit us sometime, meet me when I was home for vacations, which she religiously did, for the first couple of times. Arish was growing up now, and fancied sweets a little lesser than before, but never saying no when offered a kaju barfi or whatever sweet Ma brought home on the way back from office, but never the rabri. You see, some habits hadn’t changed, they almost never do.
As the years passed, with the advent of technology and my parents learning how to video call on Skype, my visits to home became infrequent, and so did Kajal didi’s. We never bothered to keep ourselves updated about which standard Arish got promoted to, or if they finally managed to accumulate the down payment for a better house. We hired a new household help, with arthritis taking a toll over Ma, and Kajal didi and her family of three was, like most things that happen in life, forgotten. That was, until Ma called me yesterday.
She called me while I was hustling through the streets of Chawri Bazaar, looking for a place that a friend recommended, that supposedly served the best rabri in the whole of Delhi. She told me it was something important, told me to find a quiet corner and call her back, and something in her tone told me it wasn’t to complain about her ailing health or how my father never fixes the fan in the dining hall. I rushed back home, leaving my quest for rabri midway, and called her to hear her sobbing on the other side. “Kajal came by in the morning”, she said. I knew something wasn’t right, so I kept silent, waiting for her to take her time. “Arish is no more, beta, he died in an accident.”
I cannot explain the array of overwhelming emotions that I felt while she narrated how Kajal didi came crying to our house earlier in the morning, looking for work, how she and Ashfaq mian had saved up for this new place on the other side of the city, how every last penny of it was spent on trying to save Arish, but they couldn’t. The damage was unfixable, the doctors said, they’d tried their best. Ma told me how didi had sat on the floor, refusing to drink even a glass of water, begging Ma to take her back for work. I do not understand human emotions very well, but over the phone call that lasted for slightly more than seventeen minutes, I think I felt a kind of overwhelming grief, the kind that I cannot put into words. It was like losing a sibling that I would never acknowledge, but who was a sibling nonetheless.
I can’t grieve enough for you, Arish, but I will find that shop that my friend told me about, and I will make sure that kids on the street who are fond of sweets, are not deprived of its infamous rabri. Wherever you are, I hope you’re happy, and I hope it’s not too late to change a few habits.
Photograph by Rajdeep Kataki.