Everybody in our household called him Babu-Sa’ab—we the 10 children, our relatives and the servants, everyone except for our father, who called him by his name—Kaleshwar.
In Bihar, an elderly person in the Rajput community is called Babu-Sa’ab. However that was not what we called him when he joined our household as a servant aged 13. I remember calling him ‘Kala’ as a little girl because I couldn’t pronounce his name.
Kaleshwar was an orphan with big responsibilities on his young shoulders; he had to earn a living to support his younger brother, his widowed sister and her son. So he worked with my uncle, a police inspector, but when my uncle died Kaleshwar came to work for my family.
I belonged to a large family that lived in Pirpainti, where my father had a private practice. Our household consisted of servants, cooks, animal keepers, medical assistants and hangers on.
Though Kaleshwar sent all his salary home, his personal contact with his family was limited to an annual visit for just eight days, to take part in the ‘Kalash puja’ performed in his house during Dashera.
Kala was a simpleton, a little dumb, but always obedient and hard working. His foolish actions sometimes made my father cross and he would call him “donkey” in his annoyance.
But, my mother was kind to Kala and he soon learnt to live in her shadow, working as her apprentice. He continued to show his gratefulness for her benevolence even after she had gone.
While we were still small, a bolt from the blue changed our lives and consequently Kaleshwar started playing a different role. The simple servant, who was never expected to be anything more, gradually became Babu-Sa’ab
Kaleshwar becomes Babu-sa’ab
It was 1945 and Kaleshwar had graduated from errand boy to cook by then. As usual he went to his village to perform the Kalash puja but returned before his scheduled eight days. When somebody asked him, “Why have you come back before the puja was over?” He replied sadly, “I missed the children very much.”
That was the last time he visited his village and from then on our home became his—as did our family. For shortly after his trip, my mother gave birth to our tenth sibling Aditya but she did not survive the childbirth.
After mother’s passing, my father was so devastated that he seldom entered the inner-circle of the house and instead immersed himself in his practice. The day-to-day supervision of the whole establishment fell on the shoulders of Kala and without any fanfare Babu-Sa’ab became the head housekeeper.
My elder brothers and sisters left for boarding schools and colleges. Only Ajit who was 11 at that time, Rana 9, Aditya 4 and I [aged 6 years] stayed at home. Whether he liked it or not, Babu-Sa’ab had to fit into my mother’s shoes.
I have a vivid memory of the day Rana, who often bullied me, threw my doll on the tiled roof-top of the kitchen. Hearing my cries, Babu-Sa’ab chided Rana and then with much difficulty brought down my doll.
When a similar incident happened, which once again made me cry, Babu-Sa’ab held my hand and led me to his wooden cot and said lovingly, “Sit here. This is your place. Nobody will dare to touch you here.” He then drew a Laxman Rekha to protect me.
Babu-Sa’ab loved to boast but because he was a simple man, everybody made him the butt of their jokes. Mishirjee, our driver, often made fun of him for all the servants to have a laugh over and my brothers always tried to get some amusement at his expense, throwing questions at him which Babu Sa’ab replied to, in his zealousness to prove himself clever.
One day the ever mischievous Rana told him, “Babu-Sa’ab, you must learn some English. ‘Salt’ means ‘pani’ and ‘water’ means ‘namak’.” Babu-Sa’ab listened quietly, eager to learn English. At dinner, Rana then commanded him, “Babu-Sa’ab, bring me some salt.”
Everybody was in splits when Babu-Sa’ab came back with a jug of water. “Ho! Ho! Ha!” they laughed till tears ran down, only Babu-Sa’ab wore a foolish expression on his face. The simple man couldn’t see that the naughty boy had played a prank on him.
Babu-Sa’ab had two prized possessions—one was a spear, which his blacksmith friend had made for him. The other was a long bamboo stick—a lathi. Every week, he applied mustard oil on them to make them strong and shiny. They gleamed magnificently in a corner near his bed.
One night people from a nearby village came shouting and chasing a thief near our mango grove. The elders of the house went to the rooftop to see what the matter was. Then, to everybody’s surprise Babu-Sa’ab came into the courtyard and disappeared into the darkness brandishing his two weapons.
He was shouting, “Catch him! Catch him! I am coming too!” For Babu-Sa’ab this was his chance to prove his bravery. But there was no sign of the thief and the villagers went away.
The next morning Ajit, wanting to display Babu-Sa’ab’s foolishness, asked him, “Ho – Babu Sa’ab, why did you run towards the thief holding two weapons? Was one for you and the second for the thief?” Babu Sa’ab stood speechless while everybody laughed.
Our eldest brother Dilip would be more cutting in his remarks about Babu-Sa’ab. He could do so because by then my father was no more and he had become the head of the family.
The snapping point
One day Babu-Sa’ab’s tolerance reached breaking point. Somebody must have teased him badly. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, his small tin trunk in his hand, he announced loudly, “I’m going to my village. I will never come back again.”
Everybody fell silent but nobody tried to stop him. Babu-Sa’ab had always been taken for granted. The fact that he had no life outside our home made everyone sure Babu-Sa’ab couldn’t exist without us.
But that day he did leave. With him gone, the kitchen, the courtyard and the whole house fell quiet. Then, late in the evening, somebody exclaimed “Babu-Sa’ab is back!”
Aditya and I ran towards the courtyard door. He was standing there with the tin trunk, reluctant to enter. He had eaten his words and come back. Without any hesitation Aditya and I went to him, each of us on either side of him, holding his hands and led him slowly into the courtyard. There was nothing to say. We understood the language of our hearts.
Larger than life
As the years passed we left home to build our own lives, except for our elder brother Dilip and his family who settled down in father’s home. Babu-Sa’ab’s long service to our family had changed everyone’s attitude towards him. Though he had been ridiculed earlier, he was given his due respect later. My nephews and nieces addressed him as grandfather, calling him ‘Dada’.
Babu-Sa’ab had turned feeble but he still had the biggest responsibilities. After a while, seeing his inability to perform his duties, he was given some kind of a retirement. In his place a new cook was employed, but because of his seniority he was respected by other servants.
During one of my visits to my ancestral home, I found him sitting most of the time, on his same old wooden cot, watching quietly, the activities of the household. ‘What did he keep thinking?’ I wondered. Perhaps, he tried to consider all his life spent in our house. A bachelor on whose shoulders a great responsibility had befallen.
Babu-Sa’ab passed away in 1986. Now in my old age leading a retired life I often go down memory lane. Of course it was not a happy childhood without mother and father. However, there was Babu-Sa’ab. To the best of his ability he tried to give us comfort and care.
I wonder if he had made a silent promise to our mother to take care of us and never leave us alone. If that was the case, then he had fulfilled it. For him, looking after motherless children was more important than worshiping Durga.
He was more than the ‘hired help’, he was a good Samaritan sent to us by God.
I salute you Babu-Sa’ab!
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