Growing up, we were fortunate to be a part of the Indian “middle” class. I am not sure of the socio-economic definition that would have applied at the time, but in lifestyle terms it meant we had a decent home, basic amenities like a fridge and a car (television had not yet arrived), house help (“servants” in common parlance at the time) and other creature comforts.
One incident stands out in my memory from when I was perhaps seven or eight years old. I had been out playing soccer and burst into the kitchen hot and sweaty, and demanded a glass of lemonade. YP (respectfully addressed as “Panditji”) was our venerable family retainer at the time. He had been with my mother’s family from the time she was herself a young girl and was accorded the respect a family elder would command. Panditji was busy doing other stuff and told me to wait a while. I screamed, “Tere ko bola na, mujhe nimbupani abhi chaahiye!” (“Did I not tell you that I want lemonade immediately”?) In demanding instance service from this elderly person I had also gone beyond the limits of acceptable behavior by addressing him as “tere.” This is considered rude and an insulting form of address, particularly if the person is older than the one addressing him. My mother was within hearing distance. She stormed in to the kitchen and promptly ordered me to my room where I went stomping my feet, fuming at being berated in the presence of a “servant.” She followed me to my sanctum sanctorum and the tongue lashing I received still rings in my ears. Then followed the gentle but extremely “persuasive grandmotherly” admonishment by my father’s mother. Finally, came the most dreaded moment of that “man to man” chat with my dad when he got home from office that evening. Never the one to raise his voice, the firm no-nonsense tone was enough to drive home his message. Suitably chastised and teary-eyed I went to Panditji and apologized. As I bent to touch his feet and seek forgiveness for my wayward behavior he patted me on the head and blessed me. Then, wiping a tear from his eye he said, “Son, it is not your fault. When I went home to my village my own son called me a “naukar” (servant). This is who I am and that is to be my status in this life.”
Over a decade later my parents had just moved to Delhi in 1979 when my father suddenly passed away. We struggled to cope with preparations for the funeral, accommodate visitors and family that started to gather and deal with the many other issues needing attention. My younger brother and I were clearly unprepared while our mother was distraught. Suddenly, out of the blue Panditji together with AD (another family retainer who had been with us for a very long time) arrived unannounced and quietly assumed charge. They did the groceries, managed the kitchen and ran the house efficiently, without a fuss. Also, S (who had been our father’s chauffeur in the early 1907s when he was posted in a place called Gorakhpur) showed up. He had somehow found out and, after traveling around 1,000 kms overnight, joined us at this time of our bereavement. Later, after the ceremonies were over, S came to bid farewell to my mother. I vividly remember how this grizzled old man silently stood there bowing deferentially, hands pressed together in a “Namaste” as he struggled to maintain composure and dignity. We all knew it was unlikely that we would ever meet again. My mother quietly thanked S for being present and gestured to me to reimburse him for the train fare and substantial expense that he, a man of little means, would have incurred. As I took a small sum of money and tried to put it in S’s shirt pocket he could hold himself back no longer. The unshed tears started to flow freely, as he clasped me to his convulsing breast and softly said, “Beta, sahib ke rehte to mein ghar ka aadmi thaa, aap ne mujhe driver banaa diya?” (“Son, when your father was alive I was considered a member of this family, why must you now remind me that I am a driver?”)
“Woh subah kabhi to aayegi….
…. mitti kaa bhi hai kuchh mol magar, insaanon ki keemat kuchh bhi nahi
insaanon ki izzat jab jhoote sikkon mein naa toli jaayegi
… woh subah kabhi to aayegi”
[That day will dawn, some day…
…. (where, today) while even dust is priced, living persons have no value
when the honor of humans will not be priced as a commodity in bogus money
…. That day will dawn, some day…] – Sahir Ludhianvi