“Beta be careful.” These were the first words he ever said to me; a general concern for an enthusiastic kid trying to climb walls as if she were at a boot camp.
“Who are you?” I squinted, and retorted. He calmly explained that he was there to see my grandmother and I should tell her that Bhola uncle is here. A series of events unfolded after that. I hopped over to convey the man’s message to my grandmother; she stepped out in her crisp, cotton salwar kameez and after exchanging pleasantries, the man got to work as I hovered around nearby.
This man, who called himself Bhola uncle, proceeded to mix a crimson coloured powder with water, which resulted in a liquid mixture that was the colour of volcanic red. His deft hand movements, and the colourful mixture that they produced was magic to my 5 year old eyes. His greasy face cracked into a smile at my wide-eyed fascination, as he painted all the flowerpots in our garden with the same red paint. After that first visit, Bhola uncle became a regular at our house. He was famously called the ‘odd jobs man’; his skill set being exactly what his popular title denoted. He was the man to call whenever an odd job came up; from cleaning the buckets to digging a hole in the garden, from painting pots to planting a tree.
My childhood is interspersed with his affable presence. There I was at 7, playing while he pruned the rose bushes in our garden. There I was at 11, reading a book on the patio while he washed the car. There I was at 13, watching him being in an earnest conversation with our elderly neighbor.
He was in the middle of narrating what appeared to be something hilarious to our neighbor, his eyes lit up and his voice paced with the beats of the story. I say interspersed because his presence, just like his job, was never regular, it depended upon our requirement. I discovered later that he lived all alone, on the edges of the town, in one of the shanties where people who couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else, lived. Having seen him around from as far back as I could remember; I had erroneously assumed that he lived closer, and was a part of this town as much as I was. My wrong assumption was corrected by my grandmother one day as she explained that Bhola uncle was originally from a state on the eastern flank of the country, and often returned to his village to spend time with his family.
“So he has kids and a wife who live somewhere else, why doesn’t he live with them then?” A troubled me asked. The idea that there were families who lived apart, of their own will was terrifying news to me. My grandmother then explained, as gently and patiently as she could, the cold fact that money was a powerful driving force, it could push people to act in unfathomable ways. What my 9 year old brain was struggling to grasp at that time became increasingly clear to me over the years; people twist and contort themselves; their lives, all to survive.
Over the years, I began to see less of Bhola uncle, partly because his visits became rare and partly because I was spending less and less time at home. Entire days would be spent with friends and I would return home exhausted and spent, living the typical life of a teenager, slowly coming of age.
Once I left town for college, my memory of Bhola uncle, along with most other memories of childhood started to recede to the background of my mind, as a new city and new challenges jostled for space at the forefront. But I would often see men who reminded me of him. Men who had left home and heart behind to make a living; men who prided themselves on earning an honest living; men whose faces lit up with joy when they got on calls with loved ones back home, wherever the homes were. Men who wore both determination and weariness on their faces; men who fight to live another day.
I did see Bhola uncle again, perhaps for the last time; he was no longer the athletic young man from my childhood, but was a paler version of his earlier self. Back bent, a gaunt frame, lines across his face numbering far more than my memory had led me to believe. I called out to him, he stopped and looked at me, the lack of recognition in his eyes clear and apparent.
“I am Kamla Devi’s granddaughter, house no 21, Model Town?” I blurted out. The old twinkle came back in his eyes.
“Ahh, I remember, you’ve grown up a lot, beta,” he finally responded.
After some pleasantries, I inquired about his health and his family’s well being.
“Bas chal raha hai,” was his simple response. Things just are.
He was not the sort of person to air his grievances in public but he did let slip that he had recently developed a recurrent pain in his back. It was from all those years of lifting and bending and contorting, the heavy work, and he was consulting a doctor regularly.
“You should come by the house sometime,” I said, not knowing what else to say to this man who meant both so much and so little.
“Yes I will come sometime, maybe in a few weeks.”
I offered to drop him home. He glanced surreptitiously at my car seat and then back at his clothes, and just as his eyes were about to catch mine, I looked away pretending I hadn’t seen his doubtful glance. He swiftly declined and told me that he had a few errands to run in the vicinity and would not want to keep me waiting.
“Okay, but do come by the house, grandmother would like to see you for sure,” I told him and drove off.
I was at home a lot these days, far more than usual. I was in between jobs and had decided to spend the time in my hometown. It had been seven years since I was here, and everything in the town looked different. The roads were wider, some of the shops had faded away, some of the people had passed away. I felt like an impostor at times, barging in and trying to claim some part of this town as mine, when both, the town and I had moved on irrevocably in different directions.
And then, on a day like no other, the virus that had wreaked havoc all around the world finally made its way to our shores. TV channels blasted minute details from the relevant to the absurd about this new virus; caller tunes were replaced by a steady stream of precautionary public service announcements, masks and sanitizers soon became a household staple and life changed.
One Saturday, news rang in that we were entering a phase of lockdown.
“No one goes in or out”– magnified, and imposed over an entire country. Staying at home was the only way to win the pandemic; this virus was sneaky, proclaimed the TV overlords.
“Stay at home”
“All businesses to shut effective immediately”
“Caps on supplies to be introduced”
“Please buy only what you require”
War had been declared overnight and we were no more than deer in blinkers, caught unaware, flailing around in an attempt to cope.
I forgot about Bhola uncle’s promise of visit, in fact I forgot about anything that didn’t have to do with immediate coping with the virus, and survival by extension.
“All people who are from out of town are now walking back to their homes.” blared the TV headline. I sat in front of it, dumbfounded, and the massive toll of the tragedy unfolding right that very moment, suddenly dawned on me.
Thousands of workers – “men who had left home and heart behind to make a living; men who prided themselves on earning a honest living; men whose faces lit up with joy when on calls with loved ones back home” were now treading on foot, over 100s of kilometers to reach ‘home’, unable to make ends meet. All jobs had dried up during this state of ongoing war. I scanned the faces of these people on the TV.
My heart thumped loudly, an uneasiness developed in my chest and made its way up to my throat, sitting there for a long time afterwards.
Each day brought with it new tales of woe. 12 died enroute to their village; exhaustion, starvation and apathy continued to hunt day and night. On a spring day, 10 days into the lockdown, as I sat chopping vegetables with my grandmother, we got talking about Bhola uncle.
“Do you think he has left Bhimgarh,” she asked, a shadow of fear and sorrow crossing her face.
“Maybe, maybe not,” I replied, with resignation.
“Don’t you think we should try and find out?” asked my grandmother, her capacity for hope untarnished by age.
None of the weariness and cynicism that is a regular purview of the elderly had seeped into her. In contrast, my pessimism, made me seem older than my years, an old lady in young age. The ridiculous thought of myself pottering around as a tiny old lady made me smile. Joy was both a scarce and plentiful commodity these days.
“What do you suggest we do? We don’t have any contact details, we don’t even know where he lives.” My grandmother reasoned that the only course of action was to call this guy, Nandu, who knew another guy who had been occasionally seen with Bhola uncle in the past.
I agreed reluctantly, I wanted to make sure Bhola uncle was ‘okay’, but I also did not want to give my grandmother and myself false hope; by undertaking a quest that might not ultimately lead anywhere. But figuring there was no harm in making some calls, I set out to call Nandu, tracing the weave of relations that could lead us to Bhola uncle. The weave turned out to be slightly more complex that I had anticipated.
Nandu led us to Ashok, Bhola uncle’s friend, acquaintance, and fellow worker all rolled into one apparently; I did not seem to have a clear grasp of their relationship. But Ashok led us to Meeta who then led us to Bhola uncle’s home in Bhimgarh. Home is a term I use loosely, they say home is where the heart is, where Bhola uncle’s heart was, I wondered as we approached the shanty that was his house for the past 10 years.
The place showed signs of recent abandonment, an odd silence hung over the homes all around as well; the smell of desertion heavy in the air. One could almost feel the presence of life hastily discarded, shunned and snuffed out. After about 10 minutes of surveying the area, we found someone – a woman.
“Are you here with food,” her eyes lit up. When we told her that we were instead looking for an old man, who went by the name Bhola, she reluctantly decided to give us some information. It was barely a scrap of information, but it was something. Bhola uncle had left 5 days back with a group of people from his home state. She could not give us anything beyond that.
“One of them had an autorickshaw,” she mentioned in passing, a glazed look passed over her eyes and we were no longer sure if she was talking about Bhola uncle anymore. I walked into my home with a sense of loss that day, an unfathomable, indefinable loss.
What was I grieving for? The hordes of people walking with only hope as company, starving and maybe even dying en route? The fear that Bhola uncle might be one of them? Days passed and then months passed soon enough too. The March spring gave way to the sunny and bare blue skies of April and May and then we found ourselves in the humid pall of July and August. Month after month rolled by and life moved on.
It has been two years since then. The landline rings. I pick up.
“Hello beta,” the voice on the other end says, cracking and patchy. My heart leaps with hope. “Sorry I think I dialed the wrong number.”
Arshiya Sharda is a writer and lawyer based in New Delhi. She makes sense of the world by writing about it. You can read more of her work at arshiyashrd.