Monday, August 10, 2015

Memories of the Family Helper

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: A waterlogged street in Kolkata 

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, when I awoke from a nap, at my home in Kochi, a thought came to my mind: where is Mohammed Sabir now? For many years I would see him nearly every day. He worked as a helper in my dad’s office at Kolkata.

He would come every day to our house to collect the keys. The office was a kilometre away, on Shakespeare Sarani. He would open it, clean and sweep the floors. Sabir was a person you could turn to, when you had a problem.

In September, 1978, when flood waters entered our ground-floor flat, because of non-stop torrential rain, he arrived holding an umbrella. Then he helped us by getting bricks from a nearby park. The sofa, tables, beds and the refrigerator were placed on these bricks. As a result, they were not damaged. There was six inches of water in all the rooms. We watched with amused surprise as a neighbour's dog nonchalantly passed urine in our living room.

Sabir was from the Munger district of Bihar. He spoke little about his early life. Apparently, one day, as a teenager, he boarded a train and landed up in Kolkata. After working in several menial jobs, he began working for my father. He liked a regular routine. A short man, Sabir always dressed neatly, with his hair combed backwards, plastered to his head, thanks to the use of oil.

It was not that he was perfect. He liked to have a drink in the evenings. I had no idea how much he drank, but, on some mornings, as a child, I could see that his eyes were red.

Sabir remained unmarried for many years. But one day, he told us he was going home. When he returned, he appeared at our home, with a woman in tow. Zaheeba was two inches taller than Sabir. “We have got married,” he said. “She is from my village.”

The mis-matched couple got along well, and had three sons. They lived in a two-roomed house in a slum a few kilometres away. When I look back, I feel astonished that I never visited his home, although he invited me many times.

And the years went past. Soon, there came a moment when it was time to leave Kolkata. My father had retired and was returning to Kerala. I was also moving to south India.

Since Sabir had worked for us for twenty years, my father gave him a sizeable sum of money. That was when he realized he needed to open a bank account. So my dad helped him fill the forms and he signed his name, in a lopsided manner, and the money was deposited. And then he said a surprising thing, “I have to make sure that my children do not know about this.”

His sons had grown up. Sadly, like their father, they did not study much. One worked as a mechanic, another as a driver, and the third as a factory hand. “They might want the money,” he told my father. So, he hid the cheque and passbooks, under several clothes, at the bottom of a tin suitcase, which was pushed under a bed.

You will be surprised to know that there comes a day when parents become afraid of their children,” he told me with a sad smile.

We left Kolkata on a wintry December night. I shook Sabir's hand and said goodbye. He had tears in his eyes.

And since then I have lost touch with him. It was a time when mobile phones did not exist. Sabir had no land phone in his house.

And today, years later, I have no idea whether he is alive or dead. Whether he is healthy or sick. Whether he is still working. He should be about 80 now. All these unanswered questions filled my mind on that recent Sunday afternoon.

Indeed, life is a journey. With some people, mostly family members, you remain in touch till the end. With the others, you go along, for a while, then part ways, never to meet again. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India editions)