By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
4 Jan, 2013
I have never loved anyone else with such intensity and spontaneity as I loved her. She was the most important person in my life from I was born till I left home, in my late teens. Then, she turned old and returned to her village in Bihar, and, a few years ago, she breathed her last.
Babba, as we used to call her, was a simple, unassuming village woman. She had that overwhelming, calf-like innocence which can reduce you to tears, and which only comes out of a life of great hardship. Only the uneducated, uncontaminated by what we call ‘education’, are capable of it, and Babba, as far as I know, was perfectly illiterate. That was at least partly why and how she had retained the purity and inner beauty of a child even when her hair went all white and her face was gnarled with wrinkles.
I don’t know much about her background. I have heard, though, that her parents worked as labourers in a tea garden in Assam and that when she was a baby she was rescued from being kidnapped by a so-called sadhu, who wanted to sacrifice her to appease a bloodthirsty goddess. Her first husband had died in a road accident, and shortly after she approached my parents—who were then in Assam—for a job. This was some years before I was born, and my mother readily agreed to take her on. She was like a friend to my mother, being almost of the same age.
Babba stayed with us for almost half a century. To the rest of the world she was a ‘maidservant’ or an ‘ayah’, but to me she was my real mother. To be honest, I felt much closer to, and freer with, her and her husband (she married again—to a man who worked as a cook in our house) than my biological parents. Babba’s love was total and unconditional—I never felt quite the same way with regard to anyone else. I can’t recall Babba ever losing her temper with me or being in a foul mood, despite the drudgery of rearing me and my parents’ two other children, in addition to a child that she and her husband had adopted. Later in life, Babba went blind in one eye—I think it was the result of a faulty operation done by an ill-trained doctor to whom she may have been sent to have a cataract removed. Yet, even after this, not once did I hear her complain. Honestly, I don’t recall her even gossiping or pointing out the faults of others, real or imaginary. You will have to believe me when I say that I’ve never seen a person who took life—which definitely wasn’t easy for her—with such grace and lightness as Babba.
The earliest memory that I have of myself as a child is of Babba giving me a bath in a plastic tub. There’s no one else I can recall from that period of my life with similar clarity and about whom I have similarly pleasant memories. As I write these lines, I remember Babba clicking open her paan-box and tucking a betel leaf into her cheek. I see her taking a load of washing up to the terrace to dry. I picture myself lying in her lap, listening to her singing an Assamese song or telling me a bedtime story (she knew dozens of these, and she was skilled in making them up herself) to put me to sleep. I watch her getting me ready for school. I see myself sitting with her and her husband behind the kitchen as I escape from my parents, who are again quarreling with each other or are busy entertaining ‘high-society’ guests, whom I intensely want to avoid. How much I’d rather be with Babba than with anyone else, I felt throughout much of that painful period of growing up in a house where I always felt an outsider.
Babba remained a low-paid ‘servant’ almost till she died. True, ‘servants’ in our family weren’t treated half as horribly as in some other homes, and sometimes my parents could be generous. Yet, they were always made to remember ‘their place’ and to constantly bear in that their principal purpose in life was, so the subliminal message that was constantly sent out conveyed, to ‘serve’ us. It was as if they were members of a completely different and wholly subordinate species, created specially to wait on us. They had to use a separate staircase (which climbed up from the rear of the building, and which stank of urine and garbage) to come to our flat. They had separate sets of utensils. They couldn’t use the loos in our house—the very thought of sitting on the same commode was thought to be utterly repulsive. They had to address my parents as ‘saheb’ and ‘mem saheb’, and could never lose their temper with us—for fear, possibly, of losing their jobs. They had to eat after having served us our meals and could never share our dining table. They had to sit on the floor—for them to sit on a chair or on the sofa was completely unthinkable. They had to come up early in the morning, and if they were late they’d be in for a scolding, which they had to smilingly tolerate. Barring a one-month vacation, they got no leave. They had to work in our home almost every day of the year, for which they weren’t paid an exactly handsome salary. I can’t see it all as anything other than paid slavery, tempered with some compassion. But even then, it was nothing as bad as the fate of ‘servants’ in many other houses, although that’s no reason to condone how they were treated.
The ‘servants’ slogged in our house till well after dinner, and then they went down to their suffocating “servants’ quarters” (which were only just a little bigger than dolls’ houses) to quickly snatch some sleep, only to come back to our home early the next morning and repeat the same tiresome daily routine. That was what life was like for Babba for years on end, which Existence, God, Fate or the oppressive caste-class system had decreed for, or forced on, her. But never once did I hear her complain or express the wish that her life had been better—less miserable or with more reason to be cheerful. She was really the sort of person whom neither pleasure not pain can move. She really had the equanimity of a Buddhist monk.
That was Babba. You might think I am exaggerating but I know I definitely am not—she was the most angelic human being I have ever met. And I know, too, that I will probably never meet anyone like her again.