Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Once upon a time in India


What can you say about an old man who died?

That he aged before his time? That he died on a charpai far from where he was born? That his funeral was attended by more than he ever thought would bother?

Ejaz 'Baba' Ahmed was born in Kanpur, India. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by the family of his mother's good friend. He was from a Sunni Muslim family, and his Shia foster family respectfully raised him according to his background. Baba grew to become a soft-spoken well-educated young man, and over time, became a successful businessman. He had an arranged marriage, but no one told him that that his wife had long had psychological problems. Misery embraced him as he realised the deceit. His wife's family frequently lied to him, and after a while, temporarily took in his wife and their 2 sons. His wife, in an effort to escape mistreatment at the hands of her brother's wife, leapt to her death in a well. Baba's sons mistreated him so that he refused to see them ever again. In the meanwhile, Baba lost all his textile goods in post-Indira-Gandhi-assassination India when an angry mob set fire to the truck that was carrying the cloth that was his livelihood. The truck was owned and driven by a Sikh, and the Sikh driver perished in the national retaliation alongwith Baba's future. Baba ended up on the street, and he eventually moved to Lucknow where he started pulling rickshaws. My aunt began to regularly hire him for her trips to her school where she was a teacher. She trusted this tall thin quiet man who never really looked like the other crude rickshaw-pullers. His polite manner and long white beard hardly seemed fitting for the physical exertion of the dirty hot Indian roads. Under his sunburned squint, he didn't look like he belonged on the street. My aunt hired him for all her transport needs, and after learning about his story, began helping him to set up a paan shop and give up the strenuous life of a rickshaw-puller. My aunt lived alone in our big home in India, so she began to involve him in helping her run errands, and that's how Baba began to leave his life on the street. That's when I met him 10-15 years ago. After my aunt died in 2000, my family asked Baba to move into our empty house in India and help run things there for us from Oman. Baba humbly moved into a small room on the terrace and graduated to handling everything from our finances to providing protection to Marjeena, the little orphan girl whom my aunt had taken in many years ago.

2 weeks ago, Baba discovered that he had cancer. My doctor brother's contact in India examined him and discovered that his case was terminal. Baba's health took a sudden turn for the worse and he was put on dialysis as his kidneys failed. He was unable to speak and was only able to gasp for breath. He wasn't even able to walk the stairs up to our house so a charpai was set up for him in the garage where he lay, weak and dying. I called him last week and he was unable to speak, but I spoke to Marjeena and she told him I was calling for him. I heard him struggle to breathe, and I told Marjeena that I'd call again later. 2 hours later, I received an email from my parents on their visit to the US that Baba had passed away in the middle of the night. He was buried in Lucknow around noon that day, and 150 people attended the final farewell. None of them were related to him, but they were all the people from the nearby galis and crannies who had had exchanged salaams with him as he quietly passed them by.

Baba never informed his sons or his family about his illness. He had severed all ties with them many years before. He never talked about them. In the beginning when he started living in our house, my brother had told him to think of us as his family. In his last few days, when my brother spoke to him over the phone from Oman, he asked him to let his sons know about his illness. Baba refused and told him that we were all the family he had.

6 months ago when my mother was visiting India, Baba hired her a taxi to see the new big mall in Lucknow. He was surprised when my mother asked him to not wait in the taxi out in the heat. He had his first ride on an escalator and at first was afraid to get on it. My mother says he had a wonderful time and was very happy at the mall.

At the end of my last trip to India, Baba saw me off as I cried all the way from the house to the taxi. He was crying too and said he didn't know when he would see me again. He used to call me bitiya ('little daughter'). 10 years ago when I was crying after a big fight with my brother, he told me that this stuff happens and I'd be okay. I only found out Baba's real name after he died. He was just Baba who always quietly laughed at my dumb jokes and arranged for any snacks or things I ever wanted on my trips to India.

So I remember Baba, the seemingly ageless tall thin quiet man in the corner with the white mop of hair and equally white beard. I remember his trustworthiness and his trials, and his bare-essential chappals and not-quite-white qurta pajamas. I also remember the surprising hurt he always carried with him.

I wrote a poem a few years ago, and now I realise that I had written a eulogy for Baba. Here you go, Baba, I am so glad you're in a place now that's free from this hurtful existence called life:

The Good Man

There once was a man,
Who, in his life span,
Did nothing but pure real good.

Helped others in pain,
For no personal gain,
He did all that he knew that he could.

And while he was living,
Most misused his giving,
They hurt him with blows and with leers.

But one day he died,
And then those men cried,
So his soul stayed to wipe all their tears.

1 comment:

Irfan said...

What a sad tale . At least he is beyond suffering now. May he rest in peace.