Pitter-patter the rain fell outside. I lit a cigarette and looked outside the window, down at the waterlogged streets. It looked like the gloomy weather outside was reflecting the melancholy inside me.
I’ve always had a difficult life but what I felt today was nothing like I had ever felt before.
My world, the one I had painstakingly built, had fallen apart after that one phone call last week.
I still vividly recall the sequence of events leading to the phone call:
After a hectic week, I had come home tired. There was still some work left before I could call it a day. I grudgingly switched on my laptop and began working. A few quick calls and then all one could hear was the hammering of keys on my laptop.
It was going to be a long night so I had picked up dinner on my way.
I don’t know how long I sat there sipping my coffee and preparing the dreaded report. I had the entire weekend to finish it but somehow there was a nagging feeling that I should finish it first.
Not a bad idea. I thought. This would give me an entire weekend to chill. If only I knew how wrong I was.
With a sprain in my neck and watery eyes, I finally managed to finish the report close to three in the morning. I quickly sent the mail with specific instructions that I shouldn’t be disturbed over the weekend. Stumbling to my room, I hit the bed and immediately sleep engulfed me.
I woke up to a phone call.
“Damn it!” I cursed, fumbling for my phone. Barely three hours of sleep and an unknown number was flashing on the screen. Cursing, I disconnected the call and went back to sleep. The person on the other end was a little too desperate though and rightfully so. He called again.
Exasperated, I picked up my phone ready to pour in the choicest of curses.
“HELLO”, I shouted on the phone.
“Hi Mamoni”, the voice at the other end said.
This at once alerted me. Only a very few close people from my struggling days called me by that name. For others I was the fierce Antara Biswas. But I had never heard this voice before. I was sure of it.
“Mamoni you there?” The voice at the other end brought me back from my trail of thoughts.
“He—hello yes”, I stammered, now really curious about who the person at the other end was.
“Hi I have some bad news for you. Willda* is no more. I am his neighbor Tanmoy. He used to speak a lot about you when he was alive. I thought you might want to pay your respect. I’ll hang up now. I have to get everything ready for his last rites. We have kept his body in the mortuary. Hope to see you by six today. Bye”, he hung up without waiting for a reply from me.
I just sat there for what felt like an eternity, suddenly fully awake. Numb. I am a strong girl, having hardly ever cried before. But that day I just couldn’t hold my tears. They started flowing down my cheeks uncontrollably.
Will or jethu* as I lovingly called him had entered my life when I was the most vulnerable, when I needed support the most. We weren’t related by blood. In fact I think that’s why I adored him more. Having had a rough childhood, I hated my family. My loving dad had passed away when I was still a kid and my step dad never failed to take advantage of me. A chill ran down my spine recalling my childhood. I am glad that one day I mustered the courage and ran from home with just enough money that would help me survive for a few days. I worked odd jobs, mostly more than one each day so that I could pay for my college. I was a bright student and I knew I had to become successful.
One of my most stable jobs was that of a waitress at a small cafe near my college. Jethu was one of my regular clients. He was a sweet man. He would strike up a conversation with almost everybody.
I still remember the first time he came to the cafe. Short, a little plump, with a moustache. He had flaming red hair. He was neatly dressed in a well ironed white shirt which he had paired with khaki pants. Probably in his mid-fifties, he looked British.
“Excuse me ma’am“ he said looking at me. I was astonished. The crowd here at the cafe was decent but never before had anyone here spoken to me with such respect.
I immediately went to his table with a little uncertainty. His sweet smile was so infectious.
“Hi”, he continued. “Can you suggest what is good here? I am new to this locality and would really love a good breakfast. Also, some tea. He paused looking at my name tag “Bhalo cha chai*” he winked.
“I am William” he continued after looking at my bewildered expression., “I’m from Glasgow but my parents shifted to Kolkata when I was young and I just love Bengali.“
“You can call me Will”, he added.
Soon he became a regular. I always waited for him to show up. He was very chatty and I felt an instant connection with him. We would talk a lot about Bengal. We would talk about the difference in lifestyle here in Mumbai and back home. I didn’t mind going out of my way to help him. At times when his bags were heavy I would even help drop them at his door. He invited me multiple times to come to his place but I felt uncomfortable each time that happened.
This continued for over a year and then suddenly he just stopped coming. I waited for him for two-three days. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more and mustered my courage to visit him after my shift.
I knocked at his door, still hesitant.
“It’s open”, his sweet voice came from the other end.
After a few seconds of hesitation, I entered his house. It was pretty big. Nothing like I had ever seen before. The interior was well done. It however looked a little dusty as if it hadn’t been cleaned for quite some time. The sound of television was coming from one of the rooms which I assumed would be his bedroom. Awkwardly I walked towards it.
“Ah Mamoni” he said sweetly as soon as he saw me. He lay in his bed watching television. “Come here” he motioned towards a sofa next to his bed.
“You haven’t been coming” I blurted out almost accusingly as soon as I sat.
“Ah” he gave his infectious smile. “I missed a step the other day, fell down and broke my legs”
“Normal for a person my age. Don’t worry” he chuckled at my aghast look. “My housekeeper had to leave and I was actually waiting for a new one the center said would send me.” he said matter-of-factly.
“I’ve missed you,” he added lovingly.
I flushed in embarrassment. This was the first time someone had said this to me.
“Can I ask you for a favor?” he hesitatingly asked.
“Can you please make me some tea? I am dying for a good cup of tea.”
I immediately rushed to the kitchen he pointed towards and fixed him tea exactly the way he liked it.
“Aah cha.. bhalo cha*” he said as he took the first sip of tea. I sat there chatting with him for what seemed like hours. A phone call interrupted our conversation.
“Hello” he picked it up. “There isn’t anyone you say? Can you at least refer someone to me who can help?” There was a long pause while he listened to the person at the other end. “Oh okay. Thank you anyways” he responded and then hung up the phone dejected.
“What is it?” I enquired.
“Oh, I don’t have a housekeeper and I don’t know how I will manage now.” he pointed at his broken legs. He looked so vulnerable that without a second’s thought I blabbered – “I’ll help”
“Really? You’ll leave the waitress job and your other job for me?” he questioned. “You know you’ll have to stay with me 24*7 right?” he continued, sure that I had not understood what he meant. “I can pay you only 700 per day. You can stay and eat here of course” he looked at me with a puppy face.
I considered the offer. Frankly speaking I had not considered taking a full-time job. I just wanted to help him out of love. But now that he offered such a lucrative job there was no reason I shouldn’t kick the other useless jobs. I would also save on my rent and electricity and get to spend more time with jethu.
“I can start right away. From today, 19th of September 1995, I Mamoni, consider myself as your permanent housekeeper” I bellowed almost jumping. Jethu didn’t seem any less happy. I got the mop and started dusting. I almost broke one of his showpieces in excitement.
“Mr. Mancho” he screamed. “He is very dear to me. Please take good care of him” he sounded almost like a mad man to me.
Thus, began my relationship with jethu. I tended to him, cleaned up after him, kept the house tidy, got the groceries and also cooked for him. I felt at home with him. That was the first time ever. He was the sweetest person I knew. He was like a father-figure to me. He forced me to take a break during the day while he slept so that I could continue my college. We sat talking for hours. I opened up to him about my childhood, something I had never done before with anyone. There were hours we would just laugh for no reason. We talked a lot about Kolkata. We would talk about anything and everything under the sun – like how Mr. Mancho was a gift from his late grandmother whom he loved the most. Jethu had been married once and he loved his wife dearly. It was for her that he had shifted to Mumbai in the first place. They never had any kids and after her death he decided to shift to this locality because he couldn’t bear the pain of being in the same house without his beloved wife.
I am more successful now no doubt, but looking back those were the happiest days of my life. I lit another cigarette and began reminiscing about those days again.
Once jethu recovered, there was less work and I offered to quit or take less pay.
“Ah! Tired of the old man already. Are you?” he winked. “I like your company and I am a rich man so don’t you worry about the money. I may not be working now but I still have an enormous amount with me. Besides, the occasional lectures pay me handsomely. So please stay.”
This continued for almost over two years until one day the sad news of his departure came. Although old and retired, he was convinced by the sarpanch of Panchala (a small village in Bengal), to head their newly constructed college of sericulture. It was a good position and he would be paid handsomely by the college owned by big businessmen in Kolkata. But the thought of parting with the only soul I was close to, broke my heart. I put up a strong front and helped jethu pack.
“You know my placements are about to start. I am glad I didn’t have to break your heart by joining a big MNC and eventually leaving you” I tried to convince myself rather than him even though he seemed equally upset.
I travelled with him to the airport. He had a flight to Kolkata and a car would be waiting for him there for his journey to Panchala. Jethu had been crying the entire week up to his departure. That day at the airport he was inconsolable. I also couldn’t keep up my pretense any longer.
That was the first time I cried as an adult and today was the third. I guess jethu did that to me.
We bid farewell to each other. Before leaving, he handed me Mr. Mancho. “This is for you” he mumbled through his tears before turning and leaving.
He called me up as soon as he reached Panchala. “How are you and Mr. Mancho doing without me?”
“We are doing great because we managed to get rid of a mad old man” I laughed.
“Oh.” He feigned dejection. “Acha* listen. Can you get Mr. Mancho?”
I laughed harder and got him. “Here he is sitting on my lap”
“Ok. Can you please unzip his shirt?” He requested.
Rolling my eyes, I did as he instructed. I was surprised to see a locker inside.
“1909” he prompted. “The day you came to stay with me”
My eyes welled up again as I punched the code with trembling hands. A roll of 500s came out of it. “Whaaat?” I stammered.
“That’s the least I could do for you. Please consider this as a parting gift. It is just enough for you to finish your last year in college. I have also paid two years’ rent for the house in advance. So, you can continue staying there till you get a good job. Anything else, I am just a call away.” I was too shocked to say anything that day. This was the first time anyone did anything for me. I just lay on his bed, hugging his pillow and cried myself to sleep that night.
After that we spoke to each other frequently. I still remember the day I landed my first real job. He was so thrilled. The next day a smart office bag was delivered to me with a small note that said:
Live your dream.
I spent almost my entire first salary on a watch for him and got scolded for the same. Once I had enough savings, I took a week off from work and visited him. He was super happy and showed me around as a trophy to the entire village. Almost everyone there called him “Baba”, he had literally adopted the entire village.
After that I could visit him just twice. The last time was to throw him a surprise 75th birthday party, three years ago. The whole village was there. It was a grand affair. Everyone was so happy. I could see the love and pride in jethu’s eyes for me. That was the last time I saw him. I got so busy in the corporate ladder that I just didn’t have the time or the energy for such a long trip.
Our phone calls had also reduced. He still called at times but I was too busy in my own world. I knew I should meet him soon. But I kept pushing that thought away and now it was too late.
I quickly booked a flight and hurried to Panchala. As soon as I entered his house, the whole village started whispering “Mamoni is here” They all came to console me.
“He had been sick as you must be knowing” they said. “Munmun, Shona and Tultuli here took turns tending to him.”
I looked at them with gratitude. I had no idea he was so sick. Thinking of it now, his calls hadn’t come in over four months. I never realised. I cursed myself for not being there for the one person who was there for me always.
I was then led to the room where his body had just arrived. He lay there as calm and smiling as always. He seemed to be peacefully sleeping. It looked like death was just another journey, another adventure for him. I touched his feet. My legs gave away and I collapsed. I couldn’t stop crying the whole day. The simple villagers consoled me, gave me food and soup to calm me down. The entire village was present that day – a witness to how much jethu had done for everyone and how much each one loved him back.
At last his will was read: His entire life’s savings, his villa in the village were all written in my name. I finished the formalities and then went to his room and took the watch he had always worn till the day he died, the watch I had given him. I took it with me so that it would always remind me of the time I had lost.
I snubbed out my cigarette and made the call to my attorney, having decided to give jethu’s belongings to the villagers who had given their all to him, who were really there for him when he needed them the most. Continuing jethu’s legacy, I decided to sponsor the education of the three girls Munmun, Shona, Tultuli. That will be the best tribute I can give him.
Da: Elder bother
Jethu: Dad’s elder brother
Chai: I Want
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