When my father was posted as an instructor in the NDA, we lived in a large bungalow within an extensive compound that contained a number of flower beds, vegetable patches, shrubberies, rockeries and a lawn. Keeping the grounds neat and attractive called for a lot of strenuous work and dedication on the part of our ‘mali’ (gardener). Occasionally, Dad would hire some villagers from close by to supplement the mali’s efforts.
It was a Sunday morning and I had wandered out of the house to see a young peasant couple at work among the flower beds. The man and his wife worked assiduously while their two small children, a boy and a girl, chased each other across the lawn, obviously delighted at having so much space and time in which to play. I was about seven years old. Having nothing better to do, I settled down to watch them from a distance. After a while, I got bored and decided to take an active part in the proceedings. I went up to the man and asked him if I could assist him in any way, but he politely declined my offer. So I went inside the house and did my homework. When I strolled outside again I saw that the family had taken a break to have their lunch. They were sitting together in a circle. I watched with interest as the couple unravelled a few cloth bundles and laid out their meal. It consisted of chapattis, onions, a pinch of salt and … nothing else!
I was appalled!
‘Is that all?’ I blurted out in spite of myself.
‘Yes, of course,’ said the woman, smiling at me.
I ran inside the house, looking for my mother. I found her in the kitchen with Kamala, our maid, putting the finishing touches to our lunch.
‘Mummy, Mummy, you know, those people working in our compound,’ I said breathlessly.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘They’re having their lunch and they’ve only got chapattis and onions and salt and … and … that’s all they’ve got,’ I said in a rush.
Then I burst into tears.
Mummy quickly gathered me in her arms.
‘Don’t cry,’ she said, wiping away my tears.
‘Why don’t they have anything else, Mummy?’ I asked in bewilderment.
‘I wish I could answer that question,’ she said, stroking my back. ‘I can only tell you that we all are fated to go through a lot of sadness in our lives, but yes, we’ll see a lot of happiness too.’
I looked at her in astonishment. Mummy wasn’t usually given to making such philosophical remarks.
Then she smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do something about it. We’ll share our lunch with them.’
Soon, Kamala and I were walking out of the kitchen, bearing containers full of rice, dal, vegetables and curd. The family in the garden were surprised and overjoyed to see what we had brought for them. It was manna from heaven! Kamala returned to the kitchen, but I hung round to watch.
‘Do you want some more?’ I asked anxiously after some time.
‘No, no!’ said the man. ‘Your mother has given so much.’
When they had finished, they washed he utensils scrupulously clean at the tap in the lawn.
I held out my hand to take them back, but the woman demurred.
‘No, I’ll take them in myself. I must thank your mother,’ she said.
I went with her to the kitchen, where Mummy was a little embarrassed by the woman’s effusive thanks. Giving her a few oranges, Mummy sent her on her way.
When we sat down to a scratch lunch, I was in no mood to eat anything. The stark images of the villagers’ meagre fare crowded my mind. As I toyed with my food, my father asked me if I was unwell.
‘No, he’s allright,’ said Mummy, turning to me with a wink. ‘It’s just that he’s been running round outside the whole morning.’
I spent the afternoon playing hide and seek with the peasant children. In the evening, my father came outside to take a look at the work the couple had done. He was satisfied with their efforts and handed the man a generous amount of cash. While taking the money, the man looked at me and told dad, ‘Your boy is very nice.’
‘Has he been troubling you?’ asked dad, eyeing me suspiciously.
I immediately tried to look my saintly best!
‘No, no sahib,’ said the woman, shyly laying a hand on my head and ruffling my hair. ‘Your son is very sweet!’
I cringed with shame. Sweet? A self respecting little ruffian like myself!
Before the family left, the couple asked dad to send them word whenever he wanted any more work done in the garden; they would happily come any time, they assured him. Dad promised not to forget them.
Col Arun Sarkar was commissioned in 5 Rajput on 31 March 1972. He has seen active field service in J&K and in the Northeast and also took part in Op Pawan in Sri Lanka. He speaks French fluently – a language he learnt on his own and in which he passed the Interpreters Examination with distinction from the SFL.