By: Antara Roy
Bahadur, that was what we called him. Simply, Bahadur. No one knew his real name, or where he came from, or where, eventually, he went. He was always there; in the garden, tending to the plants, humming and singing to them; walking aimlessly around town, whistling his favourite tune; sitting by the stream, looking at people wash their clothes.
It looked like he had nothing very important to do. And so it was with us. Especially during the school holidays. There was nothing much to worry about; we thought hard about whether to play ludo or carom or go down to the stream and wade through the water.
You could say those days were ordinary, nothing really happened, and yet I remember the past so clearly. Those simple moments moulded that time, slowly and gently, into something beautiful. And it is this beauty, I see now, completely, in retrospect.
From this simple and ordinary past comes the character of Bahadur.
This is his story. Simple, and yet memorable. Funny, and heart warming. Even after all these years, I still haven’t met another like him.
Although Bahadur was officially employed as the gardener in my grandma’s ancient bungalow, he was there for anyone who needed a helping hand; most times, if he was in an agreeable mood. Weddings, the homecoming of a new born baby, a school function or a bachelor’s party- Bahadur was there not just to help but also to join in the festivities. There was hardly any celebration in town without his singing and dancing. My uncle said his voice carried the freshness of the Himalayan mountains, making you want to close your eyes and drift into the clouds.
The Himalayan mountains, where he came from…
And like anybody else, Bahadur had his irregular moods, and there were days when his darker side would reveal itself, turning him into someone morose and withdrawn. Gone was the warm, open face. Gone was the frank, disarming smile. These were times when you would not want him to be a part of your celebrations, and leave him to his odd, brooding ways.
His home was a cozy little outhouse that stood prettily at the backyard of the old bungalow, next to an old, abandoned bath tub that he had converted into a neat, miniature garden. But he hardly stayed at home. When he was done with all the work in the garden, he walked around aimlessly, singing mountain songs, and if there was anyone who needed a helping hand, all they had to do was call out to him.
I often met him on my way back from school.
“Where are you headed?” I asked, one summer morning.
“Oh, nowhere in particular, wherever these old legs take me,” he replied cheerfully, breaking into one of his infectious laughs, and the next instant, as I turned and walked on, into one of those haunting melodies.
“Mother earth, mother earth, turn me into a butterfly so I can stick to your beautiful bosom,” he sang.
I felt, and so did everyone else in town, that there was something magical and ethereal about his voice; his refreshing songs had the power to drive away the monotony and dreariness of daily existence.
There were also days when Bahadur completely disappeared from everyone’s sight. My grandma, tired of waiting for him to reappear, often hired a temporary gardener to attend to her plants.
And , then, one glittering, sunny morning, when the grass was a happy green and the marigolds a cheery orange, Bahadur danced his way home with a happy gait, and in no time settle down to his duties in the garden.
Crying out in delight, grandma welcomed him with tea and snacks. She missed the old man, and knew better to not probe him with too many questions about his disappearing acts.
One of his many peculiarities was a mysterious past, something that he was proud of, and would not reveal too easily. Not everyone knew that he was born in Darjeeling, and had served in the Indian army for more than twenty years.
Just as he had a way with words and songs, Bahadur also had a special way with plants. Everyday the flowers, shrubs, and creepers in the garden smiled and bloomed at/with his touch. It was amidst these bright, fragrant and water-dripping plants that I often basked in his sunny company. He made a great companion if you didn’t press him with too many questions, and on many occasions I was unexpectedly rewarded with glimpses of his secret past.
He once told me of a battle he had been to, confessing that as a soldier he always felt uneasy carrying a weapon in his hands. Holding a weapon felt unnatural, making him feel heavy, both mentally and physically. Now, here, in this garden, his hands took to the earth naturally, and he felt as light as a butterfly.
After a breezy and agreeable summer, and a soothing, nourishing autumn, the bone chilling winter slowly took over. Although winter in Shillong is a difficult season, there are the good things too. Drinking a cup of steaming, hot tea in bed while reading a favourite book. Delighting in the warmth of a well lit bonfire with friends and family. Braving the ice-like cold wind of a winter day as you step out for a walk and then stepping into the warmth of a cosy room. Flinging open your overcoat and cap and sitting near the heater, waiting for that hot cup of tea.
Every evening, during the winter, a bonfire was usually lit up in our compound, thanks to Bahadur who toiled hard to collect the firewood. The sight of the glowing fire, the sound and smell of the cackling wood, and the constant chatter were more than enough to help us beat the cold and keep us going up to dinner time. Circling around the fire, we talked of everyday things, as our bodies got comfortably warm. My uncle was more of a listener, and it was my aunt who did most of the talking, along with her son, Vicky. But soon she had to tear herself away from the fire and arrange for dinner, while we selfishly held on to the warmth. Bahadur would join us every now and then, sometimes cracking a joke or two, or making his presence felt by humming and whistling light tunes. It was one of these evenings when everyone had said what they had to say, and only the burning cackling wood was doing the talking. Just then, Bahadur looked at me, and asked in a most curious way:
“Tell me Missie, have you ever seen a ghost?”
Without waiting for an answer, he continued:
“Listen Missie, I will tell you of a few ghosts and spirits I have encountered while walking out late in the night.”
And in spite of my misgivings, and knowing I would have to spend a sleepless night were I to listen to ghost stories, that too supposedly real ones, I found myself paying complete attention to Bahadur’s narratives.
“The very first ghost that I saw was a strange one,” began Bahadur.
“‘I was on my way back home after a hearty dinner with my friends, and the hour was close to midnight. On an impulse, I took the short route home, the one that ran past the old church. My good friends had warned me against this route as it was believed to be haunted by a spirit, but I had had a good dinner and was in an adventurous mood. Besides I never really believed in ghosts; but only until that fateful night. And so I hummed and whistled, and walked along that dark and spooky old Church road. Not a soul in sight, and the sound of my own breath felt loud to my ears. The sky above was pitch dark.’
‘I hurried along the lonely path towards the main road where I hoped to see brighter lights. I stopped short. I heard the slow and plaintive notes of a piano. The haunting melody set a dark tone to the already darkening night.’
‘Looking to my right, I noticed I was at the foot of a flight of stairs that led up to the old, abandoned church, and what I saw there, sitting on top of the stairs was enough to make the hair on my skin stand up.’”
Bahadur paused for a while, looked into my eyes. Looking at his eyes, clear and steady, I was thoroughly convinced it was a real life ghost story I was listening to.
“Wha..what..did you see Bahadur?” I asked, feeling short of breath.
And then the sudden sound of bursting firewood startled me out of my seat.
“What are you so afraid of?” My uncle chided me.
“Err…uncle, I’ve never heard a real life ghost story before.”
“What? Nonsense! Don’t believe a word he says.” said my uncle,and then looking eagerly at Bahadur, said, “Go on, what happened next? What was it that you saw up there?”
“‘I tell you Missie, I have never seen such a ghastly sight in my life. Through the dim light of the street lamp, I saw this creature, a very dreadful looking creature, with hair so long that it almost ran halfway down the steps, and nails so long that they looked like crooked, sinister branches growing out of those long and evil looking fingers. I began to shiver on my toes, unable to move. Slowly it lifted its head up, and some of that long hair slid back to reveal a face, a face so frightful that it could make a man lose his mind. And those eyes!’ ‘ Those eyes, they made me run for my life, and so fast did I run that I was home before I even knew it. I shivered all night, and waited for the sun to rise; only then did I get some sleep. And when I was awake, I was running a high fever. I promised myself to never again walk through that haunted old church road.”
“Ha!Ha! Everything long! Long nails, long fingers, long hair! It seems like you had a lot to drink at the bachelor’s party that night eh?” mocked my cousin, Vicky.
Turning a deaf ear to what my cousin said, Bahadur continued with his next story:
“‘This was when I was walking back home again after a late night dinner. I walked along the market road that was as desolate as one would expect it to be at that hour of the night. Although there was not another soul around, the familiar sight of shops, even with their shutters down, was enough to put me at ease.’
‘It was a road that I knew very well, having passed through it on many late nights. I whistled and
hummed my way back home. After a while, I brought out the beetle nut and leaf that my friend had offered me, and chewed on it, working up a rich lather in my mouth.’
‘And then, just when I was about to spit out the thick juice, I was taken aback by a sudden extraordinary jolt. Someone or something had punched me hard on my right cheek, making a mess of my mouth, what with the beetle nut juice unceremoniously spattering out. My poor mouth- it felt revolted and shocked. I looked all around but there was not a sound or trace of anyone else. ‘
‘Then it came again, the second blow, and this time it was on my left cheek! And yet again, there was no one around but my shadow. Sensing that there was something supernatural about these blows, I quickened my pace, and soon my walk broke into a wild run. Inside the safe walls of my little home, I stood in front of the mirror and minutely inspected both of my beetle nut juice stained cheeks; much to my dismay they had turned a deep crimson red as a result of the terrific blows. I looked nothing short of a circus joker!”
This story got us giggling and laughing, although the thought of the ghastly sight on the stairs of the old church still made me shudder.
“You seem to be getting good at this, old man! Running away at a frenzied speed from nocturnal ghosts! It must have been the policeman or a fellow night creature like you punching you in that way, and you were too intoxicated to notice,” said uncle.
“Missie! It’s not funny,” said Bahadur, completely ignoring my uncle, and again with the same burning conviction. “It is true, there was nobody around.”
“Alright, it is true, Bahadur, if you insist. Now come along, there is a special dinner waiting for us tonight,” invited my uncle, and I felt my stomach rumble with the impending delight.
The irresistible aroma of my aunt’s cooking teased our appetites and for a while we forgot about all the ghosts in town. Bahadur got his dinner packed, and in his cosy room, he relished every bite as the radio played his favourite tunes. And as we devoured the sumptuous meal, I told my aunt of the story of the ghost on the old church road.
“Why, it is the very same ghost that my colleagues in school told me about,” she said.
“Oh really? I said, suddenly breaking into a sweat, “which means it’s a true story.”
“Oh! Nonsense! It must be Bahadur himself telling the same story to one of your school people.” said uncle.
We ate in silence, the wonderfully prepared rich, warm food now settling in our half filled stomachs. A strong wind pushed open the front door. The old door creaked and squealed till it opened out fully to a windy night outside. Wandering, dry leaves made way inside, and the atmosphere turned strangely eerie. I stopped chewing the food in my mouth, feeling quite edgy.
“It…it has happened before. I forgot to fasten the latch, and it’s an old door,” said aunt, nervously.
And when she reached out to close the door, she let out such a scream that it brought my heart to my mouth. And the next thing we heard: “Bahadur! Really, you gave me a fright!”
I rushed to the door, and got a fright myself. Bahadur, in a black woollen cap and a black thick shawl that covered half his face and almost his entire body, could well pass off for one of those nocturnal ghosts he so frequently encountered.
“Hello Missie! I’m out for a late night walk. I had too much to eat, what a fantastic dinner, thanks to your aunt,” said the night walker, flashing a wide grin that displayed his red, beetle nut stained teeth to full glory. What a sight he looked!
Although he was blessed with a sunny and cheerful disposition, Bahadur’s mood swings occasionally got the better of him. There were times when he sulked and grumbled like a disgruntled old woman, and you would rather stay out of his way.
It was the day of my cousin, Vicky’s, wedding ceremony and Bahadur happened to be in one of his infamous, bitter moods. There was a desperate shortage of workers owing to the festival season, and Bahadur’s services were much desired.
My aunt, helpless, asked me to go and fetch him to help out with the work. I was well aware of his dark mood for only that morning I was snubbed by him; I had innocently asked him how he was doing, and he unceremoniously barked back, saying: “How are you? How are you? Don’t ask me the same boring questions everyday!” Dear Old Bahadur! But it was an emergency, and I had to swallow my pride, and muster up all my courage to go and get him.
A dim light flickered inside his one room home, and the radio played popular tunes from Hindi cinemas. That seemed like a good sign- the music from the radio may have had a soothing effect on his enraged nerves.
I tapped gently on his door and waited for an answer. He turned down the volume of the radio. I heard him shuffling on his feet, and from his window, as I had half expected, he howled:
“What is it? What do you want? Can’t you people ever leave me alone?”
“Ba..Ba…Bahadur, you…you… are urgently needed down there. You do know Vicky bhaiya is getting married, don’t you? Aunt could really do with your help right away.” I pleaded the best I could.
“Ha..Ha..Ha,” he laughed ominously. “Vicky bhaiya’s wedding, is it? And they want me to help out, do they? Well, I was never invited!”
And then it struck me. So that was the reason behind his foul temper!
“Come now, Bahadur, you are like family to us. Why do we need to invite you?”
“Family eh? Sure, I’ll show them how much of a family man I am. Tell your aunt I’ll be there in a while.”
I walked away, confused and apprehensive. I sent a prayer up to heaven, wishing all would end well. After all, it was a special day for my cousin, and for all of us.
“What happened? How is the old man? Did he agree to come,” asked aunt, feverishly.
“Well, he did agree to come, but you may not like what you see. You didn’t invite him? He is very upset.”
“What do you mean he is very upset? And why does he need an invitation?”
“You know how he is aunt. You should have invited him!”
“Oh, fine! fine! I will apologise if I have to. The old goat will come around when I offer him some sweets.” Aunt was sure of turning him around, but I still felt uneasy. I wasn’t very sure of Bahadur that day.
The quirky man had kept his word, and in less than 15 minutes he was there, ready to lend a helping hand. But what really bowled us over was his attire. He was dressed up in a most bizarre fashion, throwing colour co-ordination to the wind. I recognised the bright pink tie that had been handed down to him by my grandpa, but had no clue where he picked up the uncomfortably startling yellow shirt, strangely hued green coat, and appalling purple trousers from. He smiled, but his smile was clouded. He most definitely was up to something.
Aunt screeched with joy when she saw him, and offered a plate full of the best sweets in town before he could go about his work.
The guests were expected to arrive at any moment. There was a sense of excitement and celebration in the air. But, there was still a lot more to be done- the bridegroom had to be dressed, the chairs had to be arranged, the food had to be supervised, and a whole lot more tasks to be completed.
Meanwhile, Bahadur was possessively holding on to his plate of sweets and looking for a comfortable seat. He looked up at the raised platform and noticed the grandly decorated chairs that were meant for the bride and the bride groom. Without a second thought, he climbed up to the stage, and seated himself on one of the grand chairs to make the most of his plate of sumptuous sweets. Next to where he sat, there were garlands of flowers kept in a basket. On an impulse, he picked one of these and crowned it around his head to make himself a bright and colourful floral turban. He was getting into the mood for a joyous evening, and looked quite the part of a happy go lucky bride groom gorging on rich, delectable sweets.
In a short while, the evening grew more vibrant. The guests slowly began to arrive- fashionable ladies showed up in their best dresses and ornaments, creating a buzz with their social chatter, children played wildly and ran around, the men stood around in groups, discussing local town affairs, and young, shy adolescents, sat awkwardly next to their parents, wishing they were somewhere else instead.
Sensing the surge in activities, Bahadur promptly dragged his chair towards the edge of the stage to enjoy his sweets with greater relish. And soon the camera man and his crew arrived. This was a small group of local boys who had enthusiastically started their very own company, and the sign above their studio in the market square read: “Panther Video Camera and Still Photography- for your luxurious events.” The studio was named after their chief photographer, a young man of 17, fondly called as “Panther,” in honour of his short temper. The camera man, Suresh, and his assistant, Raju, were a little older, and shared a common passion for supari and meetha paan. Their mouths were perpetually red, and their faces often sported a wide, toothy grin- repulsive enough to keep children away. Panther, getting his camera ready and trying to get a feel of the crowd, noticed someone or something stir at the edge of the stage. He was curious by nature, and instantly climbed up to see what it was.
“Why it’s the bridegroom himself!” thought Panther, looking at the very contented Bahadur.
Without losing a second, Panther began to click away and take shots of the floral turbaned bride groom. Bahadur played the good sport; it was the first time anyone had ever wanted to take pictures of him, and so many of them. It made him feel important. But wait a minute, thought Bahadur, his face was barely visible in the thick of the hanging flowers; how could the photographs possibly come out well? With a grand
gesture, Bahadur thrust aside the garland, and flashed his best possible smile at the camera, comically exposing his broken, crooked teeth.
Crying in disbelief, Panther almost fell off the stage.
“What’s the matter?” asked Bahadur, a little upset that the photo session had abruptly halted.
“Ummm…nothing! I thought you were the bride groom!” said Panther, with unconcealed disgust in his voice.
“Why, you don’t think I can be the bride groom?” retorted Bahadur.
“You and bride groom? You look like a character out of a comic strip!” Panther burst out laughing.
This did not go down too well with our man. Rising slowly from his seat, and flashing another of his ominous smiles, Bahadur made a sudden leap at the photographer; no less than a nimble jungle cheetah, and before anyone knew it, both men were wrestling each other on the stage.
In a fit of mad frenzy, Bahadur bit into the young man’s ears, and did not let go for a long time. Panther screamed with all his might, like a trapped wild beast. By now, everyone had stopped doing whatever they were doing, and were gaping unbelievably at the incredible spectacle on the stage. To highlight the moment, Suresh and his assistant flashed the video camera lights on the stage.
With his bleeding ear, Panther looked like a ravaged beast ready to destroy anyone who got on his way. As the passionate struggle continued on stage, more and more guests arrived, clutching on to their shiny gift wrapped parcels. All stood still at the sight of the two warriors desperately fighting each other under the glaring camera lights. Some of these guests were not sure if the fight was part of the evening entertainment, or an outcome of an unfortunate misunderstanding. Slowly, few of the men came forward and began cheering for the wrestlers.
My poor aunt could not believe what she saw. How could Bahadur do this to her after she offered him the best of sweets? She was one perturbed woman; there was worry written on every line of her face. With a desperate look, she signalled me to follow her. I saw her walking towards the backyard that was usually the empty and quiet part of the house. When I met her there, I was greatly troubled to see her usually gentle features turn rough and hard.
“What does he think? He can just embarrass us this way, and get away from it?” she said, fuming with anger.
“Who are you talking about?” I asked foolishly.
“Why? Who else? Your dear great friend, Bahadur! Tell him to step down from the stage at once or I’ll bring out your grandpa’s old rifle and do something drastic.”
“But..but ..aunt, why me? Haven’t you seen how ferocious he looks! And moreover, I would not stand a chance with him! Why not send Vicky bhaiya to stop the fight?”
“Send Vicky on to the stage? He’s the bride groom for God’s sake! I won’t have my son climbing on to the stage to stop a silly fight. You do it since he is such a good friend of yours; after all you both spend hours chatting away in the garden.”
That was that. My aunt seemed to think that I was partly responsible for bringing on the fight, and now I had to go and try to put a stop to the fierce and vicious battle.
I took slow and steady steps towards the scene of the fight. I was hoping against all hope that the fight may have stopped on its own, but it seemed to be getting only worse. Panther looked raving mad, his hair sticking out like a porcupine’s quills, and his peculiarly shaped ears, like two sentinels, ready for a good fight to last all night long. Bahadur was at his best, like a professional wrestler who had long retired from his field, and was now, by some stroke of luck, back in action again. It looked like both of them were enjoying the fight and were in no mood to bring it to an end. But I had my duties to fulfil, and hesitatingly made my way up to the glorious stage. I was surprised to find a large part of the crowd cheering for Bahadur.
“Get him, old man, I know you can do it!” cheered old retired colonel Ravi Shukla.
“Hey Bahadur, look out, don’t let him punch your stomach, keep your defences,” advised Pyarelal, owner of a local grocery store.
Everyone appeared to be having a whale of a time; this was perhaps more entertaining than the wedding party itself, and I was sorry to put an end to it. I struggled my way through the cheering crowd to reach out to the fighting duo, but before I could step on to the stage, I felt a tight grip around my wrist.
“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?” It was Miss Jean, the quiet, old widow who lived in her lovely little cottage next to the gurgling stream. Although she had aged considerably there was still an irresistible charm about her that made her a favourite with everyone.
“Hello Miss Jean, my aunt has strictly ordered me to put an end to this insane fight so that the wedding ceremony can finally take place.”
“Oh, let go of the wedding, this is so exciting! It’s been years since I have seen such a spirited fight. You know, before we were married, my husband would pick up such fights with anyone who dared to court me,” she said, her cheeks blushing.
Miss Jean looked small and delicate, and until that day I had little idea that there was so much strength in her hands. I struggled in vain as her hand gripped me firm and right. I had no choice but to give in to the old lady’s might. Very soon I found myself following the fight, and the two valiant warriors were indeed very impressive with their surprising moves and attacks. It looked like a scene straight out of a Jackie Chan movie. Bahadur very much fitted into the role of a Chinese warrior- quick with his steps, sliding forward and backward, as if his legs were light, nimble feathers. Panther, although not as flexible as Bahadur, was impressive in his own way. His heavy gait almost shook the ground, reminding me of the classic movie, King Kong. Panther was a heavy and big lad, and his chest heaved with long and furious breaths every time he escaped a blow from the sprightly enemy.
Now this was exciting, and I no longer felt the grip of the old lady’s hand, or maybe she had let go, I couldn’t tell. I joined the rest of the crowd, and cheered on, oblivious to time or my aunt’s wishes. But before long, we heard the sound of sirens, and a familiar looking jeep parked itself right there on the entrance. It soon dawned upon me- my aunt had called the police! Out came Inspector Peter with his usual gang of assistants.
Not happy with the turn of events, the crowd protested. But there was no holding back these men in uniforms, and amidst the utter chaos and confusion, within a few seconds, the stage was robbed of its brave champions, who were promptly driven away to the police station.
A sudden lull took over the place, and even though, the bride and bride groom appeared and tried to make themselves comfortable in the scene of battle, no one was really very interested. Soon the gifts were handed out, and common courtesies exchanged. However, it was the fight that had stolen the show, and it was all that the crowd talked about till late in the night. Poor cousin Vicky had no choice but to share the limelight with Bahadur and Panther. And when the wedding photographs were finally out, there were more pictures of the battle than of the blessed, slightly worried looking couple!
closing line….(you come back after a long time.. look around for him..)
He had a warm, open face, and a frank, disarming smile. He wore thick glasses and behind them, his eyes twinkled with a mischievous light. His broken, uneven teeth added to the peculiarity of his appearance. He was as thin as thin could get; I often wondered if he ate anything at all.
When he spoke, you couldn’t help but notice. He had a way with words, and a way with laughter; he often broke into wild, frenzied laughter, many times for no particular reason.
Yes, Bahadur was a figure/character out of a book, and yet he was real. At times, if you looked long enough, you noticed a deep longing in his eyes, and then, the very next moment those very same eyes twinkled in that familiar comic delight again.
He was perpetually singing, or humming, or whistling, or walking/sauntering around with a wide, infectious grin on his face.