I must have been fourteen then. One day, on my way back from school, I saw my father standing at the gate.
He was still in his uniform. A colonel in the Army, I did not remember ever seeing him wait for me.
“Is everything ok? ” I said, “Why are you standing here. Is Mummy fine ?” I shot off a few questions and was about to ask a few more when he spoke.
“There is someone here to meet you.”
I was fourteen. Nobody ever came to see me. I was curious.
Our house was an old Army bungalow, huge rooms with verandahs and gardens all around.
Behind the house, there was a small hut. During the British Raj, it functioned as the servants quarters.
We used it as a storeroom.
Near its door, I could see a frail, old- man standing sheltering himself from the sun.
The man was well dressed, white full-sleeved shirt, black trousers. He even had a ribbon which I found weird. He had come to our house on a rickety old bicycle.
“Go and say hello!” father said.
I had no idea who the man was but dared not disobey my father.
The man was looking at his frayed shoes, lost in thoughts.
As I came closer, he looked up.
He stared at me for some time and then said, ” Good Afternoon, baba! you have grown quite tall!”
baba and the crisp English accent opened up floodgates of memories.
It was Maria Das.
He used to work at our house way back in the seventies. His job was to drag me to school every morning at eight sharp.
The distance from my house to the school was hardly about a few hundred meters. I would cry every single step of the way.
Two hours later, he would have to hold me back as I tried to run back home.
“Come on baba!, ” Maria Das would say, “Don’t you want to grow up to be a sahib like your father.”
Maria Das was a waiter at the Army Officers mess. He had spent a part of his life serving the British Sahibs and Memsahibs. Post-Indian Independence, the British marched out, and the Indian Army took over.
My father, who was a Captain then, was the mess in charge. Maria Das, hoping to make some extra money, offered to help with our housework.
This fear of school only lasted for a year in my case. I did not need an escort anymore. Maria Das switched over to other tasks around the house. These tasks included maintaining the garden or helping in the kitchen. When free, he would tell me stories about the British officers for whom he butlered. He would tell me stories of how they used to sweat in the Indian Summer or run around trying to avoid getting bitten by the nasty local mosquitos! I loved his stories. That love later developed into a habit of reading books !!
One day he told me the meaning of his name.
“Maria Das mean a servant of Mary!” he said and followed it up with a story about a baby who was born in a crib far, far away. Maria Das was a bachelor and lived alone in a small room near the army mess.
“I cannot afford a family,” he said, ” You, Sahib and memsahib are the only family members I have in this world.”
Now, as I stood there watching him standing a few feet from me, those memories came flooding back. My mother asked him to have food with us. He declined the offer to sit at our table and instead chose to have his rice and chicken in the servants quarters. I wanted to go there and talk to him. I wanted to thank him for what he had done for me all those years ago, but the awkwardness of my youth prevented me from doing so. After his lunch, he thanked us and left on his bicycle, the same way he had come.
The next day we were having lunch when the phone rang. It was one of my father’s colleagues. Father listened for a minute and then put the phone down.
“Maria Das passed away in his sleep yesterday night, ” Father said.
Das had never been late in his life. Finding him missing from the mess in the morning roll call, someone had gone to his room to check. There they found him in bed, in eternal sleep.
They laid him to rest in the old cemetery behind the church. His grave is only a few hundred meters from the school he used to lead me to all those years ago.
I am sure he is serving somewhere high up in the clouds.