Our Man Friday
Bimal Saigal –
After decades, I am back to stay at our ancestral house in South Delhi. I am here to give company to my old father whose indomitable spirit of an independent existence was mowed down by a motorist a year ago and is also since bogged down by the restrictions of an advancing age. While this homecoming is viewed as an opportunity to give extended company to my father and take care of him, I am also anxious like him, to meet all those friends from the neighbourhood and acquaintances from the times I spent there growing up. I am sorry, though, for my wife and daughter as they would have to fend for themselves in the meanwhile. Though, I am not sure about any other reasons, but my wife would surely miss me for her long list of daily needs from the market and other chores befitting the only man in the house, while the daughter would miss a chauffeur and a part-time tutor. Confessedly, I was secretly happy with the prospects of being master of my own will and time under the new dispensation. But how could I know then that I had this Shankar in store for me!
Shankar is the boy who was hired after an anxious search to take care of the household and our father. Coming from a backward village, apart from a respectable salary, he has now to himself the entire house with its fixtures and gadgets as due to the cold weather my father usually remains confined to his living quarter. While Shankar has taken all those perks and privileges to his fold, he has overzealously kept all his time to himself, leaving instead a large debt of services for me.
It is quarter to six in the morning — the time I usually get up. While lazing in the bed, am expecting a hot cup of tea to stretch my muscles and start the day. It is soon six thirty. Disappointed, I get up and go to the kitchen and prepare tea for self and father. Meanwhile, I have knocked at the closed door and called Shankar aloud. There is no response from his side. It is only after a lot of cajoling that I am able to get him out of the bed at quarter past seven. Yawning, he comes out and gives me a blank look. Knowing that servants are a scarce commodity, refraining to scold him, I ask him to get moving and prepare breakfast and pack Tiffin for office. Impressed by his full-blown chapattis and tasty daal which he served us the last night, I am encouraged to ask him to make parathas to relish with curd. But cautioned by the ticking clock, I ask him to give me bread-omelet with tea, instead. “I don’t know how to prepare omelet” comes as a surprise to me from someone praised to me about for his cooking skills. Compromising with bread-butter and sherbet of tea, I push off to office but not before handing over money for contingencies and giving instructions for washing of the linen soaked in the bathroom and getting that water tank cleaned.
As I return in the evening and sit with my father enquiring about him, I expect a glass of water. Bypassed for that ritual, I ask Shankar to get me some tea. As nothing happens for the next ten minutes I go to the kitchen and see there is no pan on the stove. His explanation is that he had not heard me; and anyway there is no milk left. “But then only the last evening I got you enough supply”, I confront him. “And anyway, why you did not go out and buy the milk?” The balance sheet he gives in the number of cups of tea he prepared during the day and consumed in the breakfast is in no way convincing. I ask him what else is required, and step out to fetch groceries — reliving my experience back home. Lest my questioning should have antagonised him, I offer him tea as I prepare myself a cup of tea. I see no linen hanging on the string and the water tank still draped in that pristine look. But wisely, I withhold these offensive observations to myself.
The next morning too I get up at six and prepare tea for self and father. It is ten past seven and Shankar is not awake and out despite banging at his door for some time. As he emerges with some effort, I take him into my apprenticeship as my father has expressed dissatisfaction the way he prepares parathas. After a quick lesson, he appears to have understood those nuances and his attempts appear appreciable. I leave him further instructions on washing the linen that is lying soaked for the third day and the empty water tank that can cause crisis for any short supply. I also hand him money to get a bag of Atta from the corner store as I find the queues at the cash counters annoying. He affirms that he knows the store I am referring to.
As I return in the evening, Shankar is quick with his sugary syrup called tea. The linen is still wet and shivering and the tank thirsty. Flustered, I enquire of him as to what is holding him from those chores. He promises to do them the next day. When asked about Atta, he says he forgot about that but would go now. I give him directions afresh and he is off to the corner store but to return soon, pleading that he could not locate it. Irritated, I accompany him and do all the necessary purchases.
After another trial in getting Shankar out of bed this morning and having left for office without Tiffin, I am trying hard in office to remember and draw from all those lessons on motivation, which I used to give to officers at the Foreign Service Institute and see how I can deal with Shankar and be able to save some time for myself. My wife though remains envious of that contented and relieved look which she spotted on my face when I moved out to be with my father, but only I know of my predicament that this evening too would perhaps present me the same set of problems, and apart from having to do all those chores left to Shankar’s care, I may be sent to shop for our Man Friday as he has been preparing a list of all those things, which he thinks are his due.