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The Dhobi's Son

02/06/2015 8:24 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Update: it turns out there is a friends in may store after all. Arica, Sophia, my dad and I went down to the Indie Craft Experience yesterday and got a bunch of cool stuff for baby, such as this here canvas by Jenny Watts (couldn't find a website, but her email is "friendsinmay@yahoo.com"). Now we need to figure out where to hang this in Sophia's room.

Makara Sankranti, the harvest festival that is celebrated in January, always reminds me of my childhood buddy Makara. Last year, my memory of him also got jogged when I visited Coorg in January and found redolent with the brilliant "flame creeper" flowers, in clusters of golden orange. When I was a kid, flame creepers used to grow in all their wild glory in our bungalow in Cuttack, Odisha, where my Dad was posted as the Superintendent of Police. Makara would bring me these flowers every day, sometimes threaded into a garland.

He was the son of the police barrack's dhobi , a couple of years older than me and my best buddy. Why? Because he treated me at par with the guys and called me "choto babu" (i.e. "Little Master", if literally translated from Oriya) and not "choto didi", as girls are normally addressed, mind you! This endeared him to me, for, as long as I can remember, I wanted to be born a guy. Makara made me a gulel (sling-shot) and taught me to use it as good as him. We went fishing together in the Mahanadi River; and since I cried when he threaded earthworms as bait, and said it was cruel, he gallantly switched to using atta (flour).

"[H]e treated me at par with the guys and called me "choto babu" (i.e. "Little Master", if literally translated from Oriya) and not "choto didi", as girls are normally addressed..."

My mother despaired that the nice, well brought-up children of the other officers were not my friends. Each time I came back in the evening, grubby, grimy, knees and elbows scraped, she would yell at Makara. But, she would also give him the mandatory, hateful, huge glass of milk that I was forced to drink! Although my mother paid for his schooling, the guy would regularly bunk classes and generally hang around our bungalow, playing with my dogs, taking care of my mother's treasured rose garden... waiting for me to return from school. Years passed by and we moved all over Odisha with my Dad's transfers. Gradually Makara faded into the background of my mind.

One day when I was studying for my Bachelor of Arts degree, my Ma asked me to give clothes to the dhobi, saying crisply "Count them". I walked out to find this tall young man standing very humbly along with the Reserve Inspector (RI babu as he is known in policia lingo and responsible for administration in the barracks). When he looked up and gave a very hesitant smile, I screamed in recognition "Makara!" His face split in a wide grin and I was four years old again, running along the riverside with him. A very strident and authoritative voice penetrated my reminiscences. It was RI babu.

He looked aghast that the sahib's daughter was grinning so happily at the dhobi. "Touch chhotti didi's feet," thundered RI babu. By way of explanation, RI babu told me that it was Makara's first day on the job and that he had been given compassionate appointment in lieu of his father's death. As my childhood buddy touched my feet, tears pricked my eye lids. A moment of deep poignancy. Of a glorious childhood gone by. Never again will there be a return to that innocence. I was reminded of these beautiful lines by Claude Debussy :"There is weeping in my heart, like the rain falling on the town. What is this languor that pervades my heart?

The incident affected me deeply and I felt strangely let down. So, one fine morning I decided to inform my buddy that he was still dear to me. How? By gifting him one of my German Shepherd pups. Now I never part with my dogs and there have been times when nine German Shepherds roamed in our house! Makara was thrilled. "Give him an English name," he coaxed. "Jimi," I said, adding, "Jimi Hendrix is God to me." He didn't understand that but grinned. Jimi grew up into one the most fabulous German Shepherds I have ever seen. He would have won in all the dog shows held in the district. But I guess Makara was wise enough not to register Jimi in the shows. Imagine the deep consternation of the IG/DIG sahibs, and especially their memsahibs, had the dhobi's dog won over their pooches!

In the brief period that I knew Makara, he taught me what friendship is all about and that your friend need not necessarily be from those in your corner of the forest. I also learned, in the words of the sagely Winnie the Pooh, that "It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch'?"

Rest in Peace Makara. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in April 2007.

This post previously appeared in the blog The Accidental Sufi.

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