A Lamp for Shathrugn Bhaiya

At 9 pm this April 5, as the nation sank into temporary darkness as diyas shimmered here and there, the time was ripe for introspection – for the nation as well as the self.

It felt more scary than odd to be the only house in our street to have not followed the prime ministerial order. It was not odd – because our upper-class neighbourhood has long before professed their allegiance to the overlord, their saviour. It is a highly homogeneous crowd: savarna businessmen, ultra elites, propertied class etc, you get the idea.

However, the spectacle couldn’t have been more ironical. There stood, lighting precisely nine lamps at 9 pm sharp, my neighbour Rakesh uncle (name changed). After all, the auspiciousness of the number had been widely publicised and the migrant workers definitely deserved all the solidarity.

My mind instantly wandered off to a day almost nine years ago, back when we were remodelling our home. As usual, there were labourers hired by our contractor to do the menial construction jobs. Of them, Shathrugn bhaiya (from Kendrapara in Odisha, I’m not entirely sure), was the most talkative.

He was easily at least 60 years old at the time and his paan-stained mouth constantly made serious effort to talk with us, the kids. His amiable features endeared him to us instantly. Language was never really a barrier; we did have troubles, but neither Bhaiya nor we knew Hindi properly and that common ignorance worked out well.

He’d tell us about us his village, his daughters – whose names he tried to tell us by writing in thin air, hoping we would understand his broken Odia. The camaraderie was one based on innocence and gentleness.

But the one time he needed our friendship the most, all of us fell incompetently to the wayside.

One day, after a heavy morning’s work, he had retired on the roadside under the shade of our mango tree for a brief siesta, his long legs stretched out. We were playing inside because it was noon and the sun was unforgiving.

My friend and I had come out to get our playthings from the verandah when we heard a soft wail. There lay Shathrugn bhaiya, in his usual spot, but with both his legs badly hurt. We were aghast and did not know what to do. Our conversation skills seemed gravely inadequate, we couldn’t ask him what had happened or what help he needed.

We immediately fetched our half-Bengali friend, who tried to pry the information out of him. It was Rakesh uncle, our neighbour, we found out. He had driven his brand new Chevrolet Aveo over Bhaiya‘s legs while he was sleeping.

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What had happened was an accident, but Rakesh uncle’s unresponsiveness was intentional.

Bhaiya couldn’t get up, so we brought him a first aid kit and some water. We tried to help him up, but he didn’t want us to touch him. Eventually, the other labourers took him away. He did not come back to our house again.

We never found out what happened to him. He must have lost his job and gone home empty handed. He might have died even.

About two-three years later, I saw someone who looked a lot like Shathrugn bhaiya at a nearby grocery store, I like to believe it was him. No, there wasn’t any Kabuliwala like reunion. He did not recognise me. I was on a two-wheeler with my father, and we drove away, having to do little with the shabby man in the grocery store line.

Fast forward nine years and here is a ‘reconciled’ Rakesh uncle ‘showing solidarity’ to the likes of Shathrugn bhaiya, the displaced migrant workers, by lighting nine lamps at 9 pm.

That will help, that will help.

Would Shathrugn bhaiya have lit a lamp today? Has he been beaten up or sprayed upon, did he walk 400 km to get home? I don’t think Rakesh uncle cares.

As I sit in our courtyard watching each of the houses light up, now that the prescribed nine minutes is completed, I hope against hope that Shathrugn bhaiya lit his hearth today.

Having introspected enough, I returned to the comfort of my well-lit home.

Anjana Kesav finds solace in words and truth and aspires to be a fearless journalist one day.

Featured image credit: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas