Our Uncle

He always woke up in time, served all the meals in time, never took leaves, stayed away from home for months and yet he earned only seven thousand. We called him ‘Uncle’, as if that was his name. Even on his birthday, some girls who had time to prepare a colourful birthday card for him wrote ‘Many many happy returns of the day Uncle’. I never cared to know his name and neither did anybody else in the hostel I presume.

Uncle never called me Lahari, he always addressed me as ‘Jyotsna’. I have not been quite fond of that name as I associated it with one of our house maids back when I was a child. It was sort of a demotion in rank… Rank of what you ask? Well, I could not come up with an answer either…

But the way he yelled out after 10 in the morning, ‘Arree Jyotsna, khana nahi khayegi kya?’ made me feel loved and I gradually started to like the name. I had asked Uncle a few times, “Mera naam to Lahari hai, aap mujhe Jyotsna kyu bulate ho?” (Why do you call me Jyotsna, when my name is Lahari?). But I never got a clear answer. He would just smile and say, “Hum to tujhe Jyotsna hi bulayenge.” Maybe he has a daughter called Jyostna, and I remind him of her…

Uncle hailed from the eastern part of Bihar and knew some Bengali. He would often try to converse with me in Bangla, especially if I made a face at the not-so-delicious-looking-dinner. He’d ask, “Toh tumko kya laga, hum aj muri-ghonto banayenge?” (So did you expect me to cook muri ghonto {a fish preparation} for you?) Being a fond non-vegetarian, the vegetarian dishes served thrice a day often took a toll on my mood, so sometimes I’d stuff my tummy with some chicken outside and skip dinner at the hostel. Uncle, a staunch vegetarian, would come to enquire why I had not stepped into the dining area yet, and on knowing about my fetish for chicken he’d say, “Ha, tumko to wu bahar ka khana hi pasand ayega, hum jo yahan mach bhaja aur chicken nahi banate…” (Why would you like anything I cook, you are so fond of chicken and fish from the restaurants)

Due to some illogical rules, we were not allowed to bring any non-vegetarian item into the hostel premises, and I followed that rule until the last night spent there. When I was almost done packing, I went to get my dinner, but Uncle winked at me and said, “Tu room me ja, thori der baad bulata hu” (Go to your room, I’ll call you after some time). I knew that he was up to something, but I leaped up in joy when hearing a loud knock at my door I opened it to let in the aroma of brilliant chicken butter masala! He handed me a plateful of steamed rice and a big bowl full of chicken (enough for two). He broke the rules to treat me. That was the sweetest gesture I had ever received.

There had been several other perks of owning a room by the kitchen. Uncle would at times prepare special items in less quantity and call some of his favourite hostelites to treat them secretly. I’ve had the luck to taste a very delicious kheer, spicy dish of green jackfruit and some pasta. Being on his list of favourites I also had the privilege of going in late and getting the best of parathas for breakfast (not that I was fond of parathas, but the simple gesture was enough to show that he cared).

I never bothered to buy aluminium foil to wrap my lunch even though Uncle had asked me a few times to buy one roll and keep it in the kitchen so that he can pack my lunch in them. But one fine day onwards I started to get my parathas wrapped in the shining foil!
I don’t know whether “Thank you” is a phrase good enough to acknowledge the gratitude, but I thanked him every time yet a feeling of dissatisfaction remained. He does not need our thank you’s; all the others like him, they do not need our Western formality, neither do they desire money. Paying someone of Uncle’s level would rather be a sheer insult to the person, what they actually need is us to remember them and love them back, something I eventually failed in, trying to be good at the many other ‘important things’ in life.

I bought some sweetmeats for the staff the day I was leaving the hostel and handed the box over to Uncle authorising him to distribute them to all. His face lit up in a very unique way, something I had never witnessed before. He almost welled up as he opened the box, and with teary eyes, he took out the first sweet and forcefully fed me happily. Maybe nobody ever gifted him a box of sweets…

He would often call me over the phone and ask how I have been doing, and then say, “Tu hume bhul jayegi Jyotsna, par hum tumhe nahi bhule. Kitni ladkiya ayi aur chali gayi, par pata nahi kyun tu yaad reh gayi…” (You might forget me Jyotsna, but I won’t. So many girls have come and gone, but I don’t know why I still remember you) Not knowing what to say in return, I’d try to console him by saying that I had been busy with work and therefore could not call him sooner. I remember the last time we spoke over the phone when I was too tied up with work. On receiving the call after a quick chat I told him that I’d call back when I get time. I managed time and remembered to call him back in a week or two, but a female voice on the other end of the line said, “The number you have called is out of service.” And I had not heard from him since. I failed to show him the respect and love that he so deserved.

I do not know whether he lost or changed his phone, or left the city, but I have not had the courage or will to enquire about him to the warden in the fear of receiving a bad news. I hope that he’s back in Bihar living with his family, his daughter Jyotsna.

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