Friday, January 2, 2009

Kismet Uncle

For the past few days I have a recurring dream every night. I see myself in a very busy railway station, waiting for a train, with Kismet uncle beside me.

Kismet uncle—I haven’t seen him in the last 18 years. The last image that I can remember of him is that of a religious Mussalman; some salt strands in his otherwise pepper beard, a rosary entwined around his neck, and a white lace prayer-cap. His eyes seemed to look beyond the horizon, probably seeking union with Allah, the supreme. The smile on his face–innocent and forgiving as ever.

Perhaps he had forgiven all the people who made his life miserable. Perhaps he chose to take the blame on himself. Perhaps he chose to blame it on the literal meaning of his name–fate.

The first time I saw Kismet uncle, he was quite different from the mental image I still have–a lean young man in a white shirt and grey trousers riding a shiny bicycle. He was an assistant at the fisheries department of the campus we lived in. Early every morning Kismet uncle could be seen standing on the banks of the Jheels (man-made huge water-bodies, resembling lakes), bucket in his hand, throwing balls of fish-feed into the water. Each splash would be followed by an immediate turmoil of writhing silver.

The mass of frenzied fish seemed unreal—like the tentacles of some green monster lurking in the depths. Their mossy backs throwing up a glitter now and then. Kismet uncle would stand, arms crossed, a smile hovering on his lips and velvet whiskers as the occasional beams from the water would cross his face like miniature searchlights.

I was then a child of two and half—and curiosity was my mantra like any other child of the same age. Living within the boundaries of a campus of an educational institution gave me a protected life and my parents let me roam the grounds with the belief that no child lifter would kidnap me. But, I was not satisfied with seeing the same students, teachers and office staff every day. I knew, there was a village just outside the huge walls with lush paddy fields. I knew there were people outside whose cows often broke inside for a graze. And Kismet uncle had the key to this world. Every morning he would come from the village into my known territory, and every evening he would go back, unlike the rest of the people who stayed in the quarters provided by the office.

It was a winter afternoon. I was walking home from school when I saw him getting out from the fisheries building. He greeted me with his warm smile. I asked him if he was going home. After a short conversation about this and that, he asked me if I would like to come to his home in the village. It seemed like a windfall to me at the time!

He promised that he would bring me back in the afternoon. Overjoyed, immediately I put my foot on the pedal and climbed up on to his bicycle.

Soon, perched on the narrow front bar of the cycle, I could feel the cool breeze rushing through my hair as we navigated the broken and bumpy brick-laid village path. The added attraction was the freedom of ringing a bicycle bell at my will!

We followed the path meandering through rows of mud houses—some with tiled roofs and some with hay thatches. Startled chicken crossed our path often and sometimes lazy cows created temporary road-blocks by choosing to wander on the path beside which they were pegged.

Whether it was a few minutes or half an hour I can’t recall now, for I was too young to have a concept of time. Soon, we reached a little courtyard surrounded by some mud houses where Kismet uncle finally stopped his bicycle. He rang the bell a final time and helped me climb down. A small, fair woman came outside with a look of surprise in her eyes which changed immediately to gladness on realizing that a babu’s son had come to visit their home.

Kismet uncle washed up, took out a prayer mat and started his Namaz. In the mean time, the newly introduced auntie petted me and asked a barrage of inquisitive questions. They were the usual ones a child is required to answer almost every time he or she meets a stranger—questions about his/her name, the father’s name, residence, school and class.

She soon gave me a bowl of puffed rice, a few batashas (rural candy), and water in a shiny brass tumbler. I immediately gobbled up the simple yet delicious fare. Kismet uncle finished his prayers and auntie laid out a simple lunch of some watered rice, curry, and a slice of onion. As he sat down to eat, Kismet uncle asked if I would like some as well. I gladly lapped up the little rice and curry that he put in a china saucer for me.

Suddenly my attention was drawn towards a mother hen and a flock of chicks behind her. I wished I could have a chick for my own. Kismet uncle saw my shining eyes and asked me if I wanted a chick. I almost danced in glee as he tried to catch a chick by trapping it under a small basket. Finally, one was caught—a little fluffy mass of black and yellow feathers. How it panted in exhaustion and apprehension!

The return journey was almost uneventful with me carrying my treasured little chick in a small nylon bag. However, my joy was short-lived. As we neared our quarters, our smiles and conversation stopped. My mom stood there, almost in tears, worried and wondering why her son would be so late when all the other kids returned from school long ago.

Remember, these were the days when only post offices and institutes had telephones, and there was no way of her knowing my whereabouts.

Mom was visibly angry with me and more so with Kismet uncle. She called him “irresponsible” and asked why he could not inform her that he was taking me to his home. Kismet uncle hung his head low and smiled uneasily in confession. I took out the chick and showed it to mom. Her anger subsided magically as the new thought of how to rear the chick became an immediate priority. Seeing his chance, Kismet uncle slinked away before a fresh round of scolding could begin.

Later, as I grew up, I had numerous interactions with Kismet uncle. I was sad when the fisheries department sacked him without any apparent reason. A jobless Kismet uncle would often come to our house and tend the garden for a daily wage. He would also do other labor-intensive work like carrying steel rods for construction or digging up soil for road work.

He changed a lot during this time. From the cheerful, lean lad, he became a solidly built, rustic laborer. Soon, he lost all resemblance to the educated soft spoken youth he once was. But he still was my friend. I remember how, often after a monsoon downpour, he would catch a big fish and bring it to me, though his family would have been benefited more. At other times, it would be a bunch of tamarinds, or a few mangoes—but every gift was wrapped in love.

During my winter vacations, I would be in charge of developing our kitchen garden. My agenda included little patches of radish, peas, cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes and French beans. Kismet uncle would be there every morning, with a spade in his hand, waiting for my instructions. We watered and tended the garden with enthusiasm. Together we watched the beetroots thicken, the cabbage-leaves curl and the tomatoes redden. Often, he would sit down to smoke a bidi and talk about different things—the shrine at Furfura Sharif; the sweetmeat festival in the month of Poush; the places where Koi fish laid their eggs and all the other fascinating things known to him.

In the afternoon Kismet uncle would take a break and inside the banana grove, spread out a piece of cloth and perform his daily Namaz. I would sit on the muddy clods and watch him bow down to the Almighty. Somewhere inside I would feel the strength of his prayers. The strength of forgiving, of kindness, and of well-wishing.

18 years later, now, I can still recall his face, his smile, his white-lace prayer cap; Kismet uncle, who took me to my first journey into the unknown.

Someday, I hope to catch the train from that station of my dreams—with Kismet uncle by my side.