Bahadur was a legend. A hero and a saviour and we, the children, looked up to him. His unconventional ways charmed us; his bravado, when chasing away the neighbour’s menacing Pomeranian, and swearing to take revenge against those pesky little mutts for having chased down his children, protected us; his magical ways with which he conjured a happy bonfire on cold winter nights delighted us, and his love, saving the best of pears and peaches when the harvest had to plucked, spoilt us. Bahadur was always there, a sentinel guarding us, and with his silly happy grin and charming idiosyncratic mannerisms Bahadur was a clown, a hero, a friend, and a saviour.
Bahadur lived in a little rusty tin shack in the backyard of my aunt’s house. Surrounded by a garden of mustard and mint plants, vines of chayote squash trailing across a weather-beaten bamboo structure, and a beloved swing, which Bahadur had helped create, his rust-coloured haven amidst the several shades of green felt like a treasure trove to us: an elusive portal to a magical faraway land, as Enid Blyton would describe it. We used to be fanatically curious about all that he stored inside his wobbly ramshackle structure, trinkets, cardboard boxes, foam structures, rotting planks of wood, collecting these in his large conical bamboo basket, suspended upon his back through a strap over his head, customary to the region I come from, every morning and evening. However, we were never allowed to enter his humble abode, nor were we ever allowed to touch him for he was an untouchable, a “street sweeper”.
An outcast, a pariah, living amongst us but at a distance, Bahadur never let his glum circumstances tyrannise his life. Smiling, he eagerly watched us play cricket on warm summer days, chased behind the ball, and retrieved it from forbidden places, washed it, and then placed it upon the ground where it had to be washed again, as dictated by our elders, before we could play with the ball. During cold winter evenings he would light a bonfire, and as the red orange flames danced, he would dance about singing a song, reminiscent of snowy mountains, of the chirruping birds, of whistling winds from his long-lost home, a tiny village tucked away in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. The words which made no sense to us were repeated with equal gusto and he would laugh, encourage us, and teach us the song of his home, and even to this day I hum it with my cousin. We laugh at the silliness of it, but I ponder what it meant to Bahadur-the only link to this lost home. I remember the afternoons when he would call out to my cousin’s grandmother, “Maa-ji” (meaning Mother), with a chipped enamel bowl for his meal. Respectfully he would place it outside the kitchen door and my cousin’s grandmother would dish out a few rotis and a curry. Gleefully he would go to his green haven, and sitting upon a stone step, amidst the mustard and mint shrubs, relish the meagre meal, alone but content. I now ponder if Bahadur had any family to call his own, parents, siblings and it shudders me to think how alone he must have been and how frantically he sought a family in us.
As much as Bahadur was liked, rather tolerated, he was often cursed endlessly for not doing his job well and were anything to go missing in the neighbourhood it was Bahadur upon whom the blame squarely fell, and words as sharp as darts would be flung at him. Hanging his head low, muttering incoherently, meekly trying to prove his innocence, he bore it all, day after day, year after year. He was scoffed at, people would turn their noses for, apparently, he left a bad odour and flinchingly they would step away from his trail as though any vestige of his shadow upon them would incur the wrath of the Gods! Yet he smiled and danced about.
Bahadur had only one vice, were I to call it one. He would spend his little money in occasional country liquor. Now, years later, I wonder was it a means to blot out his empty evenings, his lonesomeness? Could he have spent his meagre earnings to buy new clothes? But no vendor would sell him clothes, and all he wore were hand-me-downs. Could he have travelled, seen his family if he had one? I wonder.
One fateful evening, as Bahadur was returning from his menial chores, a rushing scooter knocked him down and ran over him, crushing his leg. The rider, having lost his balance at the collision, only blamed Bahadur and in a fit of unjustified rage began to beat him. A crowd of lazy men who only derive sadistic pleasure in seeing a helpless person berated jumped into action and along with the rider they all claimed, ‘Oh he is always drunk’, ‘Oh he ought to be taught a lesson for not doing his work well’, ‘Oh he is a nuisance, stealing and creating trouble’, pounding a whimpering Bahadur with blows and kicks. A battered and bruised Bahadur was later dumped inside his shanty dwelling. Crying and whimpering, his condition only worsened, until he was moved to the city Civil hospital where once again, he was pathetically left unattended in the corridors, neglected, and succumbing to his fate, from what I gathered. We heard that he breathed his last in a few days.
There was not a soul to claim his mortal remains, not a relative, not a friend, not an acquaintance and the city corporation unfeelingly allowed a stoic earth absorb an unidentified and shadowy Bahadur, his memories, his battered body, his bruised heart. No prayers were recited, no eulogy narrated, no tears were shed, and no wreaths decorated his unmarked grave. He disappeared without a trace, into the oblivion, vanishing from our memories. May be, I like to imagine, the wild mountain grass and flowers wreathed his grave, may be the house sparrows chirruped a mourning song, and may be mountain breeze whistling the tune of his faraway Himalayan home found his soul and tenderly carried to where he belonged. May be Bahadur found liberation and smiling, laughing comically, he dances around a mythical bonfire, humming the mountain song.