Almost every family in Punjab used to name their darkest child Kala (black, dark) if a boy and Kali for a girl. Many children grew up bearing the pain of derision but often parents or relatives meant it as a term of affection. This is how the old man we called Kalu Taya probably got his name .
Taya means father's older brother. Kalu Taya, my father's older cousin (at a time when cousins were often considered as siblings) was so different from the usual crowd of my older uncles that he remains vivid in my childhood memories. Of medium height, he was blind in one eye with thick white cataracts, bushy eyebrows, unkempt long hair and a beard. His smelly clothes often appeared to be unwashed. This was unusual among the middle class families, who literally used the Urdu word safed posh (white clad) to describe their status on the economic ladder.
His own younger half-brothers had hired him as a shop servant, mostly to keep him off the streets. His mother must have died when he was young, and his father had remarried. This used to be a prescription for child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and generally wasted lives amongst the Indian families. Since I had seen the never-do-well life of my own Taya, Diwan Chand, who was my father's half-brother, the life of Kalu Taya did not provoke any outrage.
My grandfather Charan Das's old house in Phullanwala Chowk was located in the heart of Amritsar city. My father had grown up in this house, along with many cousins who also occupied adjoining houses. The ground floor of these narrow houses had shops while the upper stories were where the shop-keepers' families lived. The Puri clan for a long time had been called neel-wale for the indigo dye business that they engaged in.
The first floor was of my grandfather's house was where the Aarti (commission agents') shop was located. Kalu Taya cleaned the shop. He dusted the ancient, moth-eaten carpets. He sprinkled water on the street in front of the shop in summer and filled up a hookah, the water pipe for customers and himself. He spent most of the day smoking the hookah, coughing and loudly spitting phlegm in the street.
The women folk in the family commented darkly about Kalu Taya's drinking and the difficulty of controlling him when he had a few drinks. In an expansive mood, his stepbrothers and even my father would address him as Kale Shah or King-Kalu!
His language could be salty, and generally, the elders protected children from his proximity. He spoke little, and his guttural talk was hard to understand. We had very little contact with him, as we would see him two or three times a year at some function at home or at Diwali when businesses started a new fiscal year. All the children belonging to several partners would gather for the puja, and afterwards get sweets and money.
In the early 1950s, my father decided to hire Kalu Taya to look after his new oriental carpet store in Hall Bazaar, a more modern part of the city. My mother objected. She did not think that he should have to worry about finding a job for a distant cousin. But my father said, "Kalu is honest and he is family. He can live in the room adjoining the store so he can keep an eye on the merchandise."
Father explained that carpet business was not the kind where Kalu Taya would have to serve the customers. My father's intention was to operate more like a wholesaler. He would sell large lots of oriental carpets on consignment to a few customers from big cities like Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta.
He would remark with ironic humour as to the wonderful business where he sold on credit and then waited for nine months to be paid. Meanwhile the Kashmiris who were his customers appeared to live princely lives. But they were also the ones who sweet talked foreigners into paying the marked-up prices and paid overhead in the big cities.
When the telephone arrived in the store, Kalu Taya refused to answer it on principle. So that was the arrangement! It hardly mattered that one of Kalu Taya's younger half-brothers had joined my father as a junior partner. In fact, this ‘uncle' barely recognized him or addressed him civilly. Kalu was started off with new starched white clothes and a red all-purpose dust cloth on his shoulder.
But that did not make him any more presentable.
We knew instinctively that we were not to treat him as a servant. But my father reinforced it in ways we found distasteful. On Sunday, Kalu would show up at our home for lunch, obviously at my father's invitation. This used to be a big meal for my three older brothers, a sister, assorted cousins or uncles or aunts staying at our house or invited for the meal.
My mother would insist on serving Kalu Taya ahead of the crowd in the verandah or patio. She had to treat him as a ‘respected' elder, even though she felt no such emotion. Following tradition, she would cover her head, and pull the end of the sari over half of her face, and speak to him with averted gaze. He would finish his meal, wash his hands, belch loudly, and take off before the guests arrived.
In the winter, he would spend time in the gardens just outside our house, lying in the sun. He would then take off for the tiny room adjoining the shop without saying a word to anyone. It was well known that once a month on payday, Kalu Taya would visit the country liquor shop and get drunk. But now at least he had a place to sleep it off rather than be found lying in the street.
In jest, sometimes, our mother would mention his name as someone without a care or responsibility. More serious rebuke for us would entail our fate as growing up like Kalu Taya. The grown-ups have such limited understanding of children, as if we were attracted to Kalu Taya's life style!
In summer months before the holidays, the school finished early. The boys being a handful, my older brother Satish and I were instructed to report to the store, eat lunch, take an afternoon nap, do homework, and at six in the evening, go back home. This way our father kept an eye on us, and our mother was spared the impossible task of chasing after us in the sweltering heat of summer. While we were closely supervised, our friends in the neighbourhood played with marbles under the shade of peepul tree or sampled street vendors' fare.
The servant brought our lunch in a big tiffin-box. All of us, along with Kalu Taya, sat down to eat. It was often painful to watch Kalu Taya dip his hands with long unclean nails in a bowl of curry. His beard would often trap grains of rice or chapatti. We had to keep a straight face. We did not dare tell our father that we wanted to eat separately. Many times for evening tea, father would generously give us money for savoury snacks, which were just a flight of steps away.
In the evening, Kalu Taya would hand us the empty tiffin-box to take back home. He would wave us away while sitting in the chair, watching the goings on in the bazaar. It didn't matter that our father had been sitting in the same chair a few minutes earlier. Of course, Satish and I had daily spats as to who was to carry the tiffin box home. We had eventually divided the two-mile distance so precisely that we would set it down on the ground, and the one following would come along, and pick it up. If our father were to send some other provisions or fruit he had bought for the house, all our previous agreements would be undone.
Satish was only two years older than me. I found it difficult to accept his authority in anything. So the entire childhood was spent in sibling rivalry of the worst kind. We often attempted to settle score with fisticuffs but for either one of us a bloody nose or scratched face was the result. Physically we were fairly evenly matched until he grew a head taller and learned to box. In my stupidity and obstinacy, I did not recognize that because of his immense natural charm and wit, most people liked him better than I. To have various aunts and female cousins gush over him as he was fair and handsome just like our father, was difficult to bear for many years. It seemed that most of the interesting things happened only to him, and people laughed at his stories uproariously. We almost never had a fight with our older brother, a fact that our mother constantly alluded to. Even my parents often forgave Satish and instead scolded me for our fights. This rankled me immensely. It will be many years before I realized that I should let him entertain people and concentrate on my studies. Years later, our relationship would change as it often does for children in large families.
One day our father had to leave the carpet store in the afternoon to meet some people for business. This was uncommon, as most anyone in town knew that he did not like to leave the shop during the daytime, not so much from any insecurity but the inconvenience of travelling around the crowded streets of the town. A tall, handsome man of imperious nature, he was used to people obeying his orders. But very soon after he left we brothers got into some argument of no consequence.
The argument became physical in no time. We were very soon wrestling in the store, kicking, screaming, punching, and throwing things at each other. Our shirts were torn. Our hands and faces were scratched by the sharp steel nibs of the pens we hurled at each other. That left long blood-streaked lines on our bare arms and necks. The ledger books were thrown around. These red-cloth covered bahis filled with figures in an incomprehensible script were considered sacred by businessmen. We had spilled ink from inkbottles on the carpets and splattered the walls.
Poor Kalu Taya had feebly tried to stop us, and then hid in the adjoining room. The fury of our anger was finally spent. Crying and scratching, we had hurt each other, and were now worried about our father's reaction. Our attempts to put things in order or wash ink-stains out of the carpets were unsuccessful.
My father came later in the evening and looked at the store in bewilderment. We were cowering in the corner. He turned to Kalu Taya and asked, "What happened?"
"They fought!" Kalu Taya pointed to us with his one good eye.
"But why did you let them?" Father asked.
"I am just a servant!" Kalu Taya shrugged his shoulders.
Father looked at him in bewilderment.
Within two years, Kalu Taya grew feeble and forgetful. He was replaced by a reliable and efficient bhaiya from Uttar Pradesh State. Kalu Taya died shortly thereafter with no one to mourn him.
© Vinod Puri 2016
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