Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Invisibles

No one killed Jessica and apparently, no one killed Aarushi too.
There are a few crimes that capture the imagination of a nation and make people come together like never before. The Aarushi case is one such crime against an innocent 14 year old girl that has captured the imagination of this nation and definitely shocked, perplexed and confused several people including the CBI. It is a case I have followed very closely and feel that there are certain skeletons in this closet which may never come out if the parents of the girl themselves don’t come clean about certain facts. But, in all the hue and cry about Aarushi, the death of another human being went totally unnoticed. Hemraj, the 45 year old servant of the house who had served them loyally for years and became the easy target of suspicion initially when the murder was discovered has been laid to rest without a question or a mention in most cases. This was a man who apparently took care of the girl when the parents were not around, and in all probability got killed defending her (I don’t think I will ever subscribe to the absurd theory that the 14 year old Aarushi was having an affair with him that the Noida Police wants us to believe) and who even Nupur Talwar (Aarushi’s mother) unequivocally claims, loved the child as his own.
Why is it that while Aarushi’s death catches everyone’s attention, Hemraj’s goes unnoticed? I realised, there are so many Hemraj’s that live amongst us. They don’t lead very comfortable lives, but spend their time serving people like us and do it with a pride and happiness that we can never summon for our high profile jobs. They are all around us in the garb of the driver, the cleaner, the maid, the ‘chatwala’. But, sadly for these Hemraj’s all their efforts go unnoticed so much so that even their brutal murder and unexplained death does not merit even a mention on national news. How is it that people like Hemraj become invisible in the larger scheme of things? Why is it that their lives are not worth a protest when they get brutally murdered or run over by drunken stars that get away with it? I don’t intend to change the system’s apathy towards this class of people although I hope that someday our perspective on them changes. I only wish to highlight the quiet dignity and never ending optimism with which these people live their lives by highlighting a few experiences I had in the recent past with some people who I feel definitely merit at least a mention and a salute here.
I was recently very sick and had to undergo a surgery. As a part of the treatment process, I had to get regular injections at home. My doctor recommended a nearby clinic from where a nurse could come and give me my daily injections. That’s when I met her for the first time. She came in with a shining face and a wide smile, scampering away from my dog with a look of concern for my bed ridden self. She said her name was ‘Deepa sister’ and right off the bat assured me that I would be up and about in no time at all. She was brisk and professional at her job but somehow brought a brightness to the day and a lot of re-assurance to me on my recovery. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I learnt that she was an orphan who worked as a maid all through her childhood in the day and got her nurse’s training in the night. She was the single mother of a teenage daughter and son whom her husband had abandoned years back. She was not sad about it but accepted her plight in a matter of fact manner. She had put her kids in a hostel so that they would get good education and be disciplined, because she being a working woman could not give them all her time. What amazed me about her was that she was not bitter or cynical because of the hardships she had faced in her life. She took pleasure in the simple things of life and would jump with joy at the thought of calling for Chinese for dinner along with the other nurses at the clinic who were on night duty with her. She did not curse her husband or God for making her life so difficult. She travelled an hour from Mahim to come to my place to give me an injection to earn an extra Rs 150 for the day but never complained. Not about the traffic or the inflation or how she got paid peanuts for all her efforts.   She helped me bear my pain with a lot more dignity because I didn’t have the heart to complain about my health or life in front of her effervescent, smiling face.
The second person I would like to talk about is Altaf. I met him when I went to eat chat at a small stall near my house. He was the boy making chat at the stall that day. He made some of the most lip smacking chat dishes I had ever eaten and if you saw him at work, you would think that he thought of himself as the master chef at the Taj kitchen. After stuffing my face with a few more ‘sev puris’ than I ought to, I wanted to get some dishes packed for a friend, who ran a boutique right next to the stall. Altaf heard me check with her what she wanted to eat and asked me not to bother with getting anything packed. He would serve her the dishes in her boutique itself. I paid him the money for it, but was not sure if he would be true to his word. But in 5 minutes, I saw him rushing into the boutique with the chat dishes that he laid down with a smile and said in broken English, “Enjoy please”. I saw him walking into the shop after a few minutes, this time carrying tissue papers with him and I realized that we would need them to clean up after we had eaten. He came back again in 15 minutes to check if we were done and also cleaned the table for us without us even asking for it. It was only after he left that one of the workers in the boutique told me that Altaf had become deaf in the recent train blasts that had rocked Mumbai. He ran the chat stall to support his family and was honest to the core. I realized, he did not hear me talking to my friend but read my lips and may be even my mind. When I see him now, whistling at his work, like he has won a huge lottery and carry his responsibility so lightly on his still young shoulders, I know that it is because of people like him that India leads in all the happiness and optimism polls that we read about irrespective of the reality of our lives.
The last invisible is Baldev Singh. He was Baldevji to all us young consultants who worked at my office and was the veritable ‘He-man’ of the office at 6.4 feet and 120 kgs. He was the office driver and responsible for carting all our consultants from one client to the other. When I first met him, I was a little intimidated by his gruff manner and earthy Punjabi tongue. But as time went by, I realised he was a gentle giant who not only cared about his job, but also about all the people he met with and carted from place to place. My family was always assured about my safety when they knew Baldevji was driving me, especially on those late night drives back from Puna or town. He kept us regaled with stories of how he has seen Bombay change to Mumbai and Shiv Sena’s metamorphosis from anti Udipi to anti UP. It was on one such long car ride back from Puna that I discovered that Baldevji came to Mumbai when he was a boy of 18 from Punjab and started his career as an auto driver. Through sheer grit, hard work and determination, he fought the local Marathi unions and got his taxi driver license and slowly became the owner of 3 taxis. I was surprised to know that he actually owned 4 cars that he gave to other cool cab drivers to drive and worked as the driver for my company because he liked the people as they gave him a lot of respect. He had put 2 sons through college with one of them actually working with an MNC Bank in Canada. I realized that he did not really need to work as a driver. But yet, when one saw him clean the car or perform his duty, he did it with a pride and contentment that we all envied. I remember, one day I was reminiscing that it had been long since I had homemade ‘paranthas’ and voila, the next day he actually had his wife make hot ‘paranthas’ for me early in the morning and made sure I polished them all off on our long ride to town. It was this empathy that he showed to us as people that made him Baldevji and not just Baldev to us.
The common link in the personalities of all these people is the grit, dignity and optimism they show in the direst circumstances in life. They live difficult lives and have only their hard work to fall back on to help them change their circumstance. They are the back bone of this country and give back much more than they take through backbreaking labour. Sadly, they are also the most vulnerable section of our society with nothing to protect them from stray terrorist bullets, irrational unions, train blasts or drunken stars running them over in their sleep. Their deaths and murders are but a by line in the papers and do not merit national attention. I guess it is the tragedy of India shining that if you do not belong to a high profile, hi flying, glitzy, glamorous sect, you are not worth the media’s or the nation’s time. But, in this New Year, I have decided, I will pay attention to these invisibles, I will understand the lives they live and fight for their right to live with dignity and die with honour. So, I am truly praying Aarushi’s killers are caught and fervently hoping that when they are, they are punished not just for brutally murdering Aarushi, but for also snatching life away from Hemraj. I fervently wish that the invisibles become visible and justice prevails for all, but above all that fairness irrespective of class is the new perspective we all gain.

This blog is dedicated to the invisibles in all our lives


  1. absolutely lovely article Ambica - really touched me.. are you still in touch with Baldevji? If so please say hello to him from my side

  2. Hey Ambica, an amazing story, well said. As we keep growing in our lives with all the mad consumerism taking its toll on our happiness, its people like these who teach us what life is really all about. Sadly our shallow understanding of such indepth personalities will always will remain amongst the super affluent sect. I truly wish dignity and love of labour comes around sooner. take care and keep these unspoken issues coming... love it. amee

  3. Another well written article and truly from the heart. Baldevji is a classic example of "a man who maketh Bombay" and for whom, "Bombay maketh the man......" He took great pride in his work, maintained his dignity and became a part of the Mercer legend.

  4. Touching!!..The other day I went to the Mall & I saw a cleaner queitly sweeping the stairs...he was feeling awkward to look in the eye while it was thanks to him that I walked on a clean stair..