The surroundings were misty. (Or misty may have gone my memory!) The incense vapours from the nearby Vishwakarma puja pandals hung low over the township. I must have been then 3 to 4 years old. It was beside the fly-over connecting the temporary and permanent townships, in a tin-roofed shack that I first saw him. We entered through a wooden door, whose ends had rotten away with the recent monsoons of Bihar. He dodged under a low wooden bar that held the roof and appeared through the smog before us. His name was Prakash, meaning ‘expression’. But, none of us called him by that name. He was ‘gunga maali’/ ‘boba maali’ (meaning 'the dumb gardener') to all and ‘Maali uncle’ to me.
Maali uncle was hearing and speech impaired. People said he wasn’t so by birth. It was a fatal accident that had left him thus. He was a short-heighted, lean, curly-haired man, with thick lips. Our association with him was through Roy Chowdhury Jethu and Jethima, who were (and still are) our very intimate family friends. Since I’ve grown up far away from my relations, owing to my father’s transferable job, I regarded them as my very own and hence called them as Jethu-Jethima, without caring to mention their surnames. We had just shifted to our C-type quarters in Kahalgaon, and were urgently in need of a gardener to look after the bare plots of land in the front and the back courtyards. And, so, Jethu-Jethima mentioned ‘boba maali’ to us. It was, I remember, with great difficulty that my parents had communicated with him on the first day to ask him to come to our house. He was near illiterate and ‘read’ by matching the designs of the calligraphy, i.e., whenever he needed to read something, say a quarter number, he’d have it written on a slip of paper and then he’d find his destination by matching the letters on the slip with those on the wall. That is how probably he managed to find our house too: C-27.
The eight and half years that we lived in C-27, Maali uncle worked to make the NTPC quarter a sweet home. Those were the years that I started graduating from a blob of living matter towards a human being with senses. Maali uncle therefore had been an important part of my first senses, my growing mind and my childhood. He had a distinct smell on him: the soil that he played with the entire day rendered him an earthy scent. His quiet arrival was marked by that distinct odour and the swish-swash of his movements through the grass and the click-clacks of his shrub-cutting tools. Years after years, he cultured all kinds of plants from cactuses to creepers to rose bushes and big marigolds, dahlias and petunias. He brought colours and fragrance to our dull township life.
Sometimes, Maa would explain him things that she wanted him to do with frantic movements of her hands, which he would quickly pick up and respond with half-sounds straining his weakened vocal chords. It was not only a tricky task to ‘talk’ to him, but a trickier task at times to get what he was trying to ‘tell’ us. The mode of communication would often make us fall into peals of laughter. It’d be a most heartening time to see when he’d try to tell us ‘who’, ‘whose’ or ‘whom’. For example, while referring to me he used to point towards his left brow, to mention the famous black mole beside my left brow and would gesticulate with his palm faced ground-wards, to mention a little girl. While talking about my mother, he would first refer to me through the same gestures and then would signal with his palm faced ground-wards a level higher than himself and then point a dot on his forehead to convey a woman. While referring to Jethima, he’d make the same signs of showing his palm a level higher than himself, to mention someone tall and then would shift his elbows awide, to talk of someone stout; for Jethima was a person of large proportions.
After a year or two, when Jethu-Jethima moved to their D-type quarter, Maali uncle also left his shack beside the fly-over and moved to their outhouse. A disciplined man by nature, Maali uncle led a happy married life. As far as I recall, he had three children: Manoj, Anuj and Khushboo. The eldest son, Manoj bhaiya, often helped him in his errands. Maali uncle saw to it that his children learnt to read and write and sent all of his children to school. We later heard that the eldest son passed from an ITI college. His wife was a very practical-minded person. To generate more earnings, she stitched blouses and made a judicious use of whatever income came in, managing even to make some savings. He had a great regard for his wife. When he had to take leave showing extreme urgency, he would usually flare up his eyes and with an expression of extreme exigency would run his forefinger through the parting of his hair, indicating his wife.
Well-known for his intelligence and sharp senses, Maali uncle served us in several ways other than gardening. From small jobs of mechanic, electrician and driving, he even rescued many from precarious situations. Once, one of our switchboards short-circuited and a foul smell started coming. We couldn’t detect the source of the stench. My mother, the one who spends much time in the house, had been nauseated like heck, until Maali uncle came by chance to attend the garden. He volunteered to probe the situation at once. Through his strong smelling senses, he sniffed along the walls and reached the switchboard. He unscrewed the board out and discovered a dead lizard.
Another time, a couple of monkeys had entered our quarter. They climbed on the top of our Godrej Almirah and found it a most suitable place to empty their bladders. They refused to leave until minutes later, Maali uncle came and chased them out with a long stick. It was him who later helped us clean up the mess. A motion with his fingers pointing at himself with a nod of his head expressing “Everything will be fine. I am with you.” would put my parents at complete ease. He was the embodiment of the proverb “A friend in need is a friend in deed”.
He was also the unofficial decorator in all the birthday parties. With all the care and innovation with the rolls of crape papers, balloons and glitters, he’d put up a great show. He’d climb up a stool and from the motor of the ceiling fan, coloured ribbons would flow down to the far end of the walls. He’d even wrap the return gifts in beautiful packing papers. With the papery ribbons, he’d ‘write’ on the wall the purpose of the celebration, very much in the way as he ‘read’. I remember, on my birthday celebration every year, Baba used to write on a paper “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MIMI”, which would be copied neatly on the wall by Maali uncle.
Within a few years, he had bought a plot of land for himself and in fact began the construction a large house. He would often ‘talk’ to us about the number of floors, number of rooms and toilets he’d built in his house. It was a piece of quite amazing news for a while in the township households, as for many of us a house was still a distant dream.
It was Maali uncle, who helped us decorate our new D-type quarters. There was a hidden artist in him with a high aesthetic sense. We have never had many showpieces. All we had were a few sets of bone-china dinner-sets and tea-sets and abundant books. He adorned the showcase with the china and cutlery, while we took care of the books. We all worked together. He did the job so well that visitors would give us compliments for our otherwise simple abode for the whole of the three months that we stayed in those quarters. He was like a family member and seldom asked for extra money.
In April 2002, we left the place. The packers and movers were yet to become popular. So, we had our personalized packer. Yes, Maali uncle did all the packing with cardboards, newspapers, cartons and straws. He packed each piece of cup, saucer and glass with the utmost care and each bit of furniture with the touch of a loving home-maker. He sweated at it for one whole month and did it all with so much efficiency, that just seeing him at it put my father out of all worries.
Coming in Orissa, we unpacked the things all by ourselves. In unwrapping each piece of china and each bit of furniture out of the wooden cases first, then the cardboards, the straws and lastly the newspapers, in every step we realized what we had left behind. His dainty touch was in all of it. We dragged the boxes; arranged the beds, the tables, the chairs, the sofa sets and decorated our new quarter all on our own. We were short by one family member now.