By Sonakshi Khandelwal:
“Buddhe Baba!’’, I cried, running to him as fast my bruised legs would permit, panting and laughing simultaneously, “BUDDHE BABAAA!”Â He sat on the back seat of the auto, his legs stretched towards the fatta or the wooden flank opposite it, smoking a beedi carelessly, sparing none of his attention to me.
I flung myself into the auto beside him, wiped the sweat of my forehead and carefully untied the handkerchief potli in my hand. I fumbled through the assortment of feathers, smooth pebbles, pencil-shaving-flowers, ball pens, and churan, and eventually managed to unearth the dead lizard.
“See Buddhe Baba! It’s so pretty!” I waved it under his nose to make him listen. “I stole it from Ashmeet’s pocket, ha! Tomorrow I shall scare Miss Fonseka with it. Today she told me I should get my hair-cut because it is messy. But it’s not messy. You should see it when I comb it and then-”
He had not heard a word. Hurt, I stopped and looked at him silently.
His eyes were devoid of the usual vitality of his manner. They contained a pain so evident, so brutal and so singular, it was petrifying. I’d never seen emotion as naked as this.
“Uhm- is-is anything wrong, Buddhe Ba-”
He broke down into breathless sobs that ultimately turned into tears.
It was ghostly, unreal and impossible. I sat there helplessly, feeling cheated. Buddhe Baba couldn’t possibly be sad. He couldn’t possibly be crying. It was incomprehensible. It made no sense. I simply played with the lizard, not caring to comfort him, afraid of discovering his reasons, trying to escape the situation, wanting to run away, aghast.
For a long time he cried and I played, and there was noise and ugliness in the atmosphere, noise and ugliness that emanated from us.
Then he spoke.Â “Little one, I have nothing left in my life now. There’s no-”, he started crying like someone who has never cried before, loudly and crazily.
“STOP!’’, I cried, cold fear stabbed my heart, making it beat faster with every passing second.
“Stop! I don’t want to hear it! You’re lying. You’re not sad, you’re- you’re- you are-” I looked around helplessly, trying to find a phrase raw enough to make him understand, “You’re SUPPOSED to be happy! HAPPY!” I screamed.
I ran out and took a rickshaw back home, while he continued to cry.Â I could hear the terrifying sounds of his cries in my head all day long.
His real name was a mystery, and one that he very mischievously maintained. “You little donkeys will run away to another auto if you come to know what a goon I really am”, he used to say, gifting harmless spanks to anyone who pestered him further. His carefully concealed background was a great source of excitement and gossip for our after-school chat sessions. Some said he was responsible for the scandalous murder of the twin babies the previous year, some said he had married three times, some said he had stolen his father’s buffaloes, and the overtly beaten ones were convinced he was a cannibal. He treated such gossip with haughty amusement and often tempted us with oblique hints, but never more than that.
And thus, all his associates, the fellow auto-wallahs, beedi-sellers, the kids he ferried as well as their mothers, even his wife, children and nephew, knew him as “Buddhe Baba”.
He was a spirited old man, with outstanding orange-dyed hair growing in horizontal little spirals at the sides of his bald head, a beedi in his mouth, an artificial leg that he wore with a heartbreaking regal pride and eyes that seemed devoid of the lazy, contented happiness he always boasted of.
While taking us to school and back home, he would talk about his wife, his sons and their worthlessness, how he had once been the handsomest, gutsiest, cleverest person in his locality, how once his mother’s friends had believed he was Sri Krishna’s incarnation, how he had once been Bachchan saab’s chauffeur, how his father had been the richest farmer before bad times fell, and how he was approached for Kaala Kesh Tel’s first television ad when he was in “Bambai”.
He always started with his stereotypical “Jhooth nai kehta, lekin zindagi ke maze toh maine hi liye hai…Jab main…” and when he started, we hurriedly ceased our Dumb Charades or Chinese Whispers and struck up an attentive silence, hanging on his words. All of us realized he was used to exaggerating, but since it spiced up his stories, we forgave him silently and loved him no lesser for it; after all, you could hardly blame a man for loving himself too much.
And it was not just his eccentric charm that enamoured him to us. While other auto-wallahs sang or cleaned their nose or listened to the radio while driving, he ensured that the 40 minutes we spent with him were the most enjoyable ones of our day.
He would take us off to local fairs, without caring to inform us or our parents, and pay for our rides and candies and then heartily claim the blame when angry shouted at him and asked him to mend his ways. He would bring us “budhiya-ke-baal” that his wife made. He would play Antakshri with us making vague attempts to dance, and always choosing songs that talked of “jawani”. He would challenge us to dance in the auto, and give prizes to the person who did not fall even once. He would get us “churan” and “paachak” on our birthdays. And if it was raining, he would not spare a fellow who said they didn’t want to bathe. He would scare us by bringing dead rats and if someone started crying, he would mutter apologies, feeling foolish and embarrassed, and ultimately end up almost crying himself. He would tell us ingenious ways to trick teachers. He would celebrate all festivals weeks in advance with us, in as childish a manner as possible.
I had always been hugely fond of him. I did everything I could to make him happy, and to impress him. In school, in the auto, and at home, I’d always be striving to play tricks and be naughty, because one thing that he understood and appreciated and respected was mischief. I was excessively proud of the fact that I was his favorite. He always insisted that I sit on the uncomfortable little plank attached to the front seat, with him. While the hilarious stories were open to all, it was to me and only me, that he would impart words of wisdom. He would tell me how I should always live on impulse, how I must resist becoming money hungry like everyone else, how I must never give up on anything I set my heart for, and how important it is to value oneself above all others, and how I must always ask him for advice when I have a problem, how I must always rise above the petty and be happy. He would often say “No one knows life better than me, little one”. I relished his philosophies and treated them like one would treat words of the Lord, living my life as he had lived his, on the same premises.
He was the only happy person I knew; he had around him the aura of having survived life unbeaten. He had lived through an almost fatal accident that had given him his handicap, he had lived through a terrible decline in fortunes, he had lived through the death of his son, he had lived through poverty and drudgery, he had lived through the crash of dreams and ambitions, he had survived it all with an equanimous happiness that was reassuring. He was my beautiful solace from a family plagued with violence, tensions and penury. He was my belief in the goodness of God, in the justice of Life. He was my hope of a blissful life. He was my antidote against seemingly fatal horrors like disease and poverty and death. He was everything I wanted everyone to be: happy. He was a way of life worth emulating.
I heard the terrifying sounds of his cries all day long. My parents were startled at first, but when I told them I was crying because Buddhe Baba had cried, they laughed. It angered me to no extent; the very thought that they found my pain funny, something to be dismissed with a laugh, shook me with a savage fury only a child can exercise.
I went to sleep early, and dreamt of a ghost who told me to die because death is life. It was a vivid, disturbing dream, and I remember crying in the middle of it, and I remember that my weeping sounded like Buddhe Baba’s, and I remember that made me cry even more.
The next day I woke up, feeling strangely relieved, convinced that whatever happened the day before was nothing but a dream. I waited for the auto, ready for school.
“Your Papa will drop you. Buddhe Baba won’t come today.” My mother told me, trying to push almonds into my mouth.
My blood chilled at the words. Was he angry with me for not listening to him the day before? Did he hate me now? Will he never come to our home now? My mind was whirling with questions and my heart was ready with the most pessimistic answers.
“Wh-why?” I managed to mutter.
“He went to God today.”
“Who told you? Why are you saying so?”
“It came in the papers, beta”
“I don’t believe you. He will come. I will wait.”
“You are mad. You will get late for school! He was old; he had to die anyway if he hadn’t killed himself. What makes you so sad?”
“He didn’t kill himself. Nobody does that. Mummy, but you’re lying! I don’t believe you, I don’t, I will wait.”
“You foolish kid, here, see this.”
And she shoved the morning paper in my hand, barely caring to hide her frustration.
The first page was strewn with gruesome pictures of Buddhe Baba, his three sons and his wife, all lying dead, foaming at the mouth. I closed my eyes in reflex, my whole being shuddered, and my mind could only say “He can’t die” again and again, again and again, forbidding me to feel any emotion whatsoever, trying to convince me with its lies.
There was also a picture of a note, found in his hand.
“We have no money. We have nothing to eat. The leg has worn off. The little one is sick again. The eldest one is a drunkard. The wife’s a fool. We have no money. I cannot fight anymore. We have nothing. We want to die, all of us, because we have nothing to live for now. We have no love, no money, no courage. We want to die. ”
There was more to these lines, but it made no sense to me, it was too dark and complex to be unravelled by a young brain.
The last line of the note caught my attention.
“Happiness is no more than a lie, a pretense. Life is a battle we are destined to lose, and so I give up before it tortures me into defeat.”
I stood up, clutching the paper to my chest, trying to sink in the implications. After a long moment of confusion, I broke down into breathless sobs that ultimately graduated into tears, and I wouldn’t stop. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to say. All I knew was the bare reality: he had given up, he had never been happy, nobody ever was. I’d lost my defenses against the world, and I’d lost my ideals and my idol, and it was more than just the rough first contact with death, it was more than the loss of my faith in God : I had lost my belief in one thing that’s worth living for: Happiness.
And I wept more and more, like one who has not cried before, loudly, crazily, unstoppably, while my mind continued to tell me, “He can’t die, he can’t” over and over again.