We were children when our father, an army officer, was an instructor at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla. We lived in a large bungalow within an extensive compound that contained a number of gardens, vegetable patches, shrubberies, rockeries and a lawn. As you can guess, keeping the grounds neat and attractive called for a lot of strenuous work and dedication on the part of our ‘mali’ (gardener).
My dad would, thus, occasionally hire some villagers from close by to supplement the mali’s efforts and also give him a bit of rest.
One Sunday morning, I wandered out of the house to see a young peasant couple at work among the flower beds. Clearly, they had been fetched from a nearby village to work in the compound. The man and his wife worked assiduously while their two small children, a boy and a girl, chased each other across the lawn, obviously delighted at having so much space and time in which to play. I was about seven years old. Having nothing better to do, I settled down to watch them from a distance.
After a while, I got bored and decided to take an active part in the proceedings. I went up to the man and asked him if I could assist him in any way, but he declined my offer politely. Maybe he thought I would be more hindrance than help!
I went inside the house and did my home work. When I strolled outside again I saw that the family had taken a break to have their lunch. They were sitting together in a circle. I watched with interest as the couple unravelled a few cloth bundles and laid out their meal. It consisted of chapattis, onions, a pinch of salt and … nothing else!
I was appalled!
‘Is that all?’ I blurted out in spite of myself.
‘Yes, of course,’ said the woman, smiling at me.
I ran inside the house, looking for my mother. I found her in the kitchen with Kamala, our maid, putting the finishing touches to our lunch.
‘Mummy, Mummy, you know, those people working in our compound,’ I said breathlessly.
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘They’re having their lunch and they’ve only got chapattis and onions and salt and … and … that’s all they’ve got,’ I said in a rush.
Then I burst into tears.
Mummy quickly gathered me in her arms.
‘Don’t cry,’ she said, wiping away my tears.
‘Why don’t they have anything else, Mummy?’ I asked in bewilderment.
‘I wish I could answer that question,’ she said, stroking my back. ‘I can only tell you that we all are fated to go through a lot of sadness in our lives, but yes, we’ll see a lot of happiness too.’
I looked at her in astonishment. Mummy wasn’t usually given to making such philosophical remarks.
Then she smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do something about it. We’ll share our lunch with them.’
‘Hurray!’ I cheered.
Soon, Kamala and I were walking out of the kitchen, bearing containers full of rice, dal, vegetables and curd.
‘Mind you don’t drop anything!’ said Mummy from behind.
The family in the garden were surprised and overjoyed to see what we had brought for them. It was manna from heaven!
Kamala returned to the kitchen, but I hung round to watch.
‘Do you want some more?’ I asked anxiously after some time.
‘No, no!’ said the man. ‘Your mother has given so much.’
When they had finished, they washed the utensils scrupulously clean at the tap in the lawn.
I held out my hand to take them back, but the woman demurred.
‘No, I’ll take them in myself. I must thank your mother,’ she said.
I went with her to the kitchen, where Mummy was a little embarrassed by the woman’s effusive thanks. Giving her a few oranges, Mummy sent her on her way.
When we sat down to a scratch lunch, I was in no mood to eat anything. The stark images of the villagers’ meagre fare crowded my mind. As I toyed with my food, my father asked me if I was unwell.
‘No, he’s alright,’ said Mummy, turning to me with a wink. ‘It’s just that he’s been running round outside the whole morning.’
In the afternoon I spent some time playing hide and seek with the peasant children. Later, in the evening, I saw my father come outside to take a look at the work the couple had done. Declaring himself well satisfied with their efforts, he handed the man a generous amount of cash. As he accepted the money, the man looked at me and told dad, ‘Your boy is very nice.’
‘Has he been troubling you?’ asked dad, eyeing me suspiciously.
I tried to look saintly but failed in the effort.
‘No, no sahib,’ said the woman, shyly laying a hand on my head and ruffling my hair. ‘Your son is very sweet!’
I cringed with shame. Sweet? A self respecting little ruffian like myself!
Before the family left, the couple asked dad to send them word whenever he wanted any more work done in the garden; they would happily come any time, they assured him. Dad promised not to forget them.
I continued to be distressed by the memory of that frugal meal, but not for long. My boyish resilience soon took over and I was my happy self once again.
I was only reminded of the incident when I returned to the NDA as an officer cadet and had an opportunity to look at our old house again.