Thursday 2 August 2012

An old tree without branches

“How long had your servant been with you?”
The question jolted Prajyoti out of his near-stupor. He had narrowly escaped death at the hands of his servant, the police inspector told him, showing him two daggers found hidden in the kitchen.
The “servant” in question was Sanjon.
Some 20 years ago, Prajyoti had stopped some policemen who were leading the boy out of a railway station to ask why he was crying. 
The child had boarded a train somewhere on the Bengal-Orissa border during an unscheduled stop. It was done in play, but the train started before he realized his mistake, and he dared not get off. A passenger handed him over to the railway police. 
When told that Sanjon would be put in a shelter for the homeless till someone claimed him, Prajyoti offered to take him in for the interim period. 
This period stretched on interminably. No one came looking for Sanjon. He was six or seven then.
Prajyoti had a daughter and two sons. His wife was reluctant to admit Sanjon into the house at first, but his submissive ways won her over. He followed her around like a puppy, undemanding and ever ready to help. Soon, everyone was calling out to him to fetch and carry, the housemaids no longer found his presence unsettling and he learnt enough of the local language to be ready for schooling.
Sanjon was Prajyoti's Man Friday.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
The children put up with Sanjon for their father’s sake, but were unhappy with the way Prajyoti showered attention on him. It was always “Help Sanjon with this” or “Let Sanjon ride the elephant first,” “Sanjon liked them, so I bought him those”. Of course, he paid their fees and sent them to good schools and colleges, but that was more by way of duty. Prajyoti’s children wanted him to be there for them as well, but he seemed to have shut them out of his affections for good.
His wife observed the growing alienation of the children, and broached the subject with him a number of times. However, they always ended up disagreeing on Sanjon and their children. He was so fixated on giving Sanjon a decent life that he was oblivious to the injustice he was doing to his own family.
His daughter had opted for graduation abroad and arranged for her brothers to join her there. They all settled down overseas after their studies. A big gulf had developed between his children and him, but he realized only now how deep a wound he had inflicted on them.
She was on a pilgrimage when his wife lost her footing and was carried away by the strong river current. It left Prajyoti shattered. He turned to his children for emotional support, but by now they had nothing to offer him. They returned to their homes after performing their mother’s last rites. He felt like a stump, an old tree without branches.
He really did bring up Sanjon as his youngest child, not as a servant. Except that the boy attended the local government-run school, there was little to differentiate between his three children and Sanjon. When he was about 16, Sanjon refused to study any more. Prajyoti was alone and his children visited India infrequently. Since he did not keep too well, he needed someone to attend to him 24 hours, Sanjon had argued.
What had gone wrong? Prajyoti wondered. He was not aware if Sanjon kept bad company, for almost every minute of his day was accounted for.
Sanjon virtually ran the house. From overseeing the daily help to operating Prajyoti’s accounts, he was entrusted with all the household affairs. Indeed, Sanjon often professed total devotion to his benefactor, reiterating the fact that he had no kin but Prajyoti and no home but this.
The entire neighbourhood trusted Sanjon, for that matter. He was Man Friday to not just Prajyoti but all his aged friends too. Prajyoti’s companions on his morning walk handed Sanjon their shopping lists, and he faithfully fetched the best stuff at the best prices. He negotiated rates with the laundry man on behalf of all the families in the colony. Courier packets could safely be left in his hands.
Elderly women banked on his presence, and working couples believed Sanjon kept a protective eye on their children. He was friend to schoolchildren and college-going youth alike. He had fetched stranded children from school, arranged emergency medical attention for the sick and helped organize family functions many a time.
Prajyoti firmly believed his upbringing had helped inculcate the best traits in the boy. He was pure of heart and had a soft corner for the less fortunate. Sanjon always talked of his good luck, but said he must never forget those struggling for two square meals a day.
Prajyoti had made sure he was financially well provided for. When he turned 18, Prajyoti opened a bank account in his name and transferred a fixed amount into it regularly. Sanjon periodically got his passbook updated and gave it to Prajyoti for safekeeping.
Struck by the thought, Prajyoti rose from his rocking chair in which he had been sitting for two hours now. The house was swarming with policemen, and the housemaid sat cowering in one corner. A number of people had been questioned about Sanjon’s activities, but no one reported having seen anything out of the ordinary.
He opened the drawer where he kept all cheque books. Sanjon’s cheque book lay there as well. He opened it. As far as he knew, Sanjon had never drawn money from his account, but today four cheques were missing and the passbook was gone.
His heart beating loudly, Prajyoti called up the bank. He was told what he did not want to hear: All the money had been withdrawn in four large instalments.
With leaden feet, Prajyoti dragged himself to the bedroom. He had told the police inspector all his cash was intact, but he was not so sure any more. He had not actually checked the safe. It had seemed untouched. Now he unlocked it and found all the money gone, as well as his wife’s jewellery and her two gold watches.
Prajyoti wondered why Sanjon had not used the daggers on him. Maybe because he had left unusually early for his walk today. Or maybe Sanjon’s nerves failed him.
His mouth went dry. He tried calling out to the policeman outside. No use. Gathering his wits after a few minutes, Prajyoti informed the inspector of his loss.
A forensic expert was to be summoned. “Why did you not call me? You should not have touched the safe at all,” the inspector shook his head at him.
“I still cannot believe Sanjon has done this. I wonder who put him up to it,” Prajyoti mumbled.
The policeman was no longer listening to him. He was being told over the phone Sanjon had been spotted crossing the Indian border, just a few hours from where Prajyoti lived.
“Drop all charges, Inspector,” Prajyoti said, his back now straight. “He deserves to live his own life, perhaps, and mine should go on too. I only wish he had told me as much to my face.”
He returned to the sitting room and picked up the telephone. He must check with his banker and his chartered accountant how best he could carry on in the circumstances. And then phone an agency … for a driver. Some long-distance calls were due, too. He must grow back into a strong tree.