Now when I am approaching 65, with only a few hair left on my head, I do not see any sense in being part of a waiting queue at hairdresser's. Instead, I go to a wayside barber, who relieves me within 15 minutes and feels obliged with a 20-rupee note.
In the past two years, my regular visits have made me friendly to this barber. One day, while cutting my hair, he asked me: "Sahib! Where do you stay?" I knew it was a purposeless query but to get on with the conversation, I tried to bring him close to the location of my house. He at once interrupted. "Is it the same house from where a Bihari woman and her three sons come out every evening?"
Perplexed by his observation, I snapped back gruffly: "Yes, but how do you know them?" Reading my expressions, he said cautiously: "Everyone knows those boys. They loiter in this area for most part of the day."
The woman is Mahdevi. About 10 years ago, my wife had employed her in her herbal products unit. She won her trust with good work, positive attitude, pleasing conduct, and integrity, and my wife moved her into our house as domestic help.
Hardly a year later, she lost her husband, who was addicted to liquor and 25 years older to her. At that time, her eldest son was 10 and her two other children a little over 5. Thanks to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, country's universal education programme, we could put them in a government school nearby.
Mahadevi was asked to come to work only after dropping her children at the school, and later, they would join her at our place. My wife would try to give them an hour of tuition but either they'd find an escape or she would be distracted by a telephone call or a television serial. For the rest of the day, they had a carefree life that modern-day children would envy.
During my routine morning walk once, I bought 5 kilos of fresh green peas but as the load would be too heavy, I requested the hawker to drop it at my house. Even before I had given him the complete directions, he had understood. "Saheb, samajh gai," he said. "I think it's the same house where a Bihari woman with three children works." Relief and surprise took me.
Another day, I invited a partner from morning walk to tea. "Is it your house?" he asked me, sternly. "Yeah, but what's the matter?" I said, now uneasy. "Thanks to three boys spotted around this house, I haven't yet eaten a single guava off my young tree in the past two years," he said. "They have stolen every fruit."
Frowns appeared on his face. Tactfully, I drew him inside my house. Then, all of a sudden, he was cheerful again. "Can't you see," he said, "I have hardly any teeth in my mouth. How can I eat any guava?" We burst into laughter.
As Mahadevi brought in tea, I couldn't help telling her: "Thank to you, I have at least some identity."