He had worked in the Hazarika household for fifteen years. The mornings began early with him opening the huge lock on the gate, sweeping the entire periphery of the house, watering the plants, dusting, sweeping and mopping the double-storied house, washing the car, taking his bath and then attending to tasks like chopping the vegetables, cleaning the fish, washing the utensils and clothes, etc. In times when finding a reliable domestic help in Guwahati was becoming a pain, Pobon was like a blessing to the Hazarika household. Reba Hazarika’s brother, a manager at the Sessa Tea Estate in Dibrugarh, was the Samaritan who sent Pobon, the tea garden “boy” who was already thirty five years of age when he came.
Mrigen Hazarika and Reba Hazarika took an instant liking to this honest man, who worked without complain, was always cheerful and thought of himself as a member of the family. When Prerona, the eldest Hazarika daughter, came on holidays with her American husband, Pobon would spruce up the garden and gather fruits and vegetables in advance, not letting anyone eat them. “These are for Prerona Baideo and her husband,” he would say, “And you will get to eat these only when they arrive.” When Momi, the second Hazarika daughter, came home on weekends, Pobon would have prepared jars of delicacies like narikal ladoo, til pitha and narikal pitha for her to be taken to her house at the Gauhati University campus. Both she and her husband taught Botany at the university. Gaurav, the youngest of Mrigen and Reba Hazarika’s three children, would get up in the mornings calling out for Pobon and stealthily pass on a ten rupee note to him, so as not to catch the attention of his parents, to fetch him cigarettes from the shop at the mouth of the road. The cigarettes, he would then, smoke in the bathroom attached to his room and flush out the butt in the commode. And on days when Gaurav came back home with the smell of alcohol in his breath, Pobon would quietly let him in and tell his parents that the lad had eaten and gone off to sleep.
Every Sunday morning, Pobon would carry two bags and leave for the Beltola Sunday market with Mrigen Hazarika. They would return with the week’s vegetables. Reba Hazarika only had to go to the prayer room after her bath. Pobon would have kept a bucket of water ready for Reba Hazarika to clean the tiny prayer room with; and he would also pick flowers from the garden and keep them ready for Reba Hazarika to offer them to the Gods and Goddesses. Such were the rituals in the Hazarika’s lives and thus was how Pobon an integral part of every ritual. After a year or two of Pobon’s arrival, when familiarity shed all formalities, Pobon had to bear the harsh words of the Hazarika men and women too. With the years, just as the feeling that Pobon would now not go anywhere else settled in, he was increasingly nagged and shouted at for this and that. Never by Prerona though; which is why she and her American husband remained Pobon’s favorite till the end. Fifteen years passed by and Pobon became indispensable to the household, even after the harsh words and a little clumsiness on his part at times. And then one day, just like that, he disappeared.
That morning, Reba Hazarika, as always the first one to get up after Pobon, brushed her teeth and went downstairs to the kitchen for a cup of black tea. Going down the stairs, she noticed that the doors were still latched and the curtains not yet drawn. An irritation instantly stirred in her and she thought of the choicest words to shower upon Pobon. When she reached the kitchen, she found the kitchen door latched too. Losing her temper, she screamed, “Pobon! You are still sleeping!” and charged towards his room only to stop in her tracks when she found his bed empty and the door to the back verandah open.
Reba Hazarika went running upstairs and woke up her husband and son, “Get up! Get up! Pobon is not there!” Mrigen Hazarika rubbed his eyes unbelievably. Gaurav woke up with a start and rushed downstairs. He went around the entire house, went up to the terrace, looked every nook and corner. Pobon was just not there. And then it slowly occurred to them that Pobon had run away. They checked things in the house; he had not taken anything. They checked his room, his belongings were not there.
A month since that, Reba Hazarika dusted and mopped the big house herself. Mrigen Hazarika helped her cook at times and Gaurav often did the dishes. Desperate looking for domestic help had not yielded any result. There was still no news of Pobon. Someone at the market told Mrigen Hazarika that Pobon was last seen at the Beltola bus stop. The weather was getting hot and humid and housework was becoming all the more unbearable. Once when after the day’s work Reba Hazarika was lying on a cot under the fan in the front netted verandah, she heard the ‘clang’ of the gate and saw her neighbor Mrs. Phukan walk in. After exchanging pleasantries and gossips, Mrs. Phukan finally told Reba Hazarika, “Pobon running away is bad news for our maids and boys you see!” Reba Hazarika let out a deep sigh. “You can imagine, Mrs. Phukan,” she said, “How difficult things are for me! Can you please find me someone? I badly need respite.” And so it was arranged that the Bangladeshi maid who came to Mrs. Phukan’s house would also come to Reba Hazarika’s for two hours a day and will be paid double of what Pobon was paid. That being the usual daily-wage for Bangladeshi migrant laborers in the neighborhood, there was no point bargaining.
Fifteen years ago, when Pobon came to the Hazarika household, everyone instantly liked this skinny fellow with dark chocolate skin and yellow teeth with a warm smile. Extremely efficient, his only drawback was that he could neither read nor write. Five years after Pobon had joined the Hazarika household, he went home to the tea estate for a month-long vacation. It, however, took him three months to come back. And he brought with him a wife. Pobon was around forty years of age then, while his wife was younger to him by almost twenty two years. She was from the same tea estate as him, and her father was Pobon’s sister’s brother-in-law. Her father took great pride in the fact that she was “educated”, had studied till the seventh standard, and was looking for a groom who would be at least a matriculate; although dreams were to catch someone in a clerical job at the tea estate. Pobon was definitely out of the scene because of many factors – age and no education being the primary ones of course. And so, after several evenings of accidental intimacy, the man and the girl eloped.
Mala thought of herself as very pretty. And so did everyone else in the Hazarika household until her actions spoke. As Pobon would get up early in the morning, Mala would be in deep slumber. By the time she woke up, he would have completed his tasks for first half of the day. She would then drag herself to the kitchen, where Pobon would have her breakfast ready while Reba Hazarika prepared lunch. Mala never offered any help. It, in fact, took Mala a week of warnings from Reba Hazarika and much prodding from Pobon to enter the kitchen only after a bath.
Her days usually began when it was close to lunch time for others. She would bathe, moisturize her body with mustard oil, dress up in a bright saree, wear her hair in two plaits, tied by red ribbons, and then make her way to the study and plant herself in front of the TV. She never sought permission from anyone before switching on the TV. And the Hazarikas were dumbfounded at such a bold act by somebody from that “class” that they didn’t know for a long time how to react to it. Finally, Mrigen Hazarika made it clear to Pobon that he and his wife were not to operate the TV in that house. As for Mala, “I am not an employee here,” was her favorite refrain when her actions were questioned.
Then one day, a bundle of notes went missing from Reba Hazarika’s dressing table. She was combing her hair when Mrigen Hazarika came in and gave her the bundle to be kept in the almirah. As he left the room, Reba Hazarika got back to combing her hair, when all of a sudden, she heard a shriek. Forgetting about the bundle, she rushed outside to see Gaurav lying at the foot of the staircase. The neighbor’s four year old son, shaking in fright, was looking at him with wide eyes from the landing, in front of the room from where Reba Hazarika emerged. It so happened that the little one was playing at the landing and was almost reeling over the railing. Gaurav was lecturing him on the perils of such play and showed him, just to scare the little one and keep him off the railing, how he might slip and fall. Unfortunately the demonstration turned real-time and the child got the shock of his life. So did Gaurav, who badly hurt his back, but escaped hitting his head on the ground. A hue and cry was created and Gaurav was shifted to the couch next to the staircase. It took a while for the chaos to subside and finally Reba Hazarika remembered the bundle. But when she reached the dressing table, the bundle was gone. She immediately knew whom to suspect because this kind of a thing had never happened in her house before.
Pobon looked very disturbed for the next few days; but he swore not to have seen the bundle. Mala was more assertive and confident while swearing ignorance about the bundle. Finally, after a few days, Mrigen Hazarika asked Pobon and his wife to leave. The morning they were leaving, Pobon quietly stole into Mrigen Hazarika’s study. “Saar,” he whispered, which almost startled the senior man, “I found the bundle. It was lying under the bed in the bedroom.” Though there was no saying how the bundle reached that corner and how massive search before had not yielded it. “And Saar,” Pobon continued to whisper as he placed the bundle on the desk, “I will come back.”
More than a year later, one cold January morning, as Mrigen Hazarika was watering the plants in the garden he saw a familiar figure in a dark fake leather jacket on the pavement across the road. Pobon, who appeared leaner than before, was standing there pretending to look the other way. Mrigen Hazarika could only smile to himself at Pobon’s forced nonchalance. It was a good half an hour that Pobon kept standing there and Mrigen Hazarika kept watering the plants. Finally, turning off the tap by the side of the verandah and putting the water hose aside, Mrigen Hazarika called out in a casual voice, “Is that Pobon?”
To which Pobon hastily replied, “Yes, Saar. It’s me.”
“What are your plans for Magh Bihu today? Where are you feasting?”
“Nowhere, Saar. I have just come back from the tea estate.” Pobon had crossed over the road and was now standing by the gates to the Hazarika’s compound, eagerly smiling at the senior man.
“Ok, then. You can feast with us,” said Mrigen Hazarika as he walked up the stairs and disappeared into the house.
Pobon gleefully took up the offer and stayed back not only for the feast but for the rest of the years. He declared that Mala was dead. That jaundice did her and that he will never go back again. That he had learnt his lesson; and that he belonged to the Hazarika household.
By this time, Dwipen, another young man in his late twenties, was already working with the Hazarikas since four months. Dwipen had his goals clear. He had worked as a domestic help for almost a decade now and was saving money to buy a small piece of land in his village, where he would start farming. Before coming to the Hazarika household, he had worked with another family in Guwahati. His services came to an end when the head of the family died. The sons sold off the property in Guwahati and one of them took away the mother to live with him in Canada. Since this family and the Hazarikas were closely acquainted, it was arranged that Dwipen would move into the Hazarika household. Pobon immediately started disliking Dwipen. He felt threatened by the young man’s efficiency and popularity with the Hazarikas. Hence, as the days passed, Pobon came up with increasing complaints – “Saar, ever since that Dwipen has been washing your car, the sheen has gone! I think I will have to ask him to let me do it.” “Baideo, that Dwipen watered your mint too much and the plant died.” And at times, he would bring a utensil or two in front of Reba Hazarika and state with much might, “Baideo, see how that Dwipen washes the dishes! It is still dirty!”
Although Mrigen and Reba Hazarika paid not much heed to these complaints, Dwipen started feeling uncomfortable in Pobon’s presence and finally decided to leave. As a token of gratitude for his services, Mrigen Hazarika paid him an extra month’s salary. After that, Pobon’s disposition returned to its joyous best and he got back his earlier cheer despite occasional nagging.
Everything was going fine when, in a few years’ time, Dwipen visited with his pretty wife and a healthy two year old daughter. “Saar, I bought a piece of land with my savings and took to farming. I married soon after I acquired the land and with the help of my wife, I saved enough and set up a gelamaal shop in the village where I now sell groceries and all household items like soap, shampoo, comb, detergents, brooms, etc. With your blessings, we are doing quite well.” He then fetched out a duck, two huge melons, bunches of Asiatic pennywort ferns, spinach and mustard greens from his bag and gave it to his wife, “Please put these in the kitchen.” And turning to the elderly Hazarikas, he said, “Please accept this humble token of gratitude. And I have this bag full of joha rice from my harvest. I am sure you will like it.”
Reba Hazarika prepared a grand lunch for Dwipen and his family, and laid out a nice cot in the kitchen for them to sit with their plates of food. Pobon helped Reba Hazarika cook the food and served it to Dwipen and his family. This cot was a privilege and Dwipen’s eyes moistened a little. As a domestic help before, he would generally squat on the kitchen floor and have food from his plate after he had cleared the dining table where the family had eaten. The cot changed his status a little, and it brought some pride as well as nostalgia to him. It was after a few days that Dwipen visited, Reba Hazarika walked down the stairs of her house one morning to find Pobon’s room empty and the door to the back verandah open.