I had come to this city as an immigrant labourer. My father had handed me over to my mother’s cousin brother, Abdullah, and asked him to take me to the big city where he was a successful gardening contractor. I was 10, Abdullah was 40. I was a wimpy, bony kid, just like everyone else in my family while Abdullah had a towering figure, with the beginnings of a paunch. He had smiled at me with his beetle stained lips and somehow I had felt that he was harmless. I had smiled back.
“How old are you?” he had asked. “10” I had replied.
“14” he had said.
“Huh?” I hadn’t understood. “No 10”, I had repeated. I had learnt this only yesterday at the village school, I even had a test on it the next day and I had been repeating it all night. I wasn’t wrong.
Abdullah had smiled. “You’re 14 from today. Anyone asks you how old you are, what are you gonna tell them?” he had asked, just to be sure.
“14!” I had said, gesturing a 10 with all my fingers.
Abdullah had nodded an approval, but with sadness in his eyes.
“You sure I should take him with me, he is just a boy, skinny and toothless. They’ll put me behind bars if they find his real age.” he had asked my father.
“I have no other way Abdullah. He’s the oldest and has two little sisters to take care of. He will have to join you, or starve here, just like the rest of us.” he had replied.
I was asked to pack my bags immediately. My mother had tucked my two pair of shirt and short pants into a blue polythene bag. I got no hug from her. No goodbye, no I will be waiting for you. No “here take these sweets, I had saved them up for you”. Nothing. All I received in my family was silence, just bodies moving around with no conversation, no expression, no show. Not that I expected any of it either. Since I never received, I never knew such feelings existed. I had never seen people in love or being kind or being expressive. You know you’re loved, wanted, adored, appreciated only when it’s expressed in gestures, in words. All these were alien to me until I had met Madam and her family.
In a few weeks of being in the city, Abdullah had taught me the basics of gardening. While he used to get landscaping contracts of big corporate and government offices, he’d send me to the houses of the officials of these offices who’d request him to help them maintain their private gardens. The work there was comparatively menial – trowel the mud, pluck the weeds, maintain the grass, cut and shape the potted plants. Things a ten year old could manage.
Madam’s husband worked at one such office. I had tended to bigger private gardens than theirs, which used to earn me a lot more hourly than what I used to get from working there. But even today, even after 15 years of working in this big city, at one phone call of hers I still rush to their little garden. Initially I wouldn’t understand why I liked it there. But I guess I know now.
On my first day at her house, Madam had looked at me with inquisitive eyes. “How old are you”, she had asked running her hands lovingly through my hair. “14!” I had said, pulling all my fingers out into a 10 in reflex.
“You sure he is 14?” she had turned around and asked her husband.He had told her that he didn’t know, and upon her request had called up Abdullah to confirm. Despite what Abdullah said, she had looked at me and muttered – “You aren’t 14. You’re my daughter’s age. You aren’t 14”
That day, for the first time I had good home cooked food. Unlike people who treated me like an unworthy urchin, she would only serve me food at their dining table. When I would tell her that I will have it in their verandah, she would run her hands through my hair and say, “No Zakhir, you’re my daughter’s age, you’ll have it with my kids at the dining table.”
I didn’t know how to sit at a table and eat. I didn’t know how to use a spoon or how to eat all that was served. It was beyond exotic for me. Everywhere I went, people would at max offer me tea, in their most worn out cup. She on the other hand hardly cared about such things. I ate in the same dishes as her kids, drank in similar mugs as them, and I was even encouraged to take another scoop of anything that I liked. Her kids too wouldn’t make fun of me. They’d share the food, the stories, the smiles with me and I would quietly sit there, unable to muster enough courage to ever say anything. I would just sit there and eat. Hardly smiling. Hardly taking my eyes off the plate. The only person I would make eye contact with was Madam, and each time I did so, I would only see kindness… something I never had seen before, something I had never experienced. Not once had she got angry with me. Even when I messed up their exotic “Christmas Tree” chopping off its entire leaves from beneath, she had simply said – “It’s okay, they’ll grow back”.
They didn’t. The tree was ruined. It hardly looked like a Christmas tree. Its leaves refused to shoot from the lower half of its single stem, and the one’s that sprouted at the top grew in a hap-hazard way.
But they never chopped it away. Every Christmas they’d still decorate the same tree, with so much love, lights and stars. I guess that was with her family, anything that they claimed to be theirs, they would never let go, no matter how big a misfit it was.
So despite never knowing how, I had understood the love of a mother. And through her the love of a family – monthly on second Saturdays, through warm smiles, through freshly prepared food, through relentless questions from her on my work, my family back home, through small gifts that she would give me – yes – I had known love. I had come to this city as a faceless kid whose existence could have been well ignored. But she had given me a family, a mother’s love, a mother’s patience, a mother’s concern. Yes it was not mine to claim forever, but it was love nevertheless. It was borrowed, and though I could never return it, I could never say it to her either, it was what made my life bearable in the city, where I was otherwise just another immigrant labourer.