A Roman Column
I am in Dhaka and it's a sad home-coming. Our beloved family retainer, who in the last three decades had become more family than retainer, suddenly passed away last week, and I am back to say good bye not only to him but to an old world order.
Yes, for my husband and me, Mukhles was not only a part of our life but of a rapidly vanishing age of innocence in which honesty, sincerity, devotion and selfless service were qualities that one could expect in an employee. With the passing of our faithful house-keeper and care-taker, we realise anew that such attributes these days are unique not only in domestic- staff but even among human beings in general. We realise what a rare friend we have lost.
Over the years, living abroad yet maintaining a home in Dhaka was a smooth affair only because of trustworthy Mukhles and his dedication to us. He came into my in-law's home as a ten year old. He was sent to school and given vocational training as a tailor and a driver. But he refused to go into service elsewhere, choosing to devote himself to serving my in-laws. He cared for my father-in-law when he was bed-ridden and wasting away with a nerve-related disorder and Alzheimer's disease, and subsequently looked after my mother-in-law till she died. After that, he never let us feel that my in-laws were gone. He became home for us whenever we returned, filling our trips with his nurturing and caring. He never asked for financial reward and was content with whatever way we rewarded his service. It's true his young family was always taken care of by us as part of that old order of Noblesse Oblige, where traditionally a poor family is taken under the wings and the progeny educated and set on their feet by the benefactor. But often the gesture is not returned and gratitude or devotion is missing from the benefiter.
Mukhles was not of that ilk. Even when he was alive we knew Mukhles was a gem of a human being, and we gave him the same affection that he gave us over the last thirty years. For us, it was easy to love his cheerful personality, ever energetic and eager to please us; but I wonder what made him adore his master's voice so unconditionally, especially since we made so many demands on his patient and multi-talented personality. Bright and resourceful, he had a solution to every problem we set before him.
He was running around all the time doing a million things for us, with efficiency and a beatific smile on his face that would do Buddha proud. Christ-like, he could stretch the metaphorical loaf of bread to feed a dozen unexpected guests. Like Durga with her multiple arms, our Mukhles could attend to ten different things at one time.
I can see him ironing my husband's shirt, while the water boils for the breakfast porridge, and giving directions to the new driver at the door how to reach my aunt's house to collect something, all the while reassuring a) my son--- that he would get the internet guy after breakfast; b) me--- that the sari blouse would be brought from the tailor immediately after he had shopped for grocery; c) my husband---that the phone bill would be paid as soon as he had cooked lunch. Meantime, he had leapt to the kitchen to put breakfast on the dining room; rushed with a spray can towards my hysterical “Oh-my-god-a-Cockroach! “; run down three floors to catch the driver before he left for the wrong aunt's house (naturally, it was Mukhles' fault for not reading my mind as to which of my khalas I had meant); come back to put an end to my husband's search for a file dating a decade; sewed a button on my son's shirt; un-jammed an old cupboard door; fixed the temperamental CD player; changed the chip on my cell; gently reminded us about arranging for the feeding of orphans on the upcoming death anniversary of my father-in-law; dialled my brother's new phone number for me; promised to cook prawns for my son; make kod-bel bhorta for me; and kilograms of his special betel nut and fennel mixture for my husband; and finally scolded the cleaning woman for coming late.
All this would transpire during the first quarter of an ordinary morning in the life of this Jack-of-all-trades. The rest of the day would spin out in doing his other and real duties. I never saw him sit down to eat or to relax. Though never cheeky, he would laugh and joke with his beloved master, who referred to his Man Friday fondly as 'Faceless' from a forced and lame connection to his name, as if it were Mukh-less. But, for me his name truly reflected his character, rooted in the Arabic word for sincerity as in 'khooloos.'
It seems ironic that an energetic young man, not yet forty, who was never ill in his life should die of a sudden and galloping case of acute leukemia. When this undetected disease showed its teeth, and its victim was finally down with fever, he was annoyed and embarrassed to be unwell enough to not be able to carry on with his many obligations. He waited too long to finally complain of being ill. By the time we arranged by remote control to send him to Apollo hospital to have him checked and treated, it was too late.
For the first time in almost 28 years, we arrived at the airport in Dhaka to not be greeted by his smiling face. I weep as I write this, and it is natural I, my husband and my sons should grieve for Mukhles. But the remarkable thing is that anyone who knew him, such as our friends and relatives are equally shocked and saddened by his untimely death. My younger sister, who knew him before her marriage when she would visit my shoshurbari, wrote from her office in the U.S saying she was howling at her desk remembering the twenty years of memories she had of his kindness , helpfulness and humour. This unassuming and affectionate family retainer had managed to make room in the heart of anyone who interacted with him even once.
I felt I must pay him my tribute in my column today because he had a big role to play in it. In the early nineties, when I came to live in Dhaka for a year, and the Daily Star office was still in Dhanmondi, I used to send my columns as hard copy, and it was Mukhles who would hand- deliver it to the office. Later, when the office shifted to Karwan Bazaar, it was he who guided the driver and me to it. Sitting in Italy, we would receive his weekly telephone call to us every Friday, among other things informing me, “Aajkey apnar lekha utsey”. He would save copies of the magazine, or buy extra ones if my copy did not arrive in Rome by mail. Although, he could not read English, he would always check the magazine for my column, and if some week my column was missing he would call and ask why I had not written, and if everything was okay.
Dear Mukhles, in case you didn't notice, last week my column was missing. So this week I am writing to inform you why I have not written. As always, dear faithful Faceless, it's all your fault. Who gave you permission to die?
(R) thedailystar.net 2008