Growing up as a single child, I can recall a host of instances where I was asked: “Would you like to have a sibling?” Come to think of it, I feel like that was one of the prompts to a Composition exam in Grade 4 or Grade 5. Both my parents grew up with younger siblings, so it was only natural to get asked that question from family. But more often than not, I’d answer with a No. It was usually the typical reasons, I guess. Having a room to yourself, a bed you didn’t have to share, belongings that weren’t borrowed or hand-me-downs. Everything was new, and everything was mine. Being the eldest member of my generation from my mother’s side, I ended up getting the attention of all family members, and consequently, grew up with a lot of affectionate, warm memories.
But I feel like a bigger reason why I never felt the need for a sibling was that I was always surrounded by people who, despite an age difference, understood me, or whom I connected with in a way only siblings could. I was fiercely protected, and fiercely protective of these people. I fought with them. I shared things with them. All in all, I grew up with them. I’ve constantly heard that “It Takes A Village To Raise a Child”, but I only truly understood how lucky I’ve been today, in that sense. Throughout my life, I’ve been brought up under the watchful eyes of my parents + a few others. The biggest +1 in that equation was always my nanny or the housekeeper we had.
When I was extremely young, we had Geeta Bai, who “malish”ed my legs, apparently cajoling me into walking and calling me her “bathuni”. It was subsequently Rosie Aunty, who I developed the closest bond with. As I grew older and was trusted with the house keys, a host of others stepped in to fulfil that role – ensuring I ate my meals on time and the house was spick and span when the parents were at work.
It was only when we moved to India, when I was 10 years old, that I truly began to respect and understand the influence of people like Geeta Bai, or Rosie Aunty. My upbringing met the tour de force that was, until today, Shankar Uncle.
The first time I met him was at my father’s house in Ashton Woods. This was back in 2007, when I had come to visit schools in Bangalore, ahead of our shift in residence. I knew 0 words of Hindi at the time, except things I had picked up watching Bollywood films, so I communicated largely via gestures. Shankar Uncle had come from Bihar, and had been employed by my dad to help out at home with meals and maintenance. He cooked “home”-food for dad, something Appa had missed a lot. And Shankar Uncle got to watch TV, live in a house, and go back to Bihar for a month or more, depending on dad’s travel and stuff.
My first memory of Shankar Uncle was the fact that he saw me stealing ice-cubes from the freezer. I was 9 at the time, but, cold water had always been banned in our house. My parents told me I’d fall sick. So, one day, when dad was out for work, I walked over to the fridge and popped out some ice cubes to keep in my mouth and drink water over. It’s a habit I developed and then let go off, but, I consumed a lot of ice cubes over that break. Shankar Uncle saw me while I tiptoed back to the sofa. It took me one glance and a finger over my lips. He blinked, and that’s when I knew he had my back. He wasn’t going to say a word to Dad. It’s a fun little trick I ended up exploiting over the next few years.
I also remember how much he laughed at my reluctance to consume curd that was set at home. I was a spoiled little NRI kid, who could only eat Set Curd, so Nagraj Uncle used to go and get some for us. The Britannia variety, very elite. And I’d consume so much curd, but not touch the stuff he had set the previous night. He couldn’t stand it, and even in my limited understanding of Hindi, I knew he’d have a good laugh at my mannerisms.
In that break, I learnt very little of Shankar Uncle, but I knew he’d be staying with us full-time once we moved to India. Shankar Uncle was giving his own room in our house. Our utility room housed our washing machine, but also a neat little fold-out bed and some cupboards for him to keep his stuff.
He was a blessing in disguise.
When we first moved, things were super dusty. We lived extremely far out, in the middle of nowhere. Our closest “supermarket”, was a FoodWorld, about 6km away, for which we had to cross a railway crossing & stuff. He understood this, and he always made sure we picked up everything we needed in one trip – in such a way that we didn’t have to make multiple trips to the store.
He also helped me get adjusted to life in India. Aside from helping me live a super pampered lifestyle, by taking care of the washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking, and everything in between, he was a friend. When we moved, I didn’t really know if I’d get along with any of the kids my age here, so Shankar Uncle substituted for them all. He played badminton with me in the evenings, played cricket & bowled endlessly to me – especially when I said I wasn’t out. And then giggled away when he “accidentally” hit the ball over our compound fence.
He also watched Bollywood movies when they were on the TV, and always had the brightest smile when you told him you liked the food he made. And those smiles were at least once daily. I cannot remember too many instances where he messed up a dish for us. He was trained by my paternal and maternal grandparents – in cooking rasam and sambhar, two, very, very South Indian dishes. And safe to say, he ended up making them his own.
I can’t write more without talking about his paranthas. They were delicious. He could whip up incredible paneer bhurji. And he even helped with my misadventures in the kitchen – even when they involved things like Pasta.
He catered. Literally. When our little community in Bangalore was just about 30-40 families, we’d host a bunch of things for the community to get together. Parties, IPL match screenings, et al. Shankar Uncle made food for a lot of these gatherings. He’d just set up wherever needed, and go about making his fluffy, light phulkas – something nobody in this world can replicate. My mother’s friends would swoon over “Shankar’s phulkas”, and I’d just feel a sense of pride. He was my housekeeper. He was my friend.
So, naturally, when dad moved for work, and my grandmother insisted on kicking him out of our house, I was super pissed. I threw a lot of fits, I remember. I was used to having Shankar Uncle around. He just made life so easy. For my mother and me both. There was nothing to worry about because he was always at home – so we could do things as we pleased.
When he moved out though, he came as per timings: 6-10/10.30 in the mornings, and then 5-7 in the evenings. His timings were good – I’d still enjoy his company, and we’d still spend time together immediately after I got back from school.
I was in Grade 7, and I’d come home and unlock the door, kick back, switch on the TV and lie on my couch, anticipating Shankar Uncle’s arrival. He’d come, right on cue, whip up a banana milkshake or some chocolate milk (depending on his mood and mine), and then make a snack he thought was appropriate for the day. Strangely enough, he’d ensure I never ate the same thing back to back, and he’d always make a snack that was different from the meals we had already eaten.
So, for example, if it was Upma for breakfast – I’d never get it for snacks again. He spoiled me so much, that being in college for the first semester really, really sucked. Because my menu was super repetitive. Even though it was delicious. This entire routine continued daily until my last day of Grade 12.
He was there through it all.
When dad moved for work, the other thing that happened was that dad couldn’t help with my School Tie. And I didn’t pick up that skill until way later. So Shankar Uncle would tie it up. A neat little Windsor knot.
And he’d do it till it looked right. Sometimes it took 5 attempts, sometimes 10. But he’d tie it and retie it till it sat perfectly in the centre of my shirt.
I gave him my first two-wheeled cycle after I grew out of it. He got to ride it from his house to ours every day, till he bought a cycle of his own. It felt like my cycle had remained in the family, so I never complained.
We had our fair share of fun stories with him too, though. Him and my mother fought often because he was lazy with work sometimes (we all are, who can blame him). In fact, he received a special mention for this in a toast I wrote for my mother’s 40th birthday. For putting up with her screaming, I said.
He was a big reason I woke up on time also. His timely ringing of the bell was the “final call” or the “last alarm” on my list of snoozes. Once he came, I had to get out of bed. Otherwise, I’d definitely miss my bus.
Every time he went on holiday, he’d extend it. We knew a one month holiday meant one and a half months, and two month holidays meant three. Funnily enough, he missed all three of my board exam seasons: in Grades 10, 11 and 12. When I was at home 24*7, and I ate 3 meals at home, he wasn’t around. He’d come back when academic years had changed. He’d be plumper than ever, and we’d gift him a newly sized tee-shirt. But he’d retain that personality and vibe about him.
My Hindi foundations are built from conversations with Shankar Uncle. I know the value of food because I’ve seen how hard he worked to cook for us, and subsequently put food on his table. My dad had a companion in him, because they were both away from their families, working away. My mother had someone else to talk to every evening, and someone she could blindly trust with my care.
I had another guardian who’d do anything I needed. I’m sure he’d even give my homework a shot if I gave it to him – even though he knew 0 words of English.
In India, as a sign of thanks and respect, we touch the feet of our elders. I used to be reluctant doing this as a child, but I grew into it as an adult. After my 10th Grade board exam results, I remember touching his feet. And it’s just, an indescribable sense of gratitude, and an amount of respect that transcends vocabulary.
It’s what makes his loss really hard to bear.
My thoughts and prayers go out to his biological family.
But also his family here. Each one of us whose lives he impacted, in his own, little way. All the households he helped in our twin neighbourhoods.
My biggest regret? I can’t instantly locate a picture of the two of us. Hopefully, I’ll find one to post soon.
May his soul rest in peace.