Our neighborhood marketWhen we lived in India, we had a 'servant' - a cook. It wasn't a luxury we wanted - it was a custom expected of 'westerners'. Okay, 'easterners', too. We lived in a less than luxurious flat and our upstairs neighbors were embassy personnel for the East German embassy. Since they had a cook, too, I figured 'easterners' were under the same umbrella as us.
I know India has changed (improved) a lot since we lived there, so what I remember and write about is the India I knew/know. I am lucky enough to have lived in different cultures and countries, and I have learned from them all.
We had electricity in our flat, but we were constantly bothered by 'brown outs' or hours of low voltage. We could only use so much power at a time, and we all knew our limits. If the1959 Westinghouse refrigerator cycled on, you ran and turned off the1967 General Electric window air conditioner. If the bedroom window air conditioner was on, the living room window unit had to be turned off. At night, if you turned your bedside lamp on, all the other lights would dim. But we had electricity, and it was glorious.
We had water parts of the day. 6 a.m. until 10 a.m., you could wash, rinse, and flush. From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., don't even try. At 4, the water came back on until 10 p.m., when it was shut off for the night. The water came in two levels - inside water, suitable for most things (but NOT drinking), and outdoor water which usually contained toxins, waste and smells. We boiled the indoor water for 25 minutes before storing it in a big pot in the kitchen, ready for drinking. But we had water, and it was luxurious.
Grocery stores weren't. Such shopping was best left to the cook, who could negotiate prices and who knew the good (trusted) vendors from the bad. You don't want me describing what bad vendors would do to food...
Our cook was named Barua. He was from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and he moved to India to find good work. Being Muslim, he was able to find a job as a cook among European or American families, as he would cook meat or fowl. Of course, he had to find it first.
So everyday, Barua would meet with my mother and he'd suggest a dinner. He'd verify how many for dinner, what time it should be ready, and if any special requests were in mind. Mom always went with Barua's suggestions - no fresh fruit during the monsoons, no fresh meats at all, no dairy products from May until October.
Everyday Mom would count out the money Barua thought he'd need to bring home 'the bacon'. He'd jump on his black three speed bike and ride to whatever marketplace might have the products he had suggested to the Memsahib. He'd be gone an hour or two, and return with all kinds of 'groceries' hanging from his handlebars or tied around his waist.
And magically, a decent dinner would appear at the appointed hour. Needless to say, we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese, spaghetti in butter, chapatis with curry, and dishes made with Campbell's tomato soup.
The 'american' sounding foods were just that - Mom would buy boxes or cans of foods from friends/families with import privileges. Once she scored several jars of sweet gherkin pickles and even more of Jiffy peanut butter. I crossed the line when I dropped one of her pickle jars on the marble floor.... Mom looked at me with fire in her eyes. How could I drop and break 'her' pickle jar?? And suddenly a jar of peanut butter sailed by me, hitting the front door and shattering its contents on the door's glass. That was how we treasured our special treats.
But Barua could take just a few odd ingredients, perform some kind of magic on them, and produce an acceptable dinner. We cherished Barua and his kindness, his sweet face.
At 7 p.m. each evening, he'd hop on his black bike and ride off to wherever he spent the night. Next morning, promptly at 6 a.m., he'd return to start coffee and toast. Each day, the same routine for him and for us.
Two years passed on quickly. Barua learned to make birthday cakes for our special days. He'd ask Mom to spell our names so he could write it on the cake in the sickly sweet icing that was so common there. He learned our holidays and created a feast for each. When Mom acquired a canned ham one year, he saved it for Easter Sunday and served it with spaghetti. When my brother came home with a box of Potato Buds, we ate mashed potatoes as our main course. Occasionally we'd have fresh eggs from some wild bird we'd never ask about...
One day Barua approached Mom with a problem. He was needed by his family back in Bangladesh. He needed to leave us. His brother had been killed in an uprising.
Mom cried. Barua cried. I cried.
He planned to ride his bike northeastward. He didn't how he'd do it, for sure. But he needed to go. He had parents, wife, children, all who needed him there. All he knew was that his brother had been murdered by insurgents, and he was needed. It all made horrible sense.
He left that night at 6 p.m. He was going to start his journey right away. Mom gave him a bit of money to help along on his journey. Barua insisted he'd be in more danger if he had 'too many rupees' so he declined much carrying cash. He was afraid he already was a moving target, and he didn't want to be noticed any more than he had to be.
He promised when he got to his village near Comilla, he'd get word back to us. He assured Mom that there was a good network of communications among the other 'western' cooks, and he'd have no trouble getting word to us.
I never heard from him or about him. I never gave up thinking he arrived safely and that his family rejoiced in his presence.
But years later, Mom suggested that Barua never got to the Bangladesh border. Daniel, our 'new' cook claimed to know. Mom didn't want to hear, so she shushed Daniel before he could speak. If you don't know, you can't doubt. If your heart says he made it, you are wise to believe it.
Barua, you were never a servant. You were a gem, a serious little man who did more for us than we could ever do for you. And I never look at an iced birthday cake without thinking of you... you wanted it to be so right, all the while I wanted life to be right for you.