Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The family retainer: in memory of Narayan Singh (19?? - c.1997)

I have a personal essay in the new issue of Indian Quarterly, themed “Borders” – the first family-centred piece I have done for IQ since my essay about my mother’s cancer a few years ago. The central figure in this one – protagonist and cipher – is a man named Narayan Singh, who was first employed by my mother’s parents in Bombay in the late 40s and continued working for my nani for over four decades. I have been thinking about him quite a bit in recent times. Here is the piece...

In my head he is always a wizened old man: thin, tall, and (regardless of season) wearing a brown tweed coat, or a Nehru jacket, over white pajamas and a white or beige kurta. A Gandhi cap sits on his head. (I can never picture him without it.) He is probably in his mid-sixties – looks older to my child-eyes – but he mumbles that his parents are about to find a girl for him and he will be married in a few weeks. He seems bashful as he says this, then frowns distractedly, eyes darting, if he senses that his listeners are sniggering (which they usually are).

Yes, yes, the girl might look like Nargis. Raj Kapoor and Nargis are his favourite actors. Dara Singh is his favourite wrestler and he likes to go and see his fights every month.

It is 1988 and we are in south Delhi, far removed in time and space from the people and events he is talking about, but that doesn’t matter.

In a way he is a grandfatherly figure to me – he was around when my mother was born in the early 1950s, he knew her as a toddler, fed her occasionally, used to call her “Mala baby” and still does – but I don’t address him with the respectful “aap” or the suffix “ji”. It is always “tum”, and I call him by his name.

Narayan Singh.

That’s how one would spell it anyway, and that’s how it appeared on our family’s ration card, but in my mind it is “Narain” or “Naren”, because those are the pronunciations we used – hurrying through the word, dispensing with the “Y” sound and condensing the last two syllables. Today it feels like it was part of our subconscious project of diminishing him. I wonder what his name might have looked like on his birth certificate, if a birth certificate ever existed. It wouldn’t have been spelt in English anyway.

Narayan Singh died nearly 25 years ago, and I barely registered this when it happened – I only have a dim memory of my mother’s tears as she told me, before I put it out of my mind and moved on to the rest of my day – but I thought of him last year when I read a human-interest story about a 94-year-old woman being reunited with her original family after four decades. Panchfula was slow, the newspaper piece said, and incapable of saying more than a few unconnected words; talking to herself, she would keep a roti aside during mealtimes for a member of her absent family. Eventually someone happened to pay attention to a new word she uttered, then made an effort to identify a possible place name. The rest followed.

The story was powerful in its own right, but it touched a chord with its evoking of this figure from my early life: a man who had been both part of and not part of my mother’s family for decades. Like Panchfula, Narayan Singh resided in a world outside of time. Like her, he appeared to have conversations with people who weren’t there. An important difference, though: locating a family who would welcome him back would have been impossible by the 1980s.


He was sent to work for my nana and nani (maternal grandparents) in Churchgate in the late 1940s, a young man with a “slow” mind; he originally came from somewhere in Rajasthan and his own family didn't want to be burdened with him, or so I was always told. After my nana’s unexpectedly early death in 1975, Narayan Singh continued to be dependent on my grandmother, through a period that included my mother getting married in Delhi, my nani having to move out of her prestigious Churchgate apartment to then-suburban (and unfashionable) Andheri – and a final shift to Delhi, where she helped my mother get out of a bad marriage and bought a flat for us in Saket.

Thus it was that the man-child from a village in the desert state spent most of his life between two busy metropolises, without ever belonging anywhere – perhaps without ever having a sense of where he was and how big the world was.

By the time I was old enough to be aware of him, Narayan Singh was a living embodiment of the old-style family retainers we saw in Hindi films of the time, the Ramu kakas and Raghu chachas played by actors like AK Hangal, a dusting-cloth folded over their shoulders: a servant who for all practical purposes was tied to a family for life. Of course, the real-world Ramu kakas would have children or grandchildren with better options available to them in the years ahead (and Hindi cinema would come to reflect this societal change) – but Narayan Singh lived in a vacuum, no legacy to carry forward. In the decades that he worked for my grandparents in Bombay, they posted his monthly salary to his parents in the village; in the later years, long after his parents would have died, I’m almost sure there was no further contact with anyone from his family.

Most of my Narayan Singh-related memories now are abstracted images of a thin man sitting and muttering to himself in the “servant’s quarter” we had made out of our tiny garage. This was an adjunct to our DDA (Delhi Development Area) building, a space for a two-wheel scooter at best, with a bit left over for our water booster. When I look into this garage today, I realise he would have had to sleep either with his legs bunched up or with the door ajar if he wanted to stretch them out. (It’s a relief to be able to report that in the colder stretches of winter, he slept inside the house.)

My mother was protective of him, but for me and my friends – and my cousins who visited from London and didn’t even share a language with him – he was mainly a funny old fellow whose ramblings offered amusement. I used to imagine that in his younger days he might have been like the slim, dim-witted Suppandi of the Tinkle comics I read as a child. Photos show him sitting with a faraway look in a corner of a room, on the periphery of our lives. Or – in a very rare instance – occupying the centre of a frame where my cousins and I flank him, grinning as if we are being photographed with a gorilla at the zoo. Or, looking tired and haggard, pressing my nani’s feet – which reminds me that she often called him “Oye, moya!” This is a term that for her, given her boisterous Punjabi nature and upbringing, was tinged with affection, but he would have experienced those yells and curses very differently.

There he is, making rotis in the kitchen, or the “French fries” that my mother and I were so fond of (and which he had been making for her since the 50s). An aunt who remembers him well tells me he was an excellent cook, but today I have trouble distinguishing the dishes he made from those of my nani (which were also terrific). A vague regret is that as a child I had no interest in what was always advertised as a Narayan Singh “special” – the caramel custard he made was not chocolatey enough for my taste back then. For my mother, though, that pudding and the fries were memory-triggers to the happiest years of her life in her beloved south Bombay, when her father was alive.

Or here he is, smoking beedis downstairs, occasionally even showing a social side as he mutters at the daily-wage workers – plumbers, electricians, carpenters – in our colony. I like to think that once some of those people had gotten over the initial amusement, they became friendly with him and gave him a few moments of kinship in a day. (The younger among them are old men today, still do odd jobs around our flat, and they speak of him fondly. But it’s easy to remember a funny old man fondly decades after he’s gone.)


There is one memory clearer than the others, the most specific Narayan Singh-related memory I have. I came up to the flat one evening after cycling around downstairs; when I went to my bathroom, I saw – in the sink and on the floor – what I imagined were dabs of the bright-red Close-Up toothpaste I liked. What else could those glistening spots be? Until I realised I didn’t have that paste with me at the time, and mentioned the marks to my mother. She took a look, and after a quick word with Narayan Singh, conjectured what had happened: that my nani, during the course of a tongue-lashing earlier in the day – when mum and I were out – had struck him, drawing blood from his nose.

I remember my mother shouting at nani – and the latter’s blubbering, tearful apologies a few hours later – and that mum was still seething the next day. She was especially distraught because she realised that Narayan Singh had deliberately used my bathroom to wash his face – something he wouldn’t ever do otherwise – and made sure to leave those drops there so that word would get to her; that this was a childlike man’s attempt at reaching out and expressing himself, since he couldn’t just go up to her and tell her outright (there was no precedent for that).

Despite my mother’s protectiveness, this incident is also an unavoidable reminder that Narayan Singh was, for all purposes, a slave. Speaking as someone who cowered at my nani’s intrusive boisterousness, it would be easy for me to make her the villain of this piece; to contrast her bullying with my mother’s compassion. But in practice all of us were benefiting from this ideal arrangement: having a round-the-clock servant who had nowhere else in the world he could go to, who would never take a single day off; who thought he was a teenager and would talk nonsense, confirming with every sentence – for anyone who listened to him – that everything in his head was a delusion, that we were the ones doing him a favour.

Sometime in 1995, as Narayan Singh started to become frequently unwell, age telling on him, and as my nani – pushing seventy herself – developed health problems, a decision was taken to have him sent to a home for orphaned old people, on the outskirts of Delhi. This involved the help of a family friend, a large donation, and some subterfuge: my mother and grandmother went to see him once in a while but had to go as benefactors who were generally interested in seeing the place and its facilities; they couldn’t let on that they knew him, and he had to play along too (though I heard that he almost gave the game away by greeting them with a lot of familiarity).

It is telling, and saddening for me today, that I can’t find any specific references to his leaving in my daily diary; there is one mention in January 1995 of being disturbed in my studies – my 12th Board exams were coming up – by “nani’s constant shouting at N Singh”. And that seems to be it.

Such youthful apathy is natural: when you’re young and self-absorbed, you can’t be bothered beyond a point with the inner lives of even the family members you are close to, let alone a “servant” whom you think of as part of the décor. Later, as you start to understand what life may have been like for those who were old when you were young – and if you have the time and inclination to reflect – you might come to think about such things, feel regret when it is much too late.

After a period when I lost my entire immediate family, I have spent a lot of time living in the past – trying to probe, excavate, understand it. Narayan Singh was a small part of my personal history and, more importantly, a bigger part of my mother’s history – a link to an uncomplicatedly happy time when the future must have looked much brighter than it turned out to be. If I had taken the time to ask her about him when she was still around, I would have learnt new things about her youth as well (not just little details like the fact that she and her college friends used to affectionately call him “Nancy”).

Writing about him now is primarily an act of selfishness, like most personal writing is. But I am also more aware that he was more than just a catalyst for us: that, slow brain notwithstanding, he was a person in his own right. And I wonder what he really thought about his life with us. Did the teenager in an old man’s body sometimes feel like joining me and my friends in our games as we cycled wildly around our park, or played catch-and-catch, or with makeshift bows and arrows? How did he experience time and memory? Did he have to resolve the contradictions between what he thought and what he saw around him? When we took him along for a screening of Karma, a film that featured his favourite Dara Singh – along with other actors, Dilip Kumar and Nutan, whom he would remember – how did he make sense of how old they were compared to his mind’s impression of them? Or did he even recognise them, or think we were playing a prank on him, when we told him who they were?

How did he make sense of age? My mother’s elder brother – a domineering alpha-male in most contexts, and one of the terrors of my childhood – was unfailingly soft and respectful with Narayan Singh during his visits to India, and I’m almost sure that Narayan Singh referred to him as “Vijay baba” – but if he was only around 18 or 19 in his own head and this visiting baba was clearly a much older man with young children of his own, how did that equation work? How did he process the fact that “Mala baby” had an adolescent son? I have no answers.

All I can turn to, ultimately, are the few happy memories: the sight of him laughing openly, showing his broken teeth, when something that tickled his funny bone came on TV. Or when my nani, in one of her relaxed and friendlier moods, asked him if he remembered this or that episode from the past: such as my nana, normally a very gentle man, getting angry at them both because they were constantly bickering; or how Narayan Singh used to walk “Mala baby” to the club in the evenings. “Haan, haan, wahaan jaayenge (yes, yes, we will go there),” he would mumble, nodding vigorously, when nani brought up Churchgate. Maybe in some alternate universe they are all there now, with the borders between them – class, mental condition – having melted away, and only companionship remaining.

No comments:

Post a Comment