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Farewell, Babulal

April 21, 2018 13:14 IST

'One of the most important lessons I learnt from Babulal was on stoicism.'
'As a young man, he had lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident.'
'Without missing a beat, he taught himself to use the spade and shovel with his left hand and carried on working,' says Geetanjali Krishna.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Someone else I knew died on the same day as Stephen Hawking. It was Babulal, the old gardener who'd tended several gardens in our neighbourhood for the last few decades.

I'd written about him in an earlier column. He died as quietly and unobtrusively as he had come into this world.

Since everyone has been going to town talking about how Hawking inspired them, I thought that today I would write an obituary of the cantankerous old Babulal, and the lessons he had to teach the world -- even though when he lived, he was politer to plants than he was to people.

In the earlier column, I'd used Babulal's case to illustrate how difficult life becomes for workers in India's gigantic unorganised sector, when they eventually become too old to work.

The old gardener would insist he was fit enough to lift heavy flower pots and sacks of manure, although many of his employers felt squeamish about letting him do so.

Attempts to help him were always met with, what seemed like ingratitude. But that was his way.

For someone of Babulal's age, accepting help would be akin to accepting that he was, perhaps, old enough to retire. And retirement, for him and many others like him, meant being out of work.

Retirement meant becoming dependent on one's children.

Retirement meant loss, not just of independence and income -- but dignity too.

 

One of the most important lessons I learnt from Babulal was on stoicism.

As a young man, he had lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident. Without missing a beat, he taught himself to use the spade and shovel with his left hand and carried on working.

After his wife died, Babulal's sons wanted him to live with them. But the old man said he needed to be independent.

Although he was well into his 60s by then, he carried on working and living by himself, even though his sons eventually moved next door.

There was one thing which Babulal didn't accept stoically -- his age.

All he'd done in his life was hard physical labour, and the cantankerous old man was pathologically afraid of age putting an end to it.

Thankfully for him, he remained strong, his torso muscled and wiry till his last day.

That is why he was able to carry out his responsibilities -- whether they involved spending the day on his haunches weeding the lawn or lifting heavy cement pots.

In fact, even though many offered, he would (often quite ungraciously) refuse all offers of assistance.

Always conscious of saving his earnings for a rainy day (thankfully, that day never came for Babulal), he was always careful about money.

In fact, he remained street smart till the very end, once choosing to demand the tripling of his salary from a hapless employer after, and only after, he had deposited 50 kgs of stinky cow dung on their apartment balcony.

However, everyone in the neighbourhood had known him long enough to accept his idiosyncrasies; we admired his determination to ward off a retirement that would have heralded an age of dependence for the fiercely independent man.

Eventually, he was carried off by a brief fever. Until a week before his death, Babulal had been, busy at work -- weeding the lawn, pruning hedges and rudely fending off offers for assistance from the watchmen in the lane.

Everyone agreed that the feisty old fellow would have been quite satisfied by the manner of his own passing.

It was, and there are such things, a good death.

Geetanjali Krishna
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