Babu by Boby Mohan

‘Shukran Jaffer,’ thought Babu as he pocketed the receipt while walking out of the Western Union branch at Sabayeen, Jeddah. This was a monthly ritual for Babu; without a passport, it was on Jaffer’s identity that the thousand Saudi Riyals got transferred to his wife. He’d begged his friends to help send the money home, money that allowed his wife to keep the house going, money that he scrubbed floors, washed community toilets and ran personal errands to earn and save. Money his friends gave him for servitude.


It was not so long ago that he had landed at the bustling airport at Jeddah. The stark white fluorescent-lit terminal building blinded him after the relative shade within the transfer coach. Queuing up in the company of scores of people like him, passport in hand waiting for the stamp to go seize their dreams, he was high on hope that the job in Gulf would guarantee a future for his family back home in Kozhikode. The family was the biwi and his umma. In orthodox Kozhikode, it was a miserable living for his wife who couldn’t bear a child after sixteen months of marriage; his friends were on to their second child by then. As for his umma, she was a widow of fifty-three who stooped low under the load of debts her husband had bequeathed. He still didn’t know for sure if he was here to make a living or if he had just run away from it all?


His sponsor trained him well for the life that was yet to come. Squashed into a small room eight feet by eight feet with three others, he learned the art of community living. The day started much earlier than the first salah from the nearby mosque. Work: wash the car, water the plants, clean the grounds around the palatial home of the fat man in a thop whose picture he carried in the iqama permit copy that was always on his body, the duties kept coming till the master came home every night and he locked the big iron gates, usually at two or three am. With time, he came to terms with the insults, verbal as well as physical. Seven hundred and fifty riyals that were paid in dirty notes at the end of every month redeemed all that was painful. Everyday, before sleep took over his battered soul, the words scrawled on the wall by his predecessor gave him succour: ‘this too shall pass’.


It was another backbreaking day when he heard noises from the gate. Three bearded men in green uniform were walking in, loudly arguing with his master who followed them. All he could catch was the word aiwa meaning ok in Arabic and his name, Babu. They gestured that he bundle up his belongings and follow them. The master had gone silent by then and retreated to being a background figure in white in contrast to the menacing green foreground. With only Malayalam in his linguistic arsenal, Babu didn’t realise that his dreams had just come crashing down and deportation was a few days away.


Prison was a blur, enjoyable for the fact that there was no work to do and food was tasty; any cooked thing could trump his daily meal of kuboos with pepper on top and water to wash it down with three times a day. From the other inmates he understood that the master must have got him in on an illegal permit. Babu would be sent back home as soon as they sorted out the formalities with the embassy. They came for him the next morning. He was taken to a room where a big, bearded man in a green uniform slouched behind a steel table. Standing against the wall was one of Babu’s cellmates. In hushed broken whispers he translated that the man in green would be Babu’s new sponsor and that Babu was out of prison. The policeman’s father, who was bed-ridden, needed someone to nurse him all day. This time, it was all indoors but the stench of infected bedsores mixed with that of excreta made him wish for the fresh air he was granted in his old master’s garden. It still was not clear when the old man died, but that morning Babu felt sad. The death left a void, his only human contact was no more and in a way he felt responsible, he cried for a lost companion. Those tears moved the fiercely patriarchal Saudi man, who mistook it for grief. Maybe it was good fortune that the old man’s death had brought with it, but he set Babu free with a warning that if the immigration police ever picked him up, it was the long trudge home. Sans a work permit and with the passport burnt away, Babu became ‘persona non-grata’ to everyone. He was not Indian anymore nor did he belong legally in Saudi Arabia. He dissolved into the sludge of immigrant humanity that every city held deep in its recesses.


Time trained him in the fine art of avoiding the police, while he became part of a fraternity from his state, those who spoke his language and went home once in a few years. He could send gifts home; bed linen, milk powder and dry fruits, and his biwi sent her love back pickled in a glass bottle with mussels and chilli, the spicy fragrance of which he indulged in during many a lonely evening. When would he be able to go back to her and his umma?


Jaffer came home early one afternoon. He looked upset. Babu’s wife had called Jaffer with the news that Umma was no more. His friends went into hectic discussion-mode; Suleiman was called in to pull strings; he traded in used goods, and had friends in the immigration department whose daily tipple he arranged through the trucking channels from the UAE. Babu was on the Air India jet leaving for Kozhikode in twenty-four hours.


Setting foot on his home soil felt normal. It was not like the stories he had heard where men broke down when they got back home after years of bondage abroad. He unloaded the few packages filled with the stuff he had squirrelled away over years as gifts for his biwi; a fake handbag, bottles of oud attar and eyeliners and lipstick thrown away by his masters’ wives to make up for the many years of solitude his biwi had to endure. In death as in life, his umma had done him good; how else would he have got home.


There was shock on her face; his biwi had not expected this. She had nothing to say as he walked in to the now pucca house. He was happy to see the money sent monthly had helped them make the hut a house; there were signs of comfortable living in the three small rooms: electric lights, a tv, comfortable beds and a kitchen which looked neat and clean. Now he knew where the pickled mussels came from. For the first time in in many years Babu felt content. Maybe all these years of labour were worth the pain, his family lived in comfort, his umma died happy, the tea tasted extra sweet to his parched tongue.


That evening, after dinner sitting at the threshold of his home, looking out to the rice fields that lay beyond, he barely heard his biwi ask, ‘When are you going back, Babukka?’


Boby Mohan is an executive in a software company.