THEY are the faithful. Old shadows of a dying era. Upholding the last vestiges of a different time, a different tradition. And their world revolves around the Family they have for generations pledged to serve.
In the flux and flurry of modern life, these ageing family retainers cling on, and in their own way preserve, a colourful past. Fifty years after Independence, feudalism still lives on in the minds of these loyal attendants. A touching reverence that reveals itself in the fact that two-year-old Aditya commands the same respect from Mord Singh, the oldest family hand in Jodhpur's royal household, as does his father Rajkumar Veer Vikram Singh.
"It's a kind of loyalty that no longer exists," says Prem Bawa. On such outmoded planks, these retainers have stayed on. Even when their usefulness has progressively dwindled, to a fond, ceremonial one. For instance, Abdul Gafoor is so slow that his main chore is to make tea; too old to do anything, Rashida's only job is to "entertain" Zakira, all of 75 years; and Zafar just potters around Begum Nagad Abidi's mansion. So, why have they clung on?
Mostly because of the bond that ties them to their house of employment—a bond that often ends only with death. And partly because most of these old hands have nowhere else to go and nothing to do. They don't have much to fall back on either—some still earn as little as Rs 500 a month.
So, in the twilight of their years, they look to the Family for survival. And most times, they are not turned back. For, they are family now.
Her Retinue From Rampur
BEGUM Nagad Abidi can't talk about her childhood without mentioning Khurshid. "We were part of the Rampur royal family and very conservative. So, Khurshid and a maid would sit outside my class." Today, the begum's trust in Khurshid Ali Khan is so complete that if there's a new driver, he has to chaperone her three daughters. Secure in the knowledge that his loyalty affords him a unique place in the family, he often speaks his mind on various issues—even on how the begum should parent her daughters. "He is very strict with the girls and very rude to the boys who come visiting. Then I have to step in to make peace. He almost behaves as if I don't know how to bring up my own daughters." Khurshid's been with the Rampur family for 50 years and is so steeped in its khandaan, culture and lifestyle that he has never thought of leaving—for all the years he has put in, Khurshid is happy with the Rs 800 he earns a month. "I have never been scolded here. Once I broke a huge, expensive vase and the begum (Abidi's mother) didn't say a word." If Khurshid swears by loyalty, Majid Khan, the cook who joined the retinue 26 years ago, remained for different reasons. "I stayed for my father's honour. Even when others would call and offer more money I wouldn't go as I wasn't greedy. But at that time I didn't know things would become so expensive." In fact, Majid blames his single status on his slender Rs 1,000 a month salary. Then, there's Zafar Mehandi, who doesn't quite remember what he was hired for 22 years ago. He is ageing, "lazy" and happy to be a hanger-on. Says Begum Abidi: "We overlook their idiosyncrasies. They think of this house as their home. We have spoilt them and they have spoilt us."
THEY share emotions with us." That's why Jasbir Singh Khurana, a doctor, can't let go of the two most trusted members of her staff, Laxmi and Prem. Laxmi has been with the family for 36 years and is now content with doing odd jobs, "supervising" the other help—which, admits Khurana, sometimes does give rise to resentment among the younger lot. "If we spoil them, they start expecting more, so the idea is not to overdo it. We also have to close our eyes to a lot of things." But when Laxmi fell ill and had to be hospitalised for a year, Khurana stood by her. "I would write to her, send her money. One day she said she wanted to come back. And she has been with us ever since." As for Prem Ram, who has cooked for the family for 20 years, he doesn't have to climb upstairs to the kitchen any longer. He has been put in charge of the clinic on the ground floor. "He was getting too slow," quips Khurana. Another old hand is the driver, Ranvir, who says "the comfort of working with the family is far too great for us to want to leave". While the Khuranas say they trust these old-timers implicitly, to the extent of leaving the house open while they are away, there's a definite line drawn in the relationship. "They must be kept at a distance. But I want them to carry on with us for as long as possible."
VIMLA Kishen is dead—and that's the only reason why Murli Dhar, her retainer for 15 years, has returned to his village. "He came to us out of the blue, just walked in as a man from the cold. We needed him and maybe that's why he came to us." Kishen wasn't sentimental about her long association with Murli—mutual trust kept these two strong-willed individuals together. "He is a bit of a bully and I'm a bit of a bully but we try to get along. I haven't had a flare-up with him." Murli not only cooked for Kishen but also reminded her to take her pills, discussed politics and kept the accounts. Kishen found him extremely intelligent for an unlettered man: "He avidly follows politics, knows everything about everybody." Murli says he wouldn't have minded a stint in politics but for the fact that he is disgusted with the state of affairs. "Earlier, the governor was respected, now they tear up his speech to the House. You have to do all sorts of things to succeed in politics. I'm not cut out for it." Murli who treasures the values of the past cherishes his first employer Jessie George's letter of reference.
Driving Mister Maira
SURAJ Narain doesn't know how old he is. All he can remember is that it's been 45 years since he joined the Rajinder B. Maira household as a driver. Now, in the twilight of his years, when he can't see clearly at night, it's only appropriate that Maira, who himself is 85, sits in the front seat besides Narain to guide him along. Ask Maira if it's time for Narain to go and he shakes his head."As long as he is active and I find no fault with him during the day I will keep him." This, when Narain doesn't need to work— his son can take care of him. Yet, every morning, Narain sets off on a cycle from Brij Vihar, 24 km away from his place of work in Nizamuddin in New Delhi. And has never been late to work—he reaches at 8.30 am sharp, like always, come hail or shine. He has his reasons to be deeply attached to Maira, who has helped Narain tide over every predicament. Maira was there when Narain wanted to start his family, when he wanted to buy a small patch of land, and even during an eye operation. In fact, Maira had promised Narain's father that he would take care of him, no matter what. Maira is a pucca burra sahib—clipped accent, shining polished shoes, perfectly ironed trousers—and never lets his emotions show but the sense of companionship is unmistakable. Some years ago, Narain did "officially retire", only to return. Says Narain: "I came back because this life is like retirement."
Prince's Grandfather Clock
MORD Singh, the oldest family retainer in Jodhpur, has a special place in Rajkumar Veer Vikram Singh's royal household. His wife had to touch Mordji's feet as a mark of respect when she got married into the family. Even now, during festivals, if these retainers, especially Mordji as he is lovingly called, gives her a token gift (nazar), she is expected to touch their feet in a classic gesture of old-world reciprocity. Veer Singh's earliest memory itself is of Mordji, telling him family anecdotes, making him aware of the traditions and customs royalty thrives on. Now, his two-year-old son Aditya is also under Mordji's care. Says Veer Singh whose grandfather, Umaid Singh, ruled over Jodhpur prior to Independence: "It's a special kind of bonding. These retainers are not family and yet they are not servants either." Veer Singh also fondly remembers that if ever he picked a fight with anyone, he would always find Mord Singh taking his part. Mordji's long association with the family hasn't dulled his sense of duty: "We can't sit at the same level as Maharaj Dilip Singh (Veer Singh's uncle) or any of the royals and I still believe in following it." In fact, the entire band of servants follows the royal protocol only because of the rigid regimen installed by Mord Singh.
For Begum Sahiba, Forever
SHE is here for my entertainment. She is more like a friend than a servant," says 75-year-old Zakira Sultana Begum of her maid of 40 years, Rashida Apa. Zakira and Rashida go back a long way—widowed and with children to support, Rashida started working for the begum. Now, she's too old to do anything, is paid whenever she needs money and the family won't let her go. Zakira now stays with her son-in-law, Masroor Khan, a hotelier at Ballimaran in Old Delhi. Besides Rashida, there is Abdul Gafoor who's been with the khandaan since 1966. Gafoor never forgets his chores but can't "bear any other servant and is always at loggerheads with them." Khan says he keeps Gafoor out of harm's way by asking him to "make the tea and, more importantly, to look after the two dogs, a task he loves intensely." Says Khan: "When Gafoor was ill, the dogs kept vigil at his bedside." Gafoor, like Rashida, earns Rs 500, but they will never think about leaving. Khan, of course, justifies the salary, by saying, "We take care of everything for him. If we give him more, his family will take it all away."
Those Wonderful Years
RAM Singh, 70, can never forget one incident in his long years with the Prem Bawa household. Years ago, when the police wanted to question Ram Singh about some stolen silverware, the family insisted that he be treated well. "They must have considered me family to have said that." Bawa is reluctant to let him go: "He has been with us since our Lahore days. This class of servants doesn't exist anymore. His output may be little now. But he's part of the family and it's very nice to have him around."