It was the month of December and the coldest day of the year. The hens had not been let out of their coops. A tattered blanket had been thrown onto the dog outside the front gate. Its half a dozen puppies were huddled together on top of each other.
Our hands were rolled into fists inside the pockets. We could not pull them out to check, but it seemed that our fingers had stopped existing. Inside our freshly polished shoes, the toes had gone numb too. I moved them and something bulged on my shoe tips. They were there, I assured myself; numb but there.
It wasn’t raining but the air felt damp. We wouldn't have had the courage to brave the cold breeze, had it not been for the outline of a man on the patio that caught our attention. Shivering, our teeth in rhythm like all keys of a piano repeatedly pressed at once, we stood and gaped, and gaped and stood, as Daraaj Khan bathed himself on the patio as if it were just another summer morning.
The school had been suspended and we were told that the buses wouldn’t ply. We rushed back from the bus stop, lest the weather decide to be less cold and the school authorities change their minds. The cold air cut our shoulders like blades and our bags felt heavier than usual. We entered through the gate in the backyard, ready to break the news to the elders and launch into attempts to convince them that we weren't lying.
The grass wetted our shoes. Sharp lines of dew appeared where the grass blades rubbed against the leather. We had just turned around the bare tamarind tree when we saw him. Daraaj Khan was washing himself on the patio. Only the outline of a short, stooping figure with a stomach like a melon, was visible through the fog. He seemed smaller and rounder. We wondered how we could see him despite the fog. A cloud of smoke rose from his outline as he poured and bathed, and bathed and poured. With each mugful of water he poured onto himself, a gust of smoke rose from the patio and disappeared into the fog. We tightened our fists and pushed them deeper into our pockets. I moved my toes again. Still there, my mind affirmed. We must have gaped for some ten minutes before a warning of thrashing called us in.
Daraaj Khan did some routine tasks at our house. His most important job was to carry bucketfuls of water, which he carried on his bicycle, from the well next to the qabristan all the way to the water tank at home. So he went back and forth between the well and the tank all day. He filled and refilled the tank, which would be emptied within a few hours. Daraaj Khan made many such trips each day and though we never kept a count, we saw him do this over and over again. His work seemed monotonous but his unusually white beard and the old stooping figure carrying water on his bicycle, fascinated us. He rarely talked or we barely ever made attempts to have a conversation with him, but he sometimes got us packets of Parle-Gs. He wasn't like the old men who talk and laugh, and tell stories. He was rather a quiet one, dressed in a white kurta, with a dark mark on his forehead. He must have been bald but since he always wore his topi, we never really saw his head. It seemed he had always been like this; that he had been old when he was born, and that he had filled, emptied and refilled water buckets all his life.
We had met no one of his family and seen nothing of his home. But Amma said he had one. We could have seen his house, perhaps peeped in through one of the windows and watched him at work trying to fix a tap or mend an old mat. We could have known what his house looked like, had we been through the quarters on the other side of the village. We had been forbidden to go to their quarters and since it was Amma’s warning, we obeyed. It wasn’t like we didn’t flout rules, but some rules seemed more important than others. Even the elders followed them. We sometimes broke the ones which entailed milder punishments, like we had also been forbidden to climb up the Pilkhan tree. If we needed help with some kite stuck in its branches, we were to go tell an elder who would then climb the tree, shake its branches and the kite would come down flying like a bird at leisure. But when no elders were around, we sometimes climbed the tree ourselves. We reasoned that if an elder could do it, so could we. But we dared not cross the village to the parts where the people of Daraaj Khan lived. It was a rule the elders followed too. Since they who had made the rule themselves followed it, we knew we too had to. So we only saw Daraaj Khan enter through the gate in the backyard that was reserved for him alone. It seemed like a perk for being Amma's favourite servant. Each day he entered from the back gate, went straight to the patio and washed himself. He then went into the outhouse and a few minutes later, a neat and dry Daraaj Khan emerged, ready to resume his chores.
“He washes himself every morning before entering the house,” we had heard Amma tell every visitor she had at home. “He said he washes himself at home,” she’d laugh, “but I told him to bathe again.” Her eyes sparkled with something like pride. “He’s not the one to disobey, not the one to forget who he is. I told him scrub yourself and wash that filth away before you enter my home,” Amma said. “Wash yourself or off you go!” she would chant pointing to the gate in the backyard. Then she'd laugh her ageing laugh until her visitors seemed satisfied.
It wasn’t true, we knew. We had seen Daraaj Khan skip his baths in the colder months. We, who ourselves lied about bathing, couldn’t complain about a poor old man trying to escape the cold. So we kept his secret and he kept ours. The elders never knew we used the backyard gate. It was like an unsaid deal we had agreed upon. It was easy that way; it kept the peace at home and the spark glowing in Amma's eyes.
Only once did that spark disappear. On the day before the coldest one, Amma had seen Daraaj Khan walk straight into the outhouse without bathing. He had emerged out of the outhouse, dry and clean, like all other mornings when he managed to skip baths, and was walking towards the house when he saw Amma standing and glaring. She cursed him with the vilest words she had learnt in a lifetime of eighty years. “You filthy, filthy one,” she screamed as her ageing voice strained at so high a pitch. “The likes of you,” Amma chanted her favourite phrase, “THE-LIKES-OF-YOU--,” Amma had never been so furious at any servant, let alone the one she was most fond of. “You entered my home without taking that dirt off your filthy body, you dared mingle your stench with our breath…” Daraaj Khan stood with his eyes fixed on the ground. We saw in them something we had never seen before; something like anger. He looked at us looking at him. We wondered if Daraaj Khan thought we had let out his secret. We would have assured him that his secret of all those mornings of not bathing was safe with us, had it not been for Amma. “You filthy, filthy ones, and the-likes-of-you,” we heard Amma say one last time. And then she did something she had forbidden everyone in the house from doing. She spat.
Daraaj Khan left that day, only to return a final time next morning; the morning of the coldest day. With a bowed down head and his bulging melon-of-a-stomach, Daraaj Khan entered through the gate in the backyard. We would have broken the news of the holiday to him first, but Amma's words from the previous day were still ringing fresh in our ears. So Daraaj Khan went straight to the patio. He bathed and bathed, and we stood and stared. He washed himself head to toe and toe to head. He must have emptied a dozen bucketful of cold water onto himself. Called inside, we peeped out through windows. He went into the outhouse but did not come out as the dry and neat man who was the favourite servant of the house. He was still wet and water was dripping from his melon-stomach and bald head. He carried a trunk in his good hand, the one he had used to carry buckets of water each morning. He then walked out through the gate in the backyard. That was the last of what we saw of him. He was reported ill the next day and dead the day after. Amma's favourite servant was dead and no one from the house went to pay him a last visit. We stopped wondering what his house looked like or what his family was like. Even if we managed to get to the quarters on the other side of the village and peeped in through some windows, we wouldn't see him fixing a tap or mending a mat. We wouldn’t be able to tell his house from the house of the-likes-of-him. So our curiosity died away. Amma is long dead too, snug in her grave. In all likelihood, Daraaj Khan still shivers from the cold of his last bath. The house is alive but grows unusually calm in Decembers, perhaps to the memory of that coldest day of the year.
Ayesha Khan is based out of a town in Himachal Pradesh. She holds an MA degree in English from Panjab University, Chandigarh. Her writing is forthcoming or has been published by Singapore Unbound, Superlative Literary Journal and others. She works as an Assistant Professor of English Literature.