He was the quintessential ogre. To my 6-year-old eyes there did not exist a more ferocious giant than Keka. When I first saw the Bollywood movie ‘Sholay’ and Gabbar boasting about his notoriety and how for miles his name was invoked by all mothers to frighten their children to fall in line, that Keka’s image came to mind. When the mothers wanted to frighten their children, it was Keka’s name they invoked. “Eat up or Keka will come to feed you”, “Stop this noise at once or else we’ll have to call Keka”, “Don’t cry, Keka does not like bawling children”. Most children were endlessly blackmailed day after day, to fall in line, with Keka’s name. Whenever Keka passed by the house, mothers would see that the children had a good look at him so that their jobs would be made easier when the need arose!
From time to time we invite readers to contribute. This article is by Havovi Govadia.
He was so embedded in my consciousness that whenever I read fairy tales replete with fairies, goblins and ogres to my children and now grandchildren, Keka again came to my mind.
Keka was homeless and in our affluent community, this was something unheard of. He was a huge unkempt man with a big belly. The hand-me-down shirt he wore strained to cover him. The buttons were broken and the gaps in the shirt gave us a peep of his hairy salt and pepper chest and a hirsute line running to his navel. Ironically, his pate was bald with wisps of matted hair and a huge black mole on the bald scalp stared at us like an ominous third eye. His pants were frayed at the edges and worn out at the seat. We would have a giggling fit, if by chance we ever spied part of his buttocks through the worn-out pants. A brown dirty handkerchief always showed in his pocket.
A battered tin plate and mug, along with some dirty bedding, comprised his earthly possession. All this was kept under the staircase near the electricity meter board. This was his ‘home’ where he slept come heat, rain or cold, snoring like a steam engine laboriously chugging up a mountain. We tiptoed to the small dark dingy place and watched in horror as his huge belly shuddered and his chest heaved like a volcano about to erupt. Alamai, who stayed on the ground floor, and who must have faced the barrage of smell, sometimes bribed her maid with extra money and food to clean up Keka’s ‘home’. That day the mixed stench of stale food and snuff did not permeate the entire building!
While playing ‘hide and seek’ on the staircase, our greatest fear was that Keka might come along and spy us hiding there. When we heard a shuffle of dragging feet and the distinct smell of snuff, we came out of our hiding places much to the delight of the one giving the ‘den’. None was brave enough to go on hiding at that juncture.
He lived off the kindness of the residents. Come mealtime and someone or the other gave him food. ‘Kekaaaa’ a shout would be heard and Keka, promptly picking up his plate and mug shuffled to that house. His plate piled high, he proceeded to devour, chewing noisily and breathing heavily through his nose, oblivious to the audience of little people. After a loud smelly belch, he sprawled out on the staircase, like a stuffed satisfied tomcat. This was our cue to scatter.
His dinner invariably came from Shireenbai who lived on the ground floor. She had an enamel plate and bowl separately for him. At a specific time every night, without a watch or any striking clock, Keka would gently edge up near the verandah and say ‘Baimai’ and his meal would be handed over to him. Many times he would return the plate and even say ‘Thank-you”. If he was not on time, Shireenbai would mutter ‘Mare, kahn gayo Keko?’ (Where has he gone?). Once in a while he requested for a bhelpuri which was willingly bought for him.
As we saw him shuffling around the Colony, we wondered why he did not have a family like most of us. Did he not have a mother and father or maybe a brother or sister? And did he ever go to a school? Why did he not go to office like our fathers did? None of us had the gumption to ask him these questions. According to old timers he was employed with BEST and cycled to work in the company of his friend Boman from R-23. Somewhere there was a setback; may be a failed relationship or an unrequited love which left him stunned with a vacant look in his brown eyes.
As I entered adulthood, Keka acquired a softer hue. I realized that his big bulbous brown eyes had never showed any anger. In fact we had never heard him raise his voice to anyone. Keka was a gentle soul, never given to violence or bouts of ill temper. The unique thing about him was that he was never teased, not even by the hardliners who spared no one…. he was left to himself since he never interacted with anyone. Keka addressed all elderly ladies as
Baimai and at times they shared tid-bits with him. This was probably the only human interaction he had.
Age took its toll and Keka took ill, was treated but faded away… and was given a decent funeral by the Panchayat.
Keka was a nonentity as far as the world was concerned. But he taught us a lesson or two; that, appearances are deceptive. He looked fierce, but was as gentle as a baby. That whatever cruel blows life dealt you, you do not take shortcuts. You lived your miserable life as best as can be. His life was pathetic but he never attempted to end it all or steal to better it. Keka was a hobo, but had managed to leave a lasting impression on me.
Havovi Govadia is a 65 years old grandmother of 3. She was born and brought up in Mumbai and shifted to Nagpur after marriage. Was working in Empress Mills (first Tata enterprise) till it shut shop in 1987. Working now as an independent financial adivsor.
Havovi wrote scripts, directed and staged plays and various tableaux on Zarthushtra, Parsi fashions through the ages etc. mostly to acquaint the younger generation of their rich heritage from 1980 till about 2000 for the Nagpur Parsi Gymkhana.
Havovi started writing these little anecdotal stories at the insistence of her niece who is now 10 years old and living in USA and who was keen to know about her grand parents whom she would never meet and those days when “you and my Dad were little”.