20 Feb 2017

My ‘Spider Man’ - Mohammad Ali

On the first day I reported to 43 Sqn, 46 years ago, everyone at Jorhat had ‘passed out’. Bhang, victory in war and Holi when combined, does that to everyone, they march off to Valhalla. I was then just 20 yrs old.

A young boy, perhaps around 15 or 16, came silently, picked up my steel trunk and hold all bag, put them on his head, and took them to a barely furnished TRS room with a toilet, which then became my ‘home’ for next five years. The young boy was a refugee from East Pak.  ‘Ami Mohammad Ali’, he said grabbing my hand and shaking it vigorously. He couldn’t speak a word of any language which I understood and looked like an undernourished monkey in torn and tattered unwashed clothes. He spread my ‘hold all’ on the nawar cot, took out  the extra bed sheet and pillow, and  moved in with me, under my bed. He then took over my life.

Ali had no relatives and nowhere to go.  Very quickly he put on weight, grew as tall as I, and took possession of everything I owned; my clothes, razor and after shave, flying overalls, Ray Ban, Akai Music System and took to wearing my formal mess dress, the ‘the white patrols’ with a side cap. ‘It has become  small for you, go make another one’ he ordered. Very quickly Ali learnt not only Hindi and a bit of English, but also to sign extra messing chits for  himself copying my signature, write dhobi list for both of our clothes, polish his shoes better than mine, fix our uniforms (my white patrols which wore with élan), clean our room and even demanded 15% of my Rs 330 salary as my 24x7 living-in soul mate; my exclusive ‘Spider Man’.

As bound to happen between comrades, he started keeping a tab on my GFs too. ‘Mem ya Phaltu ?’, he would enquire, and got pissed off if I ticked him off or told him to mind his own business, go and sleep  under someone else’s bed.  Everything concerning me was his only business. If I was happy he was happy, and sad when I was sad. When I went outstation, or on detachment, Ali would wear my flying overalls and surreptitiously board my aircraft. ‘Someone has to take care of Saheb, even in the air’, he would say if any one questioned. I was not allowed to question Ali. Soon Ali became my banker. He had converted my tiny Godrej shaving soap tin into a piggy bank, and always had Rs 5 of my own money to loan to me in crisis. Rs 5 was enough to conquer the world those days. When I became an Adjutant, Ali learnt AF Act 1950, AFOs, AFIs, and the fat AP-129 (aeronautical subjects), just to read the riot act to me if I wasn’t nice to him.  When I went on posting, Ali knew all about travel regulations, warrants and Form-Ds. ‘If the Government Sahiban allows you to carry a horse or mule on posting, what is your problem taking me with you ?’, he would ask. So Ali became my shadow, mentor and companion where ever I went.

After about eight years I decided to get married. Ali went around shouting ‘Mem Aa Raha Hai, Ab Se Sahib Ke Pas Phaltu Nahing Hoga’. Bloody rascal !!! 

After a week or so, he started scratching his head and when I enquired why, he told me that he too wanted a ‘Mem’, that he had someone in mind. So he loaded my Jawa dicky with 4 bottles of my Rum, put me behind my bike and took me to the village, wearing flying overalls and my Ray Ban. ‘Ladki Aur Uska Bap Ko Patao’, Ali ordered, ‘you are very experienced and like my father’, he added. So  after protracted negotiations for about an hour, fixing a bride price of 4 bottles of Rum, Ali was married to Bhanu, a young , simple, 16 yr old village lass. He wanted to bring Bhanu and set up  home under my bed. This time I read the riot act to him and very humbly suggested that he become a ‘Ghar Jamai’ with his new in laws in the village till I could find suitable accommodation for him in the Air Force camp. As  wedding present Ali appropriated my entire ‘Camp Kit’ and piggy bank,  and made me buy a cycle for him.  After that I went and got married to T and brought her back to  Chabua.

T & Ali hit it off from day one, mainly because he would regale her with never ending stories of my bachelor life and T was hell bent on hearing every word in the series of torrid stories. She said she wanted to get to know the man she married.  I was hoping to start with a clean slate and Ali was a strategic nuclear threat. He even offered to take T sightseeing on my mo-bike and introduce my old GFs. That is when I read the riot act the second time, and threatened to chop off Ali’s gonads. 

Ali remained my Jeeves, refusing to do anything unlawful which T ordered. He often quoted AF Act, 1/60 rule and even Vir Narayan’s Point of No Return formula.  Ali knew about those things more than I did.  But between Ali and I there was no law, just exemplary loyalty arising from gratitude. He was a refugee with no family, except me. Perhaps reason why he believed that everything that I had was his too. Ali worshipped T, followed her about like a Labrador puppy. When we were posted in NDA, I got Ali a job in MES, as an electrician. He was good at that sort of thing, short-circuiting my life. In due course, while I moved on, because Ali was intelligent, industrious and a good worker,  he rose to  be a foreman in GE’s staff in NDA. Bhanu and Ali reared five sons, all of them, Super-Men, the elder two joined the Indian Army.

When I took a PMR from AF in 1994, Ali heard about it and came to see me in Delhi. We sat and chatted about good old times. He expressed his wish to make a visit to B’Desh, ‘just to go see if there is any one left, and to check whether I still own the “Do Bigha’ that my father owned before the ‘Bhoka Choda’ killed him.  My sons must see where I came from.
‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after 23 years.
Ali was quiet for some time thinking. ‘I don’t know Sir’, he said sincerely.
‘Where do you come from ?’, Ali asked me in turn.
I sat there in the evening hours of my life, thinking. ‘I don’t know either Ali’, I said with equal sincerity. We were two flotsams from nowhere who met and fused as brothers.

Ali took his family and went back to B’Desh, never heard from his afterwards. Perhaps he went home, no longer a refugee. I am still  a refugee, hoping that I can find my roots, and that Ali would come back and sleep under my bed, to keep me safe and content, just the way  he did when we were young.

Cheers Mohammad Ali. I owe you.