It was my first morning at this place, 3000 kilometres from home. I and my batchmate Kris Rau had made it with our entire luggage, a little tired in flesh but in high spirits at about 11:30 pm the previous night.
I was woken up by a persistent knock on my door. I hadn’t yet completed my sleep after that long journey and in any case, it was a Sunday. The table clock said 05:30 am. Drawing the curtains aside, the bright and sunny March day said something else. I groaned, shook my clock, found my wrist watch and it confirmed the same time. And all this while, the knocks on the door continued and got a little louder.
I rubbed sleep out of my eyes and opened the door. He stood there in a white T-shirt, khaki shorts, canvas shoes and a bright smile.
“Jai Hind Saheb! Hum Sepoy/ Ambulance Assistant Raj Mohan hain. Hum aapke sahayak hain. Chai laye hain!” With this brief introduction, he walked right past me into the room and began arranging my morning cuppa on the teepoy by my bedside.
All conversation that followed was mostly one sided. I was informed how we were in the North-East, where dawn comes early. That it is not good to linger on in bed when so much more can be done in the morning. I was directed to have my chai before it got cold. I was asked for keys to my suitcases and he began unpacking them systematically and methodically.
Questions were flung at me intermittently and information obtained on my parents, my siblings, my place of birth, my college and the home I had left behind. In short, he took complete charge of me and the room, sent me into the washroom and announced that breakfast will be served at 07:00 am, no choices given. Sep Raj Mohan became my new family from that morning onwards.
I slowly learnt that he was from District Madhubani in North Bihar. I was introduced, in absentia, to his parents, his siblings and his wife of ten years (‘We marry early in Bihar, but she came to live with me just four years ago”). I was told in graphic details about Madhubani and its famous Maithili paintings, the birthplace of Sita of Ramayana fame, the bordering nation of Nepal and its art and culture and various other factoids.
A pep talk was delivered on being a good doctor and a kind human being, and how I could leave the rest for him to look after.
The room was always kept spic and span. We wore Cellular Cotton Uniform those days and the dhobi was often berated for not having starched the uniform well. The sweeper was hounded for some imaginary speck of dust left behind by him. The leather boots were polished to a mirror-like shine and I swear I could see my face in them. A letter from home was always displayed prominently in the centre of my study table, with a blank free issue Forces Letter suggestively placed next to it.
By day four, if I had still not written a reply, a long sermon was delivered on how my mother would be waiting every single day for my reply, and how it took a week for the letter to reach home! Whenever the contents of my wallet fell below a sum decided by Raj Mohan, the cheque book was fished out and I was firmly directed to sign a cheque for a certain non- negotiable amount. I once asked Raj Mohan to teach me how to polish those Military Boots. He gave me a withering look and told me to concentrate on my patient care and my evening games, and leave the other stuff for him to take care of.
It was an amazing and carefree existence. I got into the habit of waking up early at the crack of dawn, and always being ‘appropriately dressed’ in clean and well-ironed clothes. My moods were carefully observed and addressed. The food was always served hot. The squash racquet and balls were suggestively placed every evening and explanations had to be given if I tried skipping the game any evening.
But I will never forget one particular and rather interesting morning. I went for my morning bath and in the middle of a cold shower, water suddenly petered out and stopped flowing altogether. I somehow got rid of the soap on my body, dressed hastily and left for the hospital.
At 11:00 am every day, Raj Mohan served me a cup morning. He walked in at 11:45 am while I was attending to the Station Commander’s wife and another senior lady.
He was visibly upset and without giving a damn’t 11:00 am every day, Raj Mohan served me a cup of tea in my office. He failed to arrive on time that about who sat in front of me, he launched into a miffed harangue. “Aaj kya kar ke aaye hain? Nal khula chhod diye? Jab hum pahunche toh dekhte hain poora kamra taalab bana hua hai. Sab kuchh geela ho gaya hai. Canvas ka joota nauka ki tarah tair raha hai!” (“Now what have you done today? You left the taps open? When I reached, the entire room was reduced to a pool. Everything has gone wet. The canvas shoes were floating around like boats!”). I went red and redder in embarrassment, and the ladies literally convulsed in laughter.
That evening, the ladies’ grapevine of the entire station was agog with the news about the young doctor who was put in his place by his Bihari sahayak. For many days after that morning, every officer’s wife who came to the hospital did not fail to enquire about the canvas shoes that were found floating like boats in a pond.
I went home on leave in the month following that incident. When I returned two months later, Sepoy Raj Mohan had been transferred out on a ‘home posting’ to Danapur near Patna. He had left a farewell note written in chaste Hindi.
But even today, I do not leave the washroom without double checking that all the taps are properly turned off.