A smooth, shining and spotless coating of whitewash without any visible marks of a brush on the fence or walls of any house in our locality would invariably make the people say with conviction that it was the dexterous hand of Raju that had lent dazzle to the dull surface. Such was the fame of his work ! His name had become synonymous with the art of whitewashing.
His real name was Allah Ditta but he was popularly known as Raju. He was a native of Haryana but had settled in Punjab. As a child, I saw him living in a small room with bare minimum belongings. He might be in his late twenties or early thirties then. Raju, was a man of medium height, large ears, long and pointed nose, sunken eyes, craggy and furrowed face, wrinkled forehead and thin eyebrows. He had thin hair on his head. He had no beard, no moustache and no whiskers. He walked with a brisk pace taking big strides. He spoke with a raspy and gravelly voice. He wore simple pyjamas and kurta, covered his head with a cloth and wore a towel over his shoulders. In winters, he put on a sweater, pullover, jacket or waistcoat. He led a celibate life for reasons unknown to the public. That’s why he cooked his meals himself. We never saw any relatives visiting him nor did he ever go to meet anyone. He lived alone till his last breath.
By nature, he was a jolly fellow and liked to crack jokes. He would often burst into loud belly-laughs and guffaws.
Raju was an expert in the art of whitewashing. Although he also painted doors and windows, whitewashing was his forte. Dressed in pyjamas and kurta speckled with splashes and sprinkles of whitewash and paint, holding a pail containing a couple of brushes in the left hand and smoking a biri -the poor man’s cigar- nicely tucked between the middle and index fingers of his right hand, he could be seen going to earn his daily bread.
Before moving further, let me say a few words about wihitewash. Quick lime is used for whitewashing. It produces Calcium hydroxide when mixed with water, and absorbs carbon dioxide from environment. As a result, it produces Calcium carbonate which creates a hard coating on the walls. Different additives like indigo, glass , glue , etc are also added to it for durability. Salt is also added to prevent mold which also helps it bind . Its benefit is that if you brush off when it dries, you won’t get a dust mark. Whitewash is also tinted for decorative use. It is also mixed with earths to achieve different colours.
People also mixed DDT into it to make it mosquito-repellent.
Raju prepared the whitewash perfectly well. He would soak quick lime in the water a day before in a half-cut oil-drum. The next day he would mix the necessary ingredients into the solution. He also made his own brushes. In those days, stems of the rush were soaked and then twisted into strings and flattened by beating to make it a perfect brush for whitewashing. The ends were cut to make it even and smooth. People opted for used brushes as it was easy to run them on walls. New brushes would take time to get smoothened. As for buckets, old tin cans were commonly used. Two holes were made in the can on diametrically opposite sides and then a strong rope or iron wire was tied to work as a handle. Raju had several buckets of this kind. Gradually, he discarded using rural brushes and buckets and replaced them with paintbrushes and used paint-buckets.
Raju was a simple man with even simpler habits. He was hardworking, honest, sincere and self-respecting. He earned his bread by the sweat of his brow and never begged from anyone till the last breath of his life.
He was very fond of listening to the radio. He had kept a transistor and was a regular listener of BBC Urdu and Hindi service, running commentary of cricket matches and the program ‘Tameel e Irshad’ broadcast by All India Radio Urdu Service daily at around 10 or 10:30 pm which played old film songs. He would keep the volume at the maximum to enjoy the songs to the fullest.
As I have already mentioned that he lived alone, he filled the void of his loneliness by feeding the stray and street dogs which always hovered around his room. Perhaps he found a better company in them than in the selfish and ungrateful human beings. Even dogs showed their love to him by wagging their tails while jumping around him.
A friend of mine narrated an incident to me about Raju that once during the floods, water entered his room at night. A couple of dogs were also there. Raju lifted the dogs and put them on the cot. He and the dogs lay all night there. In the morning, a rescue team evacuated them safely. This shows his immense care and concern even for the life of animals.
Towards the end of the 1990s, excessive biri smoking had made him very frail and weak. He was given to regular bouts of severe coughing. He could no longer work. As the saying goes: When someone is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful. Similarly, when an artist could no longer wield his brush, nobody offers him a canvas to paint. Raju fell on bad days. No work, no money. Almost three decades of active life in whitewashing couldn’t even make him save a little amount to supply him with a simple supper in his last days. This is the hard truth and tragedy of the life of every daily wager. However, the world is not without kind men. A philanthropist neighbour provided him with daily meals. Even in that situation, he didn’t forget to feed the street dogs– his constant companions. Some other well-wishers and sympathisers helped him with cash and kindness. But Raju never held out his palm for alms. A salute to his self-respecting nature!
when an artist could no longer wield his brush, nobody offers him a canvas to paint
One day someone broke the sad news that Raju had passed away. He died in his sleep. Inna lillahe wa inna ilaihe rajiun: Verily, to Allah we belong and verily to Him shall we return.
A man whose brush lent dazzle to the dull walls had to leave his own life unfurnished. He was just 55 years old. Perhaps a life of loneliness where no friends or relatives to talk to, no company to share his pains, and sorrows and wounds of helplessness had corroded his soul and spirit from inside. His was not a solitude of choice but a forced hermitage. His sad end reminds me of a few lines from the poem ‘Ode to Solitude’ by Alexander Pope:
"Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; Thus unlamented let me die; Steal from the world, and not a stone… Tell where I lie."... Alexander Pope, 1688-1744 English poet and satirist.
I conclude this piece with a quatrain written by Ishaq Sajid, a famous Urdu poet:
Marne waley tujhe mubarak ho, Zindagi Ka azaab khatm hua, Khwahishon ki kitaab bund hui, Hasraton Ka nisaab khatm hua. (O Man, be thou grateful to Death, As it terminates the torments of life, Draws the curtain on the door of desires, And dissolves the web of wistfulness.)