Luke was Sri Lankan. He loved to drink, because of which he is no more. That was the general impression. People said he died of a heart attack, fell on the road and died. Like a dog, or, cat, or, a furry gutter rat. The place he lived was Artist Village tucked in a corner of the great city of New Bombay, where he was well know as a craftsman who could do any repair work. No job could beat him and he did everything with finesse. He put a premium on his work and was a good businessman. However, he didn’t put his business interest over honesty and was therefore well liked.
Luke came to Artist village through Matilda auntie or “Matchstick Auntie” as people called her. Fact was nobody in Artist Village could pronounce Matilda and called her the next best euphemism that came to mind. That’s because her legs, peeping under her skirt, were like matchsticks: etiolated, thin, and white as a matchstick. Luke called Matilda sister. Of course, everybody knew she wasn’t his real sister. How can she be, as he was Sri Lankan and she was Goan. But they shared one thing. That was language. Luke’s English was euphemistically called Polkudu language in Sri Lanka and Matilda spoke the Indian Mack English, both marked by their brokenness and social unacceptability.
Luke re-built Matilda’s house in Artist Village. He used his skills to erect a proud structure, one among the first to raise it head over the row of nearby houses built resembling those of an Indian village. So Matilda and her Muslim husband Mustaq, who was a shippie – he worked in a ship –, were grateful to him and gave Luke place to live. The room was on the terrace and was small and wide enough for one cot. Luke was happy, though. Thereafter Luke became a part of the house, a provider in times of trouble, a repairer of broken things, and of broken hearts.
He became Matchstick Auntie’s fetcher and help in the kitchen. He could fix tea or coffee or dinner when Auntie was having a terrible day and needed rest. She would lie in the living room rattan couch and order him around and poor Luke would do as she said. He would also help her substantially from his earnings.
When Matilda’s eldest son Javed married a Muslim girl who used to work as a maid in his house Luke was in the thick of the brawl that followed. It became known that the girl was pregnant before young Javed married her.
Mustaq had a standard response, “Get out of my house, you haramzada.”
“How could you do it to a servant girl, men, when you deserve the best, my baba? You have brought us all down, baba, too bad. All our standing in society is now gone. Who will speak to us after church now? Nobody. Who will invite us for first holy communions and weddings?”
It was a scandal that had the neighbours jabbering for hours and which marked Mustaq as an outcaste in the neighbourhood of straight-laced Maharashtrian families. Matilda was similarly ostracised from church activities and not invited to games of raffles and potluck lunch the women organised. The scandal faded swiftly from memory and the social consequence was swifter.
As I said earlier Luke liked to drink. He had only one meal a day after he finished work and that was when he called all his friends from the neighbourhood into the bar and ate, drank, and partied till late. Usually Luke ended up paying the bill. Matilda told him to change his ways if he lived with her but he couldn’t.
“Your change your wayward habits if you want to live here. This is not Sri Lanka, but India. Here people go yak, yak, yak, every bleddy time. All they know is to flap their lips.”
“How can a big guy who does heavy-heavy work, lift and carry big big things during day change his habit?”
“Someday it’s going to kill you, that’s all I say, for your own welfare, no?”
“That leave it to me. Nothing will happen. You’ll see.”
But what happened was just like Matilda had predicted. He fell down and died. A big man, he fell like a tree trunk, with a thud.
It was during such a drinking binge that Luke lost it. Usually, cool and calm, he lost it completely when a boy drinking with him called him an outsider.
“Luke is Sri Lankan. He is an outsider.”
Luke loved India and he considered himself Indian and this upset him. He punched the boy and threw him out of his group. He never talked to the boy again. After that nobody would enter into argument with the big man with large hands of wiry muscles.
Luke was born in Negombo, a small town to the north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I had in my international peregrinations strayed into this territory. He was surprised to learn this. It was beautiful country, just like my native Kerala in south India. There were swaying coconut palms, whisper waves in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and plenty of sunshine. I knew about the booming tourist industry in Negombo. I stayed there in Hotel Golden Sands with a lot of Dutch tourists and played beach volleyball with them. It was December and they were there to escape the bitter European cold and bask in the sun. They spent the whole day in the sun: reading, swimming, and getting their bodies massaged. I noticed the trinket sellers, exotic precious stone sellers, the panhandlers, the massage parlours, the discotheques that stayed open till late.
He said he had done much work in the hotel and its environments and that his brothers – three of them – were well settled and prosperous. He was the only one who had gone to the Persian Gulf and then came to India on a visit because he loved India. On this visit he met Matilda and decided to make India his home. He never wrote to his family about his whereabouts, but they came to know. They wrote long letters about how much they loved him and wanted him back. His dad was dead but mom was alive and she was asking for him virtually every day.
His brothers didn’t take kindly to the decision. They came to extradite him, bought him a ticket and took him as far as the airport. They said he belonged to Sri Lanka and that they wanted him back. But Luke thought otherwise. At the airport he ran away. He ran away, boarded a train to New Bombay, and was back in Matchstick Auntie’s home in Artist Village in hours.
Luke was catholic and religious. He would go to mass every Sunday and in addition to Wednesday and Saturday Novenas. He would stand in the last pews in his trade-mark short pants and round-necked tee-shirt. He would pray for everyone he knew including his mother in Sri Lanka. He would then spend a long period in quietness at the grotto in front of an image of Mary and child Jesus. What he thought about nobody knew. Was he missing his mother? Was he homesick?
When Javed went to live with his Muslim wife to a nearby slum Matilda was pained. She didn’t eat for two days. Mushtaq had asked him to get out after an argument and he had taken all his clothes and moved to a rented hut in a slum nearby, on the slope of a hill. Luke went and brought him back along with his wife.
“Your place in your home only, they love you, whatever you did. Cos of you they be in pain, no, must understand, no? Don’t you think? And you their only son doing suchlike. You supposed to look after them when old,” Luke reasoned.
“Then why dad taunting me all the time?”
“That only for your good. Cos he loves you.”
“I feel so insulted in front of my wife, and all.”
“When difficulties come you face it like man. Not run away like coward.”
This would have applied to Luke much more than Javed.
“Okay, then I will come home. But the taunting has to stop.”
“That I no guarantee-guarantee. I only help, in your family matters, cos you like my son, no?”
Javed returned. Matchstick Auntie breathed easy and began eating again.
So went life in the Mustaq household.
I remember the last job Luke did for me. It was a door leading to my terrace. The wood had rotted and the ply had come loose, leaving a gaping hole in the centre. He supervised the entire job for me, standing with the carpenter the whole day. It is a smooth and professional piece of work which I admire often. I painted it a dark green and it blended nicely with the surrounding greenery. The craftsmanship was evident; the focus was constantly on getting the work done with excellence. I guess it is something in the work ethics and sincerity to one’s profession. These are attributes one rarely finds in local craftsmen, who are wayward, vacillating and distracted by addiction, which reflects perversely on their work.
But not so with Luke. He could be trusted to do a job with a high degree of competence. Which led me to ask people about why he was reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka. Then I heard from our maid that he was in love with a neighbour’s daughter in Negombo. Her parents were against the match and she was married to another man when he was in the Persian Gulf. This made him hate going back to Sri Lanka. He was so sensitive that he couldn’t stand the prospect of meeting his former lover again.
So, after all, it was that imposter love that made him hate Sri Lanka and love India.
Luke may your soul rest in peace.