Donna Smith and Urmilla Khanna

Donna JT Smith
“Bahadur, the Servant Boy”

Urmilla Khanna

Inspiration piece

Whereas the world is engrossed in Hitler and Churchill and Roosevelt and the Second World War, Mother wakes up to her personal agenda in her own private world in Durg, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, India. She must attend to the smooth running of all the activities in our home. She must assign appropriate duties to each one of the eight servants, while she is also attending to the needs of her husband and four school-age children. After her bath and morning rituals, she emerges into the courtyard. She is dressed in a fresh cotton sari, her bunch of keys secured with a silver clip at her waist.

Today, it is early April and she will interview another servant—a young boy who calls himself Bahadur. He wants to work as the pankha-wala, the person in charge of the pankhas, the fabric fans that hang from the ceilings of our bedrooms. It will be his job to keep us, the residents of the bungalow, cool through the sweltering heat of the long and protracted summer.

Madhya Pradesh, the land-locked province located in the heart of India, knows only two seasons: summer and monsoon. The third season, winter, is a transitory period, long enough to give us respite after the muggy monsoons and to prepare ourselves to face another summer head-on. By mid-march, the earth under our feet is bone dry, the fields parched and cracked from lack of moisture and by mid-morning the sun is shamelessly fierce, its rays piercing. Stray dogs and feral cats have disappeared from the streets and the screeching of the parrots that had started at dawn has come to a halt. In early April, my school hours change. I go at seven and return by noon, following the schedules of the government and other businesses. Shops, doctors, and even hospitals begin to shut down for the afternoon. The entire town takes a siesta, only to awaken in four or five hours to the still hot, but relatively cooler evening breeze.

My family is somewhat sheltered from this abominable heat. My father is an engineer with the Indian Civil Service under the British rule and we live in a large government assigned bungalow. The design of the bungalow, with its high ceilings, doors well positioned for cross ventilation, and roshandans, the small windows strategically placed near the ceiling for escape of rising hot air, all help in keeping us cool. The expanse of lawns and gardens, the rows of slim, tall eucalyptus trees along the circular driveway and the dense mango groves in the far side of the compound create a cooling effect as well.

Bahadur presents himself to work as the pankha-wala this summer. He is about ten or twelve years old. He wears a small loincloth and has a handkerchief that he ties around his forehead, mostly to catch the sweat from dripping on to his eyes and face. He lives in the village nearby and comes today at the recommendation of one of Mother’s most reliable servants.

“He is a good boy and will work diligently,” Mr. Reliable says. “He can do some arithmetic and can read a little bit too. He dropped out of school because he did not like school,” Reliable adds for good measure.

Bahadur stands in the dazzling heat without squinting. He is slender and tall for his age. His skin is dark brown, almost black. He carries a small onion rolled up in a greasy rag that he has tied to his upper arm. It keeps him from getting a heatstroke he tells Mother.

“I have never been struck by the Loo,” he says. Loo, the hot dry cyclone-like wind that strikes our area in the middle of the afternoons and to which dozens of children and farmers succumb, doesn’t ever make him sick, he explains and doubles his statement with, “Pakka guarantee, memsahib, you can ask my mother. I never sick with heat-stroke.” He puts his nose to the onion on his arm and inhales deeply.

Mother is impressed. They agree on a salary, something like ten rupees a month.

“When can you start?” she asks.

“You can try me today, bibiji,” he says.

“Start tomorrow,” Mother says.

He arrives on duty the next morning and Reliable shows him around.

“This is the first thing you will do,” Reliable explains with authority, as he clumsily lifts a 3×6 khas-khas screen and wedges it between the frames of the open French door on the east-side of the bungalow.

These screens are hand-crafted from the delicate roots of a native grass locally referred to as khas-khas. Each screen is an inch thick, its edges bound in burlap. When the screens first arrive, Mother sniffs them and predicts their cooling qualities.

Together Bahadur and Mr. Reliable walk around the bungalow and install screens on the four exterior doors that provide the cross ventilation.

“After this you will bring buckets of water from the well and set them in each of the porticos where we have installed the screens.”

Bahadur nods as his eyes dance and his ears take in the instructions. His job is going to be very easy. All he has to do is sprinkle mugs of water over these screens and keep the khas-fibers moist. Mr. Reliable demonstrates. He grabs a small tin-can filled with water, and holds it with his fingers splayed atop to create a sieve-like effect. As he sprays the water on the screen, a cool mist infused with the aroma of khas-khas explodes in the room beyond. He repeats the process until the screen is completely drenched. A small drip of the overflow makes a channel on the slate floor in the portico and wanders off to the azaleas below.

Bahadur and Reliable go around the bungalow and moisten all the screens. They return to where they started.

“This is the room where Sahibji takes his nap,” Reliable points to the room beyond the khas-khas screen. “Your job is to pull this rope slowly and rhythmically.” He clutches the cord that operates the pankha in the bedroom and demonstrates the slow pull-release, pull-release motion.

Bahadur takes on his job with great enthusiasm. In a few minutes, the entire bungalow has a soft dreamy feel, thanks to his efforts. All the screens are moist and the windows are shaded with dark green curtains. The earthy smell emitted from the aromatic oils of the khas-grass matures into a dense aroma—a mix of fresh cut cedar, shaved sandalwood and a hint of pine. It infuses every pore in the home, animate and inanimate. It permeates our skin, our clothing.

It is siesta time. Lunch is over and Mother and Pitaji retire to the bedroom. Pita-ji has had a hard day touring the dusty roads in an open jeep.

Bahadur sits at his nook and steadily pulls and releases the cord that operates the pankha. He takes delight in his performance as he stares at the well-worn metal pulley over which the cord squeaks and grinds as it disappears into the bedroom. In the darkened room, the massive pankha suspended from the ceiling on an axle comes to life. It heaves back and forth, its frayed edges flapping behind the heavier fabric. Bahadur is doing a great job.

Minutes go by, may be an hour. Suddenly the room feels stuffy. Air is not moving. The pankha is dead. Pitaji stops snoring, stirs in his sleep, grumbles and complains. Mother jumps off the bed, opens a chink in the window, taps on the windowpane.

“Did I hire you for sleeping?” she yells.

The monotony of pulling the squeaky string and the heat of the day has done it. The poor fellow has fallen asleep. He awakens with a jerk and looks at the rope, lying limp in the relaxed grip of his fingers. He looks at the khas-screen. The water has evaporated and the screen is dry.

“Wake up and sprinkle more water. And sprinkle some on your face too. That will wake you up,” Mother says. “Sit upright or better still, stand up and pull the rope. I don’t want you falling asleep on me again. I don’t pay you for sleeping, do I?” she says.

Bahadur stands up reflexively. “No bibiji, I am sorry. It will not happen again. I just had a small sleep.” He gestures the size of his miniscule sleep by raising his hand, pinching the thumb and index fingers together and then pulling them apart a centimeter or less. “It was just a small sleep,” he reiterates, and mimics it by closing his eyes for a split second. Then he brings his palms together and bows to mother for forgiveness.

The sweetness of his gesture is enough to captivate Mother’s love and affection.

“Go, go on now, do your job nicely,” she says. “Go sprinkle water on all the screens.”

He goes around the bungalow sprinkling water and returns to his post as the pankha-wala.

It has been a hot day with the temperature climbing up to 112º Fahrenheit, the afternoon relentlessly long. The offense is repeated and so is the entire drama of yelling and apologizing and fresh sprinkles of cool water.

In the evening Pita-ji emerges from his room, refreshed and dressed in cool white. He is in a good mood. Mother orders tea to be brought out to the lawns. She calls for Bahadur and gives him a handful of the fried pakorras and a cup of tea.

“Go home now and come back at the crack of dawn tomorrow,” she says.

Bahadur trots along.

He reports on duty the next day, and the day after and the day after that and the drama continues.



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  1. Posted December 7, 2015 at 4:57 am | #

    Urmilla’s beautiful inspiration piece required me to do some research to get my mind set in a different place and time. I enjoyed the stretching! The nature of the piece, being a true recounting seemed to call for a portrait of one of the characters.

  2. Posted December 11, 2015 at 6:38 am | #

    I love the resolve you’re painting into his being. What a blessing for you (and us!) that you are both poet and artist! Glad the inspiration pieces led to this portrait. GOd bless you and all the people the inspiration piece is about.

  3. Posted December 11, 2015 at 6:39 am | #

    Tried to change “you’re” to “you’ve”–too late; am sure you understood, anyway!

  4. Posted February 14, 2016 at 10:14 am | #

    Thank you for this elegant yet modestly presented narrative.
    Little did I know on waking this morning that before sun down I would live in this part of the world, siesta in it, and inhale the scent of it. This is an astonishing tour de force!