On first glance anyone would have perceived him to be a silver cropped alien. To a child he evoked ghoulish fear. My first rendezvous with him left me with a ghastly feeling as I couldn’t ingest the fact that he would be my father’s official driver and would make a daily appearance to our house. Even in adolescence, my mind could not bear the sight of Baliraaj moving about in the household with his full white mane and stark blue feline eyes - layered in thick cataract. We wondered how on earth he could drive a Willy’s jeep through the badlands of Bihar. That was then, when vehicles came sans the trappings of today’s power steering and the rest of the works. He might have been over sixty but the service book declared him to be a little over fifty. Father announced grandly that he was the best driver in the entire division and could negotiate any terrain, anytime during day or night.
His idiosyncrasies included being barefoot at all times - a la M.F. Hussain (internationally famous Indian Painter, who remained bare footed entire life) and managing on minimum diet with plenty of country liquor. The spirit did not dilute his driving expertise though but lent an air of humor to his otherwise somber personality. We were witness to many night safaris under his maneuver and gradually accepted him into our inner circle. He was trustworthy and never eyed any favors from us. On luncheon offers he was quick at denial though sometimes did barter the offer for booze! He was ever punctual despite his drinking binges and never displayed any symptoms of hangover.
One late afternoon he came home looking famished, on being queried he blurted that he had not eaten anything in the past 24 hours. The housemaid could manage just two chapattis left over from the day’s lunch and had to cajole him to have food. Baliraaj started the sparse meal sitting beside the well embankment. What was witnessed next brought a lump to my throat. He shared one chapatti with the maid’s daughter who was playing by his side and threw a large morsel at a pigeon cooing hoarsely near him. When the maid admonished him for the unwarranted charity he quipped that birds normally fetch food in the morning and the poor pigeon would not have managed a bite since morning, hence it was still seeking food.
What an observation, insight and act of selflessness from a man who was himself starving.
From then on, his stature was ever towering in our estimation. The old man is long gone but we pray that his soul be at peace in everlasting happiness. Men like him do not come by these days.