In 1961 and 1962, I was in Hyderabad living a very interesting bachelor’s life with a steady girl friend and making enough money to have a better time than most of my age group youngsters were having. One of the two favourite hanging out places for me and some of my friends was a place on Abid Road called Savoy which was a restaurant on the first floor. A very friendly Sardarji ran it and since it had a few cabins for private parties, it was a favourite place for cooing young couples to meet and have some snacks and coffee.
It was below this restaurant that I first made my acquaintance with Robert who would dust and occasionally even wash my scooter without my ever having to ask him with the expectation that I would give him a generous tip. He would do the same with the other scooters and motorcycles that used to be parked there and I suppose that he made enough to keep his body and soul together. He was a cheerful man around 45 then and so much older than I was or my friends but that did not stop him from being very friendly with all of us.
Over a period of time, I started using him to do other odd jobs for me like delivering letters and mail for which I would agree on a rate on each chore basis and he never failed me. Seeing me successfully do this, some of my other friends also did the same and he became a sort of courier operating out of that foot path. On some occasions when I had had too much of the good stuff, he would drive my scooter with me precariously perched on the pillion home and put me to bed and stay the night in my bed sitter till morning and leave after ensuring that I was operational. A kind of paternal bond that he developed with me that till date baffles me for its total unselfishness. There were many occasions when he had come to the help of me and my friends during our youthful capers and all my friends were also very fond of him.
Robert had joined the Indian Army as a young lad and had retired as a soldier after fifteen years of service. When his earning capacity became zilch and he had to depend on his meager pension, in a country with very opportunities for employment at that age for someone with hardly any skills, his wife took their children and went back to her parent’s place deserting him and leaving him to his devices. This was the reason for his enterprise that brought him into my orbit.
I moved to Chennai in December 1962 and lost touch with Robert till the middle of the following year when I went back to Hyderabad on business and met him. He requested me to find some kind of employment for him in Chennai as he was a Tamilian and wished to spend the rest of his life in Tamil Nadu. I promised him to do what I could and on return to Chennai, I did without much success.
In the meanwhile, in Chennai I had made friends with Anton, a very unusual fellow. A Franco Indian of French father and Indian mother from Karaikal. He was a Marine Surveyor for a French company and would survey ships for hull insurance claims on behalf of his employers in France. He was unusual for many reasons notably for his very flowery Tamil spoken like a trooper and English with a peculiar accent which made him stand out in a crowd. He would look like any Tamilian but wore his French ancestry like a badge of honour. He was a French citizen with Indian relatives and that was a formidable combination. He had a streak of wildness about him that was inexplicable and would take risks that normal mortals would not. He had a Ford Jeep with the steering wheel on the left side and would inevitably get into scrapes with other drivers on the road driving on the left side of the road in vehicles with the steering wheel on the right side. And when he had had a few under his belt, he would become a maniac and would drive like he was on open ground with no other traffic on the roads.
Anton was divorced from a lady who was back in France and lived alone in a middle class neighbourhood in an upstairs flat and had endless problems with his neighbours but since he paid a much higher rent than his landlord would get from an Indian, the landlord who lived downstairs would assuage hurt feelings and keep things from getting out of hand. He had trouble with his servants too and I must have seen at least half a dozen of them passing through his life in the three years that I knew him.
On one occasion when Anton was sans servant, I remembered Robert and asked him if he would consider employing him as a butler to which he readily agreed. I wrote to Robert and asked him to come down to Chennai to see if it would work out and when he did, it was obvious that these two were meant for each other. Robert moved in with Anton around the middle of 1964 when I was too busy to keep tabs as I was busy with my own life and adventures. We would occasionally meet at Anton’s and it was obvious to me that both of them were happy with the arrangement and that was enough for me.
Before I went away to Ahmedabad in 1965, Anton threw a farewell party for me completely arranged for by Robert and it was a memorable one in more ways than what I can write here.
In 1966, I received a letter from Robert announcing that Anton had died in an automobile accident and that he was moving back to Hyderabad. I received a couple of letters from him from Hyderabad advising me that he was unhappy there and whether I would be able to help secure him some employment in Ahmedabad. I was lucky in doing so with the help of a very dear friend who arranged to take him into his company as a watchman. Robert moved to Ahmedabad and stayed on in Ahmedabad even after his retirement after getting himself a local lady for a wife, till I lost touch with him after I moved to Pune in 1990. In between, every time I went to Ahmedabad, I would meet him and we would spend some time reminiscing about old times.
This is one story that I do not know the ending of. I do not know if Robert is alive or what happened to his wife and children if any as many changes have taken place in Ahmedabad since that time. The company that he worked for closed down and the land was converted to residential plots and the total landscape of the city has changed. I doubt very much that I would be able to go there now and find him. A strange ending for a man who wanted to spend his life in his beloved Tamil Nadu who landed up in Gujarat and just disappeared from my life.
But at an impressionable time in my life he played a valuable role as well as in the life of another amazing character. He is certainly one of my Unforgettable Characters as was Anton whose wild ways finally got his life as payment.