Raajeev's Corner - 2020

Alexa, Siri and Bankay

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

I grew up in India. We had a garage door opener. It had voice recognition. It had facial recognition. It had intruder detection. His name was Bankay Lal. He didn't need electricity. He was powered by lentils, roti and rice.

He was our cook, our guardsman and our babysitter. Since my father extensively traveled overseas for long periods of time because of his export-import business, my brother and I were practically raised in a single-parent household. My mother was a high school Economics teacher so when she was working, Bankay took care of us.

He was about 4'10" tall so even as kids we saw eye to eye with him.

He used to work for my mother prior to her marriage while she was working in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, called Barabanki. When my mother got married and moved to Delhi, Bankay accompanied her. We used to tease him that he was part of our mother's dowry.

Bankay had thick shiny hair. He would put a lot of mustard oil in his hair; a cheaper, more natural alternative to the modern day hair gel. He would comb his hair parted in the middle, resembling Kishore Kumar, a popular Hindi movie actor from the 60's. Bankay certainly used to act like him, sometimes silly, sometimes serious and sometimes clownish. Like Kishore Kumar in the Hindi movie Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, he would shake his head and make his eyebrows dance, hoping to attract the Madhu Bala of his dreams.

One day when we were in our early teens, my brother and I were wrestling against him. He fell down and lay on the ground for a few minutes hiding his face. When we saw his face, we thought he was laughing but it turned out he was crying. His laughing and crying were the same. It was a unique talent of his. I don't know if it was a talent he cultivated on purpose but as kids, we used it to make fun of him.

Bankay was more than a helper or a butler. He was an integral part of our family. He certainly acted like the head of the household. The visitors would often be confused with his polite but confident demeanor. At my brother's wedding, he wore a pink turban designated for close family members. Many people thought he was our father and kept touching his feet which further boosted his ego. When Bankay was getting married, he invited his potential in-laws to the house and showed them the brass statues, incense sticks and kite spools that my father used to export. He gave them the impression that he owned that business which certainly impressed his would-be in-laws. We went along with his staged show allowing him his moments of glory. He certainly earned it.

It has been over 30 years since Bankay left us. After he got married, he moved out to be with his wife and became a balloon seller. He would visit us often, teaching the other helpers who replaced him. Years later we learnt that he had an accident and passed away. A few years after that, after my mother also passed away, my father lived alone in India for over 25 years. He had four helpers taking care of him, two for cooking and cleaning, a third one for shopping, and a fourth one to deal with relatives, friends and telemarketers!

Surrounded by a dedicated staff of four people, my father had been spoiled. Several years back, when he would visit us from India, my wife and I would get exhausted taking care of him. He would command us, “Take these cashew nuts away. Why is this cup sitting here? Go and warm this tea again." At the end of the day my wife and I would be running around taking care of all his errands. We jokingly told him that next time he visited, he should bring a couple of people along –- like in the movie, “Coming to America" when Eddie Murphy's father, the king, visits him from Africa! He brought a whole entourage but we could have at least used a Bankay.

When I would visit my father in India, I would treat myself with the luxury for a couple of weeks. I stopped carrying my luggage from the gate to the bedroom up two flights of stairs. I would leave the dishes on the dining table and I would let the guardsman open the door to the cab. I would justify my conscience thinking if I did the work myself, I would be taking away work from these helpers. I remember a few years ago, I was working on a proposal while visiting my father in New Delhi. The mosquitoes were incessantly biting and despite the insect repellent and the fan, they wouldn't stop. I decided to get rid of the insects with a battery-operated tennis-like bat but it was taking me away from work. Finally, I decided to get one of the helpers to hover around me, zapping the insects while I worked on my laptop. Now that is true luxury!

Bankay never knew how to drive. He didn't need to learn because growing up, we didn't have a car. When my father moved back to India, along with a car, he got a dedicated driver who would drive him around. When I would visit India, he would take me wherever I needed to go. He was very knowledgeable and knew his way around Delhi and the sprawling suburbs very well. I would engage him in long conversations about the weather, news and politics which he enjoyed. However, he appreciated the respect I gave him by sitting next to him rather than sitting in the back seat by myself. It felt more like riding with a friend than a worker.

Social interaction between the helpers and my kids was a challenge in the beginning. When my kids were young, on their visits to India, they would touch the feet of the cleaning lady in a show of respect. We found it amusing but hard to explain the ingrained mores of the class interaction in the Indian society to our American-born kids. If my kids had met Bankay, I would not find it amusing and would have encouraged them to touch his feet. He was family.

I still miss Bankay. Most of our friends and family still remember him fondly. As a kid growing up in a crowded environment in Delhi, I never had to deal with loneliness or depression. I was not a latch-key kid – in fact, there was no latch because we had Bankay. Today's kids have Siri and Alexa and Google with voice recognition, facial recognition and artificial intelligence but none of those assistants know how to laugh and cry the same. None of those assistants know every visitor by name. None of those helpers really become a part of the family like Bankay. For that, you need real and emotional intelligence.


Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.