We lived cheek by jowl in bright, roomy houses, as tenants who rented them under the then prevalent pagdi system. A weathered, wooden door separated us, and had it not been kept bolted from both sides, our houses would have merged seamlessly into one large abode. Often, I visualised myself walking into her house unannounced, the common door having been left ajar by mistake in my fantasy, a possibility that was not just remote but well-nigh impossible. I wanted to rob a slice of her brilliance, because P-maushi, as I will refer to her, was an ordinary woman, who did extraordinary things and was way ahead of the times in both thought and action. It was a feat, considering that we all belonged to the middle-class. We flaunted our outdated values and puffed our chests out proudly while clinging to obsolete ideas. She was among the few of us who questioned, who spoke out, and who sprang into action, while we allowed our unquestioning acceptance of the customary to keep us afloat or be our undoing.
As a child, I suspected that there was some secret force that made her so dynamic, something unknown to me that gave her the dash of a warrior. I clamped my ear on the door to listen to the sounds and voices that were created behind it and tried to make sense of what I couldn’t see. Apart from gathering that there was something revolutionary going on, I couldn’t make much of the garbled utterances. The door, though not impregnable, played censor, allowing selected little to escape through the fissure in it. Once, I heard a male voice scream followed by a woman’s desperate sobbing. It prompted me to try to unbolt the door to assist P-maushi in any rescue that I surmised would ensue. Mother caught me in the act, tweaking my ears and ruing that despite all her efforts to groom me into a proper, well-mannered girl, I had turned out to be a shameless eavesdropper. She wasn’t perturbed about the crying, which had grown louder now. “It’s her actor friends rehearsing a play,” she said dismissively. Though disappointed that my furious attempts to unbolt the door in a rush of blood were in vain, I apologised for my misbehaviour. But, despite Mother’s warnings, my misconduct continued for I wanted to know how, while we were busy propitiating the Gods, P-maushi was out on the streets playing saviour.
She wasn’t always like this. Mother never tired of telling me that for all her erudition as an academician, P-maushi had never been devoted to scholastic pursuits. Mother knew. She and P-maushi were classmates. Both P-maushi and Mother lived in their maiden homes—Mother, because of her early widowhood and P-maushi by choice, even after her marriage to a handsome, bearded Brahmin professor, who I addressed as B-kaka. Her flouting of convention became fodder for gossip.
This memory surfaced the day her name appeared in every leading newspaper. “Social activist withdraws case after futile battle,” the headlines screamed. P-maushi had filed a criminal writ petition in the Bombay High Court against the rabble-rousing nephew of a self-styled saviour of a regional community, also the founder of an ethnocentric political party, christened by his fawning followers as the ‘Emperor of Hindu hearts’. Months earlier, the mysterious death of R. K. had rocked Bombay. R. K. was a gentle, ordinary middle class man, who lived as a tenant with his wife and only son, in a building that was diagonally opposite the one where P-maushi and I lived. When asked to vacate the premises by the landlord, he had refused. Unfazed, the furious landlord had approached the goons in the regional political party to browbeat R. K. into submission. R. K. was later found dead in a cinema theatre in Pune, and his wife alleged the hand of the nephew in what was now suspected to be murder. Moved by R. K.’s widow’s plight and her lone struggle to get justice for her slain husband, P-maushi had incited the neighbourhood and approached a local doctor to conduct a second post mortem on R. K.’s body. Armed with the report, which conclusively proved murder, she had taken on the political powers of the state. Her efforts had led the court to direct the government to hand over the investigations to the CBI.
The withdrawal, which came after the CBI’s clean chit to the nephew, was most unexpected, given the conviction with which P-maushi had filed the petition. I’m not sure whether it was her helpless acceptance of a corroded system that made her retract her militant stance or some merit she saw in the judgment. I hope it wasn’t the former, because if I ever wrote an intrepid word, it was because I had watched P-maushi from the side-lines, and fought many a battle vicariously through her. It was P-maushi who awakened me to the mutinous in my being and any such resignation on her part was unacceptable to me.
P-maushi’s house was out of bounds for most. She hung handwritten boards outside her main door that said in Marathi, “Kaamashivaay bell vaaajvu naye,” which meant, “Do not ring the bell, if you have no specific work with us.” Sometimes, it only said, “Do not disturb”. The message was loud and clear: “Stay out of my hair”. Neighbours took it as a personal affront. They felt that by cordoning them out of her house, P-maushi was suggesting that they were lesser mortals. Being Mother’s daughter, P-maushi was affectionate towards me.
Every vacation, when her niece, Kamini, came to stay with her, she craned her neck over the wall that separated our adjacent balconies and called out to Mother. “Kamini is arriving tomorrow. Do send Archu over to play with her. The child gets very lonely, otherwise,” she would request. Mother would agree and even remind me before going off to work that I was now duty-bound to entertain her friend’s niece. Not that I minded. I liked Kamini, and being invited to P-maushi’s house made me feel privileged.
Two more factors made the visits alluring. One was the tall glass of chilled coffee P-maushi served us along with freshly prepared savouries. P-maushi’s culinary expertise matched her aptitude for rebellion. She could make a mean crab rassa with such spice-sorcery that it could make a master chef look like the cook you had in your college hostel mess. The other was P-maushi’s overflowing library. Works of English and Marathi literary giants occupied the top shelves along with tomes on politics, philosophy, history, theatre, poetry and various other subjects. Copies of Aesop’s Fables, Akbar and Birbal, The Panchatantra, and other children’s books stood in neat rows on its lower shelves, making it easy for Kamini and me to sit cross-legged on the floor and browse through them. Once, P-maushi allowed me to take home a hardbound copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that had a bright yellow cover. I did not return the book. Neither of us mentioned it, and I conveniently read her temperance as permission to keep the book.
Over the years, P-maushi acquired the reputation of being an atheist. She lambasted those who propagated superstition and castigated religious zealots in her powerful articles. Her rationalism was an attribute she acquired over the years. I was awestruck at her will to discard what she must have come to regard as dispensable, after weighing her conformation to the beliefs she held against her experiential knowledge that egged her on to abandon them.
P-maushi was childless. During the month of Chaitra, around March-April, she invited me and other girls in our neighbourhood over to her house for Kanya Puja, the worship of Goddess Durga. She took us through an elaborate ritual of washing our feet, applying haldi-kumkum on our foreheads and showering rice on our heads. Though I was a patient ceremonial candidate, it was the food I waited for—a plateful of chana, puris, sweet sheera and a glass of green panha, a sour-sweet beverage made of raw mangoes and flavoured with cardamom, which cooled my body and healed me in some unknown way. P-maushi also gifted us bright chunris, colourful glass bangles, some money as dakshina and a coconut. The money was a bonus in days when I had none. I spent it on buying jeera golis and chocolates. Mother once remarked, “I hope God fills her womb with a child. She’s been performing this puja for years now.” I concluded as I grew up that P-maushi’s uncharacteristic acquiescence to perform the appeasement ceremonies may have been a result of a close one’s pressure; or she may have turned her back on God, as she began changing gradually, discarding the unwanted and unsavoury.
I remember, she wore only printed silk saris then and her matching, well-cut blouses were almost always sleeveless, a fashion statement that was nothing short of audacious, during a time when covering up was mandatory. Her hair was styled into a short bob; she painted her lips mauve, wore low-heeled sandals and striking accessories. I would be playing with my friends, when she would leave for work. She taught Marathi Literature in a reputed college. “P-maushi,” I would call out. For all her aversion to small talk, she would smile, cup my chin with her right palm and ask, “How are you?” Sometimes, she enquired, “Why were you crying last night?” and I lowered my eyelids, embarrassed and angry that the door between us wasn’t guarding my privacy, as fiercely as it was preserving hers.
At some point, P-maushi stopped cutting her hair. It started growing longer and longer and with such haste that within months it snaked right down to her buttocks. She started twisting it into a tight, functional bun. She stopped applying lipstick, making her full lips look dry and dull. She replaced her resplendent silk saris with coarse white or pastel cotton ones and switched to wearing white, sleeved blouses with them. The only accessories she wore now were a red bindi, a simple black mangalsutra, two tiny pearl earrings, a thick glass bangle and a wristwatch. She had stopped performing the Kanya Puja years ago and the reminder of her pampering made me wistful, when the month of Chaitra arrived. I moved to the suburbs after my marriage, and all but lost touch with P-maushi. But, I followed her life closely—through her fiery speeches against regional parties, her radical political ideology, her scholarly reviews of Marathi plays and books, her scathing articles against the Devadasi system, her condemnation of the criminal-politician nexus and her feminism—all of which found a mention in local newspapers. Her activism ensured that she constantly rubbed those in power the wrong way. The victims of her wrath raked her over the coals in public, particularly, the leader whose nephew she had taken on. She grappled with threats from known and unknown quarters with a nonchalance that only the fearless can muster.
As P-maushi began to grow in stature, Mother stopped referring to her past academic setback. I could see whole-hearted appreciation of her classmate’s achievements in her eyes. I met P-maushi a couple of times in the later years. They were chance encounters at women’s empowerment seminars. She pulled me close to her chest and hugged me. A few years ago, I ignored the board outside her main door and rang the doorbell. I needed her opinion on an issue I was writing on. B-kaka opened the door and led me inside to the familiar living room. P-maushi was lying down on a chatai, reading a book. She looked up, frowning at the intrusion, but in an instant, the tension on her forehead eased and she smiled warmly. “It’s been so long,” she said, and asked me about my family, Mother and my work.
We chatted for some time. I looked around the room, at the peeling plaster on the walls, the bright curtains, the library which was sparsely populated now and the wrinkles on P-maushi’s face. This was the very room in which P-maushi had planned the escape of one of her friends who had become a fugitive during The Emergency. Had it gone according to plan, the friend would have escaped through the common door that separated our houses. After a while, P-maushi got up, using her hands for support, and excused herself. She returned from the kitchen with a tall glass of cold coffee. I took slow sips, inhaling the aroma. Some things never change.