She lived an inconspicuous life. When she passed away, except for the people who lived with her and loved her, few others may even have noticed. If her obituary were to be written, it would be difficult to write more than that she was a wonderful human being. For though she made a difference and contributed to the world in the way she was meant to and perhaps born for, she didn’t leave behind a husband, a child, a fat bank balance, a legacy or a controversy. What she did contribute would not, in conventional terms, be regarded as noteworthy. She was simply Mothibai (elder woman). To date, I don’t know what her real name was. I regret that I did not bother to find out then. As a child, I took everything at face value and did not bother my head with the back stories of people. It just wasn’t necessary. My close childhood friend, whose aunt she was, always addressed her by her nickname. So did her sister and my friend’s other aunts and uncles and relatives and visitors and servants. I just followed the tradition.
She was dark, the colour of bitter chocolate and her smile was the sweetest and the most genuine I’ve ever seen. When she laughed, she looked like a naughty child. And, she laughed often. She was short. Diminutive. Almost dwarfish. Her skin shone like it had been soaked and saturated in oil and then polished to perfection, leaving no traces of the oil but only a silky sheen. She had large crooked teeth and when she opened her mouth, you could almost see them all, and her slightly blackish gums too. I don’t know if she ever went to school but I often saw her sitting on a wooden stool in the veranda of the house leafing through a Marathi newspaper. She could read. Occasionally, her eyes darted from the news to the road below, the people passing by, a peddler, a barking dog. But, nothing took her away from her chores at the appointed hour. You could set your own clock in sync with the chore she did at that particular moment. If you met Mothibai at the corner of the building that led to Matunga market, you could bet it was 4.00 pm. She always carried a couple of clean, ironed cloth bags, that swung lightly on her right arm. She wore simple but lively nine yard starched saris, a long pleated portion of which was pulled up between her legs and secured at her waist just above her buttocks. Her thick black hair was combed back neatly, braided and coiled into a tight circular, flat bun. Her face looked mattefied by the thin layer of talcum powder she applied on her face.
If you were served tea in the afternoon at her home, it had to be 2.45 pm. If you chanced upon her polishing the 50-odd brass handles, bolts, hinges on the many doors and windows in the house and wiping the dust on the artefacts, it had to be the hour between 7.30 and 8.30 in the morning. When the aroma of delicious food greeted your nostrils at her door, you had to see her cooking with her tiny hands. She served lunch a little after noon and dinner at 8 pm. Dried clothes were folded and put away in cupboards immediately after tea-time. All through summer, winter and monsoon, her routine remained unchanged. I never saw Mothibai fall ill. At the most, she complained of a cold. During such days, she covered her head with a woollen scarf and wore a hand-knitted woollen blouse, till her nose stopped running.
I wasn’t informed of her death. When I heard much later that Mothibai was no more, I sat in silence for a long time. All I could remember was the love and affection with which she greeted me and treated everyone, whether they were human, vegetables or objects. Her father, the erstwhile principal of the hallowed Sir J J School of Art had immortalised her in a painting. I remember standing in front of her portrait and admiring the talent of the artist, my friend’s grandfather and then looking at Mothibai, who was watching me fondly and gasping at the life in the painting. Even the slight squint in Mothibai’s right eye had been captured so perfectly, it was like looking at a clone.
Life continues in my friend’s house. Tea is prepared every morning and every afternoon. The aroma of food wafts through the air too. Only, the rhythm has changed, the tune is different too. It is less peaceful, more erratic, less even-paced, more urgent, less relaxed, more hurried. The brass doesn’t shine any more. Mothibai didn’t win medals for existing. That was what she did. She existed. She breathed. She lived. Fully, simply, rhythmically. With her small hands and short stature, she rose to every occasion in the house, standing tall, holding the family together with her love and warmth. She had no ambition, no money but, I suspect, far greater riches than we can hope to hoard. She had no worries. She slept well. And, she’s the only person I know whose smile reached her eyes.