The most preliminary memories I have about Shobhaa atya are about her coming to work in hot summer afternoons clad in dingy sarees. She was a maid by profession, a Muslim by religion but one of the liveliest people by heart I have ever seen. Tangled hair tied in a coarse bun, stained teeth due to constant chewing of beetle leaves, soorma in her eyes and the saree pulled-up way above her stomach – she resembled some “daain” or the witch from old age children stories. Even her tongue was not very sweet as she had a very vernacular accent mix of hindi, Marathi and urdu. But she had distinctively compassionate look in her eyes which made her human and famous among the kids. She called my dad as “dada” or big brother and that way she loved me as her niece.
My grandma (aaji) was a staunch jain old woman and she had strict rules about the general cleanliness and behavior at home. In spite of that, she had no reservations in having Shobhaa atya as a household help. Often, aaji would rant at Shobhaa atya for taking uncalled leave or coming late but many a times I also saw both of them sitting together for a “Paan” session after work. Shobhaa atya worked for lots of homes nearby and she brought lots of hot and breaking news to aaji which would be discussed in details. They would gossip for hours together and aaji would make her tea or lemon juice accompanying paan.
The reason my aaji would never leave her was her discipline in work. The utensils and linen were left gleaming clean after Shobhaa atya had her magical hand rubbed over them. Even the floor and the courtyard would be left spotlessly clean and fresh after her work. Occasionally she also cleaned the water tank and the extra linen like sofa covers, veils and bed-sheets. I would always wonder how a significantly shabby woman like her is able to clean my home so neatly. Half of the times her saree would be wet due to constant working in water. She had cracked feet and wrinkled fingers but she never cared.
Shobhaa atya had an adopted girl named Salma. As Salma was exactly my age, Shobhaa atya would often ask for my old frocks and skirts for her. We played together often and I used to bring her home from her nearby school. Sometimes I used to handover some food, toys and frocks to Salma for which Shobhaa atya would be filled with pride and gratitude for me. I loved to watch her clean the utensils. Her wrinkled hands moving on the pots and plates along with water was a site to remember. There used to a typical rhythm to her work – whether it was her scrubbing shirts and sarees or dipping them in the bucket full of water and moving them round and round like a twister – everything made a pleasure for eye. And I also loved to listen to her words – which I found most amusing. “Ohh salmaa – ja na woh, thoda kaam karun ye” was her usual way of calling her only child.
She stayed at our home for 13 days when my aaji passed away. She cried the most and didn’t take a penny of the work she did in that period. She got Salma married at the age of 16 years. We shifted to our new home and I lost touch with her. At times I got news about salma – that she is having 3 babies and she is staying with shobhaa atya. But later I lost it completely.
It was a couple of days ago that I got a chance to meet Shabhaa atya after so many years again. I had some work with one of the residents of our old colony. While talking, my host, the old uncle sarda told me that Shobhaa is still working at his house. On my request he called her and within 5 mins Shobhaa atya came running down from nowhere. The moment she saw me she just held me into a tight hug. She caressed my cheeks and ruffled my hair. I could see tears flowing down her eyes and she was happy like a mother to see me and more than happy to hear about my wedding.
After the initial moments of surprise and happiness, I observed her in detail – she was more freckled now with the wrinkles showing under her eye and on her neck. But rest of the appearance was exactly the same.
The red teeth, the soorma eyes, the hair and the wet saree tucked a bit high - she had not changed a bit and even her accent was the same.
She immediately started telling our host about the bygone years – about how I used to help her in her work and play with salma. One thing she kept on repeating about me “Kiti motthi zali ki ata lagin pan karte”. She also told me about salma – that she had 6 girls from her first husband which she divorced and now 2 boys and 1 girl from the second husband. Our host joked that soon Salma will be making an entire cricket team. I told her that I was getting married 10 years after her daughter salma. I could not help but wonder how things change and situations change but some people never change. Shobhaa atya promised me to come for the wedding 2 days earlier and I am sure she will be more than happy to help my mom with the house cores. I hope to see her soon – because some people remain in your heart for a lifetime.