A Maid, A Muslim, A Mother…Shobhaa Aunty Crossed All These Boundaries Of Identity

For some women, life is not easy. Yet, they inspire us with their extraordinary compassion and generosity. Here is one such story.

For some women, life is not easy. Yet, they inspire us with their extraordinary compassion and generosity. Here is one such story.

The earliest memories I have of Shobhaa aunty are about her coming to work in the hot summer afternoons clad in a dull saree. Tangled hair tied in a coarse bun, dark skin, stained teeth because of the paan, soorma in her eyes and the lousy saree pulled-up – she resembled a witch as shown in children’s stories of old. Her voice was hoarse and with a unique accent mix of Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, it was not a pleasant sound. But her eyes wore that distinctively compassionate and motherly look which defied her appearance and made her hugely popular among the kids. She was a maid by profession, a Muslim by religion and one of the liveliest and gentlest people at heart.

Shobhaa aunty regarded my father and all the other men of our society as ‘Dada’. So invariably, she became a ‘Bua’ to all of us kids from the colony. My grandma (Aaji) was a staunch old Jain woman and was strictly against allowing any ‘non-Jain’ inside her home.  But in spite of that, I always wondered what made her get along with Shobhaa aunty so well. Many a times I saw both of them together for a paan session – Aaji sitting on her Diwan and Shobhaa aunty sitting and smiling by her feet after work. Shobhaa aunty worked for almost all of the homes in our colony and was by default privy to private family details. She would animatedly tell everything to Aaji which would be then analyzed in detail with a burst of laughter. I realized, theirs was a relation beyond religion – of humanity, love and affection. And Shobhaa aunty lived it to the fullest.

Shobhaa aunty was absolutely brilliant at her work. The pots, utensils, laundry would be always left spotlessly clean. Occasionally she also cleaned the water tank, the courtyard, the windows, the grills and sometimes also helped dad with his gardening – but not a word of complaint would leave her mouth. I immensely enjoyed watching her do the laundry. Her scrubbing and cleaning had a unique rhythm and I would be glued to it. I would always wonder how this weak, shabby woman could possess the strength to carry on and on so rigorously.

Once, I overheard her telling Aaji her story. She was a part of the old aristocratic society which treated women like rags. Married very young and without education, she realized very early that her husband was an alcoholic. Soon after her marriage, he left his job and was idle at home. Constant physical and mental abuse became an everyday affair and to add to it, they had no money. So just like hundreds of other women, she started working as a house maid. Later she was content that she could run her house with her own earnings but I felt that her suffering and pain gave her that inhuman strength. After all, her hard physical work was an elixir to her pitiful existence back home.

She had a very strong maternal instinct – hard to miss when she showered all of us kids with her love and affection all the time. She got one big blow when she realized that she could not conceive. But so strong was her desire to have her own baby that defying all the customs, restrictions and fears of the time, she adopted a baby. And that too a girl. This was an absolutely rebellious act done by a poor Muslim woman in a small town of India in the mid-eighties where everyone knew everyone else.

She faced severe criticism. Many people from her community boycotted her and she also had to change a couple of houses owing to the constant threat to her life. But fortunately, her husband was supportive and she raised her daughter happily. It was a treat to hear Shobhaa aunty shout, “Ohh Salma – ja na woh, thoda kaam karun ye” in her typical hoarse voice. She was proud of the fact that I treated Salma as my own sister and always asked for my books for her.

We changed home after some years and I lost touch with her. Often, I received news about her in bits and pieces. Her husband had passed away some years ago. Salma had got married and was living happily with three children. But nothing was clear and I was hoping to meet her. It was difficult to find out about her whereabouts when the last contact was some ten years ago.

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I recently traced Shobhaa aunty with the help of one of our old friends still living in my hometown. She has aged now with a couple of those stained teeth missing. She is still working, a little tired, but with her enthusiasm and compassion still intact. She cried with delight when she saw me and gave my daughter 500 rupees. It must be a significant part of the income from one of the houses where she works, I thought. But no one can beat her at generosity. She looked content and peaceful.

Her life has been one big struggle; the scarred feet, the wrinkled hands, the failing eye sight all proof of that. But in all of its aspects, her life has been an inspiration – in humanity, compassion and sheer love. It is women like her who, in spite of their several personal griefs and pains, stand tall and keep on giving and spreading love with their withered hands and enlightened hearts.

For all these women, I pray, “May their faith grow manifold and also encompass insignificant mortals like us.” Amen.

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