I saw her first when I was very little. I don’t even remember my age, I was maybe, seven. Small built and dark , she always seemed to scare me. She had crooked teeth which jutted out of her mouth when she smiled. With sharp cheekbones and wrinkled skin her name was as ugly as I thought her to be, Anaro. I would frequently wonder to myself, what on earth does a name like that even mean? I was disgusted to see her feet which had deep cracks. When she went around the house doing errands, the payal she wore would tinker. All of us knew when she was approaching us. Her husband had died long ago and she had a son, almost as old as me, whom she often brought to work with her. My parents were the liberal sorts and therefore, never stopped me when I played with him. On many evenings I would be found sharing my bicycle with him. No matter how well she cooked or how well she did the household chores, I could never bring myself to liking her and I wanted it to stay that way.
Then one day, when I came back from school and opened the door to my house, I saw her scurry away into the kitchen. She hid something under the delicate folds of her saari. I figured something was wrong. Pretending to be my usual self, I took off my dirty Bata shoes and socks, keeping a close eye on her. Then with my back towards her, I felt her walking towards me. She slowly put something on the table next to me as if it was meant to be there, which only seconds later I realised, was my mother’s coin purse. I waited for mom to come back that afternoon from her work. I would generally be taking a nap otherwise.
When I broke the news to her, I thought she would fire her, almost immediately. But to my surprise, she wasn’t surprised at all. Instead, she told me with a reassuring smile, “India is a poor country. A lot of people are hungry and homeless. There must have been a compelling reason and not greed behind this.” Those words of my mother changed me towards her forever.
Over the years, as I was growing up to face my adolescence, her body was deteriorating, only to be weak and frail. Owing it to the sheer misfortune that had stuck with her as a friend, I never heard of anything good. News would come from a relative of hers, mobile phones were still a luxury then, that she was ill and couldn’t make it to work, or her nephew was sick or someone was on their deathbed. When she resumed work, I would go up to her with my mother’s old saaris hoping to bring some joy to her face. She did smile but I could sense a lot of pain behind those deep dark brown eyes of hers. She had started wearing spectacles and often complained of tooth ache. I even remember trying to teach her how to write her name in English and Hindi both.
I got to hear her sad stories sometimes too. Unluckily, there were many. Like I remember once when she said, her son had stopped going to school and started gallivanting around with useless notorious men, and all her efforts to convince him were going in vain. I could only pray for wellbeing.
I missed her food when I shifted out of my hometown to pursue my graduation. No maid or domestic help could ever match up to the flavour of her food that I had underneath my taste buds. And when I went back home, she would welcome me with so much of love. Tea would come to me even without asking. She knew what I wanted and when I wanted it. She seemed happier. She had become family.
Then over a telephonic conversation, I learnt from my mother that they needed to find a replacement for her. She had suddenly stopped coming. This time, the boy I used to make mud castes with had fallen ill. He was detected of chronic kidney failure, so she was at home nursing him. The damage was far from being cured. Remorse had filled me on hearing that agonizing piece of information. I couldn’t sleep that night.
I visited home only yesterday. The new cook had made my favourite, Rajma Chawal. With the first bite, I gulped down my tears. I wanted to run to her and hug her. With a helpless sigh and a heavy chest, I sat there quietly and ate my lunch, thinking I never got a chance to even say good-bye.