She walked early in the morning, every day, to church all by herself except once in a while when the children at home felt need for holiness. From narrow lanes bordered with clean dry gutters on one side, she emerged on to the road thinly peopled by early birds. On she walked briskly, stopping to talk only if it was absolutely necessary, with holy thoughts and the day’s work on her mind.
She knew all those she met on the way, either by sight or personally. The pebble and potholes and palm trees and roadside taps and lamp posts too were her acquaintances. Some were welcome sights she had come to like over time, some she took for granted, and some others didn’t really take her fancy, especially those stones against which she banged her shoes while lost in some thought of hers, mostly holy.
“Oh this blessed cold,’’ she said one day when she accidentally stepped into a pothole while sneezing. Her frock was clean, her shoes decent, her scarf modest.
She was a teacher in a local school and had taught all the people in her town who had made it big. Her job she did well, without pretensions, with no unnecessary assumptions. Though she stayed with a big family, with whom she was very distantly related, she was alone in a room she had: it was the end room. And she loved all the children in the family having none of her own. Loneliness she felt at times but never had the time to brood over it, what with the meat which had to be minced, or the fish that was frying.
Between her daily morning visits to the church lay the day and night which had to be tackled, that space had to be filled. And so she occupied herself with tuitions and the house-hold. Her students would be busy with their math at the dining table — that being the study room — while she would dart into and out of the kitchen to get the best results out of both the worlds. Before the tuitions started she would go to the market after church for the vegetables, fish, meat and everything else for the kitchen. Now there was not much time to be wasted in idle conversation with shop keepers whom she’d known all her life; still one had to say those few things for decency’s sake if not friendship. On the way back from church or from the market she squeezed in those precious moments with friends and acquaintances keeping abreast of each other’s lives.
Back at home there would be heaps of work. One had to see to it that this big family had food served at the table itself, right on time. There were the office-goers, kids coming home from school during lunch break, kids refusing to go to school; there were specifications in some cases, and last but certainly not least, the dogs — three of them had to be fed. Food had to be cooked for them too. She was not the sole hand running the show, in fact she was not really necessary for things to get done but she played her role actively and with great responsibility, never once grumbling, always with kind words advocating restraint.
In the afternoon, when all the din of the morning and lunch had settled down, she would seat herself at a corner of the drawing room from where she could see the passersby, through the iron gate of the house and read something. It could be the newspaper, some nice story or merely some scrap of paper lying around. Sometimes she would have a short conversation with the family’s grandmother, whom she’d known as a girl. They had been in school together. They would chat about the events of the morning, the markets, the soaring prices. As they discussed the changing times they both couldn’t comprehend, they said to each other “what you got to say chel.’’
When the grandmother, her childhood friend, would go for her siesta she’d doze on her favourite chair for a while.
Evenings were busy with more tuitions. When she was young and healthy, she walked long distances to reach kids, but later when age made that difficult she used to have her tuitions at home.
Night saw her relaxed and peaceful, more than the day. There she would sit, on one of the chairs, or on a sofa listening to the conversation the family indulged in, adding her bit when called for, running into the kitchen now, now going out to see why the dogs were barking.
So her days passed, in loneliness and peace, prayer and solitude, work and rest, health and disappointment. Few were those who hadn’t seen her in that part of the town where she lived and the other parts where her tuitions took her. Many saw her, but took no notice of her, giving her the importance of some regular sight in their lives. Yet many others knew her as their teacher, a few as a regular customer, some as a friend. Through all those lives she passed as a modest presence never demanding more than was her due.