On my second day in Mumbai, I’d gone with a friend to look at paying guest houses, for somewhere I could live for my time here.
The last flat we visited was a 2BHK in Bandstand, near Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow. We knocked on the heavy door on the second floor and a small old woman opened it, smiled an empty-mouthed smile. She welcomed us in. When we left 15 minutes later after seeing the room, Aunty told my friend “Don’t bring her anywhere else. Bring her here only.” And I knew already that I would go there only.
Ashraf Aunty stands 4’10, and has warm black eyes. She’s 65 years old, and moves around slowly but determinedly. She has few teeth and so speaks with a bit of a lisp, which makes it hard for me to understand her Hindi: a third language for both of us.
Since I moved in two weeks ago, I’ve learned bits and pieces of Aunty’s story. She was married at fourteen to a man twelve years her senior. She travelled extensively with her husband, telling me about visits to the Grand Canyon and to Niagara Falls, feeling the spray from the falls from a kilometer away. Aunty has two grown, married sons, one of which picks her up every day to go to Masjid in the evening.
Aunty spends the days moving about the house and praying. She multitasks, sitting on a chair and counting rosary beads as she supervises the maid, scrubbing clothes on the bathroom floor. In this shared house, everyone’s space belongs to everyone else. One day, Aunty was in the room where I sleep, to use the big mirror. I sat on the bed, watching her. She stood in a worn turquoise nighty and chattered to me while applying a beauty mask to her face in the mirror. Yellow cream against her brown skin. She was speaking about her late husband, who passed away six years earlier.
“Jab voh mar gaye the, upar gaye the, to mere ko bahaut depression ho gaya tha…” she shakes her head, eyes wide as though she’s sharing something without saying it, something she’d like to say but doesn’t have the words for. Aunty’s arms up to her shoulders are covered with severe burns: her right hand doesn’t work anymore. There are burns around her neck also, and maybe more that cannot be seen because of her nighty. Her tiny feet are unblemished, perfect.
I asked about her husband, what kind of man he was, wondering.
“Mera husband ek dum decent admi the, bahaut mehenat, bahaut sahi rehte the.” She crossed her hands, looks upward.
“Isiliye mai ne decide kar liya na, ki… akeli rehne to achha nahi hai… mai aise nahi rahe pai.” She explained that she was advised to invite young women as paying guests into her home, to have a regular monthly income and somebody to talk to. That was two years ago. Today, five girls (myself included) live with Aunty in her two bedroom flat by the sea.
In her home, there’s only one rule: no men in the house. We are all women here, I have so many pretty young girls who stay here, explains Aunty.
“Larkiyan ke liye security bahaut zaruri hai, safety sabse zaruri hai.” She doesn’t want any risk, so no men are to cross the door’s threshold: even Aunty’s sons. Other than that, the girls are allowed to come and go as they please, at any time of day or night.
I gave Aunty a chocolate bar that someone had given to me. She refused, saying NO, NO. I know that she loves chocolate.
“Aunty, if you didn’t take care of me then who would?” I charm her.
“Ye mera kaam hai, tumhari khayal rakhne! I am like Mother, na?” she flutters her hands, refusing but laughing.
“Haan, to agar aap Ma hai, to ye bhi mera kaam hai!” I put the chocolate in her hands and touched her feet, laughing also.
“Thankyou thankyou, godblessyou.” she gave in.
“And God bless you Aunty.”