Skinny, her bones floating beneath her sari, Rukmini (or “Rukku”, as they called her downstairs) was the most annoying domestic-help we’ve ever had. She would grab my cheeks, pull them like rubber tyres, and take a few ‘affectionate’ digs at me. She’d top these up with a toothy, annoying smile. I detested it.
Years passed, she didn’t change one bit. I went to boarding school, grew up, and returned home (a tad bit more mature) to the same Rukku. This time, I could deal with her annoying habits. In fact, I could look beyond it. She now worked at my grandmother’s in the evenings. I would see her every once in a while, very rarely. She would still orchestrate her regular routine on me; the cackling, teasing, galling theatrics and all of that. But it didn’t really bother me. I would smile, restrainedly, back at her. Withholding reaction, while she did whatever she used to, made me think. A few weeks fell by and, every time I saw her, my thoughts dug deep and beyond the exterior of her personality.
Behind her histrionics, I could see a thriving sense of unity and non-apprehension. She would strike a conversation with just about anyone, completely unforced and in a ruthlessly random fashion. Rukku’s rustic eccentricity was famed through the neighborhood. However, while with someone, the milkman or her employer, she managed to command rapt attention. No word crossed that yellow grin unnoticed.
Whether at home, in my granny’s kitchen, with the drivers downstairs or alone on the road, her smile would always be more than prominent. In the circumstances she seemed to live in, there was something about her unfailing grin which told me she was either a person of incredible wisdom or an idiot. You know which conclusion I opted to settle with.
Needless to say, she was poor (poorer than you can imagine). She would work in a few houses in the neighborhood and earn just enough to survive a few days. To earn some spare income, she would collect old scraps of plastic from the neighborhood and sell them to a local vendor. Her husband had left her and I believe her son had disowned her as well. There were days she went without a meal. On some of those days, she would come to my granny’s and feed on the day’s leftovers.
Every now and then, my mother would visit my granny after work. Rukku would make an appearance, literally from nowhere, seat herself on the porch and vigorously put together a garland of jasmines for my mother. While stringing the garland, she would either let loose with some noisy folk song or would laugh and tell stories of our mutual past which only she seemed to remember. In return, mum would give her a few bucks for which her gratitude would know no bounds.
On Diwali, mum always made it a point to buy her a sari and a box of sweets. On receiving them, her glee would gush out with full force and she would thank and bless mum for minutes thereafter. I must mention here that she never failed to save a special blessing for me! Always a paragraph long, or more.
It’s been two years since I left boarding school and returned home. With college, freelancing and AIESEC, I’ve barely gotten time to visit my granny as often as I used to; even if I do, never in time to see Rukku. Once in a while, Dhanush Anna (our driver) and I would pass by the neighborhood and we would see her on the road, giggling at a passersby or, more often, at herself. We would watch her and crack jokes at the hilariously eccentric woman that she is and has always been.
After a marathon day at college and a long meeting with colleagues, I returned home this evening, ready to collapse. I made my way to my bedroom and sat myself on a chair when mum walked in and asked me, “Ani, you remember Rukmini, don’t you?”
“Rukku-who!?”, I wondered…
“Rukmini, the lady who worked at Paati’s house!”
“Oh ya! I remember. What about her?”
Before I could even muster the voice to ask her how, I was told that she killed herself.
I had barely seen Rukku for months. I had almost forgotten about her, in fact. But when I heard this shocker of a news from mum, my throat lost its voice and my eyes started to swell.
Poverty had driven Rukku to a miserable state. She was found two days ago with tilak on her forehead, begging beside the local temple for food. Starvation and poverty loomed over her existence with no respite, pushing her ever closer to the edge of the cliff. Having lost all faith, she chose to take her final jump by downing a can of kerosene.
Rukku wasn’t someone so dear to me and I can find absolutely no reason to see myself grieve as much as I am right now. There are a few fundamental lessons I have come to appreciate through the years which have defined the beliefs and personality that I embosom: to keep smiling, to not lose responsibility over my own life and to not build walls, but to demolish them and break free. Rukku was the first person I met who exemplified these values in undiluted measure. To pay acknowledgement to this fact after her death, to understand that she was subtly instrumental in influencing some of my deepest beliefs, is an overwhelming feeling. Why couldn’t I appreciate this before? I feel guilty. And my guilt causes me to grieve.
The wise Kabira once said, “When you were born, you were weeping and the world rejoiced; live your life in such a way that you leave with a smile, while the world pines at your departure…”
The day before her body was cremated, the entire neighborhood gathered to pay tribute. One after another, garlands and flowers mounted her skinny body. What they failed to acknowledge during her lifetime, they did as they chose the freshest and brightest garlands to adorn her grinning corpse.
When someone dies, they must be prayed for.
Wherever she is, may she be blessed and may her smile continue to triumph.