Laximbai was bent over when I first saw her. Quite like the sickle she so unassumingly wielded. Frail and with a few missing teeth, you almost passed her over, hardly noticing the frail woman busy at work.
But then something about her struck you. And you turned and of course, it was right there, bright as day — Laximbai wore no blouse under her saree.
Her breasts were wrapped in a pleat of her saree. She seemed not to notice it at all as she sat on her haunches weeding out grass with her iron sickle.
I recall someone once asking her why she chose to forgo of this garment of modesty. Blinking into the sun that shone into her eyes she had replied, “We tribal women have forsaken the blouse for Sita’s sake. When Sita was condemned to live in the forest with her husband Ram, she chanced upon a golden deer and desired its skin to stitch herself a blouse. Ram set out to trap the deer, but in the meanwhile Sita was abducted by Ravan, the famed king of Lanka. And of course, Sita had to forgo her desire to stitch herself a deerskin blouse. It is in Sita’s honor that we have abandoned the practice of wearing a blouse.”
Laximbai was peripatetic and one could encounter her almost anywhere.
From Ghole road, where I lived, up to Karve road where my maternal uncle lived, she could be spotted in one house or the other going about her task of weeding.
The yard or garden patch where Laximbai worked reflected her grit. The most unruly weeds gave in to her sickle. One only had to instruct her to ‘clean up’ a place and she would leave it spic and span. You could almost eat off the soil after Laximbai had worked there.
Small built and seemingly frail, she had the capacity to work almost non-stop through the day. She hardly ever spoke, there was so much work to do after all in the gardens and yards. At the end of the day she would collect her wages and would be ecstatic if she got something over and above what was promised.
There was an earthiness to her, something very raw, like the earth she worked upon. You could smell the whiff of honest labour as she walked past, smiling her shy, broken toothed smile.
Laximbai was a forager of sorts.
If she came across dry wood or fallen branches she would explicitly seek permission to carry them home where they could be burnt as fuel.
In a city full of changing fashions and marked by a sense of cultivated modesty, Laximbai held on steadfastly to her tribe’s commitment made to Sita. Neither inclement weather nor disapproving stares burdened with the ‘mission of civilising’ daunted her.
I wonder what happened to her.
Did she continue to work in some unkempt garden, letting out a squirt of her mishri every now and then? Did she give up working at some point? Did she go back to the distant tribal land from where she came?
Or like Sita, whom the benevolent earth finally took into her fold, did Laximbai also find a quiet spot somewhere, where she finally lay herself down to sleep?