I saw her only during my occasional visits to my mother’s ancestral house. Perhaps, missing another tooth or two when she laughed. Even the presence or absence of the teeth did nothing to change the peculiar sound she made. She would let her tongue stick to her palate and then pull it away. I figured it out after a lot of trial and error. But I still couldn’t get the exact sound she made. That sound was her way of saying many things: yes, I know, what a pity, don’t tell me, really?
I am not sure when I realised that she was a servant. I called my gandmother muthi. Adding Lakshmi’s name before muthi was a way to acknowledge that her status was low enough for everyone else to call her by her name. Only we children were expected to add the muthi in deference to her age. No that anyone knew her age.
When you hear the harsh sound of the broom on the gravel along with the crows and the cocks, you know that Lakshmimuthi has started her day. You rub the sleep out of your eyes, go to the verandah and you get to see her sprinkling cow dung water. My knees owed a lot to the cushioning provided by the dried cow dung.
She just wore one mundu and she was not really bothered if it did not cover the upper part of her wrinkled body. She had outgrown modesty. The upper portion of the mundu had other uses. It helped her carry the vessel in which my grandmother gave her hot kanji. It was an umbrella in the sun. And if she ever caught me getting wet in the rain, it became a towel that vigorously rubbed the water out of my hair. Of course, nobody else in the family knew about the occasional soggy but delicious sarkaramuttai (jaggery sweet) that the same mundu concealed, just for me.
Her earlobes hung loose like swings. I loved pulling those. She didn’t mind as long as it didn’t get too painful or my antics got me in her way.
One place where I had no access was the thozhuththu (stable) when she went there to milk the cow. The cow was bad tempered and didn’t particularly care for human company. Lakshmimuthi was the only exception. So I would watch her from a safe distance, absently plucking green pepper beans from the creeper that went up the huge mango tree.
For the women of the house, the children of the family were the same as the family laundry for washing. Both were gathered up and taken along as the ladies went to the river for their bath. Now that I think of it, there was a bathroom in the house. It was in a dark corner and used to store coconuts. In any case, who wants a bathroom when there is the whole Bharathapuzha to dip in.
How I loved that river! No, I never knew how to swim. The children were always given their wash first and made to wait as the ladies finished their washing and bathing. I would sit on one of the boulders and dip my legs in the flowing water. It formed such nice ripples. And the fish would come and nibble at my toes. It felt so ticklish! Those were my best moments with the river. It was one of those moments that revealed another facet of Lakshmimuthi.
That day, it was late evening when we went to the river. I was on the boulder after my bath, throwing flat stones into the river to make them skip across the water. In the process I slipped and spalshed into the water. The water must not have been deep but by the time my mother pulled me out, I had swallowed half the river and was in some state.
As soon as we reached back home, I was presented to Lakshmimuthi. Even before she heard the full story, she took hold of me and made me lie on her lap. Somebody brought bhasmam (holy ash) and she started her oodhal ritual. She would mutter something under her breath and then blow the bhasmam on my head and forehead. Her fingers went over my body from head to toe, picked up a pinch of bhasmam and blew it forcefully into the air. She was ridding my body of fear. If she didn’t do that I was sure to come down with fever. Soon I realised that she was not just chanting mantras. “These ladies don’t know anything…. what was the need to go for a bath so late. The child got frightened at sandhya samayam (dusk). This is the time of the evil. May nothing happen to my child. Phoo!”
I cannot forget the smell. It was her old lady smell combined with that of the bhasmam. It was the smell of assurance, concern and love. I never felt safer in my life.
Then during one visit, I found Lakshmimuthi gone. She had been asked to go. The family was splitting up. They were afraid she was being advised by “communists” to stay in the outhouse and not to vacate it. I didn’t understand any of that. I first thought she had died. But Lakshmimuthi cannot die.
As long as the world has silly children falling into the river, there would be Laksmimuthis to blow the evil away. They just go on. I have stopped seeing her, hearing her. But there are still times, when her smell of reassurance wafts from somewhere to whisper “It’s all right. Close your eyes and pray. Phoo!” Then everything becomes all right.