Tokobai: a mother, a woman, an old friend

She kissed us warmly goodbye, the smack of her lips ringing in our ears even as we trailed away. We’d turned around — her figure had turned to a speck, but we would still be able to spot a waving hand and a crescent of pearly whites stretched across her face.

When she hugged me, I was caught off guard — had I earned this hug?

Or did she hug others as generously too?

*       *       *

During my time with Drishtee Immersion, we stayed in a village nestled amongst the Western Ghat mountains in Maharashtra, India. Beautiful views of land meeting sky – clouds enveloping green mountaintops, greeted us each day. On our fifth day there, we were given the unique opportunity to learn about rural life. That day was affectionately dubbed, “Family Time.” I was excited to experience the daily routine first hand, to the live the life of the people I was staying with – yet, my day didn’t quite turn out like that. Instead, I met Tokobai. I found warmth and connection in a foreign country, in a village far removed from my daily life. I found the feeling that I was meeting an old friend.

She had married young; womanhood had barely welcomed her. At the raw age of fourteen, Tokobai was sent off to another village—ricocheted into new grass, new fields, new mountains. A new life. She was a beautiful new bride, rocking on the back of a cart, crossing a road for the first and final time.

Tokobai squinted her eyes, swatting away flies. Her gaze fell on the mountains. Our conversation had trailed into marriage, dipping into her daughter, Geeta’s marriage at the ripe age of twenty-one.

“Twenty-five onwards is better,” Tokobai uttered. “You will appreciate marriage better.”

What stories had led to that conclusion?

The unspoken question bulged with answers, with stories of its own.

“If you’re too young, you’re too inexperienced,” she continued. Her gaze remained on the mountains. But whatever hills she’d had to cross, whatever fields, whatever roads — she must have done well.

Her eldest son, now twenty-five, would stay behind on the farm to look after his ageing parents. With a high school education well under his belt, his future was ripe with possibilities. And he chose to return those fruits to his parents.

When asked if they were proud of him, of all he had achieved, he said, “They don’t tell me they are proud. But I can feel it. I know they are.”

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Accompanying Ankush to feed his cows

*       *       *

“Are you happy to be back at home, Geeta?”

A new mother, she flashes her inherited smile and nods. “Yes, I am.”

Her baby was only a month and a half old and adorable. It was tradition for new mothers to return home for the first few months because it was believed that they didn’t possess enough experience to look after their newborns well. And it was little wonder that she was happy to be back home.

Tokobai giggled with the baby, tickling his chin and teased, “Stinky, sticky, time to wash. Make baby smell lovely, lovely.” And he was swept into her arms and transported to the bathroom — a humble corner of the shed, separated by brick walls and a damp floor. She sat on the floor and rolled up her garb. There she gently removed his clothes, revealing a black string tied around his waist. “To keep him safe from the evil eye,” answered the translator. “The black dots on his forehead, and sole of his foot are for the same reasons.”

He was safe in Tokobai’s hands though, as she nestled him between her shins, a makeshift baby bathtub. She poured water over him and began rubbing him with soap. The bubble frothed but was instantly washed away with water. Amidst the bathing, Tokobai sang, “Clean enough for Gunga. Clean enough for Gunga. Clean enough for Gunga” Her hands wrapped him like a blanket, as she turned him around to wash his belly and face. And his eyes, inherited black wells, were protected by Tokobai’s hands.

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Sorting onions with Geeta

*       *       *

In my broken Marathi, I accidentally called her very pretty and her face broke into a smile. Sun-dried creases were transformed into laughter. I corrected my mistake (I’d meant to compliment her dress) and her smile faded from her eyes. Frustration simmered inside of me – I’d hurt her feelings because of some silly language barriers. Later though, I would spot her from the corner of my eye checking her reflection in a small, hand held mirror.

When electricity was working, the inside of her house would light up with fairy lights, tastefully hung along the top of the mud walls. Folded mats were placed neatly beside the front door, alongside sacks of flour. Water collected from the well were stored in aluminium jugs, orderly stacked in a corner of the front room next to the door way to the kitchen. And the kitchen was a small section of their bedroom floor. Bits of this morning’s breakfast preparation were still on plates beside a small stack of dishes waiting to be washed. The chopping board sat ready, near the middle of this quaint kitchen.

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Preparing lunch with Tokobai

Tokobai, like many of the wives and mothers in the village, had a lot of chores to do that day – not only was she preparing meals for guests and her family but she had laundry to wash, onions to sort and water to collect. Yet, while I was completing tasks with her, I’d forget each time that she had a list of to-dos.

I stumbled my way to their well (a pricey investment, but one wisely-chosen). Tokobai nonchalantly strolled ahead, her bare feet accustomed to the muddy paths between their rice-patties. She carried three large aluminium jugs – while I carried one of the smallest ones. Their well was a concrete wall that circled the fifteen-feet deep hole. Metal rods protruded along the top of the waist-high barricade, with ropes wound around each rod. Attached to the rope and floating haphazardly on the water down below, were the same aluminium jugs we had been holding. I watched Tokobai draw the water—her arms pulled swiftly on the rope, her actions so fluid that I hadn’t noticed that the buckets had holes. Only when it was my turn, in my slow, clumsy actions did I notice water pouring out from a slit. I scrambled to salvage what water was left. I splashed even more onto the floor. Yet, Tokobai never batted an eye.

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Laura, Shruti, Tokobai & I collecting water from the well next to Tokobai’s house

She never seemed to be bothered by our antics that we disguised as “help”.

Eager to please her and prove my worth, when I noticed she was hanging laundry, I leapt at the opportunity. I scurried to her side, to a pair of trees bonded by a string tied taut between them. Tokobai noticed my approach; she heard the rhythm-less crunching of gravel and squelching mud. I said to her, “Help! Let me help you!” and signalled my enthusiasm by immediately bending down and lifting a wet shirt from the bucket. I haphazardly stepped my way closer to the laundry line and attempted to fling half of the shirt over the line. She smiled, creases crinkling. The sun and the moon laughed joyfully on her face; her eyes shone with warmth and gentleness; her mouth stretched to reveal a crescent.

tokobai house
Tokobai’s house & farming land set amongst the mountains

*       *       *

So, had I earned her generous hug? Or was it that she always hugged generously?

I just know that what I’d found during my ‘Family Time’ was an unexpected connection that made me want to ask, “Have we met before?”

By Belinda Tang

A tale from rural India by a participant of the Drishtee Immersion program

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Shruti & Tokobai


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