Not many people knew her real name. But a lot many in the town knew that her quiwami siavai and kachchey queemey ke kababs were matchless.
Her assemblage of perfumes and lipsticks could put to shame similar collection of beauty queens.
Her botanical knowledge had the best of horticulturists looking up to her.
Her culinary skills had the most proficient cooks eating out of her hands.
Her expertise in house-keeping could bring insecurity to the biggest names in this profession.
And this was not all...
She was meticulous, systematic and thoroughly devoted to her femininity.
She was Hatchya Begum.
I met Hatchya Begum when she was in her mid-sixties. In my heavily laden treasure of memories the picture of my first meeting with this remarkable woman is enlivening and fresh like the morning dew on rose petals.
It was in the winter of 1983. After Christmas and before New Year. The most festive period in the world. And very special for me as I had just been married!
Hatchya Begum came to meet me as I was recovering from a spell of severe cold and fever. With the most usual feminine instincts, I still remember she was wearing a sober green embroidered sari and a matching long sweater; sophisticated and warm, her fair complexion glowed in the mild winter sun rays sifting through the spotless glass windows, while her strawberry-red lipstick set her lips on fire. The room filled abundantly with the fragrance of her imported perfume. Her long jhumkas studded with emeralds and the matching neck-piece was perhaps a heirloom. A small clove-like gold ornament adorned her nose and her large eyes looked at me from behind the clear glasses set in a golden frame, perched elegantly on her nose.
I was informed that she lived next door and our houses had a common wall running through the courtyard. She was to become my closest and most affectionate sympathiser in the years to come as her constrained longing for my well being became very evident with the passage of time. She gave me useful tips to ease the process of settling down in a completely new environment after marriage.
Her advices to me on housekeeping, cooking and even carrying myself according to place and occasion came with such superb tact that they seemed casual noting made very effortlessly. She invariably satisfied my ego showering me with praises, specially if some guests were around.
Her husband, a retired officer of the government of India, a thoroughly devoted educationist was respected by everyone for his professional expertise and honesty. Even after his retirement, he kept himself involved in issues related to education, that was his passion as he worked till his last breath for the cause of women education. His command over Urdu and English was impeccable, so much so that he guided local writers in their work. He was instrumental in making many a rich and spoilt brats in town become decent and successful householders excelling in business and personal affairs alike.
Marrying such a remarkable man, who solved problems as if they were playthings that entertained him, was perhaps the best thing that happened to Hatchya Begum. While he allowed her the freedom to grow as an individual, he was always there for her, looking after her as if she was an infirm child. All her desires within the limits of his pay-packet were fulfilled. And so is it any wonder that Hatchya Begum's demands never crossed that limit!
By the time I met them, they had become an exemplary couple, so much so that the completeness of their love was not captive to its culmination into their parenthood.
Their marriage seemed so intensely blissful and they were so profoundly in love with each other that their togetherness truly defined what a marriage should really be like. But is it easy to have such a fulfilling bond of fondness that grew stronger with passing each day? Certainly not. How patiently and tactfully Hatchya Begum and her husband must have worked to become the commendable couple that they were. Their mutual understanding was legendary, the kind that one comes across in make-believe stories and films.
She loved shopping;he liked to earn, without a grudge, enough for her to spend.He had a passion for food; she saw to it that every meal on their dining table turned out to be a feast. He fussed over her smallest requirement. She bought for him lovely gifts.
Being with Hatchya Begum was always a wonderful experience. Her happiness and contentment with her own self oozed out like a soothing balm and she spread a sense of cheer all around her. One of her greatest attributes was that she never spoke ill of anyone. In fact I have this very firm belief that she avoided speaking about people who had made her unhappy or those whom she did not like. She talked (often repeating herself many times over) about the joyous experiences with family, friends, and even servants, animals and plants that had brought her pleasure. She could go on eternally talking of the various species in flowering shrubs, ways of cooking fish in unusual spice combination or doing extraordinary patterns in knitting and crochet, but one hardly ever caught her back-biting!
There was not an invitation that she did not honour. Dinners, lunches, mendhi ceremonies, marriage celebration, birthday parties, "milad" gatherings. From the most powerful and richest in town to the modest and poorest, whoever conferred upon her the distinction of being lovable and special, she returned the gesture with equal graciousness.
Tell her a secret and it got buried deep inside her, like a coral in the deep sea bed. While you unburdened yourself, you also had the satisfaction that your secret was safe with her!
Hatchya Begum was like Spring time : full of youthful energy, so much in love with life, so warm and vibrant. She made trivialities seem special and important.It was this quality that endeared her to many. She never missed an opportunity that life presented. And as I look back I think her strongest trait was that she loved whatever she did. The elaborate arrangement that went in to planning a journey, or preparing for the day ahead over a cup of tea in the verandah after a refreshing morning walk were equally important and enjoyable for her. She celebrated every moment that she lived.
Too good to be true?
Indeed one might think so. After all perfection is the virtue of God. But Hatchya Begum was a mortal human being. So she was not perfect too. She had her share of shortcomings.
Some wise man has said:
"The purpose of a relationship is not to have another who might complete you; but to have another with whom you might share your completeness".
If this be true, then Hatchya Begum's greatest shortcoming was her near-total lack of an ability to sustain in life all by herself. She could not tolerate loneliness. She perhaps did not feel complete within herself. This would have devastated her after the death of her dearest husband as she fought to breathe in the suffocating vaccum that came into her life after that grievous loss.
She however displayed astonishing fortitude and surprised everyone by coming to terms with realities of life. She did not break down while taking the most painful decision of her life: to leave the house that she shared with her husband and move to another city to live with her nephew and his family.
One by one she started sorting out things, each of which was as dear to her as one's own child. Things that she and her husband had purchased over more than fifty long years to make a home for themselves. There were those items too which till some time back were indispensable to Hatchya Begum's existence: her enviable collection of lipsticks, face creams, perfumes...and bangles. Lots of glass bangles in every colour that one could think of, jingling pleasantly.
But much of her possessions had to be discarded and each time she gave one of her cherished treasure to someone, she grew emotionally stronger and moved one step forward in learning to live without the protective sheild of her husband's love.
For a long time after she left, her house remained unoccupied. But then we got new neighbours. A young couple with two small children. The place came to life once again, but never got back the glorious days it had seen when the aged and childless Hatchya Begum and her husband had occupied it.
Hatchya Begum had another uniquely gratifying quality too. She liked to bring people together and let new friendships blossom. It was therefore a great contentment to have her over with us as she decided to spend some time in the city that meant the world to her. By some sheer coincidence it was around the same time that I had met her the first time.
A lot had changed since then. Hatchya Begum had had three fractures in both her legs, her eyes and ears were not as sharp as they used to be. Age had weakened her body, but her spirit to remain happpy and lively was still like a gushing mountain stream. She loved life and so she loved people too. In return people loved her.
Hatchya Begum always seemed at peace with herself. Yet by quite a queer paradox she also seemed to be searching something constantly. I never asked about her unfulfilled desires because for me she was a celebration of womanhood in its totality.
As charming and enchantingly unique as her name!