She asked me to help her get down from her metal cot. I was surprised. She had told me only minutes ago that she had a severe backache, and her knees ached every day too. But I obeyed. I helped her sit down on the floor, near her tiny stove. It was a very small hut-like house. One metal cot, a few pictures hung here and there, one dim bulb. There was a huge aluminium trunk on one end. Inside it were treasures: photographs, appreciation letters, and gifts.
Her helper Sharmishta had just brought fresh milk. Mala chai banav Ajj (let me make chai grandmother), I managed in broken Marathi. Nako, she said flatly. Within minutes, she was brewing chai for my mother and me.
This amazing (for a lack of an appropriate adjective) woman was Mukta Ajji to me and my siblings, and Mukta Akka (elder sister) to my mother and her sisters. Not by blood ofcourse. But by the love that binds every direct and indirect member of what’s called Mukti Mission (and Mukti in short). As you read this, her body would have been laid to rest at the 120-year-old cemetery in the campus of Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission in Kedgaon, Maharashtra.
When a homeless Mukta found shelter in Mukti
She was no ordinary woman. She chose to live a life of humility and mundane. She was a selfless mother, a friend and a guide to my mother, to my aunts and to hundreds of orphan and homeless women who sought shelter at Mukti. How did she find this shelter?
There are several stories about this, and none of us in the family ever cared about which one was true. We didn’t ask her directly. The service and love she showered on our mothers was a big enough favour for us children to last a lifetime. We just knew from the staff that she was only 18 years old when she sought shelter at Mukti. Mukta was thrown out of her house for some reason that nobody really bothered to find out. That’s because the one principle that Mukti Mission stood about was this – it was to be a shelter for the homeless whatever their past.
The guardian angel of the Coral Family
Mukta Ajji’s first ever job was to milk the cows that were reared at Mukti’s animal husbandry department. And she was efficient. She could milk 40 litres singlehandedly every morning and evening. The staff was so pleased with her work that they gave her more important responsibilities such as cooking meals in the kitchen or taking care of the infants at the ward.
Eventually, Mukta Ajji heard about the love of Jesus Christ. She finally understood the purpose of coming to Mukti – to know Christ personally. Now she was anxious and desperate for Christ. But she was illiterate. Finally her urge to read more about Christ got the better of her and she began to learn. Ever since she began reading, not a day passed by when Mukta Ajji didn’t start her day without Bible reading.
My mother’s biological mother had passed away when my mother was eight years old, and her sisters even younger. That’s when their father had put them in Mukti Mission. One of the coolest things at Mukti is whenever any girl joins in, she is put in one of the families that are named after flowers. My mother and aunts were put in the Coral Family. The then Superintendent, happy from Mukta Ajji’s dedication, made her the guardian of Coral Family. Hallellujah. This is how our mothers practically grew up under the care and protection of Ajji. For them, she was practically their mother. All of us children – my brother and I and our cousins – Shakina, Shoked and Sheetal – had the privilege of not only hearing about our dear Ajji’s stories but also getting to meet her from time to time while growing up.
Usha Maushi, my aunt, tells us that one of her favourite memories of Akka was how she would make those wheat papad for them, call them under a huge tamarind tree in the campus and just give away all the papads to the children. In a single family then, they would have 40-50 girls. Ajji didn’t make a distinction between her family’s girls and others. And there used to be more 20 families at a time. That’s how many lives she has touched in almost 80 years.
Mukta Ajji had a timeless advice for me
Mom tells me often that Ajji never ever waivered or doubted when things went wrong. She had a faith that could literally move mountains. Her love for Christ compelled her every day to work selflessly and kindly. She wore an infectious smile that always lightened mood, softened tempers. Always thankful, always positive.
Now picture this. Every time we would come to visit Ajji, we would take sweets or Namkeen or new clothes for her. She would always rebuke us for bringing all this. But before returning, she would give us some of her ration: rice and daal, soaps, talcom powders, tea leaves, Parle-G biscuits. It moved us to tears, every single time.
Unlike most people, Ajji never asked me when I was getting married, except this one time. This was in August 2018, my mother and I paid her a visit. Some formalities at the Mukti Mission counter took almost two hours that day, since we had come without appointment. But Ajji got word that we were coming (she never possessed a mobile phone in her life).
Ajji, a little sick at the time, sat up on her cot and kept sitting in that position for two hours, thinking we could enter her little hut any time. She was advised to rest but that day she didn’t. Why? Because Peru yenaar aahe (Prerna was coming).
When we entered her little and dingy abode inside the Old Age Quarters at Mukti, we both just couldn’t control our tears. Ajji’s eyes were fixed at the door. And the moment we entered, she raised her arms to kiss us. Ajji loved this little house – it was her home since she came to Mukti. The staff asked her to move to a more developed and new Old Age Home inside Mukti premises but she constantly refused. He maajhe ghar aahe, Mala yethe marnaar aahe (This is my home, I want to die here.).
She had a million things to tell us that day. But every time she would finish a story, she would say in fluent Marathi – Khristyane mala vachavle, mi devacha khoob abhaari aahe (Christ saved me, I am so grateful to God). She was grateful that there was Sharmishta to help her, or other elderly women to talk to. Mom told me that there were times she did feel lonely, but she often had visitors – women who lived under her care or their children or their families. Ajji lived for these memories of visits.
Mom informed her that we were in Pune for my cousin Sheetal’s wedding. Sheetal had visited her only a week before with the family of her fiancé Nathan. Ajji was visibly happy for Sheetal. Then suddenly she turned to me and said-
Dev purvato, Kaalji karu naka (God provides, never worry about it).
How in the world did she read my mind? Only God knows. Without making me feel uncomfortable, she said those words and put her hands on my forehead so lovingly that I hugged her crying. And ofcourse, she gave me those goodies as always: a bit of sugar, a packet of tea leaves ( I had told her I loved chai), some biscuit packets for our journey and Tang.
Don’t cry my child
When we turned to leave, she asked me to help her get up. I obeyed again. She took her walking stick, and came to the door. Her helper Sharmishta held her hand. When I turned to see her, she was waiving and smiling at us. I burst into tears. When she saw me crying, she smiled harder and shouted – Radu nakos maajhe mool (don’t cry, my child).
I should have been the one to console her. I should have been the one to tell her that God has a great reward for her in heaven. That in the times of her loneliness, God was holding her always. I should have been the one to tell her that God provides, that He is mighty, that she doesn’t need to fear any evil.
But I didn’t, I couldn’t. How could I say these words to a woman who had literally lived a whole lifetime in the hope of an eternal life? How could I say those words to a woman who denied her “self” throughout her life, kept other’s interests above her own? How could I console a woman who consoled and mothered thousands of orphan girls?
I don’t know why but that day while waiving to her, I had a feeling that I might be seeing her for the last time. In September 2018, we heard that she had a minor heart attack and she was hospitalized at Mukti’s infirmary. She was in intensive care for months. She was eventually shifted to a ward but she was losing her eyesight and hearing ability fast.
When one of Mom’s family’s sisters Vandana visited her, she called my Mom so we could talk to Ajji. But Ajji couldn’t hear us much. That was also the last time we heard her voice. She was in critical condition ever since. When I went to Pune in May 2019, I was told that the staff weren’t allowing visitors because of her failing condition. So I couldn’t meet her and returned from Pune with a heavy heart.
Well done, Mukta Ajji
The elderly women at Mukti testify of Ajji’s kindness. They often say that she has influenced thousands of lives. Her life was a living testimony of how much Christ loved mankind. Mukta Ajji preached the message of Christ from her life, more than her words. She served at Mukti for more than 80 years.
This morning when I heard of her demise, my heart was glad. God had finally relieved her physical suffering.
In my prayer, I asked God to say Hi to Mukta Ajji for me. That’s because I am certain she is with him. I can almost visualize Mukta Ajji, standing at the door of heaven at exactly 7.05 Am Indian Standard (Earthly) Time on September 4th – still smiling and happy and beautiful.
I am sure Jesus would have received her at the door, hugged her tight and said-
Well done, my good and faithful daughter!