As I walk into the Ramji Mandir mohallah in Satta Hall area in Unjha, a small town in north Gujarat, I feel excited and apprehensive at the same time. Will Jashodaben Modi, the wife of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, agree to meet me?
She lives with her brother, Ashok Modi, in a simple two-storeyed house. The house must have been painted in a shade of yellow many years ago. Today, the walls don't show a trace of paint. Neighbours and shop owners in the vicinity whisper, "Inke to bhaagya khul gaye (Fortune has smiled upon them). We have heard they have received a few crores." But the reality in front of my eyes makes me doubt the credibility of these statements.
Everyone knows the lady in question leads a spartan, quiet existence, spending a large part of her day in prayers. She has simple meals (that too after offering food to street dogs and cows) and visits various shrines. She gets a monthly pension of around 14,500 rupees as a retired schoolteacher.
Would she want to visit Delhi and stay with her husband? "Why wouldn't she? Which woman would not want to stay with her husband? But nothing is certain at the moment," says Daksha Modi, wife of her nephew, who lives with the family. This young woman in her mid 20s is fiercely protective about her aunt-in-law.
As I approach Ashok for time with his sister, Daksha is quick to point out that I need to show my press credentials first. The Modis, by now seasoned veterans in handling media attention, even ask about my newspaper's all-India readership and the centres from which this article will be published.
Ashok scans a local daily, looking for pictures that were taken a day before - of him and Jashodaben when they went to the Bahucharaji Mata temple at Becharaji, 40 km away. The media had found out about Jashodaben's visit to the place and the local 'paparazzi' had tried to photograph them. He is relieved that no photos have been published. "We don't want to bask in reflected glory. We don't want to see our pictures in the newspapers. Narendra Modi is a big man. His life and ours are completely different," he says.
But much has actually changed for the Modi family in Unjha. Jashodaben is recognised everywhere she goes and receives fan mail from all corners of the country. This unusually reticent woman is slowly getting pulled into leading a very public life. Her recent presence at a condolence meeting in Gandhinagar in memory of Union minister Gopinath Munde was her first public event.
"She felt that Munde had served the country well, so she attended the condolence meeting. There is nothing more to it," claims Daksha. The family is vehement that there was no political agenda behind the visit.
All this while, I have been unable to spot Jashodaben in the house. We are sitting in a 6 feet by 8 feet living room, which doubles as Ashok's kirana store. "Jashodaben is not in the house, she has gone to a nearby temple for her daily prayers," Daksha tries to dissuade me. As I ask her how far the temple is, she cautiously responds, "You won't find her there as well." She desperately adds, "Even if you find her, she can't talk because she is on a maun vrat today."
I decide to visit the temple anyway, only to learn that Jashodaben had indeed been there in the morning, but had left some time back. Nearby shop-owners tell me, "Is the car waiting outside the house? Then she is definitely inside." The white Force Motors Trax parked at the house is now a part of Jashodaben's life, apart from the two police constables in plain clothes posted outside the house.
The pair in civvies is as taciturn as their charge, one of them even going to the extent of denying being a policeman. An old friend of Jashodaben, and her neighbour of 15 years, sympathises, "She cannot come out of the house much these days; there is too much media interest in her. Earlier, she used to sit and chat with us for hours." And after being assured that she will not be quoted or photographed, the old friend adds, "Jashodaben is one of the most pleasant and simple women I have come across. She has spent her entire life praying and he (Modi) has been thus blessed. She is partly the reason behind his meteoric rise."
Apparently, the 62-year-old retired schoolteacher has not eaten rice or worn chappals in the past 35 years. She once said she would do both when her husband became the prime minister. She has started wearing slippers, though she is yet to eat rice. Does that mean there is a part of the wish that remains unfulfilled? "We don't know. She does not share her thoughts with us," chorus the family. Does she desire to move to 7 Race Course Road in Delhi. After a lot of cajoling, family members admit, "Man mein aasha hai (there is hope in the heart)."
The same reticence is on show in Gandhinagar, where Modi's mother, Hiraba, stays with her youngest son, Pankaj Modi. Finding her house in Sector 22 of Gandhinagar is not a problem. Locals chatting under a peepul tree on the main road give me directions to Pankaj's house behind an old-fashioned shopping centre.
Pankaj is an official in the state information department and stays in a no-frills government house in the city. Pankaj's wife opens the door, but says Hiraba isn't well enough to take questions. "She is 92, and is perilously frail. She can barely hold a conversation," she says. Hiraba, however, is quite alert. She has given bytes to television channels a couple of times in the recent past, when her son became the prime minister and on receiving a gift from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan.
The humble two-storeyed house in Gandhinagar has a courtyard in the front and a Tata Sumo with a government label parked outside. The verandah has a swing, a spot now famous for showing Modi with his mother in several photographs. The living room is sparsely furnished. On May 26, the day Modi was sworn in as the country's 15th prime minister, Hiraba had watched the event live on television in this room.
"Our lives are simple. Narendra Modiji is a big man and his life is completely different. He is in a different orbit," she says, a response I have heard almost to a word at Jashodaben's house. I wonder if someone has coached them to face media queries.
"Nothing much has changed for the family after Modiji became the prime minister," points out a neighbour. "He was the chief minister of Gujarat for the past decade, and a brush with power is nothing new for this family." The only major change in Gandhinagar, as in Unjha, is the discreet security cover. There is no police post outside the house, just a few policemen periodically keeping an eye on the family.
Some things have changed for the family after all.