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Is it not better to work towards peace and harmony instead of clinging to an unhappy past? It is the love and goodwill that will matter in the end.
Zeenat was taking her afternoon nap when her grandson, Anwar called out to her.
“Dadijaan, there’s someone asking for you”
“Someone who claims to know you from your Civil Line days. Calls himself Raju.”
Zeenat froze at the mention of the name.
Could it be her son Farooque’s friend Raju? What was he doing here? She was in no mood to receive him. Her mind raced back to the time when Raju and Farooque would play for hours in their courtyard oblivious to the scorching summer sun or the heavy downpour during the monsoon.
His parents Meera and Vinayak lived across the road and the two families got along pretty well. They celebrated Eid and Diwali together. Sweets and savouries were regularly exchanged. Vinayak was particularly fond of the mutton biriyani that she prepared.
“There’s magic in your hands Zeenat,” Meera would say. “I follow your recipe but mine doesn’t taste as good.”
That was long back. Forty years to be precise. Farooque’s death changed everything.
Zeenat tried her best, but was unable to bury the unpleasant memories of the events that led to her older son’s death. It wasn’t death. She preferred to call it murder.
Who would have thought that Vinayak would look the other way when her boy was hounded by the very people who knew and watched him grow?
“Dadijaan what do I tell the person at the door? He wants to meet you. Claims he was our neighbour long ago. Abbu doesn’t remember him. Says that he was just a baby when we lived in the Civil Lines,” Anwar looked at her questioningly.
“Ask your Abbu to send him away. I don’t wish to meet him. Tell him that I am ill.”
“May God bless you with good health for many more years Chachijaan. Do I need anyone’s permission to meet you?” Raju had stepped into the inner courtyard. This was generally forbidden territory for outsiders– particularly men.
Albeit half heartedly, she had to admit that she was glad that he took the liberty of walking in – with or without permission. She had once loved him like a son. He had grown up to be tall and handsome. His hair had started greying a bit.
She took a closer look at him. He seemed to resemble his father Vinayak a lot. Farooque would have been around forty eight had he lived. Her eyes welled up when she thought of her eight year old son standing alone – facing the fury of an angry mob of grown men most of whom were close acquaintances.
“Chachijaan…” Raju’s voice seemed distant.
Her mind had already drifted to a past that she wished in vain to erase from her memory. Back then she was a young mother and a home maker living in the Steel City of Jamshedpur. Her husband Mohammed Khan had been a foreman in Tisco, established by the renowned industrialist J. N. Tata. They were allotted company’s quarters – single home units with a spacious courtyard.
Right across the road lived Vinayak Rao who was also a foreman like her husband. Vinayak was raised in the Steel City and had known Mohammed since childhood. His wife Meera, however, was new to the place. Being a girl from Andhra, her knowledge of Hindi, a language that was widely spoken by the residents of Jamshedpur, was limited.
Zeenat, on the other hand, knew no Telugu or English. But the language barrier did not matter to them. Within a year, Meera picked up a decent amount of the language and the two of them became good friends.
Meera would invite Zeenat and Mohammed for mouth watering dosa and Zeenat would treat them to mutton biriyani and kebabs. Children came along.
Her daughter Ayesha spent every waking minute with Meera who would dress her up like a typical South Indian girl sporting a bindi and wearing a long skirt called paavadai. She tried different hairstyles on her and claimed that she had always wanted a girl and was a wee bit disappointed that her first born was a boy. Raju, on the other hand, would be seen pottering in Zeenat’s garden watering plants and plucking out weeds with Mohammed.
Farooque and Ayesha were just a year and a half apart, Farooque being younger to Raju by about six months. Meera’s daughter Rajni and Zeenat’s second son Shamim were closer in age and were just toddlers when riots broke out in the Steel city. Till then, the Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony.
Holi and Diwali were not treated as Hindu festivals. They were community festivals and both communities participated with unconcealed zeal. Colours were splashed freely and smeared during Holi. And Diwali crackers would be abundantly burst by one and all.
Iftar parties held during Ramazan in Muslim households would be attended by their Hindu friends. The merriment during Eid had to be seen to be believed. All the children regardless of their religion, would wear new clothes for both, Eid and Diwali.
Communal tension prevailed and a curfew was imposed. There were rumours of Hindu girls being abducted and Muslim men being torched and burnt. Initially Zeenat did not believe the stories of Muslims being tortured and tormented. She had gone to school with Hindu girls and visited their homes as a child. She was never treated differently.
Meera was a good friend and so were several others in their colony. But soon more and more such stories came pouring in and insecurity took over. Mohammed asked her to pack a few essential things, collect their valuables and be prepared to leave at short notice. She wanted to inform Meera but Mohammed asked her to refrain from doing so. There seemed no purpose in putting them at risk.
Soon enough, the Muslim communities were quarantined in safer areas of the town by the local administration. They were advised to remain together till the situation improved. Zeenat left with a heavy heart, without even wishing her dear friend goodbye.
The riot lasted an entire month. Abandoned homes of Muslim families were looted. Meera watched, with tears in her eyes, as an unruly mob carried away teakwood furniture from Zeenat’s house. She dared not intervene fearing the safety of her husband and children.
Though the situation seemed to improve, an uneasy calm prevailed. The company allotted quarters for the Muslim community in specific pockets advising them to stay together till normalcy returned. It never did.
The abandoned houses were never re-allotted to them. Both communities were suspicious and wary of each other. The changed scenario was kind of accepted by adults. Not so much by the children.
Unfortunately, Farooque was one of them. The eight-year-old missed his friends in the old colony. He gave his mother a slip, and ventured into the colony that had seen him grow, and particularly to see if the guava tree his father had planted had borne fruit.
Farooque wished to play with his old friends. It was long since he had met Raju. The unsuspecting child entered the old house he still considered to be his. As the new tenants saw him enter, they were certain that he was sent by ‘his people’ for some foul play.
“Hey, aren’t you Mohammed Khan’s son? Why are you here?” they asked him.
The boy did not expect to be confronted by a stranger in the house that he still believed was his very own. His bewildered look and inability to respond aroused suspicion. He looked across the road to see if Meera aunty or Vinayak uncle would come to his rescue.
Raju came out of his house but was unable to get past their gate that was locked from within. People started gathering around the house. Wild speculations and insinuations took over.
“They send children as spies.”
“Which father would send an eight year old without a purpose?”
“These children are sent to plant bombs. No one will suspect them.”
“Hey you! Why did you come here? Who sent you?”
“He is Mohammed Khan’s son. Just warn him and send him away.” It was Vinayak Rao trying to placate the mob.
“Khan is a member of a committee formed by the local mosque. God knows what their intentions are. Hand the boy over to the police.”
The very mention of the police was enough to terrorise the child. Surrounded by men, some of whom he recognised, Farooque began to panic. He took to his heels and began to flee.
“Catch him!” someone shouted. “We need to find out why he came.”
“Don’t panic Farooque.” Vinayak called. “I will take you back home.”
Farooque stopped. But before Vinayak could reach him, someone else grabbed him by his shoulder. Fearing punishment, the boy broke free and ran across an adjacent park with at least ten men following him.
River Kharkhai that bordered the park was in sight and without a second thought, the boy jumped into it. He was unable to swim to safety and newspapers reported his death the following day.
Mohammed Khan, no longer the same happy-go-lucky person that he was before the incident, withdrew himself from society. He lived the life of a recluse and passed on within five years of Farooque’s death.
Zeenat lived on for the sake of Ayesha and Shamim. But she made no effort to meet old friends, even to vent her anger over their inability to save Farooque. Vinayak and Meera could not muster courage to meet her to express their anguish. Life had changed overnight.
“Ammi…” Shamim’s voice broke her chain of thoughts.
Pointing to Raju she asked, “Ask him what he wants. Has he come to rub salt on my wounded heart? Ask him to leave. I have no desire to entertain him.”
“I am not leaving without tasting your mutton biriyani, Chachijaan! My father still remembers the unique flavour of your biriyani and complains that neither my wife nor my mother make it well enough.”
“He still remembers my biriyani. But did nothing to save my son. He didn’t bother to visit us to apologise for not being able to save my Farooque or to condole my husband’s death. Why did you seek us out after forty years? Tell your parents that I lead the life of a living corpse. I have no desire to re-establish old contacts. Shamim does not know much about the bond your mother and me shared. Ayesha recalls every minute of the life we led in the Civil Lines and wonders how her Meera aunty managed to completely forget her,” Zeenat wept out.
Tears streamed down Raju’s cheeks. “Are you done?” he asked. “Who gave you the impression that my mother has forgotten you or Ayesha? She was not happy with the way people reacted to Farooque’s presence in our colony. Amma was devastated on hearing of his death. He was like a second son to her. My father hasn’t forgiven himself for letting Farooque go. He tried reasoning with the crowd that had gone berserk. No one paid heed to his words. Do you know how difficult it is to deal with guilt? My parents are doing just that. Fanatics exist in all communities. But they are a minority. Most of the others want peace. It is a strange situation where minority will prevails and the voice of reason is suppressed. But let me tell you why I am here.”
Despite her external animosity, Zeenat’s heart skipped a beat.
“I hope Meera is doing well. I have dealt with enough sorrow in my life. I cannot face more of it.”
“Unfortunately your intuition is correct Chachijaan. Amma’s days are numbered. She has fourth stage lung cancer. Doctors have ruled out radiation and chemotherapy since it was identified too late and would not help her recover. She remains sedated most of the time but whenever she wakes up she asks for you. Do you have it in you to bury the past and pay her a visit?” he asked.
“Oh no!” Zeenat covered her face and wept. “Meera was the sister I never had. How could God be so cruel! I tried to blame her for not taking care of my Farooque but soon my head would take over and tell me that there was nothing she could do. Take me to her immediately. I will take care of her till the end. This is the least I can do for bearing her a grudge for decades.”
“What about Vinayak bhaijaan? I hope he has no health issues,” her natural anxiety for his well being also surfaced.
“He is fine except for hypertension for which he takes medication. Shall we leave now? Amma was sure that you’d come. She has asked my wife Ramya to prepare dosa and chutney for you.”
And with a twinkle in his eye he added, “You better give her distinction marks. She has picked up a good deal of culinary skills from Amma.”
Two friends met after a gap of forty years. The past was forgiven and forgotten. Zeenat held Meera’s frail hands transferring all the affection that had been suppressed for years at one go.
No words were spoken. There was pin drop silence. The old adage ‘If you do not understand my silence you will not understand my words’ was most appropriate to describe the atmosphere in Vinayak Rao’s drawing room.
His daughter in law brought them coffee and biscuits. Zeenat was happy for Meera. It was evident that Ramya took good care of her. Meera’s grandson Ravi reverentially stooped and touched Zeenat’s feet. The two friends chatted softly for a while but Meera was soon exhausted. Zeenat left promising to visit Meera as often as possible.
Back home Zeenat reflected on the nature of her relationship with Meera. She thought of the capacity of the human mind to be easily swayed by caste and religious equations. And felt sorry for not having remained in touch. It was love that bound them earlier.
Life is short and death is sure. Disease and disaster strike one and all. No religion advocates violence. So was it not better to work towards peace and harmony instead of clinging to an unhappy past?
As a first step she decided to volunteer in a counselling centre that dealt with patients with terminal illness. That would help her remember that death does not ever seek people based on their religious belief or the lack of it.
She hastened to prepare Vinayak’s favourite mutton biriyani she would send through Anwar or Shamim. That would help renew the bond that once prevailed between the two families. After all it was love and goodwill that mattered in the end.
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Delhi Six
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