IV: Colored face on which a frown

"You remember Ehsaan Ahmed Khan, my neighbor? He used to visit our home every few days and sit with my father over chai and shatranj. We have known him since forever. He used to come talk about children, and work. My family invited his family over on Holi and Diwali and we went to his place for Eid. I used to love the sweets, and the Eidi his mom would give us, I liked the way things were then. It never occurred to us that there are two different religions lying around somewhere in the picture.

"One day he was sitting with my father and out of the blue asked him to convert to Islam. My father was left speechless; he couldn't decide how to react. What was this supposed to be? So he politely explained that he doesn't think too much of religion and in his opinion no one should. But Ehsaan kept insisting. Every few days he would bring it up again. My father was pushed to a point that he had to ask Ehsaan to stop coming to our house anymore.

"But he didn't stop there, he started to stop our servant Munna in the way and kept pressing the conversion on him. Munna was a young, poor, uneducated boy belonging to a schedule caste, and we are Brahmins. Can you imagine that, a schedule caste person working as help at a Brahmins house? That's how things were at my place; we didn't practice silly things. Ehsaan played on how schedule castes have no respect in Hinduism and if he converts, Munna could get married to a nice Muslim girl Ehsaan had in mind, and will be well accepted everywhere. Even the places of worship.

"One day Munna showed up for work in a white Muslim cap.

"My father was heartbroken. He asked Munna to not worry about his work, but to never ever try and talk of religion in our home. He got married as promised, so he was happy, otherwise he doesn't care about Islam. He doesn't offer namaaz five times a day; he is too lazy for that. But if riots ensue tomorrow in my neighborhood, whose side do you think he'll be on? Hindus? Just because he used to be one? No! He has been fed enough poison to believe that Hindus have oppressed him, so he should fight against them. *He*, this nincompoop was never oppressed. Yes, lower castes are oppressed, I don't deny that, but this bastard didn't have to face anything. What will he be fighting for? 'His People'? 'History'? He will be killing his people. I am his people, you are his people, but to him that doesn't matter, coz he has no brain and no one is telling him this. All he is being taught is a home cooked history. That's what happens in a riot, you have to know who's fighting whom. You can't right the centuries old wrongs; you have to take sides. Make sure you know whose side you're on, remember Gandhi?"

Vikku stopped and started to look at me with a persistent frown.

I didn't know how to start or what to say. I knew Vikku was wrong, I wanted to tell him that, but I had to search for words ... for a moment I wondered if that's my defeat; a defeat for everything I hold dear. My family faced the first and worst riots in India ever, the riots that followed the partition of India, they saw neighbors try to loot neighbors, year old friends killing friends, and yet they never had bad things to say against Muslims. They had bad things to say about Pakistan; how they felt deceived by it, but not about a religion.

I was brought up to believe that I don't have a religion. To look at religions like one looks at fruits, or cities, to look at and wonder at the diversity of the nature, of man, to learn. I always knew that religious hatred lives in the country I'm growing up in, but I never believed it lives in my generation. We are supposed to be the Cream of India, the educated, responsible, reasonable, rational generation. Vikku, you've seen but one side my friend, there is another side of the moon, the one that doesn't show from here, but is as real as the one that shows. There's a bigger truth than this ...

"One Babri mosque and the entire world wants us to feel ashamed, you have any idea how many temples Mughals destroyed, how many temples they looted? Converted to mosques? How they insulted statues of our Gods?", Vikku added.

But Vikku, Hinduism is about seeing God in a stone, in a river, in nature, not to affix God to a stone. If you choose to believe, there is God in each stone; if you don't, each statue is just another piece of stone. If you have faith, each drop of water is Gangajal, else the Ganges is just another river. Who cares what they did, if you do the same don't you accept their acts? Don't you turn into them? Don't they become right? Who are you fighting then? Yourself?

But there were no words, no words on my lips, just disbelief ...

(definition) rickshaw (Hindi, English, Japanese): A type of transport (which may resemble a cart) drawn either by a cycle attached to it or by a person (as in Kolkata), or in modern times by an attached low powered motor (auto rickshaw).

We collected at Ali's place next evening. Ali's bike was at the shop for servicing so rest of the three of us took a rickshaw and collected each other to reach there.

The saucers were gone and so was the crowd. There was a small white structure built at the base of the bengalensis though. We went up to Ali's room and looked out his window. "A lot changed yesterday. A Lot! You guys won't believe me", "Don't start yet, I need to go use bathroom", "Get some tea in the meanwhile yaar, I can't digest stories without tea", "What happened? Start already", said Ali, Vikku, Nabbu and I.

Vikku came back, and four steaming cups of tea were brought up with Parle-G biscuits. Ali took a sip of his tea and started.

The snake had come out again that evening, the evening of the Muchhad incident, and was instantly crushed under a speeding scooter. Luckily a Hindu boy was driving who panicked on seeing a snake right in front, and while trying to swerve accidentally drove over it, if it were a Muslim guy, it would had been trouble. The whole neighborhood collected in a matter of seconds. Maulvi Sahib was there too; seeing him Ali gathered some courage and went down to get an idea of what was happening. The poor thing was a harmless rat snake, not a cobra as several people had been saying, but the atmosphere was such that if anybody would have dared to counter that it was a Shiva's cobra, he would have been beaten up, specially a Muslim, so Ali just kept quiet.

The crowd began to swell as people rushed to have the last 'darshan'. Instantly, someone started to collect the donations to build a final resting place for the snake's soul. And this small shrine was built right away, within minutes.

"So did no one mention the temple anymore?" Nabbu asked.

"No. No one did. A lot of local people rushed the efforts to make a shrine just to avoid the mention of temple again it seemed. It's because another amazing thing had happened that afternoon, before the poor animal got killed. You guys are not going to believe this."

As the loudspeaker issued a call for 2 pm prayers from the Tar Wali Masjid, a lot of people, not only regulars but even ones from other nearby places came around hastily making their way in. It seems someone had spread the news of danger to the mosque structure and need for all Muslims to join the forces.

Maulvi Sahib was furious; He admonished people who started to talk of 'apt replies' for their disorderly behavior and warned them to mend their ways. "We will duff them if they try anything. We are not afraid," said some young lad. This vengefulness was one indirect consequence of the Ayodhya incident; the media it seems had ensured that the ambers keep smoldering. The newspapers did not mince words after the incident and the ensuing riots; ominous photographs of angry Hindus were juxtaposed with those of a five-year old Muslim girl, who was charred with her mother and grandmother in a car. Even the cities that were peaceful after the mosque demolition were divided on lines of religion and a suspicion had made place in everyone's heart.

A stern look from Maulvi Sahib silenced him. "You are in a masjid; you come here to worship, bow down and pray. Do not talk of things that divide one man from another," he yelled.

"It is only going to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices which link Muslims with violence and irrationalism," continued Mirza Sahib. "A lot of people are ashamed of the gruesome riots the happened just a couple of years ago. Why do we want to repeat that? Some young silly nameless lad raised an ugly idea, and we start thinking of retaliation instead of talking sense with the elders of the area? Proactive actions should be taken to calm the situation, not to add fuel to the fire."

"I am a Muslim, Maulvi Sahib, not hostile to anyone but I want to give myself self-respect," someone said. "Can you assure me there will be no action from their side? We can't wait for the harm to be done before we wake up to reality"

"There are no guarantees in life, but I won't let anyone in this room talk of retaliations or first stones or preparations. I have faith in elders of this area, I have lived here all my life, Things are in middle of confusion, give it time to settle down. Follow your religion, show compassion towards humans and humanity."

"What's unbelievable in this?" I asked Ali.

"There were many gathered in the mosque, more people than usual. Some five-six hours before this, sometime in the morning, the Ganga Express had started from Kanpur for Delhi and was about to reach Ghaziabad", Ali continued.

"Break break break!", Vikku interrupted, "I need to smoke, please! Let's either go to the rooftop or take a break; I just have to smoke after tea yaar."

"It'll be too hot on roof", "Then take a break", "No, I have to know what happened", "Okay, rooftop. If it's too hot, Vikku will buy each of us a Coca Cola afterwards", said Ali, Vikku, Nabbu and I.

The writeup title is taken from here is little Effie's head by E.E. Cummings

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