by Anurag Sharma
The train arrived two hours after the scheduled arrival time. My anger vanished
when I saw it though I still do not understand the reason why every train has to
arrive late. They can rewrite the schedule at least. Anyway, I rushed into the
train and occupied my seat. I was happy. I had a reason to be happy. I was going
back to Bareilly after a long time. Thirty years and three months to be very
A major portion of my childhood was spent in the city of Bareilly in Uttar
Pradesh (a North Indian state). Though India is predominantly a Hindu country,
the population of urban Bareilly had more Muslims than Hindus. Except for the
families in my lane, everyone in my neighborhood was a Muslim. Despite of some
obvious dissimilarities, our language was same and so was our heritage. All my
Muslim neighbors used to visit us to share the joy of celebrating Hindu
festivals. They also used to bring Sevai (sweet noodle dish) for me during Eid
(a Muslim festival). The fact is that in spite of belonging to a very
traditional Brahmin family, I never knew about me being any different from the
Muslims. I wish of not knowing it even today.
We used to buy our groceries from Javed Hussain, vegetables from Babu Khan,
flour from Naseem Chakkiwala, and the patang (Indian fighter kites) and its
manjha (the special thread used to fly patangs) from Nafees Ali. My tailor was a
Muslim and so was my barber. Mohammad Tanvir, the electrician who sold us our
first radio and later repaired it until it was replaced by a sleek transistor
was a Muslim too. Tanvir sold us all Sanskrit bhajans (Hindu devotional songs)
records I grew up listening to.
Among all the people around me, it was Javed Hussain who influenced my childhood
vision in many ways. Since he was a friend of my maternal uncle, I used to call
him Javed Mamoo (maternal uncle in Urdu). He owned a small grocery shop across
the street from our house. I used to go to his shop with a list of items on a
daily basis. Unlike others, I never had to ask about the prices since we had a
monthly account with him. While in his shop, I used to spend more time in
talking to him and observing the clientele than in shopping. It was his shop
where I used to meet my Muslim neighbors. Most of them lived in abject poverty.
They wore dirty and sometimes torn clothes. Boys generally wore minimal to cover
certain parts of their body. I was always curious to note that most of the kids
kept their heads shaven. Now I assume that one reason may be to save some money
on barber's bill, the other may be to keep the head clean because the daily bath
was a luxury for many of them who did not have water connection. Whatever, they
were very lively people.
I was not allowed to keep any pet because it amounted to rob the freedom of the
poor creatures. Another justification for not allowing pets inside the house was
that the pets were not supposed to be clean enough to enter into a Brahmin
household. There were some exceptions too to this rule though. For example, one
aunt of mine had a beautiful parrot that used to greet entire household with
praise of Lord Rama. Later when I saw dogs in some of my relatives' places, I
came to know that dogs and parrots were the only exceptions to the no-pets
policy because they can live healthily on vegetarian diet and are non-violent by
nature. I loved to feed green chilly to the parrot that preferred it over
mangoes or guava. My Muslim neighbors had all kind of exotic pets which ranged
from tiny birds to huge turtles. Knowing well that I can never bring these pets
into my own home, I used to play with them when not seen by any elders.
Javed Mamoo used to subscribe to a Hindi and an Urdu newspaper. Whenever he came
across a difficult word while reading Hindi news, he used to ask me to translate
it in simple Hindi and I used to tell him the most appropriate equivalent
without fail. For example he called me once to ask what "Sopanbaddh" (सोपानबद्ध = step by
step in refined Hindi) meant and I told him that it meant Seedhi-dar-Seedhi" in
Urdu. He used to tease me that the Hindi brigade was over-enthusiastic in
reverting the place names to their original ones in such a non-Urdu way that it
was no more possible for him to say the new names. He used to quote the example
of the famous city of Varanasi in his typical style. He said that the city had
such a beautiful name Benares and now it is changed to Vaanaanaaseee. He kept
teasing me about Vaanaanaaseee until I explored that Varanasi was originally
called Kashi since ancient times. I informed him about this short and sweet name
which is easier to say, read and write in any language Indian or foreign. So
much has changed since then. Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai and
Calcutta became Kolkata. The name of Bangalore is about to change. None of them
were changed by so called Hindi brigade. Nor did this so called Hindi brigade
ever worked to rename Varanasi as Kashi. But of course Hindi brigade is still
here to take blames.
Because of my surroundings, it was natural for me to speak flawless Urdu.
Actually, Urdu is just another dialect of Hindi with one remarkable difference
that instead of Devanagari, it is written in Persian script. In my early teens,
I did not know how to read and write Persian script. To overcome this
limitation, I approached Javed who happily agreed to teach me to read and write
Urdu in Persian script. One day when we were discussing the poetry of Zafar (the
last Moghul emperor who was a great poet too), an elderly Maulavi (a Muslim
clergy) asked him if I had come to Bareilly from a foreign country. Javed
explained that I was learning Urdu. The old man got upset and started rambling.
He could not understand that anyone could grow up in Hindustan (another name for
India, mostly popular in Muslim regions of the world) without knowing Urdu.
Even today Uttar Pradesh is the largest sugar producing state of India. Bareilly
region is called as the sugar bowl of the state since it is a major producer of
the sugar cane and related products. There was a Khandsal (A small scale and low
cost sugar mill) in our neighborhood where molasses were turned into unrefined
brown sugar. Hundreds of bullock-carts used to wait outside the Khandsal with
clay pitchers full of molasses. The molasses was used as raw material to produce
the sugar. The Kandsal was open for a limited period of the year during the
sugar cane season. There were some young children who were always looking for
these bullock carts to come so that they can steal some molasses from the
pitchers kept in the back side of the carts. Though it was sad to see the naive
bullock-cart drivers from surrounding villages being teased and tortured like
this, the scenes were too funny at times to control your laughter.
One afternoon when I was talking to Javed at his shop, we saw the usual scene of
the rowdy boys stealing molasses. Some daring boys broke some pitchers with help
of stones and started filling their aluminum pans with brown liquid. The sweet
smell fully covered the air. Looking at his broken pots, the bullock-cart driver
got very upset and started cursing the boys. While shouting at the hooligans,
the bullock-cart driver said, "Look at these looters! I wonder why only Muslim
boys do it." Though the angry statement of the upset victim of this regular
robbery was cent-percent true, I felt a little uncomfortable. I really did not
know how to react. While I was fumbling for some words, Javed Mamoo shouted
back, "You are right my brother. Hindus care about their children. They also
care about education. Our people are indifferent towards both." Later he turned
towards me and sang a Mukesh and Sahir combo from an old Hindi movie,
Taleem Hai Adhoori, Milti Nahin Majoori,
Maloom Kya Kisi Ko Dard e Nihan Hamara.
[तालीम है अधूरी, मिलती नहीं मजूरी
मालूम क्या किसी को दर्दे निहां हमारा ]
The lines were emotional and very true in depicting the situation of the
community. The meaning is as such, "We do not earn sufficient wages due to lack
of education but no one knows the pain inside our heart." Happy with my
attention he continued the song. He got a bit emotional when he reached to the
Mil jul ke is vatan ko aisa banaayenge hum
hairat se munh takega, sara jahan hamara
[मिल जुल के इस वतन को ऐसा बनायेंगे हम
हैरत से मुंह ताकेगा सारा जहां हमारा]
The meaning in English is, "Today, we might be in bad shape but we do have
strong will. Our youth is made up of steel. With cooperation from each other we
shall (one day) recreate our nation in such a manner that would surprise entire
world." By the time he completed the song, tears were rolling out of his eyes.
He said, "I want to see a pro-active participation from Muslim community in
I still remember that Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, a Muslim was the president of India
then and he was not the first but the second Muslim president of India. His wife
Begum Abida Ahmed later contested from Bareilly to become a member of Indian
parliament. The Chairperson of Aiwan-E-Ghalib, Begum Abida Ahmed had also served
as a leader of All India Women Congress.
Thirty years later when I remember this incident I am pleasantly surprised to
see that the current president of India Dr. Abdul Kalam is a Muslim too.
Besides, he is a scientist who contributed immensely in India's success in
nuclear and space research in the same fashion as Javed Mamoo wished over three
decades ago. Many things have changed since but many more need to be changed.
Recently there have been many attacks from Muslim mobs on the teams of doctors
and social workers of the polio eradication teams visiting rural areas around
Bareilly. After spread of the rumors that the polio vaccine will make their
children impotent, illiterate Muslim mobs have started attacking anyone who
talks about eradication of polio. The Muslim leaders are yet to come forward to
let the community know the reality.
Finally the train arrived at Bareilly. My cousin was present at the station to
receive me. I was glad to see him. We hugged each other after three decades. He
brought his five year old with him who looked exactly how my cousin looked when
I last saw him.
Everything looked different in the area where I once lived. It was difficult to
recognize the place. Nothing around me reminded me of the old neighborhood I had
left behind. The Khandsal was out of business. It was replaced by a new
building. My cousin told me that this building was bought by Javed Mamoo where
he runs a flour mill. He still owned a grocery shop which was much bigger,
better and modern compared to the small one where I had my Urdu lessons.
I started walking towards the mill. By the time I saw Javed Mamoo, my cousin had
told me many things about him. He told me that Javed Mamoo is sponsoring books
for two students for almost thirty years. Around 20 years ago when a Muslim
crowd threatened to burn Hindu shops after a stray stone hit the Muharram
procession, he stood up before the rioters and challenged them to burn his shop
before destroying any Hindu’s property. Later he explained to everyone that
riot, loot or arson is the raw material for hatred which ultimately destroys all
of us without distinguishing between a Hindu and a Muslim. The crowd listened to
him and the area did not see any communal tension since. His son recently
completed medicine and currently runs a clinic in a small village to serve rural
poor after declining an attractive offer from a Delhi based star hospital.
Javed Mamoo's old pair of eyes did not take too much time to recognize me.
"Wow! It is Bubbles, my Hindi teacher!" he slowly turned his old body towards me
with familiar smile. He opened his fragile arms, "O my old friend, come near so that I can see you
Tears started flowing through his eyes when I bent to touch his feet.
© Anurag Sharma