I grew up in the steel town of Jamshedpur. Communal riots among Hindus and Muslims were rampant. M J Akbar has written a book called ‘Riots after riots,’ in which the city of my childhood is documented extensively.
Many of the Muslims from Jamshedpur lived in an area called Dhatkidih and Hindu children were brought up to believe it was a terrible locality. If we probed further as to why it was such a bad place, the lame explanation offered was whenever India lost to Pakistan in cricket or hockey matches, residents of the area burst crackers to celebrate. I don’t know whether that was true but all of us were made to believe it anyway.
The other myth fed to us and in my case it was my older brothers who advocated it, was that Muslims deliberately did not practice family planning and had a lot of children because they wanted to overtake the Hindu population and turn our country into an Islamic one. That according to him was the worst catastrophe the country could ever have.
All the reasons to hate Muslims sounded very compelling. But there was something else present in my life to complicate matters. Our Muslim neighbours.
We were a family of seven including five children. They were a family of nine and had seven children. The youngest daughter in that family was older to me by some three or four years and we went to the same school. She became some kind of a protector to me and made sure none of the older kids bullied me.
She was also very fond of my mother who read a lot and she would often come home to borrow books. The two families grew close and the kids started hanging out in each other’s homes. Since there were five children in one family and seven in the other, it followed that every kid from either of the two families had a peer in the other.
Winters were special. Our neighbours had a big front yard that they would turn into a make shift badminton court. And during Christmas vacations we would all get together to play and drink ginger tea until late in the night.
I am sure some of this sounds like sentimental tripe but we looked forward to Biryani and exotic meat dishes they cooked for their two Ids every year and they came over to feast on all the sweets and snacks my mother made during Diwali.
We must have lived in that house for at least ten years. Long enough for one of the sons from that family to fall madly in love with one of my older sisters. He would stand near the gate around the time she walked back home after school and implore her to look at him in loud whispers.
Sometimes I was asked to accompany her as a chaperon when she went to visit a friend in the street to borrow notes and I would find him standing next to the gate, waiting for her. He spent all day near that gate hoping she would come out of the house.
My sister ignored him but holding her hand firmly, I used to turn to glare and make faces at him. I think my parents found out about his obsessive love for her and she was married off early and moved to another town. But whenever she visited us, he continued to hang out near that gate and gawk at her, even though she was now accompanied by my brother in law.
I learnt from him my first lessons of misplaced obsession. That unrequited love can surmount all voices of reason and stand steadfast in the face of all kinds of barriers, even if the obstacles were imposed by none other than the object of one’s affection. It was not difficult for me to ever decipher what a Romeo or a Majnu went through, because this guy left such a strong imprint on me.
I found out recently that he died young of chronic renal failure and felt really bad. Even though as a young boy I used to think of him as an evil adversary trying to taint the reputation of my virtuous sister. I spoke to her about him when I visited her last year and she started laughing.
“The kind of things you remember. What’s wrong with you?” she asked. But I noticed for the rest of the evening she turned pensive.
A few years after my sister was married, my protector in school started talking to me about my older brother all the time. I was scared of my brother because he liked to hit me and had warned me that if he ever found out I was meddling in his affairs, he would make me pay. Being the youngest in a family of five, with two bullying older brothers, I had learnt to hone my survival instincts early in life. I tried to warn her that she should be careful with him as he didn’t like anyone interfering in his business. But she continued to pester me with questions about him.
And then one day she gave me a letter to hand over to him. I was apprehensive but she had saved me from bullies too many times to say no to her request. My relationship with my brother miraculously improved after the letter business started. He actually transformed into a kind human being for all the two years I played the courier between them.
It’s always dangerous to visit the early years of childhood in ripe middle age. One is bound to find it suffused with the romance of nostalgia. But I do tend to go back a lot of late because I am currently researching a book that’s partly set in the town where I grew up. And because I am in a city in an alien land that has a similar history to Jamshedpur, I tend to remember things from my childhood while I am walking, when I am on a bus or just looking out of the window at the snow falling outside.
I think of the neighbours we had and how they accounted for so much of colour and vibrancy my childhood had. Because of them I could always avoid the bubble of bigotry. None of the messages of hatred from the macro context ever got to me.
They are also the reason I will never vote for Narendra Modi and his BJP. I get very worked up at the corruption in Congress and don’t think Rahul Gandhi would make for a very efficient Prime Minister. But I know for sure he does not hate Muslims. That’s enough for me. At this stage in my life, I think I have known too many politicians to believe that any of them can change anything.
Changing the world should be left to philosophers and artists. And writers of course!