TWO GODS15 mins 20K 15 mins 20K
By Saadia Azim
Blow O wind to where my loved one is.
Touch him and come touch me soon.
I’ll feel his gentle touch through you
And meet his beauty in the moon.
These things are much for the one who loves.
One can live by them alone that he and I breathe
The same air and that the Earth we tread is one.
Naima was reading aloud to Naim and Karim the tale of distraught Sitaji’s urgent plea for some contact with her separated husband “Lord Ram”. The twins, eight-year-olds, were used to their mother’s passionate recitation of these lines as if they evoked an intense feeling somewhere inside her. She did not even bother if this was the ideal bedtime story for her boys.
For her these lines meant a lot. Love, they say, is blind. To Naima it had given a new vision. The story of Ram and Sita from a collection of mythological narratives was now her all time favorite.
…I’ll feel his gentle touch through you and meet his beauty in the moon... The true meaning of these words was best understood by someone who had really been in love and paid a price for it. She went on distinctly enunciating every word in her unusual local diction, she had picked up at the English medium school she attended before her marriage.
Sitting all alone in a small corner of Ashok Vatika, Sitaji murmured, ‘For the love of my Lord…’ Sad, forlorn, her only consolation was she “that she and her lord saw the same moon.” Naima kept reading out at her slow rhythmic pace, little realizing that her children were fast asleep on her either side, holding her arms. Yet she did not stop reading - to herself, for herself. She read out stories to her children in English from Indian mythology that she held deep interest in all through her growing up years. The two boys went to a local English-medium school in the neighborhood. They came home with story books from the school library – all in English.
Over the past few years she had picked up the habit of relearning from their books. First the children laughed when she read to them. But now they knew that their mother was a fast learner and had picked up the craft of story- telling faster than them. She was interested in their books much more than they themselves were. So when she read stories to them at bedtime, they would listen carefully and passionately. Each day Naima would read a short story lying down with the children in the bed just wide enough for the three of them. The two boys dreamt of growing up fast and becoming like her, with her skill of storytelling.
‘Ammi is the best,’ Naim shouted offering her a clenched-fist salute. ‘She knows it all,’ Karim chanted. Together they hugged her.
That day, Abida was sitting in the other room, almost drowned in a heap of jeans, fitting into them the metal buttons with the famed brand embossed on them. Her graying hair and thick glasses were evidence of her work pressure. She kept trying to finish the job as fast as she could. She would take the lot to the dealer, get paid and bring home another bundle. This was her way of supporting her son’s widow and two children.
Her deliberate short coughs and loud clearing of throat, Naima knew, was her way of seeking attention. She stopped reading and sneaked out of her room to sit beside Amma. It was a common bond between them. Perhaps the older woman again wanted to share her worst fears.
‘Naima, why don’t you read the Holy Quran?’ Abida looked into her eyes. ‘I can ask Maulana Sahib to come and teach you. You are a keen reader; this is the ultimate learning.’ She had told her the same thing many times before. ‘Reading religious books makes you enlightened… you could then teach your children some better things…’ Naima knew what her mother-in-law’s problem was – she had heard her reading aloud the tales in English and guessed their offending content. Her icy silence made Abida wary.
‘Let them learn so they do some good in life.’ She paused. ‘They should not follow in your footsteps.’
Naima frowned, her face contorted, deeply hurt by her mother-in-law’s harsh words although she was used to the regular barbs. Yet this time it was different.
After all she had worked the whole day in the fruit shop, the business her husband had left behind for her to run. Because of her hard work and initiative, the business had grown. She had hired three boys from the local community to work for her. She took orders from the customers on her phone, and the boys rushed to make deliveries. Like pizzas and groceries, now apples and oranges were also being delivered at the doorstep. She was earning enough to run the family smoothly.
“Let them choose their own way, Amma,’ she said without hiding her resentment. ‘They will decide what to read and learn. Just like me.”
‘Then they will pick the wrong things just like you,’ the older woman unleashed her scorns.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ Naima would not take it down easily.
‘The wrong is you. You are not us. You’re the other, from a different faith, from among those who worship everything – fish, pigs, mice, cows, elephants, snakes, everything. .’
‘Faith is the devotion that I held for your son. I walked with him to his grave. And he gave up his life for me.’ Her face clouded over, Naima could not fight the tears any more.
Abida could not resist either. Tears rolled down her deeply-furrowed face. The wounds still rankled even after so many years. ‘Only if you had listened to your parents, Naseem would not have died. He would have been still alive.’
‘Amma, it wasn’t for me. Your son laid his life for a purpose. Just like a soldier defends his country. This was our way of defending our faith in love”, she tried to console the sorrowed mother of a dead man.
For a while both women sat in uneasy silence. Slowly the younger woman got up fighting back a complete breakdown to withdraw in her small room where her children slept.
Naseem died within two years of their marriage. She was seven months pregnant at that time. He was ran over and crushed by a wayward car which vanished off the scene in seconds. Everything happened before her eyes, in the town square not very far from their home.
That day often came back haunting her with all its details. She remembered she was huge enough to not even run and save the dying man. “When Lord Rama had led a whole army of monkeys to burn Lanka and save his lady love Sitaji, it was valor. And then He was God. She was just an ordinary woman”. She had helplessly cried for days and nights, for the lost life that would never come back.
It was an unusual day. She had felt a deep uneasiness since morning. The night before, she had sneakily put vermillion at the parting of her hair and neatly combed it. She hid it with the front fringes so no one could see her sindoor, the most obvious mark of a Hindu bride. After all, she had lived with Muslims for almost two years now. To be doubly sure, she covered her face with a dupatta, took a bowl of fresh cow milk and poured it over the Shiva Lingam near their house. She thought this would keep her husband out of harm’s way. It didn’t.
Three men had come to see her almost a week ago. She did not know them, had never seen them before. They had a message from her father. She refused to hear them out. They threatened, turned abusive, spit out the fowl words; words she had often heard walking down the street. For women who bring shame to their families by deciding to choose their own partners.
The barrel of a revolver flicked out of the trouser pocket of one of them. They wanted her to abort the children she was carrying within. The children, they said, ‘have bad blood’. You return home or else…’
She did not listen. Instead she followed Naseem to his shop every morning. She thought this was the way to protect him, guard him against the evil shadows.
That morning she couldn’t keep pace with him. He walked faster and reached the crossroads leaving her much behind. A speeding car drove past her and knocked him down. Then it drove away. He lied in the pool of blood for almost a minute before she could run fast enough to reach him. There was nothing anyone could do to save him, the killer wheels had cracked open his skull.
The car had sped away. So did the men. No one was caught, no one knew them. So no one was punished. Except her, may be for defying faith!
Naseem was brought dead to hospital.
Nothing changes in the world if two people from different faiths fall in love. There is no natural calamity or devastation waiting to happen, if a man and a woman in love do not follow social rituals and customs nothing happens. There is no inheritable disease reported if people from different faiths become man and wife. The world does not go upside down if people of different communities interchange rituals.
Did it matter to the sun, the moon, the air, the sky, the rains, the plants as to who supports which faith? They have never differentiated. The body, the blood, the breath have worked as they had been!
Naseem and Naima had vowed to be together without the usual rituals, customs followed by people of faith. They proclaimed to live like man and wife. They were family. They lived together and the world was no different. Not the virtues of their own religion, neither the vices of community hatred mattered to them until Naseem died in the accident.
For days together Naima could not bring herself back. The pain, the anger, the loss was acute to ever recover from. “Was he killed for his faith”, “It must be an accident”. “How could the hate towards a “faith” takeaway a life?” she had no answers. The haunting thoughts did not leave her at peace, “Had she kept away from him, had she listened to her parents, had she followed the faith bestowed to her at birth, maybe he would have lived”. May be not!
Someone said it was her fate. She reasoned it must be his “faith”.
Naseem’s brothers called her a non-believer. They said she was blindfolded. She could not see the reality. She had let the murderers go scot free.
They walked away to live far away from her. Except, the mother of the dead man! The old lady had another faith, that “with his children she will be able to live with her dead son”. “Let me live with the dead”, she had said.
A year ago Naima’s father died in silent pain in their home. She had gone visiting him. She saw him in pain and helplessness. She knew Naseem’s father had died of a similar disease much before she had come into his life.
In death and pain how people look similar. The anger, the hate, the resentment all go away. May be death unites people. May be her father and Naseem divided by faith were united in death.
Naima alias Naina had thought about all of this again and again all in the past years and that night was no exception.
She just sobbed inconsolably sitting on the floor alone, near the bed where her children slept peacefully.
Naima was Naina to begin with. One rainy evening when the sky darkened before the sun set, she ran away with Naseem, son of a neighborhood fruit vendor, to make her own home. Theirs was the most unlikely marriage – between a pavement fruit vendor’s boy and the daughter of a businessman without the blessings of the elders and prayers of the priests.
Naina and Naseem had met when they were in their late teens. She on her way to school and, he standing in for his father at the shop. She was a Class XII student preparing for her Board exams, all set to go to college in a few months. And he had dropped out of Madrasa Husannia in one corner of the town. In absence of community comrades they stood together hand in hand in love ignoring the history of their warring communities. It was just love that had brought them together. .
Naseem’s parents sent him to the madrasa to tread ‘Allah’s path so his family recovers from the setback in business and his mother gets back her good old days.’ Within two days he had run away from the hostel after being beaten up by the head Maulana for not mugging up his lessons that he was supposed to learn by rote and memorize for life.
He ran only far enough to spend the night on the street in another part of the town; in the morning his father’s friends knew everything seeing him there. They sent him home.
But this did not discourage his mother. She was adamant. He had to study and study deen – religion. He was sent to Madrasa Arabia Islamia at Juhapur, far away from home to make sure he could not come back again.
Just when he was making a little progress with the theological studies and growing up tall, he decided to leave school and live on his own. The teachings could not make him learn.
This time he left to work. He had fought with his classmates for his ‘un-Islamic’ love for frills – rugged jeans, T-shirts, sunglasses and Bollywood movies. He never went back to school and his mother’s woes never ended.
Naina was the daughter of a rich businessman in town. Her father was not simply oversized but wore outfits with oversized pockets so that he can fill it up with bundles of money he made every day at the wholesale business hub. She went to an English medium school and saw very little of her father. Her mother was a kitchen woman who entered the family kitchen before Naina woke up in the morning and came out only when she was fast asleep.
Naina too loved the Bollywood movies and aspired to look like an actress. She ate less, wore bright clothes and used dark eyeliners to look attractive.
Naina and Naseem met, first their eyes, then their hearts and finally their souls. Before anyone knew they had left home for a distant city wandering for weeks in fear and freedom.
‘At that point, it was for love,’ she later told her friends. ‘But now I know it was for my faith, and my faith in love.’ The very mention of Naseem removed her gloom. ‘He loved me dearly, completely, so there was nothing more to ask for.’
Naseem, she would fondly recall, kept saying, ‘There’s so little space for people like us, and yet we need so little.’
On the run for days, they had called their parents a few times from different places to say they were fine and that they would come home soon. But no one wanted them back. Some because of fear and some others for their faith. Some cursed them, a few others cried; one or two wanted them to die instantly.
The couple did not return by themselves. When Naina’s mother informed her father that the girl had married and was living with the boy in the nearby town selling fruits the wily businessman sensed an opportunity to get back his daughter.
‘You won’t be hurt,’ he assured Naina. ‘But we cannot guarantee his safety,’ he said over the phone.
The young bride howled, shouted, and then fell quiet. She knew she was loved dearly by her parents too. They would not hurt the man because she loved him. She would be his armour.
Naina’s father, the influential businessman in town, called the police when they returned. Naseem ran away riding his motorcycle to a hideout. They wanted him arrested on charges of kidnapping and abduction. Instead the police went after his ailing uncle and brothers. They spent three months in jail. The area was tense. There could be a communal flare-up any moment. People had been issued directives not to cross into each other’s areas.
Naina was made an offer. She had to choose between her father and her husband. They could never be together. She chose Naseem. She testified in court against her parents calling herself a Muslim man’s bride wanting to live with her husband. Only then her in laws were freed.
She moved in to live in her husband’s house growing big in size with two babies in her stomach. Her father still would not let it go. He wanted her back pure and original. She had dirtied his genre, his name.
So he set deadlines. She did not oblige. She kept her faith in love until Naseem died.
Though, Naseem had chosen Naina to lay his life for, it was her turn of return. She chose to keep her faith in the love for him. She took his name, his business, his home, and his children to live thereafter.
“Anyways what was there in a name?”
Her younger son, Naima was surprised, was reading out to his brother from her book of mythological tales. This morning she had woken up late. He was imitating his mother, raising his voice and then dropping it in keeping with the situation in the narrative.
More surprisingly, she saw the older woman clapping to applaud her grandchild’s performance. The boys were ready for school, their lunch packed, the bags buckled, and breakfast over. Dadi had helped them with everything. Waiting for the school bus, they were now entertaining Dadi.
‘Now, let’s hear Sitaharan: A Tale of War and Victory,’ Karim announced with a flourish.
‘Are you a Hindu or a Musalman,’ the grandmother asked agitatedly as she cleaned the table. ‘You boys have become Hindu.’ She shook her head.
‘We are both,’ Naim said teasing her. ‘I am playing Ram in a play at school.’
‘You cannot be both. You have to choose.’
‘This is our choice – we are both, children of two Gods,’ Karim said swaying his hand to end a long and nagging debate.
Naima heard her children silently. She knew her children were growing. They were children of “two Gods”. She smiled silently. She was not going to struggle alone with her faith. Her clan was growing. She had found her community.