By M Ghazali Khan
Last February I was visiting my father and siblings in my hometown, Deoband in India. One afternoon when I was about to leave for Zuhar (afternoon) prayer I was surprised to see my youngest brother, Babar Khan, who had left for the mosque a few minutes before me, opening the outer gate, and entering the house compound accompanied by a couple of uniformed police officers, including the SHO (Station House Officer), two men and three women in plain clothes.
‘Bhaijan, they say that they lived in a house belonging to Babu Khan in 1965,’ he said. Just when I was about to tell them that they were probably confused about the year or the location of the house in which they had lived, right at that moment one of the two ladies pointed at our house and said, ‘Is ghar meN Ghazali, Kamali naam ke do bhai rehte thai. (There were two brothers in this house named Ghazali and Kamali).’
‘Ji meN hi Ghazali huN (Yes, I am Ghazali)’, I told them and invited them to come inside. Then one of the two men in plain clothes came forward and said, ‘Mera naam Rajive hai mere pitaji 1965 meN Deoband meN SHO thai. (My name is Rajiv and my father was posted as an SHO in 1965 in Deoband).’
The mention of ‘Rajiv’ suddenly triggered my childhood memories, stored somewhere in my mind, and I said, ‘Ji haN mujhe achchi tarah yaad hai (Yes I remember everything very well).’
I had hardly completed my sentence when Rajive Bhai moved forward. He gave me a warm and passionate hug. He virtually sobbed as he embraced me and tears started rolling down his face as if he had found his real brother separated some 57 years ago. In 1965 I was about eight years old, and Rajiv Bhai must have been about 11.
Rajiv Bhai has retired after serving as a General Manager in a reputable bank. His younger brother serves the Government of India in a very high and sensitive position because of which I am having to hide not only his name but even their surnames. Other members of this family also occupy high positions in the bureaucracy and the police service.
The three women with them were Rajiv Bhai’s two elder sisters and the wife of his younger brother. Their eldest sister lives in another city in western Uttar Pradesh and was unable to join them.
In 1964-65 their father rented our next-door house that was demolished and annexed with our house a few years ago, except a room that is being used as an outhouse. In this very room was born Rajiv Bhai’s younger brother. When Rajiv Bhai told him that he was born in that room the atmosphere was filled with emotions, sentiments and nostalgia.
As we sat down, Rajiv Bhais’s big sister, Neelam Didi, asked about my mother. When told that she was no more, sadness was obvious on the faces of all of them. They started talking about my late mother’s beauty and her beautiful manners.
Although nothing is left of the old house in which this lovely family had lived, they kept taking photographs even of empty spaces and the only room that still stands there.
They asked one by one about all the old neighbours, all of whom are relatives and part of an extended family. Rajiv Bhai told us that whenever the siblings got together, they missed and talked about the Deoband of their childhood days and had been planning to visit it for several years. I live in London and being not only in Deoband but also at home on that day—on Sunday 27 February 2022— when their plan at last materialised was merely a happy coincidence.
By now more and more of my memories of old days had started coming to life and I told them that one of their sisters, a pretty young lady at that time, had learnt how to cook minced meat from my mother. I narrated to them the whole scene. But the sister in question was the one who could not make it and could not join us on that day. So, she was contacted via a video link.
They accepted having lunch with us and cancelled the one that had been arranged by local police officials at the Dak Bungalow.
Incidentally, Rajiv Bhai and his younger brother both are typical Aligarians. Only Aligarians know what it is like when old Aligarians meet. The younger brother had a taste for Urdu poetry and made the best use of his memory and wit by referring to Urdu and Hindi verses. All of us were too absorbed in chatting and laughing to note the time and realise that for more than four hours we had been in a deep spell of nostalgia.
In 1965 when these loveable siblings were our next-door neighbours, in our neighbourhood, mohalla, there lived quite a few Sikh and Hindu families. They had come to live in the houses left abandoned by the Pathans in 1947. Thus, our mohalla had become a good mix of Pathans, Sikhs and Hindus. The children of these three communities grew up playing together. All neighbours participated in each other’s occasions of sadness, and festivities and religious hatred was an alien concept.
A few years after Rajiv Bhai’s father was transferred to another town, Badgaon and, a police inspector and his wife moved in the house vacated by them. I do not remember his full name. He was known by his surname, Sharmaji. He was a very sociable man and possessed a handsome personality. However, he had a bad habit of returning home in a drunken state and being violent to his wife. The couple had no children. Maybe this had some psychological impact on Sharmaji.
One day his wife came to my Dadi (maternal grandmother) and poured out her heart to her telling her about what she had been going through. Dadi was a very bold and courageous lady. If she decided to do something she did not stop without completing it. She promised Sharmaji’s wife that she would do something about it. One night as Sharmaji came home and started yelling at his wife and beating her, wearing her Burqa, Dadi went to Sharmaji and shouted at him, ‘Yeh shareefoN ka mohalla hai. YahaN zaleel harkateN nahiN hotiN. Aur hamari beti ke saath yeh sab karne ki aap ki himmat kaise hui? (Cultured and civilised people live in this neighbourhood. Such vulgar behaviour is not allowed here. And how dare you treat our daughter like this?)’
Hearing Dadi’s scolding Sharmaji went quiet. He did not utter a word. Next day when he met my father, with an embarrassed smile on his face he said, ‘Mataji ne raat meri khabar le dali. Ab yeh harkat nahiN hogi. (Mom took me to task last night. I promise nothing of this would happen now.).
After this incident no one ever heard Sharmaji yelling at and beating his wife. For as long as they lived in Deoband Mrs Sharma remained grateful to Dadi. Reflecting upon that incident I often wonder can anyone in today’s polarised and poisonous environment even think of acting like my Dadi? And can anyone even imagine the respect that Sharmaji had demonstrated for an elderly lady behaving as if he was being admonished by his own mother?
This reminds me of yet another incident of inter-faith friendship and tolerance. In our mohalla we had a very quiet neighbour called Rooplalji. Unlike him, his wife, Sheela Khala, (Sheela auntie), as all of the children of the neighbourhood used to call her, a was very sociable lady. It so happened that at the wedding of my phoopi (paternal aunt), their invitation remained undelivered. Everyone in the family was embarrassed and wondered how the oversight of such a magnitude was made. The presence of the two sons of the couple who were seen serving the baraties did not let anyone realise the blunder that had been committed. It was only after the wedding that Sheela Khala came to my Dadi and expressed her disappointment at not being invited. She said that her sons had been sent by her husband who had sent them instructing: ‘This is your sister’s wedding. Go and serve the baraties and come back quietly.’
On Eid day my father’s Hindu friends, including prominent personalities of the town, used to come to our house to offer Eid greeting and enjoy sheer. Baqra Eid used to be different though. However, those who liked kebab, used to come in the evening. Similarly, Muslims used to attend Diwali and Holi festivities but avoided participating in phag.
Some of the very close and childhood friends of my father, Abdul Aleem Khan, were late Lieutenant Kuldeep Singh Rawat, who died of cancer at a very young age, late Luxmichand, aka Lachchi and Jitendra Kumar Arora. Like Kuldeep Singh, Arora Saheb also got commissioned in the Indian army. However, having briefly served as a lieutenant he appeared in and qualified the Indian Civil Service exam. He retired as a Chief Secretary in Karnataka. For many years he did not miss an Eid without sending greetings to my father through telegram, no matter which part of the country he was at that time.
Arora Saheb’s sister, Sarla Didi, treated my younger sisters like her real nieces. One day my younger sister Sheema Aleem, now a Psychology Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, got hold of the idol of Hindu deity Luxmi and started playing with it. The idol fell out of her hands and broke into pieces. The family’s reaction, especially Arora Saheb’s grandmother was amazing: ‘Chalo ab laga to sahi keh is ghar meN koi bachcha ata hai. (Doesn’t matter. At last, it has been proved that a child comes in this house.)’ This was the family that had migrated from Pakistani Punjab and had faced the tragedy of partition. Compare this with Modi’s and Yogi’s India of today.
But today, like most of India, especially north, Deoband presents a completely contrasting picture from the town of my childhood days. This historic town also fell to the hatred spread all over the country by L.K. Advani, through his so-called Rath Yatras in the 80s when he caused a second partition within cities and towns, forcing Hindus and Muslims living in mixed neighbourhoods to move to exclusively Hindu or Muslim localities. All non-Muslims from our Mohalla have moved out and the town has been completely divided into Hindu and Muslim quarters.
The poisonous tree that has now polluted the whole country was planted by none other than L. K. Advani. Reporting on his mischief, celebrated British writer William Dalrymple wrote:
‘In the German winter of 1929 it was the political failure of the Weimar Republic and the onset of hyperinflation that ushered in the rise of the National Socialists Party. In the winter of 1990 a similar course of events has brought to prominence the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP). In the 1984 election the BJP took only two seats. Last year they took 88. When Chandra Shekhar’s rag-tag government falls (and few expect it to survive much beyond the spring of 1991, most commentators predict that the BJP will sweep the whole of northern India… The man behind BJP’s rise to power is L.K. Advani… BJP’s revolution has been preceded by a mysterious distribution of tens of thousands of inflammatory cassettes… The cassettes openly encouraged anti-Muslim violence: “Our Motherland cries out for succour, cries out for martyrs who will cut the [Muslims] enemies of the nation to pieces” says one I found in a market near my house. “We cannot suffer anymore the descendants of Babur [founder of the Mogul dynasty]. If this means a blood bath, then let there for once be a blood bath.”… In Delhi drawing rooms fascism has become fashionable; educated people will tell you without embarrassment that it is about time the Muslims are disciplined—that they are dirty and fanatical, that they breed like rabbits. While chattering classes chatter, others take direct action. As I write, Old Delhi is in flames as Hindus and Muslims battle it out in the streets’. (The Spectator, 8 December 1990).
The impact of the poison spread by BJP-RSS is visible in every walk of life in India. Following farmers’ agitation and interfaith unity displayed during this period, gullible ones like me had started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We were hoping for a crushing defeat and total rejection by the voters of Modi-Yogi’s politics of division and polarisation. Sadly, the coming back to power of a fascist like Yogi has dashed our hopes. May God bless the Indians with the ability to use the brains all humans have been blessed with. May the Almighty bless people like Rajiv Bhai and his family members with steadfastness, and may they continue to show light to the misguided majority. Not only the Muslims but the whole country and future generations of all communities will have to pay a heavy price for the deadly intoxication of Islamophobia being spread by the saffron goons.