A secularism of despondency or a secularism of hope?

Mera abai watan
, my ancestral home, the place to which I belong, is Lucknow.  Lucknow is ‘my city of joy’; and for me Lucknow’s identity derives from ‘old Lucknow.’ The newer part of the city is a creation of barely thirty to thirty-five years and bears little reflection of what Lucknow otherwise stands for.

There can be little conceptualization of Lucknow’s legendary culture, its tehzeeb, without any imagination of ‘old Lucknow’. As an instance of how deeply this tehzeeb had percolated into society, I still recall, on a few occasions that I happened to accompany my maternal uncle to the Raqabganj sabzi mandi, the hawkers would attract buyers for slender and delicate kakdis (skinny cucumbers) with the poetic call – ‘lijiye – lijiye, laila ki ungliyan, majnu ki pasliyan’ (‘Come, get these delicate fingers of Laila, Majnu’s slender  ribs’, referring to the legendary star-crossed lovers Laila-Majnu).

Old Lucknow’s lanes and by-lanes, its busy bazaars, the Chowk – famous for chikan embroidery and zari work; Prakash ki kulfi in Aminabad (a popular market in old Lucknow); the early morning doodh malai and jalebi stalls; the horse-driven ikkas and the tangas; the masjids and their aazaans; the Siddhanath Mandir next door to our house; burqa clad women and the Muslim men wearing dupalia topis, headgear sometimes worn by Hindu men too, especially on Holi; Chaar Bagh railway station; Hanuman Inter ‘Kalej’ and ‘Quins Kalej’ (colleges from where my mother and father matriculated respectively; in the Awadh area of Uttar Pradesh ‘college’ would typically be pronounced as ‘kalej’); and of course how can one forget the mangoes – all of these shall forever be etched as a part of my childhood memories.

Another feature that is ubiquitous to the old city is patang-baazi, the fine art of kite flying; a more colloquial term for which is ‘kan-kawwa udana’. It is not possible to say that there is ‘a’ particular season for kite flying in Lucknow. ‘Day time’ appears to be the only conditionality for this regal sport that goes on for three sixty five days a year.

My maternal uncle’s house was a one room ground floor tenement in a building that went by the name of ‘Saryu Niwas’ [i] in Ahiyya Ganj locality located on the intriguingly named Nadaan Mahal Road (Road of the Innocent Palace). I still wonder sometimes if that one room which had an attached verandah, a part of which was covered to provide an open kitchen space with a chimney, was made of some stretchable material. That house had been home to my mother before her marriage with eight other siblings, all but two being elder to her. After her marriage too, it remained home to three of my maternal uncles (of whom the eldest and the youngest remained bachelors), my mami (maternal aunt) and four cousins; yet it could easily accommodate us (my mother, my brother, my sister, myself and later my father would join us) when we went visiting Lucknow during our summer vacations; with space still remaining for unannounced guests from the village.

Now that every one of us has a spacious home, we have started fearing having to host guests beyond a day; or even for a few hours. Like the values that constitute probity in public life, Lucknow’s glory too has faded over the years.
The incident I am about to narrate happened more than forty years ago, while I was still a boy and I do not remember all the details of the time very precisely. My imagination has come into play to fill in the gaps; but I can assure readers that the core of the matter has remained unchanged.

I have already mentioned Lucknow’s obsession with kite flying. Unfortunately, our father, who has forever been our feudal lord, was fully convinced that kite flying was the pastime of vagabonds. This kept my brother and me from acquiring the skills and the refined subtleties of this ethereal sport. (My sister of course, was in any case, gendered out of this sport). But once in Lucknow during our summer vacations our pent up desire to indulge in the sport burst forth with a vengeance. Benevolent pockets of our relatives helped nurture this indulgence further; as to the lack of our skills, we compensated with the help of our cousin who fought, God alone knows, how many scintillating duels, for us and for himself, in the vengeful skies over old Lucknow, ridden with kan-kawwa’s of varied shapes and sizes and colors. Needless to say, both my brother and I had our turns at tugging the string in this great game.

It was a bright sunny day one summer when we were on the terrace of Saryu Niwas somewhat early, waging yet another battle in the sky. Several other terraces that we could survey were already occupied by intent sky raiders. The day did not begin fortuitously. Our very first flight of fancy was cut short by a rival on a nearby terrace and we watched in dismay as our kite glided away to settle on the terrace of a house further down Nadaan Mahal Road. Not to be hamstrung for long, my cousin shouted the command to run and recover the kite before others could do so, along with the instructions for finding the entrance to the building on the terrace of which the kite had fallen.

In no time I climbed down the three stories of Saryu Niwas, dashed out of the front door of the building, on to the lane it opened to, and there on to the Nadaan Mahal Road; barefoot and tugging my knickers up, as I ran for the kite. In no time I found myself climbing the stairs of a building, the terrace of which I guessed, had deposited our kite safely for me to recover. I quickly made the first flight of stairs and just as I was turning to make for the second, the great mission froze in its tracks.

Until now I had barely noticed anything that might have existed around me on the road and in this totally unknown building; but suddenly a gruff male voice rudely halted my progress – ‘aye ladke, kahan hamari dehleez mein ghuse chale aa rahe ho’? (Hey, boy, what do you think you’re doing, crossing over our threshold uninvited?)

I looked up and saw an old Muslim man of light wheatish complexion, with a wrinkled face; a flowing silvery white beard; dressed in a white kurta and pajamas; and a dupalia cap covering his longish white hair, sitting on a low cane moodha, just adjacent to the doorpost of a door that opened on to the stairway.

The door led to a verandah that was covered by a corrugated asbestos sheet on top whose white color was more or less taken over by a coating of brownish black soot that faded from its centre to the periphery. There was an intricate wrought iron railing, inter-spread with delicately designed iron pillars, overlooking the road, which circumscribed the outer boundary of the verandah. A rolled up curtain of chik that could be lowered for privacy hung above the railing from the iron bar supporting the asbestos sheet. The inner boundary of the verandah was circumscribed by a white wall with arched doorways which perhaps led to the inner chambers of the house. Right in the middle of the wall there was an attic, again with  an arched top, and two green doors, the surface of which had been darkened by the smoke that emanated from the chulha, an earthen stove that uses wood and cow dung cakes for fuel, placed just below it. I could see a woman, roughly my mother’s age then (early or maybe mid-thirties) sitting in front of the chulha and trying to ignite it with the help of a blow pipe. The house from its appearance presented a medieval look.

The old man’s stern query had frozen me with fear. It was not just the kind of fear that a boy of eight or nine years could be afflicted with, upon questioning by a stranger. It was different; it owed itself to the fact that this was my very first entry into a Muslim house. Until then, Muslims for me had been ‘the other people’ whom I had looked at from afar, or met in the safe company of my parents, but I had never interacted with them myself with the exception of the bangle seller at the front door of my mama’s house. They either did not seem to be thought of in positive terms or even exist in the lives of the people in my life. Not that anyone specifically fed my mind against them; neither did the Hindu Right wield the kind of influence in Indian society that it does today. It’s just that the world around me seemed to think like that; or so I thought. Besides, my own belonging to a conservative Brahmin family coming from central Uttar Pradesh could also have had a role in enhancing the insecurity of that moment.

Despite my trepidation, egged on by the determination to get the kite back, my fearful but intense gaze conveyed to the patriarch – ‘whatever be your authority, I am not backing off; at least not yet.’ Meanwhile, he seemed to be mellowing into amusement over my discomfiture.

He asked me – ‘kya naam hai tumhara’ (what is your name)?

‘Bikku’ (my name at home) I said; and added – ‘hamari patang aapki chhat par gir gayi hai’ (our kite has fallen on your terrace).

Kiske yahan rehte ho’ (whose house do you live in)?

‘Putaan mama ke yahan’ (in Putaan mama’s house).

When he seemed not to recall the person, I mentioned my uncle’s formal name – ‘Gaya Charan Shukla.’

‘Ooo…h’ came the acknowledgement. ‘Lekin hamne to tumhe kabhi dekha nahin’ (but I have never seen you).

Hum Dilli mein rehte hain na’ (because we live in Delhi) I clarified. ‘Garmi ki chuttiyon mein aayen hain’ (we have come during the summer break). Things had visibly eased by then, and I felt inclined to loosen my guard somewhat.
My last reply had startled the woman struggling with the chulha, who looked at me with a glorious smile and asked – ‘Aye tum Bitto ke larika aao’ (are you Bitto’s son), she asked in Awadhi, the dialect spoken in that part of Uttar Pradesh, which comprised the old state of Awadh.

I replied – ‘haan, hamari mummy ka naam Shakuntala Bajpai hai’; mein unka bada beta hoon (yes, our mother’s name is Shakuntala Bajpai; I am her elder son).

The lady got up and walked up to me; held my hand and gently pulled me into the verandah, saying – ‘daro naahi, hum tumhari mausi aan; tumhari amma hamre saathe Hanuman inter kalej maihan padhti rahen’ (do not be afraid, I am your mausi (mother’s sister); your mother used to study with me in Hanuman Inter College).

All this while, her countenance remained brightly lit by the glorious smile.

I was stymied by this turn of events and couldn’t figure out how to react, except to say once again – ‘meri patang?’ (my kite)?

Haan – haan, tumhari patanghoh mil jai’ (yes, you shall get your kite as well), she replied and then turning to her father, told him – ‘ee bitti bhare ker rahen jab Bitto pichli baar hamka Animabad [ii] maiha mili rahen. Apan amma ker kanaiya lade rehen; Aur ab patang udawe laag. (When I met Bitto the last time in Aminabad, this one was so small, clinging to his mother’s lap; and now he has started flying kites).

And then she made pretence of a complaint to the old man – ‘dyakho abba, Bitto Dilli se ne awuti ayen aur hamka miltihu nai’ (see abba, Bitto does not come to meet me even when she comes here from Delhi) and her abba just smiled. By now, he was looking at me affectionately.

Then, my newly introduced ‘Najma mausi’ instructed her son – ‘Aye Guddu, tanik chat par se ne bhaiya ker patang lai deyo’ (Guddu, go get your brother’s kite from the terrace). Listening to the commotion, Guddu, who must have been two to three years elder to me, had come out and was leaning against the doorpost of his room. At his mother’s instruction, he darted off to the terrace.

Meanwhile, Najma quickly rushed into the room and came out in a minute. Thrusting something into my hand, she caressed my head affectionately and said – ‘yehka rakkho, yeu hamri taraf se ne; aur apan amma se ne kaheyo ki Najma aapa yaad kai rahi rehen’ (keep this with you, this is from my side; and do tell your mother that her elder sister Najma was remembering her).

I looked at the unexpected gift; it was a two rupee coin, and I was elated. Forty or maybe forty three years ago, two rupees still had the power to make a child like me feel on top of the world. Though that much more at ease, my discomfort of the unknown still lingered and kept me from being as overtly joyful as probably I would have been elsewhere. Guddu had brought my kite by then. He handed it over with a wide grin on his face; and that was my moment of victory.

Holding the kite securely, I fervently made off back to the security of my mama’s home, priding myself, in my heart, over this remarkable achievement. That afternoon while my mother was serving us food at the chowka,[iii] I announced to her – ‘tumhari Najma aapa mili rehen; tumka yaad kai rahi rehen’ (I met your Najma aapa; she was remembering you).’

Bitto just froze for a moment. Her countenance reflected pleasure, surprise and inquisitiveness, all at the same time, and then gave way to frank exhilaration. ‘Aye, Najma tumka kahan mil gayen’ (how come you met Najma), she asked; and then I narrated the whole story. ‘Aap milogi?’ (will you meet her), I asked. ‘Haan’ she said, assenting, and then the incident was forgotten.

It has taken me so many more years, and a lot of sectarian bad blood in the world around us, to realize that that ‘two rupee coin’ was indeed among the most precious gifts of my life. While my sister, brother and I were still small, on occasions Bitto would talk of Najma aapa and other friends and the things they did together, but it is not to my memory that Bitto and Najma met each other ever after. Among the many social constructs that kept the two from keeping up their friendship was also the way we have defined the very concept of ‘secularism’ for ourselves.

Notwithstanding the ways in which many a wise expert would define ‘secularism’ for us; the one operational definition of ‘secularism’ which has been grilled into the minds of Indian people ever since I became conscious of the world around me is – ‘tolerance’ for all religions. I don’t know if anyone has ever deconstructed this word ‘tolerance’, but the way it comes through to my mind is this – ‘now that by accident of history this great country of ours has come to be inhabited by people following varied religions, we can’t help but tolerate each other to maintain peace in society.’

It would seem that secularism by definition separates communities, excludes the space to imagine a shared future and prosperity; shared aspirations for a better society for all of us; and shared perseverance and sacrifices to achieve this.
Our ruling classes have dinned into our heads a secularism of despondency; what we need is to reconstruct and rejuvenate it with our hope and vibrancy into an ideal worth living and sacrificing oneself for.

Sometimes I wonder, if only the world could be left to the devices of the Bittos and Najma aapas of this world, wouldn’t it be that much more worth living in.

[i] Alas, two years back when I had taken a one day sojourn to Lucknow while on a visit to Sitapur for my PhD field work, I found that the building had been pulled down and a new one had come up instead. To my utter dismay a part of me had been sliced away forever.
[ii] Many old timers in Lucknow and around, especially the village folk, would exchange syllables in names like ‘Aminabad’, pronouncing it as ‘Animabad’ just as they would call ‘Lucknow’ ‘Nakhlau.’
[iii] space within the kitchen where people would sit on a floor mat or a pata (a flat wooden seat) to have food.

Vikas Bajpai is Assistant Professor at Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Courtesy: Kafila.org



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