My Grandfather’s Bedtime Tale of Tolerance

I was probably seven-years-old when I first noticed the inked fingers of all the elders in my family.

The days leading upto to this ‘inking day’ would be filled with loud discussions centred around names I never saw or met. Loud rallies that sounded like wedding processions would pass through the streets where shabbily dressed people screamed from open jeeps.

It took me a few more years to comprehend the significance of this inking day.

In a political family like ours, voting rights are taken very seriously. When I say political, I don’t want to imply any resemblance or relationship with the political class of this country. Nobody in my family has ever contested an election, or is a member of any political party.

My interest in politics has been handed down by my grandfather. He was a union leader in his youth and was eventually sacked by his employer at MTNL for disrupting the system through his union activities. He died in 2004 after a brief but painful battle with cancer.

Narendra Modi was still the chief minister of Gujarat and it had not even been two years since Muslims living in Gujarat were massacred. This was one of the first riots I witnessed in my life.

In 2002, I was 10 and my grandfather had shown no symptoms of cancer yet. Twenty-four hours news channels had already erupted and were showing non-stop coverage of the riots. I have a vague memory of the coverage as I was hardly allowed to watch TV in those days.

But I distinctly remember the air in the house being thick with gloom and tension. Religious fault lines were still not drawn on my impressionable mind, and I had no clue how to differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim. When I asked my grandmother about who Muslims were, she said, “they all eat meat from the same plate”.

“That is not too much of a difference,” I said and ran away.

I grew up in a small urban village on the fringes of South Delhi. There are about 135 urban villages in Delhi that are still firmly organised around religious and caste identities.

Ours was a Brahmin village with very few families from other castes and religion. They were only there to provide services to the Brahmin population, which is still not capable of cleaning toilets, making pots, or cutting hair. We were one such family.

My grandfather, a landless janeu-dhari Brahmin from Haryanam had settled in this village after marrying my grandmother who was born there. In the late 90s, this largely upper caste Hindu village opened its doors to a few Muslim families. I have no way to establish if they were welcomed without hesitation or suspicion, but I would like to give the benefit of doubt to my elders living in pre-2002 India.

We came in close contact with one such family who ironed all the clothes of our household. Every evening, Shoaib, a boy my age, would come and collect clothes, which were later returned, neatly ironed and folded by his mother. Growing up, Shoaib and his family were the only Muslims I knew. Our interaction was limited and divided by the barriers of class and religion. Shoaib’s mother always sent a packet of dates and other dry fruits on Eid every year, and my mother reciprocated the gesture by sending sweets on Diwali.

As a burning Gujarat was televised live across the country, I walked up to my mother one evening as she was discussing some riot-related news with my father and grandfather.

I asked her, “Will you burn Shoaib’s house? What will you do if someone else comes to burn his house and kill him?” My mother stared at me for a few seconds before she began talking. “I will never burn his house. No one will burn his house and if someone does, I will do everything in my capacity to protect him. And you know why I will do that?” she asked.

I stared at the floor blankly before she started speaking again.

“Not because he is a Muslim or a Hindu. I will protect him and his family because they are dear to us. I am sure they will do the same. You should always remember to care for people irrespective of their religion. Do you understand?” I said yes, but I didn’t fully understand what she meant. I wanted to ask her about the time she gossiped about a distant relative who was cast out after she ran away with a Muslim boy. I made a mental note to ask her later.

In that moment, I was relieved to know that Shoaib and his family were safe in our neighbourhood.

A few days later, my grandfather called me on the terrace to indulge in our weekly stargazing ritual. Once every week, both of us would lie down on a khaat (a small-sized bed) to gaze at the stars and discuss all the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the world. I would pose questions – which he would never answer straight – but would give me enough fodder to concoct mine.

When reached there, he was sitting calmly on the khaat. He had something in his hand which looked like a stone from a distance. When I saw it up close after perching myself on the khaat, I realised it was a small idol of Ganesh, shabbily carved from a single stone. The maker didn’t possess much skill and it looked like a fourth-grade clay rendition of Ganesh (I am sure my ten-year-old self didn’t acutely analyse the tiny idol and this is my present self imposing on my younger self).

He handed me the idol and asked me to guess where it came from.

“Did you find it at the banks of Ganga in Rishikesh?” I said.

My grandfather was a firm believer in Ganga and went to Rishikesh almost every month.

“No. I found it under our house in Haryana when I was eight.”

“How did you go under your house? I can’t go under my house. Did you go through a tunnel?”

“I will tell you the story of how I found this but you have to be awake and attentive. You can’t doze off in the middle. Are you sure you can do that?”

“Yes! Please tell me the story.” I was always hungry for stories. They were fodder for my various daydreaming escapades. My grandfather started talking after taking a few sips of his whiskey:

This was a long time ago. I was probably your age or even younger. I remember living in a small room in our village in Haryana. There were four of us siblings living with our parents in that one room house. The rest of my four siblings were yet to arrive. My parents decided to build another room in the house to accommodate the growing family. I arrived one day after school to see that the courtyard in front of the room being dug. I was fascinated by the earth being excavated and I wanted to discover the world beneath our feet. My father was digging along with a few other relatives and mother was preparing lunch for everyone. I got distracted and started playing with mud. After some time had passed, I glanced up and saw that my father and his relatives were standing in a circle around one corner of the excavated courtyard. I thought they had found a snake. I went closer and tried to look by hiding behind my father’s legs. There was no snake, but just a clump of earth mixed with shards of glass bangles. One of the relatives dug further and found this stone idol of Ganesh.

The broken bangles and this idol that you are holding in your hand were buried in the courtyard a couple of centuries before I was born. In one of the Hindu-Muslim clashes, where each community was killing the other, most of the men in our family were killed, widowing the women and orphaning the children.

Two brothers survived who had the responsibility of taking care of the women and children and keeping the family name alive. One of the brothers decided to convert to Islam, while the other remained Hindu. By doing so, they ensured that the remaining family remained safe against any community, Hindu or Muslim, that attacked the village. One could take refuge in other’s house, depending on who the attacking community was.

The two brothers married and had families of their own and they lived together until the partition in 1947, until the Muslim side of the family migrated to Pakistan.

“We have a family in Pakistan?!” I was surprised and shocked.

“Yes we do. But we don’t know where they are. Nobody knows.”

“Let’s go find them!”

My grandfather started laughing. We lay there gazing the stars as my mind tried to make sense of what I was just told.

The ‘others who ate meat’ were suddenly a part of my own personal history.

After a few minutes, my grandfather spoke again. “I told you this story because I want you to understand and acknowledge that at some point, we were all one. You must always remember that.”

Two years later, when my grandfather passed away, all of us in the family grieved and tried to pull ourselves out of a hole that was left in our collective hearts. We sat together one night to look at our old photographs, and find solace in the past where we still had him. His elder brother was with us that night.

I asked him if he knew about our family members who migrated to Pakistan. He seemed to know nothing about such a family. I narrated the story to him and everyone else in the room. There was complete silence after I finished before everyone broke into unanimous laughter.

“Your grandfather was a great storyteller. You should go to bed.”

Its been 17 years since my grandfather told me that story. I have no means to know whether his story was true or not, but I have always believed in what he tried to pass on, through it. Today, when I recollect the tale, I know how easy it would have been to tell this through the lens of bigotry and hate. Instead, it was told to me as a story of shared history between two communities who are more similar than we are willing to accept.

When I voted this time, I voted with full acceptance and acknowledgment of our shared past, which I won’t allow being divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. When I voted this time, I voted for a tomorrow where I can safely tell my grandchildren the story of our Muslim family in Pakistan.

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and researcher based in Mumbai. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty