June 2009 in Gaya was a long month. We had heard that Bihar was a jungle, that everybody had a makeshift katta that they tucked in their underwear, that murder was an everyday affair. For weeks, mother would worry that somebody would kidnap my sister.
Clouds flocked the sky every other evening that month, promising a downpour. It was the summer of promises; the elections had just concluded. Old men that lived on their children’s generosity and thinning patience, and young women worried that they were still unmarried – nobody liked false promises.
In the evenings, round neighbourhood mothers and slightly balding, mildly moustached fathers gathered on their balconies and whined about the heat, an the endless bouts of diarrhoea it gave their children while swatting a wooden hand fan at their scowling faces in the middle of the daily electricity outage that would often last six hours or more.
My vacations were over. Two months spent reading, and napping and waiting to see if Bihari schools were anything like Bihari streets – an afterthought at best, a grudging, half-hearted concession to the endless demands of modernity at worst. I was ten, and when we had left Midnapore, the slow Bengali city of countless sweetshops where I grew up, I was sure I was too old to make new friends.
It was June 19. I stood at my bus stop, a small clearing full of dogs and drunks by the national highway. There were three other kids, two girls and a boy, and a middle aged Muslim man with an orange moustache that smiled and tried talking to my father. They lived in the “Muslim colony’ at the end of the street from our house, father told me over dinner that night.
Now, these were simpler times. A man’s god was his private affair. At worst, it was met with silent judgement or an uneasy cough. There were no demands of ‘Jai Shree Ram’.
Father, always uncomfortable around Muslims, had sulked at the idea of staying close to a Muslim neighbourhood. His favourite pastime, in the long evenings of power cuts, was to enlighten me and my sister, in lurid detail, of the boundless barbarity of Islam. Despite this, he shrugged and said that I could befriend the Muslim boy at the bus stop. (But not the girls, he said, wagging his impossibly long index finger).
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Next day, at the bus stop, I tried chatting with the boy. He was called Nashit. It seemed like an exotic name. I wanted it for myself. We sat in the bus together, and he asked me how I liked the school. Boys in the backseat tapped my shoulder and tried talking to me. I ignored their advances. “Bhenc***,” one of them yelled and they all giggled. For a split second, cussing like their dads and uncles, they too had become men. Nashit glared at them and they apologised. He was 12; the rest of them, barely ten.
By late July, when the rains finally arrived in Gaya, Nashit had become like an elder brother to me. In the evenings I went over to his house, a large lemon green building, with the biggest living room that I had ever seen. He had a sister. She was 11. They called her Nooro. I never found out her “good” name. In those rapidly shortening rainy evenings, Nashit and I would play cricket outside his house with a dozen other boys of his neighbourhood. Nooro would watch us sometimes, and when she did, I could hear my chest flutter and thump and whine and fall quiet with the dull thud of the tennis ball cleaning away my stumps.
Once she laughed, and I, face red with embarrassment, broke into a smile. She laughed louder. I wished she wouldn’t stop. I could look back now and call it love, or that ugly word ‘infatuation’, but these were not words that I knew then, and to cage in a few vacant letters, that feeling of utter and absolute warmth, the quiet urgency of longing to look at her again the next day, seems dishonest. I think we only spoke once.
Nashit would tell me frightening stories from the Quran. Having known only the Machiavellian morality of the Mahabharata, these stories seemed rather funny to me. How foolish could these men be? Why was their God so cruel and demanding? I asked him these questions. He smiled and told me I was too young for theology.
When I repeated this over dinner, father worried that he was trying to convert me. “But Nashit is a good Muslim,” he assured himself and laughed. Then, suddenly serious, he narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t you tell him about the Mahabharata?” He already knows, I said, and father shook his head and asked me to read the Gita so I could retort to Nashit by saying that he was too young for moral philosophy.
In the two Diwalis that I spent in Gaya, Nashit would come over to our house and eat sweets. He would bring with him bigger, more dangerous crackers than the ones we had and show me how to burst them. My parents never stopped him. Those Gaya years seem an aberration now, in what has otherwise been a simple progression of growing bigotry in my parents.
Once, he took me to his masjid. I had never seen so many bearded men gathered together, so many women, covered in black, with only their eyes peeping out at the masjid’s claustrophobic holiness. I panicked and fled the scene. Nashit never bought up the incident again, but I suspect he was deeply hurt.
When father was transferred to Bhubaneswar in 2011, I cried. Nashit had not cried in seven years. He said it was a matter of honour. He promised that he would never forget me. I looked at Nooro and waved at her. She waved back and ran back into her room. I have changed half a dozen phones since. I no longer have his number. I could not find him on Instagram. His Facebook account has lingered on in my friends list, dormant for five years now; in the hope that one day he might text me.
Now, those years are in my mind, a blank summer afternoon of ceaseless loo, punctuated by a stray donkey braying in the garbage dump behind our house. Nothing of significance happened at all. Nobody kidnapped my sister. Nobody pulled a gun on any of us. And yet, in retrospect, those were years of freedom. It is perhaps the very nature of freedom, and its great tragedy that it can be found only in hindsight.
Nashit would be 23 now. He had dreamt of serving in the Indian army – the litmus test of patriotism for Indian Muslims. I don’t know if he did in fact join the NDA, but I wonder from all that I hear about the inhuman training that army men endure if it finally made Nashit cry.
Sometimes, I wonder if he is dead. I will never know for sure.
When not wallowing in dystopian AI fuelled fantasies of the future, Atish Padhy can be found trying to write to resist his mother’s attempts to oil his hair. He can be reached on Instagram @aristoadle.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty