– Navendu Tripathi
I was brought up my Uncle and Aunt (Bua & Fufa). When I turned a teenager, my Uncle retired from the Army and decided to settle in the outskirts of his regiment’s hometown. The town was Roorkee in Haridwar district, on the border of Uttar-Pradesh & Uttaranchal.
Our house along with two houses of my Uncle’s regimental colleagues was built about 5 kms from the main town, amidst the lush green fields, close to a village called Bijoli. We belong to the Hindu Brahmin community and this was a predominantly Muslim village. My earliest memories are of a mosque right in front of my house, beside which was a ‘kolhu’ (A jaggery-making machine with a sugarcane juice extractor).
Our day-to-day life was quite dependent on the village for milk, domestic help and the family’s favourite i.e. sugarcane juice. It’s best left to imagination how much of juice was bought by us from the ‘kolhu’ and the various delicacies my Aunt made from it—including ras-kheer and so on.
My Aunt had quite a penchant for embroidery, stitching and related skills. During Uncle’s service stint, she had worked with military spouses through the Army Wives Welfare Association to train them for self-sustenance. In fact, as the Commanding Officer’s spouse in a Northeastern base, I remember her leading the unit’s wives to many awards.
In the village, out of boredom, she decided to start a boutique as a business with the help of the local village women. But all women in the village were burqa-clad and getting them to work outside was tough! However, our aged chowkidar’s (guard) wife with her trademark silver white hair, whom I remember calling ‘Bibi’, was the first to show up—clad in a burqa!! My Aunt trained her first and slowly other women and girls showed up as they saw a chance to earn extra money for their families. As the business grew, another neighbour’s wife (a Hindu Brahmin with an ex-army background) pitched in to help train the girls—most of them teenagers.
A small workshop was built just outside the house and, every morning, an army of burqa-clad women turned up at our house. Our mornings usually started with either ‘Ram Charit Manas/Hanuman Chalisa/Bhajans’ playing on the old tape recorder and my Uncle and Aunt praying in a Puja Room (Prayer Room), situated next to the lounge through which the ladies entered. On days when my Aunt would get a little late, she would quickly finish her prayers while the women stood waiting, still clad in burqas and watching here. My aunt would profusely apologise for the delay and get on with the day’s work.
Over the five years I stayed at Roorkee with them, I saw a lot of Muslim girls & women getting trained and sustaining themselves. Whenever a girl was about to get married, she would come to bid farewell to my aunt who always, without exception, gave them a parting gift—as is the ritual for daughters getting married in India. I saw many an emotional parting over the years and, soon, stories of them starting their own little ventures wherever they went reached our ears. To this day some of the girls call my Aunt.
After a few years, my uncle got an offer to be a consultant. After an emotional departure from Roorkee and being now free from all their familial duties (their children were working by then and I was off to college), they used their free time and resources for a lifelong dream of visiting the twelve Jyotirlings of Lord Shiva, of whom they are pious devotees.
Looking back, I so often wonder, if they could, despite their pious Hindu beliefs, empower and care for the girls from a different community, why is it so hard for people today to follow their faith with devotion and yet love and respect their fellow beings irrespective of their beliefs.
As a kid, all this never struck me as odd because ‘being good to fellow beings’ seemed a prevailing ‘common sense’! It was just two sets of people, different in their beliefs, living their lives and co-operating for a common good while respecting and accepting each other despite the external differences. This respect and acceptance is key to communal peace and harmony in a diverse culture. For a society at odds with itself, some of the best lessons in amity and respect for diversity come from the rustic backyards of India’s rural areas.