This is not a war story. Neither is this a tale of some great, unforgettable love. This is just a part of my memories that has survived the weathering of time.
That was the year of 1991. I was all of age eight. Born to a great Indian joint family, we all, my father and my uncles with all their families, lived in a huge house that belonged to my grandfather, in a small town in eastern Utttar Pradesh, a northern state in
Our house stood on the corner of the main road. Next to our house passed a thin, filthy gully, on the other side of which was situated the Badi Masjid (the big Mosque) of the town. In those days we did not have a timepiece in our rooms. It was not that we were not rich enough to buy one; but it was never needed. We all used the Ajaan at the Masjid as our time identifier. It is said that good Muslims pray five times a day, and so the Ajaan was played at five times – morning 6 O’clock, then around 8:00 AM, then at around one in afternoon, then at around five in evening. And the last Ajaan was paid at 8 PM. What I understood from my daily observation was that Ajaan was played as a reminder after which all men from Muslim families would come to the place of worship to pray to god.
I used to be back at around 3 PM from school. Then after having my lunch and talking to my sisters, I would play with my cousins for some time. After which was my homework time. But in our city, and in fact in most of the cities in my state, the power would go off after six in evening. The ladies of the house would light the kerosene lamps and would place them such that minimum lamps are used for maximum light in our ultra big house.
This was the time my sisters would go for their daily chatters and I would be left in the room with a lamp and my books. The windows of my room opened to the gully that passed between our house and the Masjid. I always wondered, in those days, that how could a loudspeaker sing the Ajaan if there was no electricity! And with all my Intelligence quotient I figured out that we could generate electricity by connecting such instruments as speaker with the kerosene lamp. On one occasion, I had argued with Payal didi that we could watch television by following my way of generating electricity. I didn’t know there was a thing like Electricity Generator, then. Closing the doors, I would take the lamp near the window and would try to look into the rooms in the Masjid through their windows.
My elder brother, Pawan, had told me some stories – stories that had fear and the ghosts and the magic. And one more thing, they all were the tales of the Masjid and its long-bearded caretaker. My brother was a hero in all those stories. If I would have not been told those stories, I would have loved the Masjid, I think. It was a beautiful piece of architecture. All white. It used to glow like a palace in full moon nights. I could see its big, clean, open space from my window where the men sat to offer their prayers. It looked very beautiful and rhythmic to me the way they all moved the different parts of their bodies during the process of praying. But when these people were gone, the Masjid would look a little too empty and very quite - To the extent of making it fearful. And when the caretaker would roam around in the place, it offered a perfect arrangement to Pawan bhaiya for creating his great, fearful stories which he would narrate to us, all children, in the lightless nights. After my several visits to several different places of worship in all my growing up years, now I know, that, in general, a mosque is the best place to sit back and connect to oneself, if not to god. It’s a place where you can meditate and introspect with serenity. And when one find his own self, that’s when he finds god.
I was not allowed to open the curtains of my window, after dark. But one could not survive without that as it would be too hot inside, without the fan. So when alone in my room and exactly in no mood to work on my homework, I would open the window and would try to figure out what that mysterious person from my brother’s stories would do in the Masjid.
Frankly speaking, I was not with a brave heart. But I did have some curiosity. So, in a hope to see a little more, I brightened up the lamp and stared inside the blank, black rooms of Masjid. Suddenly, I saw a face on the window on the other side of the gully, with white beards and a lamp in hands, staring back at me through his deep, kohl-ed eyes. He had a pure white face with a black mark on his forehead. My eyes widened up in horror. I could see the face directly coming out of my brother’s stories and I ran directly, thought the long corridors of my long house, to the kitchen.
Taking a few breaths in, I called out, “Maa.”
To which my mother replied, “yes, son.”
“Can I please sit with you here, please?”
“But, here, it’s very hot.”
“No problem. I am little feared to sit in the room. Just a little, not much.”
“Arre! What do you have to fear about? It’s our home!”
“I know but I am scared. I just saw the ghost about which….” I trailed off. My brother had taken a promise that we would not tell anyone the ghost stories he narrated.
“What ghost? Rubbish! Did Pawan tell you any new ghost story?”
“No… No… it’s just that I saw a face in the window… please let me sit here. I won’t disturb you in your cooking.”
“But why did you open the window? Don’t know that all mosquitoes will fly in? We won’t be able to sleep in that room now without lighting the mosquito repellent. And then you will cry as you can’t bear the smell of the repellent!”
“I am sorry… but…”
“Nothing. Go to the room and close the window, now.”
“Maa, but there’s that ghost in Masjid. If I go close to my window he will stretch his hands and will catch my neck.”
“Who told you all that?”
“Bha…” I was about to say bhaiya, but avoided, “Nobody. But, I know it does. And I am not going to that room without you.”
“Shut up, Parv. Don’t make useless stories and excuses to escape from your homework. Get your sisters from the porch, and go to the room and finish your homework.”
“But there’s no light in the gallery. How can I go to the porch?”
“Parv, it’s enough. Light the lamp that’s kept in the side of the room and go.”
“But I have problems with the English assignment. I don’t like English. It’s very tough.”
“Do you not have any other assignments?”
“I have. But I don’t understand English.”
“Go and finish the other assignments. We will do English later.”
“But why cant we do English now. You can tell me here only, naa?”
“Parv, I am really very pissed off. Please go now, at once. Otherwise I will beat you very badly.”
At this I made some sad faces and went out of the kitchen. Mustering all my courage I entered the room again to collect the lamp and ran to the kitchen to get it lighted. Then went to the porch where all my cousins and my sisters were sitting and gossiping.
“Pragati di, come to the room with me. I have to finish my homework.” I requested to one of my two sisters. I would always try to take chance on her as she was younger to Payal didi and a little closer to me.
“Arre yaar, why don’t you bring your homework here and do it? It’s so hot in the room.”
“I am not going to room again and come back. Please come, naa. Maa will get angry at me if I don’t do the homework” I was almost near to a sob.
“Okay, wait for five minutes. Then we will go.” She tried to finish her gossip. But by the time she finished, I found myself engaged in it.
We only realized it was too late when my mother came and shouted at me angrily, “I asked you to go to room and finish your homework. And you are sitting here and gossiping! Wait I will teach you a lesson today.” She ran to catch hold of me. I jumped on the other side, shouting, “Maa, I came to ask didi to come with me. But she didn’t. Please don’t beat me.”
This helped a little to divert my mother’s anger onto my sisters, “What you girls do all the time? Can’t you sit with your brother and get his work done?”
Payal didi whispered to Pragati didi to make a move. She, then, collected her stuff and started moving to our room. We two, Pragati didi and I, walked in front followed by my mother and her continuous curses and threats of the matter to be reported to my father.
Back in the room, I tried to prioritize the homework once again. Once decided, I opened the notebook and started writing. Didi engaged her in listening to radio.
“You know di, I saw that ghost today, in that window.” Pointing to the window outside, I told her after sometime.
“Shut up and finish your homework.”
Saddened by her non-interest in the subject, I turned my head back to my book. But to take the revenge, in next instance, I faced up and said, “Switch off the radio. I am getting disturbed.”
“Keep shut and concentrate on your work.” She would snap back.
“Maaaaaaaaaaa, di is playing radio. She is not letting me do my homework.” I shouted from the room, loud enough that it be heard in kitchen.
“Shut up else I would go out of the room. You will have to sit alone here.”
“Maaaaaaaaaa, di is going out of the room.” I yelled again, complaining.
“What’s happening, there?” My mother called out.
“Nothing,” My sister replied to her call, shouting with equal effort and then turning the radio off, she told me, “now finish your work fast, ok?” and she whacked very softly on my head.
But the beating was hard enough to make me cry, falsely. I started walking to the kitchen, crying. “Maa, di is beating me.”
After deadly irritated with this whole extravaganza, my mother came out of the kitchen. Holding me by my arms and walking me back to the room, she asked my sister, “What’s happening here?”
“I did nothing. He is just making excuses to escape from his homework.”
“No maa, she beats me!” I would protest.
“Shut up, both of you. Parv, take your books and come with me to kitchen.”
I collected my books, made some ugly faces to tease my sister and ran to follow my mother.
Once the dinner was ready, maa asked, “Finished you homework?”
“Finish it and then eat your dinner.”
“Will you feed me today?”
“Are you a kid and can’t eat with your hands?”
“But I don’t like to. I get bored eating alone. And I take too long to finish my meal.”
“Then go and ask your sister to feed you. She has really spoiled you. I have loads of other work to do”
“But she is angry at me. She won’t feed me today. Please, you feed me. I eat very fast when you feed me. It won’t take long.”
“No Parv. It’s not going to happen. Now finish your home work.”
After finishing my homework, I took my food plate and went to my room. There, I found my sister listening to radio.
“Will you feed me?”
“Eat by yourself. Don’t you have hands?”
“I have. Two hands.” Then I sat in the corner of the room, solemnly, putting my plate on the study table and started eating. My bites were small and slow and bored.
After minutes of my struggle with food, my sister got up, took my plate on her side and started feeding me. Big, giant pieces of chapatti rolled over equally big pieces of potatoes.
“It’s too big. And I don’t want to eat vegetables.” I complained.
“Eat fast, you Nautanki!” She said and then smiled.
I pulled my eyebrows up to see the expression on her face. Satisfied with the idea that we had arrived at truce, I smiled back. And she rubbed her hands through my hairs. We laughed aloud. In the kitchen, my mother was smiling happily at our reunion.
That was when the last Ajaan of the day flew out of the loudspeakers. It was 8:00 PM. And then, I narrated my great experience with the ghost in the Masjid window to her, happily horrified.
As I told you, it’s not a great, war story, neither was it a grand tale of love. If printed in a book or made into a movie, not too many people would care to read or watch. But these simple moments, at times, stay for longer than any big event of an individual’s life. And for that person, these small fights have a bigger significance than a great war and this simple feeling of being loved has a greater importance than any great love story. This story, of my own life, has stayed, in my heart. And after some fifteen years from that night, I could still recall those moments in their exactness as if I am reading the pages of an unwritten memoir. And I smile.