The utterance

A month after he had sneezed and uttered “Allhamulldillah!” he was still looking for a place to move in with Yamini. The whole cycle had started again: Of going through affordable houses but unlivable existential conditions, love-at-first-sight houses but burn-holes-in-pocket prices.

They finally moved into a Muslim neighborhood in Jamia Nagar. The owner, Jumman Mirza, happily handed them the keys to the apartment although he didn’t recognize the boy who now stood in front of him as an adult, and whom he had once hero-worshipped for having shown the thumb to the skies. The boy, whom he had seen once in a while, heard a lot about but never had a conversation with.

To start from the beginning, he might have been born in a Muslim ghetto in the small town of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, but people, without much appreciation of course, knew him as a rebel. They said he had got into the bad habit of objecting to everything around him and that it was in very bad taste. He did not shy from stating in front of the elderly that religion should enlighten not constrict one’s mind, that the Uttar Pradesh government’s proposal to have Fridays as half-working days for Muslims was not needed at all, that what if Tiwariji who owned the taxi stand by Pul Aatish Baazaan asked Saqib Mullah about why he kept a beard and no moustache, after all the Mullah was also curious about his moustache that twirled all the way up to his cheeks and no beard.

He must have been about thirteen years old when he had slipped at the mouth of the Jama Masjid entrance where everybody had gathered for the Juma namaz. It had rained the night before and even though the rain was not much to speak of, it had soggied the narrow lanes of Nakhasa Bazaar. He was running late and in his haste, forgot to be careful about the slippery lanes. The namaz had already begun and his dramatic fall at the entrance, legs cycling in air as his back slapped the earth with a loud ‘thud’, timed with the ritualistic greeting addressed to angels towards the men’s left shoulders, which happened to be directed towards the entrance at that time. So for a brief second, all heads turned to the left saw the sight of legs wrestling in air. And then the immediate sight, even more dramatic, of him still lying on the road and raising his thumb to the skies, “Let me see you make me ever perform the namaz again!”

Boys of his age giggled while the men touched their ears with “Lahaul vila kuwat” and continued with their prayers.

Though he irked many he knew with his gutsy opinions, there were a few who considered him a hero. Like Jumman Mirza, the son of Abdullah Miyan, whose family had owned substantial amount of land in Saharanpur. And they still lived with the pride the family had traditionally carried all those years, but under that façade they led a hand-to-mouth existence. They had lost all their land. Some to the Punjabi refugees who came from Pakistan during the Partition, some to the Indian government for the construction of roads and highways, and whatever remained to family disputes which were yet to be settled in the courts.

Abdullah Miyan took up odd jobs here and there and supported his wife and three children. The first two offspring being daughters, not much hope was pinned on them. They had to be married off at an early age to somebody who was a good enough catch. So whether the girls went to school or not, their primary training was in cooking perfect rotis. The son, Jumman Mirza, was the hope. He would be educated, fed well and supported with all material investments because he was the one who would take care of them when old age descended.

But it turned out that Jumman Mirza was a slow learner and showed no signs of any promise whatsoever. That’s when they gave up on him, removed him from the government school and set him up with the local Unani expert next to the Jama Masjid. Jumman Mirza assisted the old man in keeping the shop clean and the shelves arranged. The day he saw the boy, a few years younger to him, show a finger to God, it was like daring to do what he had wanted to do all along spending his best years with an old man with a foot in his grave and in a room that seemed as much as in a state as the old man. That day on, Jumman Mirza started hero-worshipping him. The boy had guts.

The little boy who had challenged the Lord in front of the Jama Masjid entrance, secured fantastic scores in his high school leaving examination and found a place at Hansraj College in Delhi University for his graduation. Over the three years that he was there, his liberal visions widened with the culture shocks he received: That women can smoke in public, can use certain four letter words with ease, can wear dresses where their armpits and calf-muscles showed.

Then he went to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for his Master’s where discussions, texts and lectures armed him with a philosophical orientation that transformed him into a crusader who opposed fundamentalist viewpoints and any kind of dogma. He lived his life free and independently, and that is how he wished everybody else lived.

It was here that he met Yamini and fell in love completely. He met her in early October, and Octobers in Delhi are heady with fragrances in the air and the slight chill of oncoming winters; and are as much responsible for love affairs as the object of affection itself. Their love was sealed by long walks around the campus discovering a bend or a culvert that they claimed as their own. Their love was sealed by the November mist that enveloped them, by the bonfire created in winters of twigs and discarded tea cups at Ganga Dhaba, by the trees witness to their romantic feelings as they walked by or sat beneath holding hands, lost in each other. They were two people madly and deeply in love, not a Hindu and a Muslim.

Disowned by their parents, they registered their marriage at the Kapashera Civil Court under the Special Marriage Act which did not require any conversion. They were still at the university then, living in their respective hostels, finishing their M.Phil. dissertations. Soon both were pursuing their doctorate degrees at the university and found themselves accommodation at Mahanadi, the hostel for married couples in JNU. During that time, he revisited the pre-partition, anti-imperialistic and left-oriented poetry and prose of Hameed Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Sa’adat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai.

He took to writing poems too. He wrote on characters and rituals back home in Saharanpur, struggle and fitting in as he moved to Delhi, and on communal harmony and other humanitarian matters.

By the time he received his doctorate degree, he found himself in the queue of hundreds who attended interview calls for ad-hoc and permanent lectureship at Delhi University. Then came a day when he was selected for a guest vacancy at Jamia Milia Islamia. It meant lower wages but he couldn’t be more grateful.

One pleasant February morning, he left the JNU campus with Yamini. They put up at a friend’s place in Vasant Kunj for as long as it took them to find rented accommodation. And finding a decent place was a fight. They looked for accommodation near Jamia Milia Islamia. They liked many a place but couldn’t afford them for the price. At some places, the house was nice but they didn’t like the heap of dirt or sewers overflowing near the house. Or the dirt within the house itself! Like the instance when they visited a house in an otherwise clean neighborhood at Jungpura. As soon as the landlady opened the door, a foul smell gushed out. It was difficult to stand there talking to her so they hurried upstairs with the agent to check out the flat. A similar odour greeted them there. Unable to hold her spit any more, Yamini rushed to the bathroom only to rush out in double the speed, swallowing her spit in, at the sight of the clogged pot and sink.

Then there were times when they could afford the house but never in their lives would be able to live with no ventilation or air circulation. Finally a place at Taimur Nagar, near the Gurudwara, seemed to be the perfect fit. They liked the landlord too, a retired educated professional. He entertained them in his tastefully arranged living room and made conversations with them about his official tours all over India, experiences encountered in varied places. He asked them about their research interests, told them that his son was pursuing a degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University, their Alma Mater, and that he would want them to counsel him on how he should chart his further academic pursuits.

When the tea came in lovely bone china, with slices of home-made cinnamon cake, the landlord offered it to Yamini first, smiling in a tender almost paternal way, “You are Yamini. And what did you say is your husband’s name?”

That was when he sneezed and uttered, “Allhamulldillah!” an involuntary utterance stemming from the unconscious, even though it came from one who had once shown his thumb to the skies. He met Jumman Mirza a month after that.

Glossary

Allhamulldillah = an Arabic phrase meaning praise to God

Juma namaz = Friday prayers

Namaz = prayers

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