BY ANITA BARUWA
I was a vagabond and a rebel since my childhood. My folks must have had the time of their lives to put a curb on my wilderness. And I was not alone in this. He was a vital part of it. At the same time, he never indulged or aggravated my wilderness; he was demure and quiet in nature, always going by the norms.
I don’t remember when. Must have been when I was in Class I or II. They – his mother, elder and younger sisters and himself came to stay at our outhouse. His father having married another, they were left on the streets. One sunny afternoon I entered their house to find him sitting down for lunch. I was surprised to find him taking only rice and a bit of dhekia xaak, cooked in water and salt. He saw me surprised and told me that it was “poor man’s meal”. I sat down beside him and ate from his plate – a tall-sided aluminium one for which I still harbour fascination because they remind of those meals I used to take away from him! I still remember that taste! Ever since that afternoon, my favourite food has been dhekia xaak.
And from that afternoon onwards he became my buddy and we began calling each other “Dost”. I used to take all his marbles, tops and kites and above all his ‘poor meals’ and without Ma’s knowledge, I used to pilfer chicken drumsticks, fried fish and other eatables that could be carried easily, for him. It was not that Ma didn’t give them, but these were my “gives” to my “takes” from him. His mother, Budhni bai would tell me every now and then that I wasn’t supposed to eat from their aluminium plate. And I found food tasted heavenly only when I ate from that plate.
He taught me to fly kites, spin tops, play marbles and ride a bicycle. And I tried to teach him English. He was a fast learner if I remember. I also remember bringing him inside our Naamghar.
Budhni bai never swept or swabbed the Naamghar. When I had asked her the reason she told me that one was not supposed to enter the holy place of another religion. And Budhni bai, though a Hindu by birth had married a Muslim. This did it for me.
I brought her son, my Dost inside the Naamghar atleast twice before being found out. On each occasion we would sit inside the Naamghar and eat the fruits and nuts kept there for the gods. At first he hesitated but could not resist the fruits. When I told him I wanted to see what happens if a Muslim enters our Naamghar, he simply told me that I would be spanked! And he was right. This spurred me all the more.
There are vague memories of religious discourses with him. It ended in some sort of a game since we had come to the conclusion that the Hindu god cannot see and the Muslim god cannot hear, but both can speak. So we would speak and each time he needed to say “Ye Allah!”, he would be saying, “Hey Bhogoban” and I would do the opposite! This vice-versa game was fun but Ma was aghast when I used to purposefully play it in front of our family Deo (purohit) when he chanted mantras.
It was during that time that I learnt about Ramzan. I saw Budhni bai go on fast without even gulping her own spit. Ma used to give her food items for their evening meals and clothes to her kids during Eid. When I asked Ma why she helped in celebrations of another religion if one is not supposed to enter the holy place of other religions, Ma’s logic was that all should celebrate their respective festivals as per set norms. So when Ma gave clothes to Budhni bai’s kids during Durga Puja, I demanded clothes for us during Eid because she gave me a chance to break tradition!
I would head for Budhni bai’s house to eat from the aluminium plate whatever her kids were having for iftaar. I was so used to Budhni bai’s meals that I thought nothing else could be tastier. The real flavour and aroma of korma and biryani struck my taste buds many years after Budhni bai was gone, when two of my students, Shakeel and Shayeed would insist that I must visit them during Eid. The array of the delicacies on the dining table is still vivid in my memory and the taste still lingers! We also used to receive sewaain and other delicacies from our neighbours. One of our neighbours used to send all the ingredients needed to cook sewaain which would sadden us because the taste simply didn’t match theirs!
Thus far is where my memory goes with my childhood mate, my Dost. I can’t recall when and how their family left our place or if we ever said goodbye. Yet whenever there is dhekia xaak, I relish it as if I’m sharing my Dost’s meal from that tall-sided aluminium plate. I eat it as my Dost taught me to. With plain rice and nothing else. And now my daughter loves it too.
I had not realised it before, but right now as I am writing this piece, it dawns on me that my childhood attachment with Budhni Bai’s family must surely be behind the reason why I taught my daughter to call me “Ammi”. She has shortened it and calls me “Mi”.
Eid Mubarak Budhni bai and Dost, wherever all of you are now.