The Tamils have a saying, “Thambi ullaan, padai kanjaan,” ‘Who has a younger brother needs no army.’ I can vouch for its truth. I have several younger brothers-by-affection, Hindu and Muslim. I am invited with honour to their weddings, though I can’t always manage to go. The brides I get to meet call me ‘Akka’, elder sister. Does that sound straight out of a Katha translation from bhasha fiction? Its reality is something I’ve always taken for granted as the gift of India.
Communal tension and hostility happened to other people. Never to me, never to the affectionate boys who threw a protective cordon around me in crowded places because they sensed instinctively that I was chicken-livered. It did not happen to the gallant young men who helped me with odd jobs that needed a man’s strength or height or sheer presence in this dangerous world. In the last case, if I needed an escort to a (potentially) dangerous place, I’d call whomever I thought it might least inconvenience and say, not in the politest way, “Are you free to be my scarecrow at such-and-such a time?” They’d laugh and say yes or, if stuck doing something, ask if I could reschedule it slightly.
Have I always been a good sister? No-o. I particularly regret that I could not swing the required leave to attend my young friend N’s wedding at Kupwara some three years ago. I have a number of pyaar-ki-gaali terms for this long, tall fellow with the slow, sleepy grin: Langoor. Crocodile. Badmash. Bandar.
He and his band of merry men, who looked after me so selflessly in Srinagar and drove me to the scenic spot of Harwan, would also have long, terrible arguments with me about politics. I did not, could not, defend army atrocities or sarkari stupidities. But I did tell them roundly that they had gotten totally into a gila-shikva mindset and that, at the end of the day, it was an honour and privilege to be Indian, you had a chance here despite everything, unlike in lots of other places. He’d laugh and say, “So come back to Kashmir for a holiday, na. If so-and-so kidnaps you, M is from their area, he’ll get you back; if so-and-so kidnaps, you, T is from over there, he’ll get you back and if so-and-so catches you, I’ll rescue you myself!”
“Thanks a lot!” I’d snap.
“Achha, baba, don’t be angry. If we get Kashmir, we’ll make you an honorary citizen. You won’t need a visa.”
“Like hell!” I’d say, good and mad. “You don’t realise how lucky you are to belong to India. Do something for India for a change, instead of hating us just because we’re ‘Hindu’. As if we’re only Hindus. As if Muslim Indians in other states don’t love their country! Anyway, your religion is from Arabia and your culture is from Iran, they even call Kashmir ‘Iran Sageer’, Little Iran! So what is truly from this very soil? Your Hindu past! Then why do you deny it? So much Sanskrit belongs to Kashmir: the Shaiva Darshan here, Abhinavagupta, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, the two Rajataranginis after Kalhana’s…and Bilhana’s ‘Chaurapanchasika’, the ‘Fifty Love Songs of a Thief’. Can you deny these are part of Kashmiriyat? And what about Lal Ded? And Nund Reshi…ah, but you let those people burn down his shrine at Chrar-e-Sharief. So much for your Kashmiriyat!” By this time I’d be showering sparks like a Diwali anaar.
N would drawl aggravatingly, “Should have caught you and converted you long ago!” and smoothly change the topic (he wasn’t the descendant of a Pir for nothing). Once, he did not change tracks fast enough and to my horror – and his – I burst into tears at how awful it all was, despite our mutual affection. This was in full public view at Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, a place where every fifth walker/jogger was known to me since at least twenty years.
A couple of friends called later to ask if I was okay: as well have howled at the village well, I thought crossly afterwards. N silently offered me his bottle of mineral water and I splashed my face over a flowerbed to cool off. We parted ways amicably as ever. I tried calling him thrice this week but did not manage to connect. I pray that he, his family and friends are well. I owe him a hard whack, that Valley boy, for not knowing what an idli was after emptying my lunchbox of them one day at office; when they know idlis perfectly well even in Arunachal Pradesh.