"Pyare Lal! your sons are pelting the raw mangoes with stones and destroying them," screamed the old woman who lived in a temple opposite my brother-in-law's house at Handia Mohallah in Muzaffarnagar.
The woman we knew as Dadi (grandmother) lived alone in a room behind the temple. She was 70 but her voice could startle the neighbourhood. Dadi disliked children trampling on her plants or stealing the mangoes, tamarinds and jamuns.
Muzaffarnagar was an ancient town established in 1633 during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Earlier, emperor Akbar had appointed Sayyid Muzaffar Ali Khan as the Khan-i-Jahan, ruler of the region, and the town is named after him.
After Partition, thousands of refugees from Pakistan migrated to Muzaffarnagar to begin life afresh. The town acquired renewed vigour due to their efforts to rebuild their fortunes by trading in sugar and jaggery.
Muzaffarnagar in the 1950s was a quaint town known for its snack kiosks, which I visited often. Buddhu halwai's sweetmeat shop on Roorkee Road was famed for its 'barfi'. Iqbal would sell his spicy 'jal-jeera' from a large clay pitcher. It was wrapped with a red cloth and embellished with garlands of mint leaves to keep the drink cool.
Hussein Ali ran a cattle farm near our home in Sarwat. Every morning, he would cycle to our home and deliver fresh milk. Tariq would arrive on a Sunday to give the children their haircuts.
The Hindus who had arrived as embittered refugees and the local Muslims who had chosen to make Muzaffarnagar their home after Partition, lived in absolute communal harmony. They had put the pain of the past behind them and moved on. The desire to live and the need to feed a family are powerful driving forces. They force human beings to forget past wounds and build a new future.
The town was so peaceful that a band of monkeys attacking a hawker and stealing bananas could be the news of the day. Whenever we sought amusement, we would head for Company Bagh 5 km from the town. We wandered around admiring mango, peepul, tamarind and litchi trees.
On one of my trips, we didn't hear Dadi's voice admonishing kids. My nephews told me life had quietly slipped away from her. Though the trees were laden with fruit, the children did not throw stones at them anymore. The memory of Dadi's anger kept them at bay. Nobody wanted to steal Dadi's fruits any more.
Muzaffarnagar has made headlines for communal riots of late, making me wonder where its small town charm and spirit of unity has gone. Moreover, I agonize why the land of the Mahatma's 'ahimsa' is becoming so intolerant by the day.