[selected as a “featured story” on ‘Juggernaut Books Writing Platform’. India’s first mobile-writing-publishing platform co-founded by former Penguin Random House Editor-in-Chief, Ms. Chiki Sarkar]
We never really go away…we do come back…It’s not the religion we should love…let ‘love’ be our only religion…
Imagine my astonishment when I stumbled upon these lines scribbled in the diary of my ten-year-old daughter, Aastha – A bubbly child with enchanting hazel eyes, curly black hair, heart-shaped face and an endearing smile. She had a birthmark – a small, ‘O’ shaped scar on her right shoulder. Talk with her for a minute, she’d become your favourite! She loved sweet dishes and kept pestering our part-time cook for sweet rice or Badam Halwa. And yes, she troubled her grandpa a lot, coaxing him to tell fairy tales daily. Her melodious laugh was music to our ears and reminded me of my wife who had departed for the heavens when Aastha had arrived in this world. As much as my daughter was precious, she was also –
“Precocious! Gifted!” her school’s Principal had praised. “She’s a wonder! Aastha is a beautiful beacon of hope!”
Well, I wondered if I should be worried. At her age, when most children fumbled and flustered and couldn’t pronounce even their own names correctly, Aastha was confident and spoke fluently. Her horoscope said she would do quite well in literature. While others read comics, she read English stories (that gave her specs) which were meant for higher secondary. She even loved penning poems.
“Lovely poem, Aastha! Your teachers will be proud!” I praised proudly when her poem ‘My School’ got published in the local newspaper.
“Thank you so much, papa!” she gushed, delighted, her hazel eyes twinkling behind her rimless glasses. I loved the way she said ‘papa’. In fact, her first poem was about me, titled ‘My father’. I gazed at her fondly. She looked so much like her mother.
So, why was I really worried? Well, her precociousness was not my real concern. The Ansaris were.
We – my father, Aastha, and I – lived in Guwahati as tenants in an old, single-storey building on the first floor. On the ground floor, lived our only neighbour: the Ansaris, a Muslim family. Mr. Ansari, a stout man with beard and goatee, had a small grocery shop in our locality and Mrs. Ansari, a plump woman always clad in Burka, was a homemaker. They made a nice neighbour. You know, like those friendly neighbours who would smile and wave at you, ask about your wellbeing (Hey, how do you do? All good?), and give sweets and fruits, especially mangoes in the summer from the mango tree they had planted in the courtyard, on various occasions. They had a nineteen-year-old daughter, Hasnara: a brown haired, brown eyed, demure girl who studied at a local Arts College.
Aastha had a bevy of Hindu friends at school but Hasnara seemed to be her best friend and elder sister. Indeed, Hasnara did not visit our house daily like before (when Aastha was just one-year-old, Hasnara, then a ten-year-old kid, kept screaming at the top of her voice, banging her fists on my door until I let her in to play with my daughter) but Aastha would go their house almost every evening after school. When she came back, she would burst forth with songs of praise, “Hasnara didi taught me to paint! Look at this sketch, papa! Aunty is so nice…she gave me a Gulab Jamun! Uncle looks funny with his bushy hairs on his face; he always gives me toffees!”
Why was I really worried if the Ansaris were such a sweet family?
You see I was an Astrologer (call me Shailesh Sharma) and told people their future (although, ironically, I wasn’t sure about my own!). Being a Brahmin and having ancestors of astrologers and priests, I had been brought up in an atmosphere conducive to orthodox ways, taught to respect Hinduism as the highest form of religion. And, as if that was not enough, when I was a child, my mother had died in an ethnic clash between Hindus and Muslims. That aggravated my frostiness for the Muslim faction. I had a cold, even condescending, attitude towards them. Was I a religious bigot? Was I an extremist? Not really. I just preferred to keep my distance.
The Ansaris often invited us to their home but I had always managed to make excuses. Being a pure vegetarian, I loathed stepping inside their house where innocent hens were cut and cooked (although, I had no problem in visiting my non-vegetarian ‘Hindu’ friends!). I never bought anything from their shop.
So why wouldn’t I stop Aastha from mingling with their company? Well, I did consider telling the Ansaris politely about staying away from my daughter. But that wouldn’t sound polite, would it? I even considered relocating far away but the financial problem came in the way. And knowing Aastha’s happiness with the Ansaris, I couldn’t bring myself to forbid her. Moreover, my father had once justified:
“Aastha misses her mother. Hasnara is like her elder sister; Mrs. Ansari is like her mother…”
“No! I am both her father and mother!” I had retorted, stung by the comparison.
“You are…” my father had assuaged my anger, “but still…try to understand…Ansaris are good people. All these years…there’s no reason to be so indifferent…you’ve to trust them, Shailesh.”
I must admit, my father had a broader sense of perspective than me.
Well, I had no idea that the opportunity to separate Aastha from the Ansaris would soon present itself.
My astrology practice wasn’t going so well, income was low despite my hard work and that added to my foul mood. One evening, on returning from a client’s office, as I parked my scooter, I saw Aastha and Hasnara sitting on the stairs and talking. I overheard them:
“In Urdu, father is Abbu, mother is Ammi…” Hasnara was saying to a curious Aastha.
I was shocked. They had crossed the threshold of my tolerance! How dare she teach Urdu words to my daughter, a pure Brahmin? Rage surged up inside my already hot head. Marching to Hasnara, I seized her by the arm, pulled off her hijab and, before I could stop myself, slapped her!
Hasnara reeled back in shock and stood frozen even as Aastha gasped and cried, “Papa! What –
“Don’t dare teach my daughter about your religion and your ways, you foolish girl!” I barked at Hasnara who started sobbing, her eyes red, and before I could say more, she wheeled around and ran upstairs. I turned to glare at Aastha.
“Papa…it is n-not he-her fault…” Aastha stammered as tears started flowing down her cheeks, “I t-told didi to t-tell me –
“Enough!” I rebuked her, raising my hand, “If I ever see you again in the company of your Hasnara didi, or Aunty or Uncle, you better get prepared!”
But I wasn’t really prepared for what followed. That night, the Ansaris and I had a terrible war of words. Insults and oaths were hurled upon, and both parties did their best to demean the other. If not for my father’s tactful intervention, we would have literally thrown each other in prison.
“Stop crying! Eat your dinner and go to sleep!” I shouted at Aastha that night at dinner. I had told her to throw or return anything she had taken from them. She had been crying herself hoarse and wouldn’t eat.
“Stop bickering at her!” my father admonished, hugging Aastha and feeding her with his own hands. “You better check your temper. Your anger has lost us a very good neighbour –
“She was teaching her Urdu –
“So what!” my father rolled his eyes as if couldn’t believe me, “Aastha was just curious to know. I am surprised at you, Shailesh. There wasn’t any need to snowball such a small matter!”
“I don’t want my daughter spoiled…” I muttered.
“No one’s spoiling her…Harbouring grudge against someone just because their religion is different than ours is a sheer folly…” my father said gravely. He wanted me to forget about what had happened to my mother.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Next morning, as I was preparing tea, Aastha walked into the kitchen, holding an object wrapped in paper.
“What’s that Aastha?”
“Papa…this…” she hesitated, going red, “she gave me this on my birthday a year ago…you said to throw everything they gave…or return them…” she faltered.
An awkward silence followed. I asked, “What is it?”
She pulled off the wrap. I felt an overwhelming wave of embarrassment as my eyes fell on a clay idol of God Krishna – the Hindu God. Not meeting her eyes, I said rather sheepishly, “No…I mean…keep it…keep it in our puja room…”
Aastha gave me a curious look and left. As I watched her walk away, I felt a germ of guilt gnawing at me.
A year passed. I knew Aastha was still friends with Hasnara, though in secret. Once, I had sneaked a look at her diary and found a poem titled ‘Hasnara- more than a friend’. I had felt a twinge of anger but reading it, I was disarmed by her affection for Hasnara. She had glorified her not only as a friend but also as a sister and a mother. It only heightened my guilt.
Whenever I happened to come across the Ansari family, we ignored each other. To admit it, I was the one who took a hasty detour. One morning, I looked down from the balcony and saw Hasnara helping an old man cross the road. A benign smile on her face, she had an air of authentic kindness about her. In spite of myself, I felt a fatherly fondness for her. She saw me seeing her and looked away instantly, her face going crimson. I couldn’t help feeling a pang of remorse. I shouldn’t have hurt her.
I finally decided to shun aside my ego and talk to Aastha about it.
“Oh, Papa…” Aastha said as I confessed, “Don’t be sad…it wasn’t anyone’s fault…tonight, let’s go the Ansari and sort out all the differences…”
I smiled at her, overwhelmed by her maturity and sensibility.
As I kept thinking about how I would talk to the Ansaris I had no idea that a cruel reality awaited me that night…
It was 8.15 pm. Aastha had gone to her teacher’s house two hours ago for some school project. She should have come by now. It started raining. She didn’t have any phone, nor did I have the teacher’s number or address. Now and then, I’d go to the balcony to look down at the road. The lights went off and I lit up a candle. I glanced at the wall clock: 9.00 pm.
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back….
There was another knock.
“Who’s there?” I called even as my father came out of his room.
“It’s me…” It was Mrs. Ansari’s voice, “Please open.” Her voice sounded strained. Puzzled and feeling a slight defensive, I opened the door. Mrs. Ansari looked distraught for some reason and was struggling to speak. Finally she said, “Aastha…”
“Aastha? What?” I asked, alarmed.
“Acc-Accident!” She blurted out, tears streaming down.
“WHAT? What the – WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” I shouted, fear shooting up.
“Hasnara called me…she was there when it happened…” she was muttering very fast.
Twenty minutes later, I found myself rushing inside the hospital corridor, my father and Mrs. Ansari struggling to keep up. Hasnara was there, crying. She stood up as we came.
“WHERE’S AASTHA! DOCTOR! HASNARA!” I screamed. People were looking at us.
“Mr. Sharma…” the doctor said sombrely, “We are very sorry…your daughter…she is…no more…”
The words fell on me like daggers even as my father howled and Mrs. Ansari gasped. I glared at the doctor for his cruel joke but saw the cruel truth in his grave eyes. The enormity of his words hit me. My world came crashing down.
Aastha had been hit by a speeding car while crossing the road. Severely injured, she lost much blood. Hasnara was around when the incident had happened. She had taken immediate action and rushed her here. However, it was too late.
Nothing, not even hell, could be wickeder than this. Fate could be cruel. But how could be so cruel! I wept in my sobbing father’s arms. Aastha, my soul, had left me… left me soulless, heartbroken, just like my mother and my wife had left me. When I looked at Aastha’s lifeless form, I couldn’t bear it anymore and passed out.
In the months that followed, our far off relatives, friends, teachers, well wishers kept pouring in. Their words of comfort felt hollow and could not assuage my father and me. Without Aastha, we lost our faith in the goodness of life and felt devoid of any hope. We kept grieving over our irreplaceable loss.
Grief is a powerful emotion. As much as it breaks you, it makes you forge bond of unexpected friendship and belongingness.
The Ansaris, setting aside earlier differences, showed their generosity which made all the difference. Mr. Ansari took help of the police to bring the drunken driver to justice. Hasnara visited us often, prepared meals for us and took care of my father’s medication. I wanted to apologise her for my radical behaviour but couldn’t muster up enough courage. I had been such a fool. Aastha had been right. It was pure love that mattered…the religion of love. And not some ridiculous religion manufactured by mankind.
Plucking up courage, I apologised to the Ansaris and confessed how rude I had been to Hasnara.
“You don’t have to be sorry, uncle…” Hasnara said solemnly, “Aastha was my little sister. Don’t worry…you are not alone…we are with you…I am with you. I am as much as your daughter as Aastha was…” That day, I felt a huge burden receding from my heart and for the first time in so many months, I smiled freely.
Times change and change is constant. A year and a half ticked by. Apart from resuming Astrology practice which I had almost given up, my father and I joined a social welfare community to keep ourselves busy and stave off loneliness. Hasnara got married to a handsome gentleman, Ajmal, a cheerful, young man, who struck an instant camaraderie on the first day I met him. Luckily, the newlywed couple lived a few blocks away. Lucky because whenever Hasnara visited her parents, she would pay me a visit too.
I often found myself cursing my fate, thinking about Aastha, looking at her photographs for hours. When I was low, I would either call Hasnara who, despite being busy in her new married life, would cheer me up or went to the Ansaris and played a game of carom with Mr. Ansari. But it was hard to get over the ordeal. Life felt so mundane sometimes…
Little did I know that life would offer us an unexpected miracle soon…
I came to know from Mrs. Ansari that Hasnara was pregnant. Just a month away from her due date, she came to live with her parents. I kept visiting her. A day before she was due, she was admitted to the hospital.
Hasnara gave birth to a baby girl. Oh! The rush of joy! I was so happy for the Ansari family even as I thought about Aastha. Two days later, Hasnara got released from the hospital. I had been so excited to see her and her baby. That evening, I went to meet them. Mrs. Ansari led me to a room where Hasnara was lying on the bed with the baby beside her.
“Congratulations, Hasnara! You’re a proud mommy now!” I said cheerfully. She looked up at me and smiled.
“So…where’s Azmal?” I asked.
“He was here…just left now with father…” Hasnara said.
“May I?” I asked, looking at the baby.
“Of course, Uncle…”
I took the baby. Ah…she was so delicate, podgy and pink; she felt so warm and cuddly in my arms; I felt a sudden rush of affection and protectiveness towards her. As I gazed at her beautiful, round face, I was pleasantly surprised to notice her eyes.
“Hazel eyes…same as Aastha…” I said fondly, blinking back my tears, thinking nostalgically about my own daughter. Hasnara chuckled and said, “She has her father’s eyes…” Indeed, I knew Azmal was hazel eyed, too.
I was about to put the baby on the bed when something caught my attention…
For the space of a heartbeat, my heart stopped…
On her right shoulder was a birthmark: A small, ‘O’ shaped scar…
Pulse quickening, I bent closer, my incredulous eyes examining the mark, my mind oddly fuzzy. How could this be? Wait, wait…it must be a coincidence…no, no…such sheer coincidence? I thought. I couldn’t believe my eyes even as my entire being wanted to believe in the miracle I was holding in my arms. Did the Ansaris know about it? They might’ve seen the mark but I was sure they didn’t know that Aastha had the precise mark on the same place.
A thousand questions thronged my mind even as a whirlpool of kaleidoscopic emotions whirled inside me. I couldn’t hold back my tears. My daughter had written long back in her diary – We never really go away…we do come back…It seemed Aastha kept her promise…I kept staring at her for what seemed like an eternity.
“Uncle? Are you alright?” Hasnara’s distant voice brought me back to present. She had noticed my bewilderment and tears. I hastily rearranged my expression into a smile.
“Ah…yes, yes…what a lovely child she is!” I gushed, putting the child back on the bed.
“We’ve decided to name her Aasia…” Hasnara said.
“Aasia…a beautiful name…” I agreed.
“Aasia is an Urdu word,” Hasnara went on, smiling at me benignly, “You’d be very happy to know that in Hindi, it means Aastha…”