I was born into a life of luxury. My father was an officer of the Indian Police Service, which was quite the job to have until the early 2000s in India. About a million people sit for the qualifying Indian civil services exam every year, of which a mere thousand make the cut. Basically, you have to be one in a thousand to get in. But once you’re in, you become part of an elite circle of babus (bureaucrats) who run the country. Your life is laid out for you – all your bills are paid by the government, you have enough manpower, cars, utilities, to sustain a small village, and people generally look up to you.
One chieftain of the village that supported our family while I was growing up was our cook, Pathan Bhai. A stout man with red wisps of hair on a balding head, a big belly, and a tinkering laughter that never failed to charm its audience. He always wore a white Pathani salwar kameez (suit), which he would dress up on special occasions with a blazer jacket made of shiny threads and ornate Indian motifs. I loved everything about Pathan Bhai. The way he fussed over every minute detail at breakfast, the way his clothes smelt of spices and curry when I hugged him, the way he wound up all the house-help to sit through my make-belief English classes as we played ‘student-teacher’. He was always my most attentive student – taking notes and clapping his hands at the end of every class – never mind his illiteracy.
I loved everything about Pathan Bhai. The way he fussed over every minute detail at breakfast, the way his clothes smelt of spices and curry when I hugged him…
Pathan Bhai came into my dad’s service when I was three years old. In keeping with protocol, our house-staff would undergo an overhaul once every two or three years. But Pathan Bhai stayed with us for more than ten. Every time talk of his rotation came up, my dad and Pathan Bhai would harass the administrative authorities with repeated requests to let him stay on a little longer and the authorities would eventually relent. And so it was that I was cradled on his knee, spoon-fed under his watchful eye, dropped to my school bus on his cycle and, eventually, left teary-eyed at the doorstep of a residential school in his white Maruti car at the age of thirteen.
I was cradled on his knee, spoon-fed under his watchful eye, dropped to my school bus on his cycle…
Sometime after I moved to the residential school, Pathan Bhai finally accepted his transfer to another police officer’s house. I kept in touch with him through letters for a few years but eventually hostel-life consumed my adolescent world and I lost track. Somewhere in the middle of my time at University as a young law student, I got news that he passed away. This was the first time in my life that I experienced the loss of a loved one and it shook me in a profound way. I remember crying for days and feeling terrible that I was entirely absent in his old age. It felt as though I had lost the opportunity to return his love and affection when he needed it most. I never got around to calling his wife or daughters to share their grief. I was embarrassed I hadn’t kept in touch and conscious they may not remember me. I told my mom to convey my condolences and left it at that.
I remember crying for days and feeling terrible that I was entirely absent in his old age. It felt as though I had lost the opportunity to return his love and affection when he needed it most.
It’s been nearly ten years since Pathan Bhai’s death. I got myself a career, a husband, and a small business in the meantime. Why am I thinking of Pathan Bhai today? Because today I chanced upon a picture of a model in a white Pathani suit and an embroidered blazer jacket. My husband and I stepped out this morning to shop for New Year’s eve and decided that we also needed new Indian outfits for the upcoming wedding season. My husband doesn’t like to experiment so we went over to his only couturier’s studio. As my husband went to the trial room with a few hangers he liked, the couturier handed me a look-book on the latest in men’s fashion. I got to the image of the Pathani suit and blazer and I couldn’t move past it. I stared at it for a long time before turning to the designer waiting beside me. ‘What about this one? Do you think this will look nice on Amar?’, I asked.
The designer, an otherwise enthusiastic boy in his mid-twenties, paused for a moment, ‘umm… I mean ofcourse our Amar has great Punjabi genes, he looks good in everything! But if I were him I wouldn’t go to a party these days dressed like that. People could think he is a Muslim or something, or mistake him for a Pakistani, no? It could be quite embarrassing.’
… if I were him I wouldn’t go to a party these days dressed like that. People could think he is a Muslim or something, or mistake him for a Pakistani, no?
The designer’s words struck me like a slap in the face. I felt flushed and red, and words escaped me. I was surprised to feel tears stinging the corners of my eyes. Calm down, please don’t start crying here, I scolded myself. To my relief, I saw Amar walking towards us. The designer’s attention was now on him. Oblivious to our conversation, he saw the opened image on my lap and asked, ‘what is this? It looks cool.’
The designer explained that the model was wearing a Pathani suit – a popular outfit amongst the Muslims in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan although it is understood to have originated in pre-partition Punjab. He dutifully went on to repeat his concern for my husband’s public reputation.
Amar laughed and said, ‘Pakistani bol ke toh dikhaaye koi!! (let someone call me a Pakistani and show me!) Let’s not spend our energy worrying about what some random-s will say. I like it, do you have a sample? I want to try it.’
I looked up at him. His eyes clouded with genuine concern as he saw my face. ‘Are you ok?’, he asked as he reached for my hand.
‘Yes, yes. It’s fine. I am fine. I think something got my eye’, I stuttered.
‘Let’s try this one last thing and then we can get some coffee, ok?’, he said.
‘Sounds like a plan’, I smiled.
We ordered the Pathani suit with the jacket and left the studio. Over coffee, I told Amar the story of the cook who brought me up.
My memory of Pathan Bhai is a lot of different things. It is the red of his hair and the white of his clothes and orange of his curry. But it is not the green of Islam…
My memory of Pathan Bhai is a lot of different things. It is the red of his hair and the white of his clothes and the orange of his curry. But it is not the green of Islam. Even if I try to colour it so I can’t, if only because my childhood had no consciousness of Muslim and Hindu, Green and Orange, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. I am sure there are millions of Indians like me who can’t quite recall the religion of all the good people who have influenced their lives. If they can, they can’t remember it ever meaning anything, until now. Now the world wants us to find some meaning in these distinctions, to turn back time and emboss religious consciousness in our experiences of the past. How will we do it? How will we remember people by their clothes? How will we manipulate the memory of our cooks, drivers, tailors, neighbours, teachers, friends? On what parameters will we call them out as foreign, ‘Pakistani’, and make ourselves more Indian?
It is an impossible ask, from an impossible world.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)