In school, I was the oddest combination of red hair, black eyebrows, red spectacles, black braces, red socks and black shoes there ever was. Naturally, I had no hot friends. The hotties ruled the world and I was a far spec in it. At 13, these weirdos were beautiful, well-groomed and soaked in the manicured romanticism of the 90s: clear skin, pony tails, neck-tied sweaters, the works. There were only two ways to befriend a hottie. You could be a hottie yourself, or you could submit your services to a hottie’s tribe depending on your skill set. I was not the former and my teenage self-dignity did not allow me to be the latter, with the result that I had no social life in school. What I did have was a lot of time and nowhere else to go but the library. I loved the library. I wore my nerdy-ness with pride even though it was a function of social ostracisation. I suppose that’s how most childhood nerds are born. Pushed away by real people, we find refuge in the make-belief world of books; hotties and tribes be damned.
The lone anomaly in our perfectly primitive and factionalised society was Jo. Jo looked like a hottie but chose to be nerd. She read books, and took painting lessons, and played hockey – all the while enveloped in sparkles of hottie dust. Oddly enough, neither the hotties nor the nerds seemed to mind her anomalous existence. Everybody loved Jo. I spent some time with her because she was close to Dots, one of my only two friends at the time. I liked Jo. She always made an effort with me, never-mind my dichromatic existence and lack of conversational skills. We weren’t close or anything though, we never kept in touch after school.
Leaving school was a sudden social awakening for me. I lost the braces and the specs, began paying attention to the colour of clothes I put on, bagged a couple of fancy jobs and, finally, made ‘a bunch of’ friends. It took me fifteen years but I eventually concocted my own brand of hottie powder and would have gladly faced off, highlighter-for-highlighter, with any of the school hotties. The occasion even presented itself when Dots’ invited me to her wedding-cum-school-reunion in Assam last year. I went for it all blow-dryers blazing only to discover that the hotties had by now become specs in my world. It was disappointing to have my moment of vengeance undercut by a lack of opposition, but deeply satisfying that my childhood story had come a full circle with an eloquent moral lesson in the end: every mare has her share. A lesson made more obtuse by the fact that only the kind princess had survived. Fifteen years on, Jo’s beauty and charisma had blossomed. She was more outspoken than I remembered her, even a bit blunt, but it only made her more alluring. She had chosen a career in art and word was she was good at it. She lived in her own one bed-room apartment in South Delhi, had a hunk of a boyfriend. Her life was what it was meant to be: perfect.
Jo and I spent a great amount of time together during Dots’ wedding week. I suppose we were bound by our common disdain for the erstwhile hotties and our common love for Dots. We took our ‘team-bride’ responsibilities seriously, choreographing dance numbers for the whole family, dressing Dots’ up and down for each of her eleven (true story) pre-nuptial ceremonies, hand-making an Assamese mural at the wedding pandal (altar) with thousands of morsels of rice after the artists engaged for the job disappeared. By the time the wedding day came about, we were pooped. We only had enough energy to dump Dots at the pandal and make our way to the bar. We were neck-deep in a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye when Dots’ grandfather found us hiding behind a tree with our fourth cocktail in hand.
He was pissed that we were drinking while the wedding ceremony was underway and insisted that we go back to the pandal. I tried to pacify him with a diversionary conversation about careers. Indian parents love that topic. They thrive on giving their two bits of unsolicited advice. I told Grandpa that I was thinking of moving abroad in search of a better job, to which Jo added ‘same, same!’, explaining that her parents were intent on shipping her off to Canada, to which Grandpa declared ‘you can always go to Pakistan’, to which the conversation came to an end.
At first, my drunken mind couldn’t make any sense of it – Jo’s chin up, Grandpa’s chin up, cold stares, silence. What the hell was going on?
And then it dawned on me. Jamilia Jahaan! That was her real name, wasn’t it?
She was a Muslim. This was a Hindu wedding. Grandpa was merely echoing a rhetoric that had become commonplace in new age, communalised, India: India belongs to the Hindus, it has no place for the Muslims, the Muslims should leave and go to Pakistan.
Embarrassment broke out in beads of sweat on my forehead as I realised what had happened. I fumbled to make amends, ‘But home is where the heart is, isn’t it? Jo, India will be devastated if you cheat on her with Pakistan!’ and then I guffawed as if this whole conversation was a ridiculous joke.
No one laughed with me. ‘No no – we are very happy here without you folks, you can leave anytime’, Grandpa wouldn’t give up.
I wanted to punch him. This is the girl who made your grand-daughter’s wedding the stinging success that it is, you foolish, bull-headed, man! I calmed my throbbing, far from sober, mind and turned to placate Jo. Too late. She was walking away from us. I called out to her fast-receding silhouette in vain. Staying back just long enough to give Grandpa one long, icy, stare, I ran after Jo.
But I didn’t find her. Not then, not later that night at our guest house, not early the next morning at the airport on my way back to Delhi, not in Delhi. I called her number and left messages on all her social media pages. Nothing.
After two months of suspense, Dots called to say Jo was leaving for Canada. I got Dots to get her address from somewhere and showed up at her house.
She looked upset that she was leaving. ‘But honestly, is there even a choice?…People here are just crazy’.
‘Please don’t tell me you are leaving because of what he said that night. He is a senile man who doesn’t know his ass from his face. Are you really going to let one doddering old dodo change your life?’, I urged.
‘Do you honestly think this is about him? This is about everyone, everywhere, all the time! I turn on the TV, I read a newspaper, I meet a client – it is always the same. There is always one fanatic waiting to tell me how Hindu he is and how Muslim I am… I have never felt more Muslim than I do now!’ she said.
I knew what she meant. We had hit thirty without any consciousness of religious identities in our lifetimes. But all that had changed in just a couple of years thanks to divisive right-wing propaganda in Indian political discourse. Religious identity now dominated every social question: what to wear, what to eat, what to say, who to vote for. Why? Well, because, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim. All day, all night, and all the time in between. Hindu-Muslim over dinner. Hindu-Muslim at work. Hindu-Muslim at the movies. Suddenly, people had become acutely aware of their own religion and the religion of every other person in their lives. Just as well. The economy was going to shit anyway. Religious identity gave them a sense of security where resources failed.
I felt terrible, strangely responsible, that Jo was leaving. The kind princess being uprooted from her fairy tale and dumped into a Shakespearean tragedy by people who worshipped the same gods as me. And there was no assurance I could give her. Were things ever going to get any better down here? Maybe not. Maybe our kind was destined to sink in the quicksand of communal hate. Maybe emigration was Jo’s only hope to a truly self-determined and equal life.
We said goodbyes and I left.
The whole thing made me uneasy though. For me, it turned back time. I felt like I was back in school, helpless in the face of factionalised politics and contests for tribal superiority. Everything was the same, only the tribes had changed. I buried myself in work, hoping once again to find respite in books from the complicated world outside. With each passing day, I became more of the recluse I had been as a kid. Ten months went by this way.
Then last Sunday I opened the door to an insistent door-bell, ready to blast my head off at the intruder and found Jo standing on the other side. She wore a white T and her hair was an odd shade of blonde. Such a foreigner, I thought.
She hugged me, went straight to the living room and sunk herself into the couch. ‘I went. I tried it. It sucked. I missed the boy too much… and you guys… and meri Dilli (my Delhi)!! I missed meri Dilli!! … You said it first. Home is where the heart is. My heart is in this city, right here’, she waved her hands at the room, ‘hang them all!…If they have a problem, they can go to Pakistan!’
I reached over and gave her a long, long, hug. She laughed and patted my back, as I sobbed uncontrollably.
(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.)