Circa 2010, Shastrinagar, Uttar Pradesh….
The event that sparked off violence in this small town was an irresponsible mischief, or more probably an act willfully committed to incite communal unrest. The carcass of a cow, apparently slaughtered for consumption, was awfully discovered outside the oldest temple in the town by one of its priest on the auspicious morning of Ram Navami. The dismayed priest, open-eyed in disbelief and disgust, went about yelling- “Gau- Hatya! Gau -Hatya!”
This incident ignited the wrath of a community who suspected it to be a handiwork of another.
“This is utter disrespect of our religious sentiments,” shouted the more aggressive voices of the aggrieved community.
“They will pay for it,” they all agreed.
And soon they targeted selected localities, houses and shops, and set them on fire. People on the road, who bore a distinct semblance confirming their religious leanings, were also attacked.
“This is a conspiracy against us, just an excuse to torment us,” agreed the voices of the community under attack.
“We must pay them back in the same coin,” they said.
And a prolonged clash between the two communities ensued.
It was in this backdrop that a love story between two unlikely individuals, and in most unusual of time, was brewing. Imran Ahmed was from a Muslim family, running his family business and Srilaxmi Aiyer hailed from conservative south Indian Brahmin, middle-class family-her father being posted as a Manager in a centralized bank.
Imran and Srilaxmi never seemed probable lovers. But love, as often is the case, defies all logic. It happened between them, and when it did, all the religious barriers were shattered. Srilaxmi always accompanied her mother every Saturday to the temple of their deity to offer flowers and prayers, closed-eyed in devotion; and Imran went through his daily Namaz fervently. But it was fate- and not religious faith – that brought them together.
On a certain evening, during those turbulent times, the two lovers met where they usually used to meet – the coffee shop at the outskirts of the town, away from the prying eyes. In small towns like Shastrinagar, it only takes a day or two for any suspected affair to become a scandal. So the lovers took outmost precautions.
As the careful lovers set together in that coffee shop, the discussion suddenly veered towards the calamity befalling lately on the town.
“This city is no longer safe now,” Imran said, sipping a hot cup of coffee.
Srilaxmi nodded her head in agreement, sipping coffee, as well.
“But why was the carcass of the cow deposited outside the temple in the first place, such a horrible act to have committed,” she replied after pausing for a few moments, looking distressed.
“That might be a conspiracy to create communal strife,” he replied back.
“Do you really think so?” Srilaxmi asked back, perplexed.
“It might be, moreover, no one has seen the offender,” he replied, putting the coffee mug on the table.
“I do not know how heartless the people are who slaughters cow for consumption or for any other reasons,” Srilaxmi said, saddened; now putting her coffee mug on the table as well.
On hearing this, Imran’s face suddenly darkened.
“We worship the cow, they are so holy to us,” she said.
At this, a rather disturbed Imran said: “But how can you come to preserve a grudge and hatred against any individual or any community on the basis of what they consume?”
“At least people should have the right to eat what they wish,” he continued.
But Srilaxmi did not seem to be impressed with the argument. She suddenly pondered for a couple of minutes as Imran picked up his eye sheepishly to look at her and trying to make out if his comments had offended Srilaxmi – which it apparently did.
Srilaxmi suddenly accosted Imran with an uncomfortable question: “Will you consume cow’s meat after we are together?” And then added hesitantly and dreadfully, “After we are married, I mean…”
Imran moved his eyes away from Srilaxmi and feebly said, “Are you very particular about that?”
“At least I would expect that you would not eat it at home, in front of me,” said a worried Srilaxmi.
At this Imran held the hand of his distressed girl and said: “I can sacrifice anything for you, my love!”
Those words had an instant calming effect on Srilaxmi and two lovers smiled at each other. They parted on a happy note that evening with a promise to meet again the next.
Later that night, The Aiyers- Mr. And Mrs. Aiyer, along with their only daughter Srilaxmi- were seated together for Dinner.
“Appa, my friends here tell me that people find it difficult to get along with an orthodox Aiyer family,” Srilaxmi suddenly confronted her father.
Hardly had Mr. Aiyer gulped his first fist-full of curd rice, that this unwanted question greeted him. Adjusting his spectacle and placing it properly on his nose, he looked at his wife, bewildered. Their habitually obedient daughter had been making sort of revolting statements of late.
Mrs. Aiyer, perceiving that her husband would not be interested in answering it, herself replied: “Do you really believe what they say?”
“Amma, I think that we should mingle and interact more with others. We don’t have any reasons to keep aloof or to feel superior.”
“But without compromising on our culture and heritage in which we take pride in,” Mr. Aiyer eventually spoke out, angrily, grabbing the next fist-full of curd rice from the plate, without raising his face to look at the listeners.
“Mingling with others does not necessarily mean losing one’s own identity. I think we should be even encouraged to marry outside our caste or religion,” Srilaxmi said, staring with brave face, but latter looking guiltily at her father.
At this Mr.Aiyer angrily got up from the dinner table, the curd rice in his fist let off at the plate, washed his face and dashed his way out of the room. The dinner was left unconsumed.
Mrs. Aiyer looked at her daughter, shocked. She could sense what her daughter might be up to but did not have the courage to speak frankly to her Appa, and so those outrageous questions have been coming lately.
“Tell me honestly, are you seeing someone outside our community?” she asked her daughter with dread more palpable in her voice than enquiry.
At this Srilaxmi mumbled: “no…no….Amma…not really…”
But she could sense something frightening in the eyes of her daughter.
“And how are your dance classes in the evening going on?” a suspecting mother asked her daughter.
“All fine,” Srilaxmi replied quickly.
“But lately I have noticed that you come too late from the classes,” her mother said looking piercingly at her.
“Are you going somewhere else?” she asked prodding further.
An unprepared Srilaxmi, gathering some courage, muttered –“Are you suspecting me Amma?”
She had obviously been hiding the fact that she often skipped her dance classes, or managed to take out time from there, to meet Imran.
“Before taking the plunge in love and faith Srilaxmi, make sure that it is worth- I mean the person is worth your trust. Also think about your Appa and me, and what face do we show in our society,” saying which she left in a huff, picking up her own plate and that of her husband’s.
Srilaxmi was now alone, seated at the dining table and staring vaguely. Torn between her love for her parents and Imran, she finally picked herself up. The dinner for three, however, found its way to the dust-bin.
The next evening Srilaxmi found Imran anxiously waiting for her in the coffee shop. The two briefly looked at each other, and then he spoke out uneasily, “It is no longer safe for me to stay here. Yesterday night they burnt my shop. I am moving to Azamgarh in a few days. I will look after my uncle’s business there. I want you to come with me.”
Srilaxmi looked dazed. The thought of her shattered parents immediately crept up her mind.
“Won’t you come along with me,” Imran interrupted, pleadingly.
Srilaxmi shivered, as if she was woken up from a trance, and looked at Imran.
No –she could not live without him. Just that one look convinced her again.
“We are leaving this Sunday morning-three more days to go. I am going to Azamgarh tomorrow for a couple of days to set up a few things and arrange our stay there on reaching. But remember the train from here to Azamgar leaves at 8 AM morning. Be there on time. I shall wait for you just outside the railway station gate,” said Imran.
“I got a burka for you,” he said handing her over the loose black garment (which covers the entire body and has a veiled opening for the eyes often worn by traditional Muslim woman) from the bag that he was carrying.
“None will recognize you,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“But where do I wear it, I can’t take it to my home,” she thought and suddenly she remembered something.
“Yes, at my friend Rukshana’s house! I shall keep it at her place and on the day of eloping will wear it at her house,” she thought to herself and felt happy at finding a solution.
“Remember don’t speak after we meet at the railway station,” he said. “This might invite trouble for us.”
Srilaxmi’s face was clouded briefly for she believed that her distinct south Indian accent while speaking in Hindi might just spill the beans and the reason why she is asked not to open her mouth.
“I will anyways recognize you by the brown carry bag of yours that you would be bringing along and your black wrist watch,” he said.
“And remember you will be travelling along as my wife, Ameena Begum,” he said.
“Wife!” she said, and looked at Imran.
The lovers soon separated, furtively glancing around to make sure they were not seen, but not before promising to meet again on their way to freedom on Sunday as they had decided.
Sunday morning, 7:40 AM: Imran, who was waiting impatiently, finally heaved a sigh of relief for the burka clad woman with that familiar, brown bag, and that black wrist-watch, which was visible as she was close enough, was walking towards her. They soon, without exchanging any greetings, made way to the train walking side-by-side. They kept mum as agreed.
The train started on time. Anxious and uncertain faces were to be seen in abundance. The couple seated themselves as per the ticket number, but a reasonable number of unreserved passengers had also boarded the train.
The four hour train journey from Shastrinagar to Azamgarh was a quiet one and only hushed, worried voices were to be heard every now and then.
A certain mullah, seated opposite to the couple, and having observed them closely for quite a time, asked Imran:
“So, you and your begum are moving to Azamgarh?”
‘Yes,” replied Imran quickly.
“Insha Allah, everything will fall in place,” he said immediately looking upwards in a gesture of prayer to the Almighty.
“What is the name of your begum?” he asked.
“Ameena,” Imran quickly replied as if worried that she might speak for herself.
The train reached on time. Imran hired an auto-rickshaw to take them to the accommodation that he had arranged with the help of his uncle. While being seated in the auto, Imran often looked at the lady in Burkha, and that would bring a smile on his face.
On reaching the desired destination after a drive of twenty minutes, Imran quickly closed the door behind them. Soon he hugged his partner tightly.
“So we are at last together and alone!” he exclaimed and now momentarily releasing his hold over her.
“But what about your wife Ameena?” came the reply.
At this Imran laughed his heart out.
“No more Ameena, it’s only you and me, Srilaxmi,” he said laughing hysterically.
“But you should not have left her alone and uninformed,” came the reply.
Those words brought about a sudden change in Imran. The voice was not that of Srilaxmi’s, but it was certainly a familiar voice.
His hands quivered as he quickly picked up the veil covering the face and was shell-shocked to see whom it had hidden. The lady handed over a piece of paper that she was holding throughout the journey. It read:
How I dreamt of a life with you! I was prepared to leave my family behind for you, but my mother says that before you surrender yourself in love, make sure it is worth. The last day that we met at the coffee shop, I went to my friend Rukshana’s house to drop the Burkha that you had given me with the intention of coming to her place and wearing it on the day that we planned to leave for Azamgarh. She was puzzled as to what I was doing with a Burkha, and I had to confide in her everything-all about me and you.
But when I told her your name, she suddenly became curious, and wanted to know your name again and again. I complied. She smilingly told me she knew of a certain ‘Imran Ahmed’, from the same area in the town, who got married two years ago and whose marriage she happened to attend. Then she went ahead to detail the physical appearance of that ‘Imran Ahmed’ as good as her memory served her and that more or less corroborated with your appearance.
Then another incident stuck me- when you confidently asked me to travel along with you as your wife Ameena, I looked at you, but you had suddenly moved your eyes away. Were you hiding something from me? What if you really had a wife-Ameena or someone else?
I decided to get rid of the doubt that had suddenly occupied me. It was easily done. To my shock, a visit to your locality in your absence – in the two days that you had been in Azamgarh- quickly revealed the facts to me. I met Ameena and she looks so much like me: similar height, similar complexion and same dark eyes. In a burka, with so much hidden, she would look pretty much like me!
I was pained. You have hidden everything about us from her; even the plan to elope and settle down in a different place. Also, you never spoke about her to me, and leave alone the fact that you are still married to her.
I don’t want to be your partner in crime. So, I disclosed everything to her about us and your plan and instructed her as to what was expected of ‘Srilaxmi’ in the course of the journey (nothing actually other than sitting quiet!). I then handed her over the burka, my bag and wrist-watch and also the letter that you are now holding in your hand.