This is a story from a small village called Nuh in Haryana. Given the nature of my husband’s job we frequently change places and are able to visit corners many wouldn’t have heard of. Some places are difficult to locate on the map, not Google map, but a good old Atlas. During one such tenure we found ourselves living in rural Haryana in the village of Nuh. Now I hadn’t heard of Nuh even though I belong to the neighbouring state of Himachal. Nuh was unique in so many ways as I was about to find out slowly. To give you the location, it was about seventy kilometres from Delhi, but still remote, the climate too was extreme, from zero degree in winters to forty-five degrees in summers. People here were predominantly farmers and mostly of Meo ethnicity. The place had a rich history and had seen many rulers.
Being the rural development officer my husband was given, what everyone referred to, as a bungalow. I was eager to move into my bungalow and reached there one hot sweltering June evening. The dust storm had just subsided and it gave the evening sun an uncanny halo of orange and diffused my bungalow in the same to hue. Sand had claimed my bungalow which turned out to be a house with two rooms and a kitchen. Why in God’s name would anyone call it a banglow, giving me false hopes of living like the memsaabs of erstwhile British era,with its bungalows, like you find strewn all over Shimla, my hometown. My husband was quick to admonish me. He said, “You have a pucca house, as opposed to the mud huts in the village, and you even have a lawn to go with it. How is this any less than a bungalow?” Oh nevermind! I thought, let’s turn this into a bungalow, and began unpacking. In an hour I had my kitchen ready to host a party. My husband returned, a little later with the caretaker, who would be assisting me and helping me along. I went out with a glass of water to offer him. He drank and thanked me, in a very pleasant manner. He told me his name was Shankar and would be living in the quarter attached to the house. His family had only an eight year old daughter call Indriyani.
Shankar’s six feet plus frame seemed to dwarf me, not that I am tall to begin with. He seemed to be a warm person, somewhat fatherly even though he must be the same age as me. A sort of person you would want around if you were ever in trouble.
It has been a week since we move in and Shankar had been of greatest help. My home transformed into a bungalow. He even began planting flowers and mowing the lawn. I hadn’t seen Indriyani anywhere. Whenever I asked Shankar he would dismiss it by saying she is around.
One fine morning after a sudden shower, much to the relief of everyone, I decided to look around the village. The air was ripe with the pleasant dewy petrichor of the post-rain morning, enticing me to walk around. The village had many monuments across its length and breadth. Many tourists thronged the place. It was here I noticed Indriyani, a bubbly girl,wearing a red suit, selling postcards to the tourists. Well there were many little children like her,all from the village, but what was unique about Indriyani was the many languages she was speaking. She would listen intensely to the tourists to hear what language they work conversing in, and then would go rushing to them and plead them to buy her stuff. Her greetings would in French, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu English and she even managed Russian. Her diction and syntax was amazing. I almost believed that she had formal training in all these languages. The tourist too were attracted by her unique ability and many bought articles because they found her irresistibly cute. I went to her too, and she recognised me immediately and was the first to introduce herself. “Namaste”, she said cheerfully, “You are Iyengar aunty right ! I am Indriyani I’ve seen you in the banglow.” “Pleased to meet you Indriyani,” I said. Oh ! Forgive me. I forgot to introduce myself. I am a Himachali, married to an Iyengar from Karnataka. I have often been asked how we came together, because of a rolling pin I say laughing. Anyone who visits Shimla definitely goes to a ubiquitous little market that sells all things wooden and the rolling pin is the star. Apparently the wood used here is just right to make the rolling pin required to roll out around perfect roties. Here I spotted this confused, chubby, slightly darkish by North Indian standards, looking soul glancing at rolling pins like they were some sort of meteors fallen from the sky. Bemused I helped him buy one and that’s that. Let’s get back to Indriyani.
I was drawn to Indriyani’s cherubic little face, big eyes with a shining bindi in between, and curly slightly blond hair. “Bonjour,” she shouted to a French tourist passing by, and off she scooted to sell her things.
As I returned home after my slightly long walk, it was almost late afternoon when I returned. I wanted to tell Shankar I finally met his daughter and went exuberantly towards is room. I could hear words akin to a prayer being said and from the slightly ajar window I saw Shankar offering namaj. It was the first time I saw him wearing skull cap. Not wanting to disturb him, I retreated to the house not fully comprehending what I saw. Few minutes later he was with me and had guessed the most obvious question going on in my mind. “Madam, my name is Shankar Khan,” he said. “I am a Muslim Rajput, most of us in this village are.” “Muslim Rajput!” I said, trying to suppress the surprise in my voice. He explain gently without malice, like speaking to a little child. “We are Meo. Our ancestors converted to Islam between the twelfth and seventeenth century but we maintain our distinctive cultural identity. We practice Islam, but haven’t left our Hindu roots. Names like Ram Khan and Shankar Khan are common here. Many of us even use Singh, like Fateh Singh. We do not marry in the same gotra like most of Haryana and the marriages are solemnized after nikah and Hindu rites have been completed.” “So your daughter is Indriyani Khan,” I said. He stiffened at the mention of his daughter and left. I processed the new found information. I was smiling, remembering these lines I read long ago:
क्या बनाने आए क्या बना बैठे
कहीं मंदिर बना बैठे
कहीं मस्जिद बना बैठे
हमसे तो जात अच्छी है परिंदों की
कभी मंदिर पर जा बैठे तो
कभी मस्जिद पर जा बैठे
Nuh indeed was unique. Wish I could tell more people in India about it. Next day Shankar came in with a request. He asked if I could tutor the little children of village in English and Maths. The school in the village educated the children well, but these two subjects are lacking. So on Shankar’s suggestion I became a volunteer at a nearby school.
The classes were held in the evenings due two basic reasons, first it was too hot during the day to study and second most children were out working and doing different chores. I was introduced to the group of little children whose age groups ranged from six to ten years. I had gone thinking I would find more boys, but was pleasantly surprised to see a homogeneous group. The school register had only the first names and no surnames and this was done, I was told, to keep the secular nature alive. Indriyani was easily the most talkative girl in the class. She was quick on uptake and loved to learn. She warmed up to me quickly. Started visiting home often. She insisted that I come to her home and take a look at her collection. “Collection of what?” I asked. “You’ll never guess,” she said. Curiosity rising high, I went to the room and she showed me her collection of cheese. “Cheese!” “Yes,” she said, jumping up and down. “I love cheese. A Spanish tourist had given me one and I loved it”. “How did you manage such a collection?” I asked. “I ask tourists to lend me if they have and I give them discount on the goods. ” Where is Shankar?” I asked. Her face fell. “Abba doesn’t talk to me. He doesn’t like me.” “Why?” “Ammi died when I was born. He never even picked me up ever. I heard him saying my face reminded him of Ammi and how I was the reason she was not here.” I hugged her instantly. She was still smiling. “It’s alright,” she said. “I know he loves me but is annoyed he couldn’t save Ammi. One day he will be proud of me.” It had only been a month since I had arrived and I already felt that I had been living here for ages. At the end of my class we kept fifteen minutes for stories. They had so many things to say and ask. I introduced Geronimo Stilton books to them and they were thrilled. Indriyani, strangely did not want to read. Only after I told her that Stilton was also a cheese company, did she excitedly pickup the book.
It was humid August evening and the fan in the school seem to have given up on keeping anyone cool. It’s blades rotated humming a slow lullaby putting all of us in a sort of lethargic slumber. Suddenly there was commotion outside. A huge luxury bus was park outside our little school, a kind of novelty in a village where bullock cart was still the means of transportation. It belonged to a French couple and Indriyani was leading them inside. A little consent from the couple was enough to let the children go scrambling into the bus and examine it’s cushioned seats, TV, air conditioner, curtains. The couple had come to talk to me as they could commute a little in English. They had been meeting Indriyani and saw a lot of potential in her. They wanted to adopt her. We went to meet Shankar and apprised him of the situation. He looked at his daughter and nodded in consent. Indriyani was overjoyed, and so were the French couple. After all the formalities were completed it was the day for Indriyani to leave. No tears, no emotional goodbyes, instead warm wishes and smiling faces. Indriyani stayed in touch with me first through letters, then email and then through various social media. We too moved to the next place after spending an educative two years in Nuh.
Life happened and I got busier. Nuh would cross my mind ever so often, specially after the night of December 6, 1992, when, Babri Masjid fell. I thought how the people of Nuh must be keeping their identity and the close knit cultural structure together. I felt sad thinking how their distinctive cultural identity must be under threat of being torn apart completely.
My phone pinged in a message one early morning and it was from Indriyani. She was in Nuh almost ten years after she had left. She requested me to come there to meet her. Even though I was neck deep in work at the time, I could not help but book a ticket to Nuh. I informed what time I would reach and sure enough she was there to receive me, with a young man next to her, who, I assumed was her boyfriend. She took me to her home, a hut in the village, with all modern amenities inside. “I stay here,” she proudly said, “with Rahul Khoshoo, who studied with me in France.” A Kashmiri pandit, I thought and it seems he read my mind and smiled at me impishly as if saying it doesn’t matter. “I’ve a gift for you,” she said and took out a big jar of Stilton cheese and we both started giggling at the sight of it. Nuh hadn’t changed much and I was happy to see it that way. During dinner Indriyani explained, she had studied world history and that made her realise how distinctive her unique heritage was. Rahul was of the same opinion too, and together they were here to chronicle this extraordinarily remarkable cultural identity. “Abba is helping us collect all the information,” said Rahul with a smile and as if on cue Shankar entered holding old records and photographs in his hands. His pleasant manner was still there and he smiled at Indriyani as he handed everything to her. As Shankar left, Indriyani winked at me, “I told you he will be proud of me.” I spent a week in Nuh and was happy to see that it remained unaffected by the happenings around. It had presented itself as a live example of what our nation was all about and I was proud of the young couple who had taken it upon themselves to show it to the world. The evening before I was to leave we went to to check some Meo monuments. A hot June breeze carried the sweet scent of mangoes and the setting sun resembled a burning diya in the sky. As I looked back I saw the young couple lost in an amorous kiss giving me hope that when the roots are deep there is no reason to fear the wind.
Thanks for reading