Next to the Chawri Bazaar Metro station stands an old, dilapidated building which once served as the house of a certain Gulbarg Begum. Known as a prominent nautch girl of her time, over the years and with the end of the nautch era, the two storeyed, lattice-balconied structure now housed two separate families. On the ground floor lived an old Muslim couple while the upper floor housed two women who went by the names, Laila and Manju. The Muslim and Sikh combination had first come to meet during the 1984 Sikh riots when Laila had gone visiting her paternal uncle and had been caught amidst the fury on the road. Burkha clad women were not the primary targets, so she had found herself safe. While making her way back home, she found a dishevelled Manjeet running directionless. Laila took her under her wing and since the past thirty-four years, the two women had been each other’s life support.
Her family of an ailing mother and a young, sixteen-year-old brother had been butchered right before her eyes. For many years, Manjeet spent sleepless nights revisiting the trauma. However, with Laila’s continuous support and care, she finally learnt to overcome her past and began working on building a future. Laila, a Quran teacher for the poor kids in the vicinity had otherwise lived a life of fair comfort. Her father had owned a wholesale store dealing in copper and brass. With no male heir to the family, the family shop was sold off on her Abba’s demise. She and her Ammi managed well with the sale proceeds. With her Ammi gone too, Laila dedicated herself to some sort of communal service thus bringing her years of Quran learning to good use. Manjeet, on the other hand, had been a domestic spirit. Not one to venture out without her parent’s permission, her future was to be sealed with the alliance of marriage. The events of the fateful night had clearly not been forecasted.
Laila drew the terrified woman aside and hugged her tight. Dishevelled hair, a torn salwar with a blood-soaked forehead, Laila’s heart went out to Manjeet the minute she spotted her. Loud voices could be heard trailing behind the fearful and tearful woman she had just met. She removed her burkha and threw it over Manjeet. Herself, she had a tabeez on her neck as identity enough. She stepped aside a burning tyre and waited for the crowd to cross by. She didn’t want to be seen running for that could easily make her a collateral damage in their thirst for blood. The crowd, as predicted, came by and one of the men raised his hand signalling the others to stop. He approached Laila and she readily gave her name. His eyes on the tabeez on her neck did the rest. He looked at the burqa clad woman and without a word, left them and headed for the next victim. With the crowd gone, Laila caught hold of Manjeet’s hand and walked faster than she had ever walked before. She did not stop till she had reached home. This is how Laila, twenty-three and Manju, nineteen, came to be.
The first major change to the new way of life began when Manjeet lost her original name to the more colloquial Manju. Nightmares were a part of her early days in Laila’s home, who took to sleeping next to her to offer her comfort. What began as a source of solace soon converted itself into something more prolific. The young women began to seek comfort in each other’s physical proximities and soon enough, they came to regard themselves as lovers. That both had remained untouched by a man till then was just a mere coincidence. Once they had discovered the joy in each other, no man had been able to lure the two of them. Men there were plenty, what with two single women up for takes in a rather crowded mohalla! The Indian society had no place for women like them; nor did they bother to announce it to the world. They maintained a sisterly pact on the outside and the society looked upon them with respect.
Randi Masjid was named after one of the thirteen wives of Sir David Ochterlony, Delhi’s first British resident, who was known for his passion for nautch girls. Mubarak Begum, a Brahmin dancing girl from Pune, was a convert to Islam. While some claim her to be his favourite wife, others regarded her as just a mistress and hence the name, Randi Masjid. Visible clearly from her balcony, one evening over chai, as the two lovers stood staring at the prayer structure, Manju had said, ‘’Who is to know the real story behind this structure? Only a woman’s heart knows her own truth fully,’’ and with that she held Laila’s hand tightly.
Love makes one learn and accept things about each other in a rather effortless manner. While Laila understood Manju’s inhibitions about body hair removal, Manju came to regard beef as just another kind of meat. The household grew into a beautiful kind of existence. Both were early risers. Each one prayed to their own respective Gods without interference and then spent the better part of the morning preparing food for the day. Afternoons saw children arrive for their Quran classes and by six in the evening, the women had themselves to each other. Manju also began learning Urdu, something she discovered she thoroughly enjoyed. Long walks among unsuspecting passersby, bhutta in the winters, kulcha chhole some other time, the women who had met three decades earlier were in a rather splendid mood today.
The joy was evident with congratulatory remarks, happy faces and rainbow flags surrounding the long procession which was to end at India Gate. The 7th of September 2018 had made a rather remarkable statement. The Supreme Court of India had decriminalized Section 377 of the IPC to recognize the rights of the LGBT community and Justice Dipak Misra’s name had gone down in history forever. Laila and Manju held hands as they walked along with thousands of others like them.
“Do you remember the first morning Manju,’’ asked Laila.
Greyed hair, a loose kurta and large earrings for company, Manju leaned towards Laila. “Maybe we didn’t know ourselves. Maybe you needed me and I needed you to discover this side to us. Not a word more, neither a word less.’’
Thirty-four years later, Manju hadn’t missed a word of what she had told Laila that morning.