I was about to reach the school when my cell phone buzzed.
“Joy? At this hour?” I mumbled as I took the call, “Hey. Good morning.”
“I have sad news.” As my ears perceived his dull voice, my brain counted all the probable calamities it could.
“What happened?” I squealed.
“Faizan’s father… he passed away last night.” Words came out of Joy’s mouth as reluctantly as my ears heard them.
“What?” An involuntary shriek escaped out of me.
“Yes. Uncle was behind a reversing wagon. He stumbled upon something and fell down as he tried to get away from it. The driver could not see him and ran over. He died on the spot.” Joy informed.
“My God,” I uttered. It was indeed a shocking news.
Faizan, Joy and I were together since our primary school days. It’s more than twenty years now and it seems so long that we have stopped counting the years on our friendship. I had been to Faizan’s house on numerous occasions. His father, Mr. Zaidi was an amiable man. Unlike Joy’s father, who hardly interacted with us, Zaidi uncle behaved as if he were Faizan’s elder brother. In our school days, he used to play cricket with us. During college days, he enquired who among us had a crush and on whom. Joy and I enjoyed his company more than our own fathers because he gave us space and let us be ourselves. Handsome and lively, Zaidi uncle was the youngest of the three dads. He was a fire-fighter. His professional boldness and playfulness reflected in his behaviour. The difference in our religious faiths never proved a hurdle in our bonhomie.
On Holi, Diwali and other festivals, Joy and Faizan came to my house. On Eid we went to his. We stayed at each other’s place many times and our parents never objected to it.
After college, Faizan got job with a Chennai based multinational company.
“I am reaching your school. We have to pick Faizan from the airport,” Joy said.
“Listen,” Joy had some more instructions, “They have told him that his father is ill and is in hospital,” he said.
Faizan’s flight landed after half an hour of wait. Seeing us, he ran towards us. Joy grinned as we took turns to hug him.
Without even smiling, he asked, “How is Abbu?”
“He is fine,” Joy grinned more. I never thought he was such a bad actor.
Faizan turned to me, “Bharat, you tell. I know you won’t lie to me.”
“Uncle is fine, Faiz.” I lied but my voice spoiled it.
He looked into my eyes. I could feel that guilt had made my face clumsy. Without saying a word, he walked off and sat in Joy’s car.
After bathing the dead body and covering it in a white shroud, Faizan and his relatives started for the nearby mosque to offer prayers. We went with Faizan. Reaching the mosque, they washed their folded hands starting from elbow. Joy and I imitated them.
Gods, probably created by men himself, dominate their lives. Our religious beliefs are largely governed by his fear. Despite our long friendship, I had never been to a mosque with Faizan before.
I never feared going to Faizan’s house, and being a lone Hindu amidst of a dozen of Muslims at the time of Eid. But, that day, something stopped me. It was involuntary. A voice warned me, “You can’t enter a mosque. A Brahmin shouldn’t.”
I instantly decided to obey, “My going inside will hardly make a difference and I have no business there nor I know how to offer prayers,” my brain reasoned as Faizan, Joy and others walked inside the mosque while I stood on the threshold still fighting with my demons.
I lifted my eyes and saw Joy walking alongside Faizan with arms around his shoulders. I felt a slap on my face. My heart twitched with guilt and ingratitude. I ran inside and caught up with my friends.
Inside, Joy and I sat on our knees beside Faizan and followed him. I felt a strange sense of peace and contentment as we walked out. After that, no voice and no belief could stop me from following the religion called friendship.
When the body was taken to the burial ground, Joy and I participated in all the rituals until it was covered with sand.
Twenty-six years had passed. Faizan had settled in Chennai long ago. We’d barely met ten times in all these years.
My son, Samar had got admission in a Chennai engineering college but, I was reluctant to request Faizan to take care of him. Then, one day, he called me and greeted me with a stream of expletives in the same way as we did during our school days. Joy had told him about my hesitation.
Next day, Faizan went to meet Samar in his hostel and asked him to come to his place every weekend. My son had got a guardian and home, thousands of miles away. For four years, Faizan and his family saved me from all worries. Faizan was like Zaidi uncle. He talked about everything with Samar.
After graduating, Samar got a placement in the same MNC in which Faizan had started his career.
One day, unusual of him, Faizan sent a text message, ‘I’ve some news for you. Samar and Firdaus are in love.’ Perhaps, he was apprehensive of my reaction.
I was in a dilemma and hadn’t shared it with my wife. The Hindu inside me started ranting. ‘How would people react to it? What would the elders in the clan say? Who will marry your daughter?’ No part of me opposed him.
I was still in a fix as Samar’s mother laid the table the following night. As we sat to eat, breaking news flashed on TV- ‘Hindu boy killed by family members for marrying Muslim girl’.
“Disgusting!” My wife exclaimed, “When will the Indians throw off the shackles of religion?”
I looked at her, “Will you allow your son to marry a Muslim girl?” I said.
“Of course, Bharat,” she was animated, “No body, not even the parents, have a right to decide with whom someone wants to live his or her life,” she said.
“You mean it?” I asked, calmly.
“Why do you doubt?” She smiled.
“No. I was wondering what your stand would be on learning that your son loves a Muslim girl.”
“I’ve already approved Firdaus, Mr. Shandilaya,” she laughed as if I were a fool.
“Who told you?” Aghast, I asked.
“And, people?” I asked, squeezing my brows.
“They will talk even if our son’s marriage with a Hindu girl turns bad,” Samar’s Mom said. As we talked, the father inside me got empowered. I had resolved to care only for our children’s happiness.
Before calling it a day, I typed, ‘Arrange for the dowry, dear father of my daughter-in-law. I want a copy of the holy Quran and your daughter from you. In return, I’ll give you the Gita and my son to you. Coming to Chennai tomorrow…to bless the children.’ I put the phone in front of my wife to let her read.
She smiled as she read and pressed the key to send it. “Relations are, any day, more precious than religion,” she mumbled and rested her head on my shoulders.