Several weeks before I was to enter holy matrimony my grandmother, Ammi and her hand maidens got engrossed in the task of indigenous kaleera making. As if driven with a focussed commitment, the ladies strung makhanas and dried coconuts into red threads. Ammi would periodically leave her diwan to inspect the vegetables being dried, in the veda. I had requested her to make her famous Karam pickle. As a bride to be, my wish was everyone’s command. Ammi was the epitome of kindness. It was rumoured the cows at my ancestral home would refuse to let out milk, when she was not around to coax them with her religious hymns, every morning. At the age of fifteen, Ammi was married to my Grandfather. Bauji, or Chota Shahji, as he was called in his native town, Ahhnoor, ( Jammu and Kashmir) He was a descendent of landlords.
Ammi’s kaleeras had been trimmed with coconuts and makhanas, too. They were intended to serve a dual purpose of also becoming a discreet snack for the bride. As she was required to be shy in etiquette, especially at the dining table. Zaini was Ammi’s trusted girl Friday, who followed her every command like Aladdin’s genie. Zaini’s mother had served as a midwife to the women folk of the family. Eventually, she became responsible for bringing Ammi’s first two children into the world. Zaini was her mother’s diligent protégé . Although Zaini was entrusted with big shoes to fill, she superseded her mentor, effortlessly.
Zaini’s father , Hamid, was the munshi with my great grandfather. Ammi was entering motherhood for the third time in 1947 when Hindustan lost its centuries old prefix of British India. As the Gora sahibs returned to their homeland they left us a Trojan horse called partition. A disfiguring fracture crippled our land and a nascent Pakistan was born.
At Akhnoor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh grew hungry for blood of another faith, ironically blood of the same colour. Hamid Bhai had to flee to his new country. Initially, he and his family hid at my great grandfather’s house. So, furtive camps were erected in the grain stores, and cellars. The unrest on the streets acquired a disgraceful animality, with blood spills, everywhere. If the RSS discovered Hamid Bhai, branded fugitives at our house, there would be hell to pay, and that kept Ammi on tender hooks.
Bauji had no choice but to take action. He requested Hamid Bhai to find shelter elsewhere but leave Zaini behind. He assured Hamid he would personally escort Zaini to the area dedicated to those meant to leave at a later date.
Zaini and Ammi had an unbreakable bond; they were soul sisters. Zaini had given her dua, when they first met. She soothed Ammi’s brow when her body was convulsed with pain during childbirth. My Uncle was lured into this world , by Zaini’s kind hands. Ammi or Choti Shahni had given the Shahs an heir, followed by a spare. It was necessary to repay the Hindu Gods with a frugality of salt, and that meant Ammi had to adhere to the custom of salt abstinence. Ammi was fed Panjiri. As the plump nyana ( newborn) wailed. Zaini would smudge him with kohl to ward off nazar.
Ammi’s taste buds demanded salt. Zaini’s kind heart, yet sharp mind hatched a plot. A tiny stove had been placed in the adjacent store which was used to boil water. Suspension of Epsom salt, dissolved in warm water, was used as an antiseptic. Zaini recovered the kaleeras from the trunks. She roasted the makhanas and coated them with Epsom salt. Choti Shahni greedily devoured them and savoured every grain of salt. It was a mano salwa. Ammi gave Zaini a golden hair clip arched like a peacock’s plumage and adorned with precious stones. She kept the identical clip for herself. Soon, it was decided Bauji would smuggle Zaini to a deserted spot on the outskirts of town. Zaini’s family would be waiting. They would then make their way to Pakistan. One morning, at the crack of dawn, the kind Musalmaan girl was given away from the Hindu household. Bade Shahji promised to send for her as soon as possible. Zaini gave dua to her precious Hindu family. She lovingly smeared her foster son with kohl , one last time. Zaini would rather die , than let him attract nazar.
The Shahs never heard from Zaini again. Years went by and they migrated to Jammu. After two decades my mother married a doctor, who served in the Indian army, but wanted to go to White man’s land , to study further. Within several years the young couple was blessed with two daughters. The panjeeri formula was replaced with chicken broth. The family of four moved to the United Kingdom. My sister and I grew up there as brown girls of the seventies. Life was kind, yet, sometimes we were made to swallow humble pie. If we got to hear racial slurs once in a while, we expertly ignored them. I promise to shed light on the, ‘ your hand is black , but mine is white’ chant, one day.
To be honest, the incidents of kindness outnumbered stinging ridicule. We had a Welsh neighbour who would take me to the fair , along with her grandchildren. And there was even the Catholic lady in Dublin who ran a motel. She lodged my parents, free of charge as my father, Papa had deftly rescued a two pence coin from her granddaughter’s throat. To her, Papa was a Godsend. So, she implied God is not an Englishman, nor is he white. Kindness is when the Indian doctor on Halloween night, assumes the English boy lying outside his front door dressed up as Guy Fawkes, has actually been injured. Kindness is when the English headmistress bounces the five year old Indian girl, on her lap.
One winter, we travelled to India to attend my Uncle’s wedding. The fervour of the Indian wedding and the army of relatives was tough to dodge. We understood very well that in my Grandmother’s house, her word was final. Every debate ended with, ‘Ammi said so.’ She kindly presented me with the twin to Zaini’s hair pin . That’s when we learnt about Zaini . Upon my return to England, I narrated the Zaini phenomenon to all my friends. We pledged to travel to Pakistan and find Zaini. Yet, the more ascetic amongst us understood there is a Zaini everywhere.
In my flawed life and hyphenated existence, the Gods have been kind even when I have thought them not to be.
Kindness comes in many forms and I’d be remiss not to mention the incident with a Sikh family at a New Delhi hospital. When Papa was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My sister and I sat on the hospital steps howling. A Sikh family was immensely distressed to witness our torment. They offered us emotional support that we had never seen before, and rushed to Bangla Sahib to perform Ardas for my father’s recovery.
Unfortunately, my father passed away the following year. His kind heart stopped beating because of a malicious, Godless disease.
I was in the midst of my final year exams , and flew to Delhi from university, unaware of the gruesome tragedy. My Uncle boarded me on a packed bus to Jammu. The driver refused to accommodate me, but my Uncle took him aside, and explained what had happened. I remained unaware of the facts. The driver allowed me to board, but I had to spend the night on the floor. After half an hour a Muslim family in the bus made their way to the driver’s cabin. The women were in purdah. Immediately, one of the women approached me. She claimed her son wanted to spend the night on the floor. Hence, her son and I should swap seats. The lady in niqab, force fed me dinner, from her hamper. Yet, she dissuaded me from eating the mutton, as she claimed the meat had gone bad. She was the kindest stranger and I still don’t know anything about her. Other than, that she was an Islamic lady who fed me and nurtured me in my time of despair. The next morning, as I deboarded the bus, she promised to send me dua. A woman who never revealed her face, revealed kindness isn’t conditional on being of one religion. A woman of another faith, made me abide by the Hindu custom of avoiding the consumption of meat, after the loss of a parent. If I don’t call this kindness, then I must call it Godliness.
It was my father’s birthday when I reached Jammu . But my voyage back home was in vain. Papa had embarked on the final voyage of his unselfish life, dedicated to serving all, equally. He never bothered to say goodbye to me. I never saw him before he passed through. Had I let him down? The question plagued me. My friend had slipped a statuette of Lord Krishna into my pocket. Nevertheless, my Hindu God had abandoned me. Heartbroken and devastated, I severed ties with Lord Krishna, and turned my back on religion.
After a few days I graduated as a dental surgeon. What should have been the happiest moment of my life, was the saddest. I was at Ammi’s house and we were in mourning. I stood on the terrace as tears rolled down my cheeks. Ammi reassured me the star that twinkled the brightest in the sky was my father. And wherever I go, he would be with me. My tears ceased and I stared at the star. It seemed to be twinkling, merrily. Is that you, papa ? I screamed, till I was hoarse. The star shone, brighter than before.
It was ten o’clock and curfew in Jammu. The street dogs howled to echo the misery in my heart. From a distance I could hear the sound of gun fire. But the star still beamed and twinkled, though life on earth underwent ravages, of all sorts. The next morning I looked at the sky. My star twinkled at me. Just as my father’s face had always beamed with kindness and Nur.
When my star twinkles , it’s Papa who flashes a beaming smile. I have understood he hasn’t left me. Goodbyes between us didn’t happen for a reason. Papa or Prabhat, as he was called, is the reason I have made peace with my Hindu Gods. He has guided me to pursue the callings of my heart, even the abstract and spiritual ones.
My father treated his patients who ranged from the Goras, the Middle Eastern Emirs to the desolate fakir, with a dedicated passion. Despite Prabhat’s kindness, he passed away without fulfilling his heartfelt desire to establish a charitable hospital . Where he could heal his patients, and read a Perry Mason novel , in a sun drenched garden , punctuated with bougainvillea. And to sip on kehwa besides his beloved wife.
I often wonder if my father and Zaini have met in the other realm. Certainly, kindness would recognize kindness. My son, Pranav once asked me how I know the star that shines the brightest is my father. My reply was a stark, ‘Ammi told me so.’
Coming back to my kaleeras , well they were the showstoppers when I got married. And I looked every inch a Dogra bride. If only Papa was there to hug me while he gave me away. However, the loneliness I felt during the car ride to my new home dissipated, as I saw papa, twinkling in the sky. A reassurance that he is always by my side, from here till eternity. My father, my superstar, and the reason I identify with kindness.
Roxy Arora is a dental surgeon and wrote her debut novel, Jihad In My Saffron Garden in 2016. The novel conveys the message of world peace, religious tolerance and it was traditionally published. She has lived in the United Kingdom and the Middle East as a child. She likes to portray the experiences of my life as artfully, as possible. She is married to a fellow dentist , and they have a twenty-year-old son. She loves to read fiction and creative non-fiction. She was born to a Hindu family, but now practices Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. She belongs to Jammu and Kashmir, and now resides in New Delhi, NCR.