The place looked clean and different now, made up with as much pomp and grandeur as they could afford. Ritualistically it was not necessary to arrange the worshipping under a tree. But it was a community event and the tree, - tall, large and thickly covered with leaves, was there right in front of the barrack since long past and had become a part of their life. They had moved to this place as long as twenty-five years ago. So this spot was selected as a unanimous choice.
They lived in the barrack all 365 days in a year, huddled together in their small units, no matter how many were there in a family or the family composition of some of them had now run into how many generations. Each unit comprised only one room and a 4-ft.x 4-ft. kitchen, with a common roof of a single stretch of corrugated sheet and a common veranda in front.
Starting from the dawn till late in the night the grassy ground below the long comforting branches and around the main, massive trunk of the tree, the members belonging to all fifteen families of the barrack spent most of their leisure time almost all round the year, except during rains, in gossips, nurturing hopeless dreams and sharing their common woes. They comforted each other during their trying times, consequentially meaning most of the time of a year, as they were poor, underprivileged people who had hardly any smooth sailing, easy going time in their life.
And they also fought quite often in heated exchange of words and exchange of blows either, particularly the male members but the female members, however, not altogether excepted. Though, as ideal consorts, they rather preferred tugging of hairs and shouting to the best of their ability as their priority weapon, to outdo the opponents. They fought over petty issues like one not paying up till date other’s debt or one’s wife not showing due regards to her counterpart next door the other day. The growing Romeos hunting for the budding Juliets also brought some new credence at times to the insipidity of their daily music. If it was a different kind of music it surely was a short piece like Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ or ‘Dog Sonata’ and never a full score composition like his ‘Pastoral Symphony’. The episode either got a final ending in wedlock or the jilted Devdas slept the next three days with the local alcoholics at his debut attempt. There was no Paris among them and no Trojans to launch a thousand ships for a Helen.
It took as little time for them to be at dagger’s point as quickly to be ready to stake one’s life at other’s service in event of a truly dire necessity like it happened last year when Shabnam, the ten year old daughter of Afroz, needed kidney transplantation and Manua, the 25 year old son of Udaybhan Singh readily yielded. They were stupid, blunt people but still preferred to hold on to some old values, mainly by habit and not by conscious choice, may be for the fear of changing and ushering in any thing new. Novelty was a taboo, a forbidden word for them banished under the ever-watchful baton of abject poverty.
For at least a couple of months each year they remained out of work rotationally when the factory, the bread earners of the families worked in, laid off a part of their work force as a routine. The odd jobs during this time they tried their hands at, were barely enough to feed the ill fated families and the members would simply starve had not the other families took it up to share their earning in a sort of reflex action without anybody’s asking, mainly for the fear of similar bad days in their turn ahead and not for the kind of pretended humanism as is customary among the elites.
There was drudgery, stark and simple, in the rhythm of their life, but a rhythm it surely was, like it exists in the ripples of the sewerage flowing down a drain. They also celebrated their occasions and rejoiced in their own way. They drank the cheapest and the coarsest liquors, either home made or bought from the illegal distilleries. The merry making would continue late beyond the midnight descending down to drunken orgies, finally laced up with the fun of wife beating. All these were common, absolutely common, among all the fifteen families of which eight were of Hindu and the rest of the Muslim faith. So their never waning poverty was their lifeline and had built up a strong thread of spontaneous unity, not even challenged by the diversity of their religious identities.
But they were pious people. The Muslim inhabitants would go to their holy mosques at least on Fridays and offer prayers five times a day. They celebrated their festivals with pomp and colors within their capacity, spending as much savings, a virtual nonentity for them, as they could lay their hands on.
The Hindus also observed their religious occasions in the similar way, buying new clothes for children, if they could afford, during the Durga Puja, bursting crackers on the night of worship of goddess Kali. Shamim, Habib, Irfan and Akhtar would join hands with Gopal, Chandan, Gour and Madhab to put fire to the crackers. Harinath would not forget to buy an extra piece of frock for Marjina next door if he could manage his finance and could buy one for his same aged daughter when the Pujas came. On the day of Id-Ul-Fitr Amina would never forget to send a big bowl of firni and kheer to Shyamadidi, her immediate neighbor and guardian, with all the love and respect of a caring younger sister.
But what they avoided with utmost care was any discussion on the comparative merits of their religions, mainly for the fear of breeding any degree of animosity and no less for their inability to go any length to attempt a discussion at all. From their old experience they had learnt that religion, though significant, a proper ambience for peaceful co-existence was no less important.
Their respective guides in religion had cautioned them against any contamination of faith through the wide gateway of free intermixing, more particularly among the youngsters and children. So there was red alert one day when Arjun, the five year old son of Sontosh and Himani came back from play at the quarter of Izaz and started to demonstrate how he had offered prayer alongside his friend, Nasir, and his parents to their God, kneeling down on the ground and raising his hands as they did. The incident might have taken an untoward turn unless Izaz and a few others of their community came rushing to Arjun’s parents and promised with apology to be cautious thenceforward to resist anything of the kind in future.
Similarly, one evening for Sahabuddin and his wife Fauzia tended to be unusually tense and paranoid when Rezwana, the seven year old daughter of Siraj, returned with a calendar having a picture of Goddess Kali printed thereupon, a gift from her friend, Rukmini. Things could have rested there without resembling the scene of the World Trade Centre crumbling down unless she walled it up outside their room and started to sing a hymn to the deity sitting on the floor of the veranda. She had a red hibiscus in her little palms joined together and upheld before the picture in a gesture of offering, as she had learnt at the quarter of Rukmini.
The incident was witnessed by many having occurred in the open veranda and a common contingent of senior residents drawn from both the community readily called up Shibdas, Rukmini’s father and alerted him against any recurrence of a similar event. This time also the situation was saved as Shibdas never tried to disown his responsibility and patiently accepted whatever reprimand he was awarded.
So, today was the Holi, the spring festival of colors and merrymaking for the Hindus, breaking all barriers of age, genders and castes. It was in commemoration of a heroic event in the life of Lord Sri Krishna when he was given a hero’s welcome after he came back killing a local demon and freeing the villagers permanently from the ostracism of the tyrant. Sri Krishna was greeted with an overdose of enthusiasm by the gopinis, the wives of the milkmen of the village, all in love head over heals with him since the time of their early girlhood. As Krishna looked more beautiful and romantic to them as they had seen him before, with blood smeared all over his person, the following morning the lovelorn maidens staged a special show to sprinkle colored powders and water on Krishna to rejoice for his phenomenal victory and re-enact the event. They were also soaked in colors in return, by their beloved and then onward it became a major festival among the Hindus down the ages, being observed with fun and devotion every year on the same day.
Since Lord Sri Krishna is believed to be the reincarnation of Narayana, one of the three front rankers of Hindu Gods, a special homage had been paid to the deity by the priest as a prelude to the main festival where all the Hindu inhabitants of the barrack, including the old and the children from all the eight families, were present.
The event had ended with the final ritual of Harir Loot which was an act of throwing by the priest of small candies, made of molasses, inviting the devotees to collect them in a squandering spree in the name of Lord Narayana, the candies symbolizing his unending blessings always ready to be showered for all alike, the virtuous and the vile. It was a very popular event among the children and was a great success this year too. They had taken the prasad, the supposed leftovers of the food offered to the deity. So, the next sequel of the festival, the event of color sprinkling was to begin for which they were waiting in great excitement.
The Muslim brethren were watching the proceedings from at a distance and were cautiously restraining their children from rushing to the scene.
The elders among the children could be made aware, somehow by their guardians that the festival could not be a part of their religion as their God did not approve of the gaiety and ostentation in the name of religion. Contrarily, they had to offer homage to God, as they were told, in silence and in quiet submission. The smaller children had, however, not at all understood why they were being prevented from participating in such a grand event. They were allowed all the year round to mix and play with their friends over there and there was no restriction to rushing to the loving embrace of Sudha, Sandhya, Saraswati and Sumati aunties, now enjoying themselves just at yards’ distance, in wild exchange of colors.
Amina whispered to Rajia standing next to her, with an extra alert not to be heard by any of the elderly men folk around, that she would also enjoy the celebration immensely had she been allowed to step beyond the invisible chalk circle lying drawn around her. Rajia sadly nodded in agreement but advised Amina not to indulge in such thought, as it could be blasphemous and corruptive.
Seventy-five year old father of Afroz who was in the Army some forty years back wondered that there was no restriction during his army days to join hands with his Hindu brothers and participate in the celebration of holi. Actually, they would be inspired to do so, may be, to enhance camaraderie among adherents of diverse faiths. He felt sad that possibly he would never find scope, in the next few years as were left for him, to persuade his fellow people to shrug off their shackles and respond to the lures of breaking some barriers, at least occasionally.
Young Tito who had a formal scriptural name of Abu Akhtar Siddiqui was not yet four. But as he could run very swiftly like a rabbit, his young mother had kept him confined in her arms, very tightly held to her upper body, where from the child could very well see the ongoing celebration but could not flee.
Both the child and the mother were watching the free flow of fun in rapt attention. Apart from his interest to what was happening yonder, Tito was cherishing a hope in his mind deep inside that his mother could not be able much longer to keep him restrained in her arms as he had gained some weight lately and was rather heavy for her mother’s ability to keep him in that instant position.
Tito was patiently waiting for the moment like a wise guy when he would run to the scene in lightning speed to grab a sprinkler from any of his friends over there and pour colored water on them which was unmistakably very exciting as a game in his reckoning. He always enjoyed throwing mud on his friends quite often, needing, however, no special occasion as this. He had the wisdom that mud was filthy and smelt foul and offensive, in comparison to the scented colored water, which surely promised to be fun.
So Tito waited, careful not to give any hint of what was happening in his mind to his mother.
But suddenly all his self control and cool were lost. He saw that his Sumati auntie who loved him very much and for whom he had also a special liking, was forced to the ground by some other girls of her age, some elderly women and also some young men. He could not see Sumati beyond the close ring of the revelers around her and though he could see the others laughing, giggling and throwing colors on her, it looked to the child to be grossly uncharitable and utterly atrocious to his most favorite woman in the community.
The gallant and the chivalrous suddenly woke up in Tito and putting the best of his prowess into action he fled from the clutches of his mother and started to run to the spot. He was quite forgetful of what might be happening behind and a collective loud voice in alarm rising from the rear was nothing to him to be bothered about. Her mother was also running close to him, which he hardly cared for.
The ground had become immensely slippery by now, soaked in a riot of colors and Tito lost grip of his little toes on the ground falling quite flat on his back. The soft clay below caused no hurt to his body. But when a loud laugh rose from all directions, far and near, as he tried to lift himself from the floor, he slipped again and looked like a little imp with mud and all available shades of colors smeared on his face and the uncovered portions of his body.
Tito stared vacantly into the eyes of the persons who had gathered around him. He was now in the arms of Sumati who had rushed to him and had taken him up in anxious affection.
Tito’s thought process had stopped working for a few moments at the sudden flow of events and when he got back his senses he looked around to see where his mother could be.
It was an occasion of joy of his lifetime when he discovered that her mother had also slipped on the ground just as him and was now being thoroughly dipped in colors by the same group which had picked up Sumati as their previous target. The fun and frolic, the mock attack– all had now become clear to the kid and a real feast for his eyes. He was relieved to see that his mother was also bending double in fits of frenzied laugh like the others and very soon could no more be told apart from the company of the other women all of whom had become her mother in every likeness of appearance and conduct.
Tito ran back to the women who were waiting so long in isolation with their brothers, husbands and other elders and started to sprinkle colors on them. Then the others also came rushing and joined Tito. The invisible barrier no longer was there and no one seemed to complain.
Tiny drops of rains, - cool, bright and sparkling, started slowly pouring down from the sky, like the fragrant petals of jasmine.
The Almighty, the Eternal One, lovingly looked through the veil of the transient clouds below, smiled and blessed His children from His abode above.