Our faiths were miles apart but our houses shared walls. Our little residential colony –housing provided by the Indian Institute of Technology, India, my dad’s employer—was a potpourri of prominent religions of the world. Our Muslim family was flanked on the left by a Hindu Brahmin family and on the right by a Christian family. We shared the fruits of the mango tree that stretched its limbs from the Christian courtyard into ours and also the pomegranates from the Hindu tree that bore copious fruit in the few branches on our side.
There was a schism in our religious beliefs: we did not believe in idol worship but left neighbors did, we believed Christ was a prophet of God while right neighbors celebrated him as the son of God. Our foods and cultures were disparate: the left Hindus were strict vegetarians, we ate halal meat sans pork and the right Christians ate all meat. Despite the differences, we were all one close-knit extended family.
We, the kids, a common pool shared by all Aunties to run small errands. Their word was our command. “Beta, go, hurry, get milk for me for Rs.10.I have to serve tea to guests”, the left Aunty asked me, slipping a stainless steel tumbler and Rs.10 in my hand. I dropped homework, moved with the agility of an antelope to save my Aunty’s honor, come sweat or shiver. The right Uncle promptly dropped me to school on his scooter if my bicycle was punctured. Mom was best friends with the Aunties and shared her recipes and deepest secrets—worries and fears concerning kids and husband—with them. We were well-oiled machinery.
It was the era when cellphones were not conceived and house telephones were installed only in houses of officers in the highest echelons. Our neighborhood did not qualify for that privilege until the late 1990s. Folks just knocked on doors at any hour or straight walked in each other’s houses if the doors were left open by careless kids. Sometimes the door creaked open when we were eating lunch and if the left Auntie’s head of well-oiled black hair popped in, we scurried around like squirrels, hiding away or covering the meat curry we were eating, lest she is offended. The left family never ate anything cooked in our home because our pots and pans were tainted with meat. Knowing that she wouldn’t sip her lemonade or tea, sometimes mom asked me to go get a soda for the left Aunty from the corner shop.
Our religious festivals played a significant role in further fostering the community camaraderie. We visited Hindu families on Diwali, Christians on Christmas and they showed up in droves at our doorstep on the day of Eid. Besides eating the festive snacks while visiting, there was also a customary exchange of special festival food between families. Hindu families celebrating Diwali sent us a sampler of poori (fried bread), potato curry, okra fry, and rice pulaav with peas and gulaabjamun (sweet akin to donuts); Christian families sent us cake and meat snacks with a verbal note that it was cooked with halal meat only. On Eid, mom cooked creamy sewiyan (thin noodles cooked in sweet milk and garnished with almonds and pistachios) and sent us running around with bowlfuls to distribute in the neighborhood. For those friends who did not eat our home cooked food because of our meat eating habits, dad bought boxes of sweets from the market. No malice, just protocol.
On Eid, we opened the front door of our house; other times, we used the side door only. There was an unwritten caveat that men came through the front door to greet dad and women through the side one. We offered sewiyan and other vegetarian savories to not offend anyone but some vegetarian uncles—who entered through the front door—asked sheepishly for the chicken kebabs (fried chicken patties) that mom always made for Eid. Dad also called me to ask mom to fry some eggs for another Uncle. I carried the plate of eggs, peppered and aromatic, to the Uncle—all the time thinking it wasn’t even breakfast time.
Only later, did I realize that it was the only day in the year that these men sampled a meat dish or pierced an egg yolk, while still keeping it a secret from their staunchly vegetarian families. Our left Uncle was one of those men.
The festival of Eid for us meant the culmination of the month of Ramadan—end of the month-long fasting— which was celebrated with sumptuous food, new clothes, and shoes, but for them, it meant a day of innocuous but clandestine pleasure. And they indulged in it knowing that the secret would lay buried in the extended family’s bosom forever.
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