I was going to Lahore for the first time, and took a taxi to the IG International airport in Delhi. My local taxi stand had sent a driver whom I didn’t know, and there was another lad in the front seat with him. At some point, as the driver swerved to avoid a vehicle that overtook from the right, he said to me – “Madam, aap bahar ja rahi hain. Bataiye, hamare desh mein aur bahar ke deshon mein kya farak hai”.
It was probably an opening gambit for a diatribe on how uncivil hamare log are as compared to gore log, but I replied – “Vaise main Pakistan ja rahi hoon, mujhe nahin lagta hai ki koi khaas farak hoga.”
At this, he responded, “Pakistan ja rahi hain? Hamare liye ek topi le ayengi?”
Me: “Zaroor. Lekin koi khas kism ki topi chahiye kya?”
Him: “Nahin, hamare musalmanon wali topi. Mere dadaji pehnenge.”
So that was decided. As he was dropping me off, I asked him his name, so that I could ask for him when I returned.
“Aap ka naam kya hai?” I asked. There was a heart-beat of silence and then he replied (did he look sideways at the other boy with him, or am I imagining this retrospectively?) – “Rakesh.”
So off I go to Lahore (arriving just in time to accompany Nighat and Women’s Action Forum to wait for Justice Iftikhar at Lahore High Court – it was May 5th, that historic drive of his from Islamabad to Lahore, a four hour journey by road that took over an entire day to complete, because of the ecstatic crowds thronging his route. But that’s another story).
In Lahore everyone I knew was soon utterly into the project of getting a topi for Rakesh (for many it became “aap ke babaji ke liye topi”). Uma Chakravarty and I were sad and angry as we recounted other examples of Muslims living under Hindu names in India, while our friends tried to console us by saying “vaise yahan Hinduon ka haal bhi bahut achha nahin hai…” In the middle of all the Pak-India secular hai-hai’s, Parvez who works in ASR suddenly said “yeh bhi to ho sakta hai ki uski ma Hindu hai.”
On that note we perked up slightly, but the project of getting the topi turned out to be rather more difficult than you would imagine in an Islamic state. Anarkali Bazaar had pointy bras aplenty, also female-bodied mannequin torsos resplendent in red lacy underthings, but topis – na ji, na. Maybe I just have absolutely the wrong kinds of friends in Lahore. Anyway, finally two topis were procured (looking like I might have picked them up at Nizamuddin, which I was going to resort to in the last instance, in any case).
I call my taxi-stand owner when I return in a few days, and framing my words carefully, not wanting to out “Rakesh” to him, I say “Deepak, jis driver ko aapne bheja tha, us din jab mein airport ja rahi thi, Rakesh naam tha uska. Unhone mujhse ek chhoti-si cheez mangi thi…”
“Haan, haan”, Deepak interrupts, “topi mangi thi, na?”
“Hmm… ji haan…” I stutter in surprise, “Use bataiye ki mein vapas aa gayi hoon. Voh mere ghar aa jaye.”
Next morning Rakesh turns up bright and early, and accepts the topis from me as if they were prasad, in cupped hands.
But I was going to have my pound of flesh of course – “Baithiye”, I insisted.
“Ab bataiye, bura ne mane to, aap ka naam Rakesh kaise hai?”
His reply was prompt – “Mere pitaji Hindu hain.”
“Lekin aap ne kaha tha ki aap ke dadaji topi pehnenge…”
He’d forgotten that was the story he had told me. But he was unfazed. “Unko shouk hai,” he replied. Of course, I didn’t want to make it an interrogation, so I didn’t persist, and we parted with mutual expressions of good will.
Is it absolutely inconceivable that somewhere in Muradabad there lives an old Hindu man whose son married a Muslim woman, and who wears a musalmanon wali topi, shouk ke liye?
In India of 2007? Koi shak??