Why did they do this, my daughter asked. Who are the Taliban? Why do they oppose girls’ education? The images on television fascinated her, and she was mortified that the two-minute silence at school the next day had disintegrated into a brief laughing bout as some child had started coughing.
I could barely answer my nine-year-old’s questions. Are there any answers, really? Worse, I could barely settle her fears. I can hardly contain mine. Every day as they climb into the school bus and turn around for a brief wave, my heart both rises with pride and breaks a little. Pride that they have this immense faith in me to wave with such joy at what might seem such an unnecessary parting at times, and sadness at how quickly that faith might break. I check the inside, the outside, the sign on the bus, the people inside, and tell myself, “It’s only school”.
But is it now? Peshawar may be a day from hell, but why has school seemed such a battleground recently? Between Teachers’ Day and Children’s, Sanskrit learning to Christmas, the world just got a little more tough for our children last year. Should you accept it then, beta, here is my apology.
I want to tell you, sorry. Sorry that I am giving you a world that appears so intent on hate. And that it wasn’t always the case.
I would tell you that for the longest time, religion for me meant my father looking slightly comical and slightly shivery in his underclothes, saying his prayers under his breath after his bath. My sister and I could barely contain our giggles but also our sheer wonder at his immovable faith. Religion for me also meant the peace on my grandfather’s face as he counted rudraksh beads in an unceasing monotone (the women were always the more casual devotees at our home), and the cloud of prasad that blew into our faces as we jostled for a fistful of it after the bigger pujas at home.
I would tell you about this hostel we lived in, fashioned into apartments, in a small town in Himachal Pradesh, where families, including the Khares and the Hussains, always ate together. Mrs Hussain was tall and pretty and had the loveliest long hair, the most shiny in the sun, as my sister and I played with the baby Khare in the common lawn.
I would tell you about the pleasure of nights without lights, nights surprisingly chilly even during summer holidays spent on the roof of my mother’s sprawling and disarmingly chaotic house in Jalandhar, piled floor upon floor randomly, cheek by jowl with the rest of the lane, where everyone knew everyone. I first encountered the word mezzanine here, called, with full authority, “mayyani” (a small, low-ceilinged room between two floors where we stashed toys).
And the shadowy nights when my friends and I tried endlessly to fill up a pole in the middle of a sand field through a hole in its centre in a laidback town in Jammu, believing earnestly that it could be done one day. As well as the power-cut nights we would play hide and seek among the few cars along our streets in industrial Korba. No one came looking, the world was all a known place.
Those were the achhe din.
And then came 1984. I would tell you that the first time religion as something other than religious entered my world was that year, when a classmate in school lovingly stroked a kirpan under her uniform and said that Indira Gandhi wouldn’t last too long. Then came 1991 and I heard castes dissected in serious detail by a fellow bus traveller to Delhi University. I never heard surnames the same way again. A year later, the Babri Masjid fell, and riots that my parents, from border-bound Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, thought they had left behind were on our TV screens. A Mrs Hussain would not seem like family again.
I know that, to my parents, who lived through two wars and tales of bloody Partition, my India seemed a land of many opportunities. So why is it that I, a child truly of Bharat and India, can’t see it that way?
But parents and children have been proved wrong before. And particularly in underestimating each other. So maybe you will make it a place we couldn’t.
I hope to be around. As long as Sanskrit.
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