It is 6 in the evening and a group of schoolgirls are playing a board game outside a large bungalow in a narrow lane of the Sanatorium area of Gujarat’s Bhavnagar. This is Afrin, 12, and nine-year-old Muskan’s home, and their friends Atri, Hirwa, Manaswi, Dhruva and Hasti have come over. Their brother, Mohammed Hussain, 5, and his cousin Arshad, 6, play near the girls. There’s a great deal of laughter as the girls move on to play antakshari and hopskotch.
Afrin’s is the only Muslim family in this predominantly Hindu locality. Last year, Aliasgar Zaveri, a Bohra Muslim businessman, bought a bungalow here. When Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia found out, he led a public agitation against the sale. A year on, Zaveri has sold off his house to Jain builders as he could never move in, with Hindu right-wing groups facilitating the exit.
Of the 150 bungalows in Sanatorium, only four belong to Muslims. The rest are owned by Patels, Sonis and Brahmins. Of the four, two are abandoned, and one occupied by two widows. The two women were born Hindus and married into a Muslim family.
The Lakhani home is in the heart of the Sanatorium. For three decades now, it has been home to 60-year-old Zarina Razak Lakhani, Afrin’s grandma. “I have never felt insecure or alone. I love this place. I can’t live anywhere else,” Zarina says. But if he had his way, Zarina’s son Khalid, who runs an auto-parts showroom, would have moved out.
In the riots of 2002, no violence was reported here but Zarina’s brothers-in-law, who lived in neighbouring bungalows, fled to other parts of the city. “They told us to move too but my mother turned down any such suggestion,”says Khalid, 34. Zarina says she wasn’t afraid in the least. “All my neighbours are good people. We had confidence in them. But Bashir Dharar, then a corporator, persuaded us to leave after his bungalow was set on fire by a mob. We put up at my mother’s place but returned the next morning,” she says. Their neighbours too asked them not to worry. “This gave us some confidence,” Khalid says. But his uncles, Salim and Sabbir, never returned.
Though many of her neighbours left after 2002, Zarina’s life has remained much the same. Neither Nilofar, Afrin’s mother, nor Zarina say they feel disconnected from the social life of the neighbourhood. “We were invited by two families to weddings recently. My children go to Bhumi Ma’am for private tuition,” says Nilofar, a 33-year-old mother of three.
It is rare, though, to find other residents dropping by. Neighbours did not attend the condolence meeting held after his father’s death three years ago, Khalid says. But children have no such limits. “My daughters go to their friends’ home to celebrate birthdays and they come to ours on Eid,” says Nilofar. Khalid says he greets acquaintances on the street but, because of his reserved nature, has never forged friendships. “As it is, I hardly get time to socialise,” he says.
There is perhaps much unsaid about the mechanics of this coexistence. But a lot is revealed in conversations with the Lakhanis’ Hindu neighbours, many of whom rallied behind Togadia in ousting Zaveri from the area. In statements given to the police, they said they feared that Zaveri’s entry might open the gates of Sanatorium for other Muslims.
“They (the Lakhanis) have somewhat assimilated in the area,” says a Hindu businessman living in Sanatorium, requesting anonymity, and goes on to explain why: “First, they have been living here for decades and their bungalow has become a little isolated after the two families left. They have the maturity to live in harmony with others in a predominantly Hindu locality. They have never given an impression by their dressing sense or behaviour that they are Muslims.”
This fragile “harmony” has to do with evading the eye of prejudice. And the family’s sartorial choices help them here. Khalid is a clean-shaven man who has never been seen wearing a skull cap. The women wear the regular salwar kameez, and not the hijab. “In recent years, more women of our community have taken to the burqa. But my mother and wife don’t like it at all,” says Khalid.
The 34-year-old businessman says he understands the sensibilities of his neighbours, who are primarily vegetarian. “We are aware that our food habits might offend our neighbours. But we love our non-vegetarian cuisine. As a way out, we ensure that we dispose of the remains properly,” says Khalid. Having lived here for most his life, Khalid says he is at peace at their home. “Sometimes I feel the mahoul is missing. I come to know when it is Diwali or Navratri. But Eid can pass off without any fuss,” he says.
The tutor his children go to says she teaches the three like any others but refuses to speak more about the family. “Men would know better about rest of the issues,” says Bhumi. It is evident that the kids love her, rushing to her home in the evening.
Khalid admits that the Zaveri episode had threatened their equanimity. “A few suspected I was behind the Bohraji (Zaveri) buying the bungalow. But I don’t know him even by name. I clarified this before all. Thankfully, they were convinced. They told us the protests were not against us,” he says. The family declined our request to photograph their house or them.
The Lakhani home stands out in that it has no signboard. “This is the Khalid Bungalow. The name plate was damaged and fell off three years ago. We just did not repair it again,” says Nilofar.
The story appeared in print with the headline Home alone