It’s an unusually quiet afternoon in Delhi’s chaotic Okhla Industrial Area Phase II. The street is not bustling with traffic, but people are walking up and down the road, into its many offices, barely noticing a man picking up garbage from the roadside and dropping it into his small handcart.
Around 1.45 pm, Salman and Sunil step out of their office, still talking about the lunch they just ate with colleagues. Sunil says he can’t get over the food cooked by Salman’s mother. It has a different flavour, he exclaims. “Kuchch to hota hai tere khaane mein (There’s something about your food),” he says.
The two head to the tea stall opposite the office’s Gate No. 2. The owner knows them well, and as they signal, seconds later, tea and a bottle of Mountain Dew arrive.
At a ‘Dharam Sansad’ organised by the VHP in Udupi, Karnataka, on November 26, while talking about ‘love jihad’ and the threat it posed to Hindus, VHP secretary Gopal had said, “Muslims must stop ‘love jihad’, otherwise we will send our youths from the Bajrang Dal to attract Muslim girls. We are not opposed to love but our girls think Shah Rukh and Shirish are the same or Salman and Sunil are the same, but they don’t know that Hindu boys marry only once and the others will marry several times.”
Sitting on the tea stall’s rusted bench together, Salman Malik and Sunil Yadav laugh. Sunil, 25, who has grown up in Delhi, says, “Pyaar naam aur jaati se thodi hota hai (Love doesn’t see religion or caste).” As Salman, 20, nods, Sunil mentions that he is in love with a woman whose parents will never let her get married to him. “What can I do?” he asks Salman, who does not have an answer and looks blankly at a child who is buying a snack.
As Salman says that he will marry the girl his parents choose, Sunil says he will probably end up doing the same. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Salman notes that Muslim men don’t marry more than once. He says he does not know a single relative who has more than one wife. “These are just ways for politicians to divide us.”
The two men work at a supply chain logistics company. Salman is employed as a ‘picker’. He carries spare parts stored at the office till the gate and gets it cleared by security, to be dropped off by someone like Sunil, who is a ‘distributor’. They both earn Rs 12,000 a month. “What can one do with Rs 12,000?” Sunil complains, adding that most of his salary is spent on the installment for the Hero HF Deluxe motorcycle he bought a couple of months ago.
Salman recalls a video he recently received on a WhatsApp group. “In the video, the Hindu man didn’t kill a man. But he warned all Muslims, whom he called jihadis,” he says.
“This is all the doing of politicians. They use people,” Sunil chips in. “Such things would never happen if rumours and misinformation were not spread by our netas.”
Salman starts talking about how rumours had led to the riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in 2013. “I was there, I saw how the unity was shattered. Nothing had happened… parties just used rumours to spread tension.”
Sunil is surprised. He says he did not know Salman was in Muzaffarnagar during the riots. “I was at a Hindu friend’s house when the riots broke out. His family members said I would have to leave,” says Salman, who has stopped drinking his tea.
He puts his arm around Sunil and continues telling the story. “I left their house and walked back to mine. That was the most scary night of my life. If someone had even put a hand on my back that day, I would have died… But forget all that now… raat gayi, baat gayi (it has passed).”
Sunil nudges Salman and asks him if he is still friends with the person. “Of course, just this Diwali I had gone to his house.”
Salman and Sunil mention how much they have in common. Both share a 1 BHK house with parents and siblings — Salman with six and Sunil with five. They both give a part of their salaries to their mothers and spend around Rs 2,000 on themselves every month. They both dream of becoming “a boss” some day.
Tea over, they pay and get up, and head back to their office.
By the time they leave office again, it is 7 pm, and dark. Sunil, who lives in Sarita Vihar, around 2 km away, is glad they finished “on time” today. But Salman has a long ride ahead; his home is in Loni, Ghaziabad, approximately 40 km away. “I will spend around 20 minutes here, after which I will board the Metro from Sarita Vihar. Sunil will drop me till the Sarita Vihar station,” he says.
Those 20 minutes are for their second tea session of the day. Sunil asks Salman if he would also like some peanuts. Salman shakes his head, adding, “You eat.”
Sunil goes to a stall nearby and returns with a paper bag full of peanuts, and salt. As they sit down, Sunil starts cracking the peanuts and popping them into his mouth. After a few minutes, Salman gives in. “I was avoiding eating anything because my mother must have cooked biryani today,” he laughs.
Sunil butts in to ask if any of the Eids is coming soon. Salman tells him it is six months away, but assures him he is welcome for lunch on a Sunday.
Salman is interrupted by his phone, which buzzes loudly to the song ‘Munda like me, mutyaar like you’. He explains that it means, “I like you, you like me”, and says it’s his mother. “Yes, ammi,” he tells her. “I am leaving in 5 minutes. I’m sitting with Sunil.” Keeping the phone down, he says in an irritated voice, “My mother is always worrying.”
Now Sunil’s phone rings, and his ringtone is a popular Punjabi number, ‘Yaari’. It’s his mother too. He gets up, walks away a bit, and after listening for a few seconds, says, “I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m just leaving.”
All mothers are the same, Salman smiles to Sunil, as they start walking towards the parking for motorcycles.
Sunil’s shiny new bike is still covered in parts of the cellophane sheet in which it was delivered. Sunil smiles, telling Salman he loves it. “Khataak se start, kick nahin maarna padta hai (It starts just like that, I don’t even have to apply kick),” says Sunil.
He gets on, turns the key, and with a roar, Salman and Sunil speed away and disappear into the traffic.