I didn’t attend LKG or UKG. I was fortunate to have two elder brothers as home tutors who taught me how to pronounce syllables and speak simple words. I remember in fragments, the great effort my eldest brother had put in making me learn the meaning of words like ‘this’ and ‘that’. So, at the age of five, I was admitted straight to class one. Papa (Dad) took me to school and as the final bell rang I followed others and went outside. He didn’t turn up. He was stuck somewhere else and I waited longingly and finally, I had to venture out alone. In around three hours, I reached home. My grandma was waiting desperately, cursing her son all along, and my father was searching for me frantically in the whole town.
In some days, I was entirely familiar with the way from my house to the school. Whenever possible, I even ventured into some new ones. And in school, I made some friends. I was very good at it until the very end of schooling. Two of my good friends were Ajmat Ali and Gulam. Ajmat was a very fine artist even at that age. Through his drawings, I came to know about Spider-Man. He used to come to my neighbourhood to rehearse and learn art at a coaching centre. My elder brother also drew very well. It was Ajmat, because of whom I picked up a pencil to draw some abstract shacks with rivulets all around, hills behind huts and the sun peeping through the hills. My brother helped me improve and I can still draw these things well.
If the innocence of childhood is not swept aside with the grave gravity of my youth, then Ajmat is an indelible reminiscence of my fragile memory. I don’t remember how small I was as a kid, but I remember in transcendental fragments how little he was as a kid. But he left the town in class four.
My friendship with Gulam continued as well. Nevertheless, by now, we had grown to be much wiser. We used to compete vehemently to obtain better marks. Sometimes I cheated from his copy in tests. Even though he would be reluctant to show it initially, he would show it in the end. I never took tiffin to school and ate his. Not very often, but sometimes. I don’t remember him complaining. By class six, we would visit each other’s house.
But sadly, those were the days when my father was under a lot of financial strain. He ended up not paying the school fees and I had to drop out. Till class 8 I did not join. I continued to study, whatever little I could, at home. It’s not that papa gave up. My elder brothers continued their studies. My eldest brother qualified for the entrance exam of Banaras Hindu University and the other one was admitted to Kendriya Vidyalaya Patna with the help of someone my father knew. He doled out whatever meagre amount he could, to them. My eldest brother would get some story books whenever he would come. It was during this period that I read at least 200 stories by Premchand. I would read various things. Of all things, my house had many good books. I would read many of them. Even the grammar book by Wren and Martin.
I would sometimes meet Gulam outside. Perhaps, once or twice a month. He would ask the cause for my absence and I would change the topic of discussion. As far as I can remember, he was the only one I remember who would meet me when no one was around since I didn’t go to school. I was admitted directly into class 9 in a convent school. The ambience was quite different from the school I went to in childhood. Students spoke English. I would find it a bit difficult to speak in English. This is not an overstatement! I had translated several stories of Premchand into English till then. That was how I would pass time at home. But I hated the way they talked, the way they behaved! This made me become even closer to Gulam. We used to wander in the market or sit idle somewhere engrossed in the eerie silence. We used to discuss a lot of things. It included our future, education and sometimes our social values. Through the daily newspaper The Times of India, I had come to know about various topics including a madrasa. I used to ask him about it. I used to ask him why it was compulsory for them to teach Quran to their children. Such questions would trouble him but he never reacted absurdly. I didn’t know the gravity of such questions on topics I had come to know so little about from newspapers. Gulam had honourable serenity. He still has it!
In class 11, both of us got busy in shaping our future. We secured seats in government engineering colleges. He secured a seat in a state government college. I secured a seat in a central government college. Still, we would meet once a week at least.
Both of us are doing jobs today and he is one of the three friends from my hometown with whom I talk and the only one from my childhood school.
I’ve met and known several other Muslims in our society. One Muslim family was our friend. I used to call the man in the family as uncle and his wife as aunty. Since my accent was different in many ways, he used to aid me in speaking proper Hindi. He would teach me the difference between ‘s‘ and ‘sh‘ in Hindi. Once I went to college, I learnt how significant those teachings were.
The point of this whole narration is that it never occurred to me that someone should be treated as a pariah for their customs and faith. Shunning them could further lead to a community’s alienation. In fact, there should be further efforts to assimilate them into the mainstream. For example, in class 10, there was only one Muslim student in my class. The strength of the class was 45 students. Who talks about the abject and adverse seclusion that they live in? What are the steps to redress it? Ignorance and alienation are the breeding grounds for radicalism. One must vouch for their neighbour irrespective of their culture, custom or faith they practice.
The government should intervene positively too. Incentivising for education in open fora could be an encouraging step. The senior clergymen could be taken in confidence to stoke the process of assimilation. Their complicity would help enormously.
The society as a whole has to intervene. Things turning ugly cannot be muffled forever. Someone has to replicate Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad. Their integrated politics would create miracles in an India which is completely different from what they witnessed in the 1950s. Without society and a government which is intransigent, no alternative would break the obnoxious cycle of hatred and alienation. Let’s prove that we qualify to be called social.