Harsh Snehanshu weaves a simple fictional tale about a resolute Brahmin household hosting a Muslim family for dinner, highlighting the prejudice that is inherent in our society.
Six-year-old Shrikant Shukla didn’t know what the word Muslim meant. When his father’s old friend, Mr. Imam, arrived one evening at his house with Mrs. Imam and their two kids Sakina and Hamid, his mother summoned him into the kitchen. She handed him a tray with chips and Bourbon biscuits in two bone-china bowls. Before Shrikant could return to the other room, she muttered into his ears, “Don’t eat from the same plate.” He did not understand why she’d said that; why after a long time she’d taken out her fancy plates, instead of the usual steel bowls, to serve these guests.
The next day he could proudly declare, “My father has rich friends,” to all his friends who brought Add Gel pens to school. He imagined exaggerating it with, “they made me sit on the front seat of their Maruti Esteem that smelled of roses,” and strayed into the room with the tray, carefully placing it on his study table.
Were the guests very rich people? The reason seemed plausible enough. He paid heed to his mother’s advice assuming that he, not being as rich as they were, was advised against touching those beautiful plates. He had seen rich people on television. They had big cars with dickeys, big houses with two floors and a broad staircase, big TVs and Hero Honda motorcycles, unlike his father’s old scooter. And they always had beautiful cutlery! Bone china plates, silver spoons. It was the first time such affluent guests had come to his house. The next day he could proudly declare, “My father has rich friends,” to all his friends who brought Add Gel pens to school. He imagined exaggerating it with, “they made me sit on the front seat of their Maruti Esteem that smelled of roses,” and strayed into the room with the tray, carefully placing it on his study table. Sakina and Hamid were busy playing with his globe. He felt good.
Shrikant looked at his globe, the globe that was fondled by rich people – the kinds one sees on television, the ones who eat from nothing but beautiful porcelain bowls. He engaged them in play and treated them with immense respect, as his mother perhaps would have wanted him to. After an hour of play, when Sakina and Hamid had wiped the bowls clean of their ingredients, Shrikant took the tray and bowls back to his mother for a refill before they could even ask for more. Mrs. Imam was there in the kitchen, her forehead devoid of any bindi or sindoor unlike his mother, but the warm smile on her face seeming familiar to Shrikant. He looked at his mother, trying to find the similarities between the rich and the not-so-rich. His mother seemed quite restless; beads of sweat coiled up over her eyebrows, her puckered lips concealing her worried thoughts. Rich means happy, not-rich means unhappy, he deduced. Upon hearing the sputter of the mustard oil in the kadhai where Mrs. Imam was frying onions, Shrikant asked, “Aunty, what are you cooking? It smells so nice.” Mrs. Imam replied, “Potato curry, do you like it?” He beamed and nodded, inhaling the aroma with his eyes closed.
He looked at his mother, trying to find the similarities between the rich and the not-so-rich. His mother seemed quite restless; beads of sweat coiled up over her eyebrows, her puckered lips concealing her worried thoughts. Rich means happy, not-rich means unhappy, he deduced.
They are using my drawing book; I can eat from their bowl. So what if they are rich? If they don’t care, why should I?
Shrikant’s mother excused herself and came out of the kitchen with her son in tow. While she filled the bowls with chips and biscuits, she whispered, “Remember to not eat from the same bowl. And before you go, call your father from the drawing room. Tell him in a low voice that Mummy is asking for him.” Mama’s boy Shrikant did what he was told, and thereafter went to his room where his rich friends were waiting, this time colouring in his brand-new Disney Drawing Book. It had been a gift from his uncle, who lived in Dubai and came to India once in two years. He had never let anyone touch it, let alone colour in it, but Sakina and Hamid were exempted. They weren’t just anyone, were they? He placed the tray full of chips and biscuits in between them, and after a long consideration, stealthily grabbed a chip from their bowl. They are using my drawing book; I can eat from their bowl. So what if they are rich? If they don’t care, why should I? As the greasy chip cracked noisily in his mouth, he prayed they wouldn’t notice and complain to his mother. They hardly cared.Shrikant feasted on more, noisily now, nibbling on three to four pieces at once, his teeth expressing his anger with every chew as he somehow tolerated Sakina’s black crayon crossing over the outline of Mickey Mouse’s ears. His teeth-grinding increased in volume, eliciting curious looks from the siblings. Hamid stopped his drawing and stared hard at Shrikant, who was violently and indifferently munching on chips and biscuits – basically, whatsoever he got hold of – until Shrikant finally noticed him staring and stopped in his tracks. Hamid broke into a smile. Grabbing a handful of chips from the bowl, he suggested, “Let’s see who’s faster!” Sakina followed, competing, her penchant for crunching biscuits outshining the two men. The game went on and their hands wrestled in the bowl for each last morsel, until the bowl was completely empty and the greasy hands had shed their shyness enough to wipe themselves on each other’s clothes.
In the meanwhile, Shrikant’s mother was counting seconds outside the drawing room in wait of her husband. He had yet to turn up, even though Shrikant had tried his best to nudge him out of the conversation with the urgent request from Mummy. Mr. Shukla was discussing Urdu ghazals with Mr. Imam. They were both fans of a contemporary shayar Bashir Badr, some of whose nazms had been on the tips of their tongues since their college days.
Mohabbaton mein dikhawe ki dosti na mila
Agar gale nahin milta hai to haath bhi na mila
(Please don’t mix insincere friendship with love
Don’t even bother to shake hands when you don’t hug)
“I hadn’t anticipated this. I presumed Imam would have remembered that we were Brahmins. In college, he had always made fun of my rolling the sacred thread around my ears while peeing, calling me a Ponga Pundit. But he confined himself to that. Whenever he would come home, he would never visit my mother’s kitchen. He wouldn’t even drink water, for we only had steel glasses.”
“I don’t have time for your reminiscences now. Tell me what should I do? How do I get rid of her?”
“Give her a hint that you’re uneasy.”
“I tried to hint to her that I didn’t want her there but she thought I meant I didn’t want to trouble her. How do I let her know that she is bothering me by entering my sacred kitchen? I won’t be able to eat, I tell you.”
“Neither would I.”
When Mrs. Shukla returned to the kitchen, she was aghast to see that in the meantime Mrs. Imam had made two-dozen chapatis as well. There was nothing left for Mrs. Shukla to do. Dinner was ready.
Mr. Shukla looked helplessly at his wife and couldn’t think of a way to placate her. They both shrugged and proceeded towards their respective destinations. When Mrs. Shukla returned to the kitchen, she was aghast to see that in the meantime Mrs. Imam had made two-dozen chapatis as well. There was nothing left for Mrs. Shukla to do. Dinner was ready.The kids were called for. Shrikant had his arms around the shoulders of his new friends, with whom he had shared chips, crayons and the only pricey thing he had—the Disney Drawing Book from Dubai. They had treated him well, let him share the food meant for them, and made him feel rich – and thus, happy – like themselves. Shrikant was too happy to notice the disapproving gaze of his poor mother, who seemed disturbed by his sudden intimacy with his new friends. Shrikant sat between Hamid and Sakina on the smaller edge of the dining table, the rest of it shared by the four adults, and breathed in the vapours floating over the ceramic bowl that contained the sumptuous curry. Looking at the three wide plates sprawled out in front of him on the tiny table, he had an idea that he knew would make him stand out the next day at school. Like his father, even he had rich friends! Shrikant proudly proclaimed, “Mummy, the three of us will eat together from the same plate. Won’t we, Hamid and Sakina?” Before any adult could intervene, Hamid and Sakina uttered, “bilkul.” (ofcourse). The obedient silence that followed contained the reluctant affirmation of the parents.
“This is the best potato curry I have ever eaten. Mummy, why don’t you cook like this? Please learn from aunty before she leaves today.” Seven smiles were passed around the dinner table in that moment, two of them fake and hungry.
Three minutes later, at the dinner table adorned by five fancy plates, while Mr. and Mrs. Shukla were having trouble swallowing the steaming hot potato curry wrapped in slices of chapatis, Shrikant, having already gulped down two chapatisout of the four served on to their plate, exclaimed loudly, “This is the best potato curry I have ever eaten. Mummy, why don’t you cook like this? Please learn from aunty before she leaves today.” Seven smiles were passed around the dinner table in that moment, two of them fake and hungry.