Celebrating Holi with the Indian Army Soldiers (Jawaans, to be precise in the Army parlance) is a pleasure that has few parallels. It is a yearning and joy together straight from the heart; yearning for our families back home and joy for being amidst an extended family of the band of brothers.
We never knew if we would live to see another Holi and this reality made us make the most of our lives less ordinary.
This picture here is from my fourth holi with my Jawaans, in the first five successive years of my soldiering days. The only time I missed it was when I was in the dreaded ‘Seriously Ill List’ and being treated at the Eastern Command Military Hospital. I would have missed those memorable days had it not been for that fateful day when I was almost killed as a teenager. It was almost a quarter of a century back.
In a minority convent school studied two friends. One a muslim, from a muslim inhabited area, the other a hindu from a hindu populated one.
Calcutta, now Kolkata, was a cosmopolitan metropolitan city. It still is.
One bad day. It only takes one bad day to change lives forever. Thats the difference between a good life and a bad life – one bad day. It was not that one bad day for me but it definitely changed my life. That was post 1947, 67, 69, 80, 84 and pre 1993, 2002, `05, ’06, ’07 blah, blah! How does it matter. Politics, religion, communities, riots, hatred have always been an integral part of India as Soldiers, diversity, bonhomie, festivals and love. You would invariably run into one or the other of these, as routine. So, let this tale be about sum of all these
Let this be about Salman Mohammad Khan and his ass. Not Salman Khan, the kickass actor.
Ass? Yeah man, you read it right. I was his ass. That bugger was the catalyst in rechristening me ‘Ass’. Salman generously borrowed the first letters of my first name, surname and nickname and converted it into an acronym. I would have forgiven him for that tomfoolery, had it not been for a fact that my classmates and teachers related me to an ass, in toto, as well. Well, to confess, I was a certified donkey in my schooldays but does it mean you have to remind me that, every single time?
A lot of my schoolmates resided in Mominpur and Ekbalpore, so did the three musketeers -Salman, Sadiq and Saif; the three brothers. Saira auntie, their mother, called me the fourth. The fourth mosquito.
We ate together, every now and then, in the same kitchen – he, beef and me, fish. We slept together, at times, with our parents assured that there is only one place to look for if one of us went missing. We never prayed together, albeit, but we stayed together. Through thick and thin. Salman & I were thick as thieves.
Thieves remind me of friends. Friends frequented our place during Eid and we, theirs during Holi. I do not remember any Holi when Salman was better identifiable than me and he does not remember any Eid when he received a larger share of Eidi than me. My friends` list, in Ekbalpore had multiplied during those formative years, courtesy Salman and my affable persona. If you feel I fancy myself, ask the prepossessing Seema who fancied me. Salman and I squabbled over her overnight once till Ismail jumped in to prevent death doing us part. Ismail was Salman`s cousin from Lucknow and better known as Smile Bhai since that night.
And then Babri Masjid and Ram Mandir happened!
I was too young to make sense of what happened to India and carried on with my pre-planned Holi celebrations at both Mominpur and Ekbalpore, a few months down the line. Smile Bhai was in town and the icing on the cake was the first ever Holi with Seema. What a Holy thought!
I did find something amiss when I got in Ekbalpore but the feeling evaporated once we got down to business. Hafeez, Nair, Chintu, Arora and Salman were all braced up. Colours and crimson, balloons and boys, water and whites, sweets and sweethearts, music and mud.
The revelry was full on when Salman abruptly asked me to wrap up and leave. I dismissed him as I had spotted Seema taking a flight of stairs to her home. I made a dash for her. Salman followed. The door opened and holy cow! Before I could succeed in my ploy, she coloured me reds and blues and greens. Holi cow!
We were about to step out, drenched and down, when we heard a commotion outside.
Salman asked me to stay put at Seema`s place till he returned. He probably knew something which I did not.
I peeped out to find that a decent crowd had gathered at Salman`s door. Their demeanour was mean. I could see flushed faces. A fierce argument ensued. The miscreants had come for me, I gathered. It was payback time. I was Ram Mandir for Babri Masjid. The mob included Hafeez. I was incredulous. Hafeez, one of my old friend, was the bellwether. Uncle Shoyeb and Auntie Saira stood stupefied. Smile Bhai feigned ignorance of my presence and Salman resisted them stating I had left Ekbalpore. The crowd did not buy it and pushed him aside to scan their place. The balloon went up (pun intended). Salman, perhaps, feared the same as I, when they came out and looked up. What if they try upstairs where Seema lived and I was sheltered? Salman did not allow them time enough to guess. On the pretext of having proved his integrity, he pretended indignation and asked them to sod off. It flared the mob more. Was he nuts? You cannot reason with a tiger, when your head is in its mouth and by the way, it was my head, not his. Not sure how but surprisingly and luckily, Hafeez gave way. He gave Salman a dirty look, issued threats to him and his family and left uttering expletives.
I spent the rest of my holi-day or rather holy day in disbelief and in Salman`s company, hidden away. That fateful day, we realised for the first time ever that we were Hindus and Muslims, to people – not Indians. I was sad, worried, angry and hungry at the same time. What I was not was helpless. Salman was with me. Salman, who had played with fire after playing Holi with me. Salman, my white knight. Hafeez, as they say in Urdu – the protector. That dreadful day, we also realised that every Hafeez is not a protector.
Saif and Seema fed me in the evening as a lizard ran down the wall across the floor where colours resembled blood. The water from the rooftop continued dripping. A dog barked in distance. The situation was still dodgy when Salman Mohammad Khan decided to drop me home, in the dead of night.
Back home, my mother hugged me as her eyes welled up. Well, she had taught me the significance of Holi all those years but I learnt it that colourful day (pun intended). Holi signifies the victory of good over evil.
It was 1993. March, the 8th.
Bombay was bombed on March, the 12th.
How many of us have taken a moment and stopped to think that you have lived your life up until now and completely missed the point? People are either good or bad. They are neither Hindu nor Muslim.
Happy Holi Hafeez!
Views expressed above are the author’s own.