They would often go around to watch the new building coming up. There was a good chance they would make the list, when flats were allotted. Two of them would soon be three, and any increase in domestic space was more than welcome.
And so it happened that the monsoon of that year saw them move into a flat. Shifting from a furnished dorm to a 5 room flat, with kitchens and bathrooms that were all yours. You could have folks over to stay. No furniture ? Never mind. Throw mattresses on the floor, and chat away the whole night amidst endless cups of coffee, and abnormal hunger pangs at weird times, fanned by a sense of being a pseudo-pioneer, finally moving into a house you could call your own; (but isn't).
For a long time they didn't know who their neighbors would be. People were shifting into flats over a week. Everyone else had so much furniture; they were shifting there from older and/or smaller flats. She would watch the various moving furniture fashions with interest. Old, modern, heirloom, expensive,tacky, sometimes everything together. Every one was much older than them, with college going children. And so there was much coming and going of young folks in all the neighboring flats.
Naseem and her husband were their new neighbors. Much senior to them in age as well as designation, they had one son , who had just started college, and she would see Naseem standing in her balcony , early mornings , as she waved her son goodbye, and watched till he turned the corner outside the gate. Naseem , of course, didn't work, she was a housewife. In a culture, very typical of Moslems, (which they were), she was the queen of the household, and did not involve herself in stuff outside the house unless it was to accompany her husband somewhere.
Her family hailed from Hyderabad, and one day there was a telegram.
Those days, it was an achievement to have a telephone; you had to wait several years for it. In those email-less days, the Institute operator passed on emergency messages through the neighbor's phone, if it existed. And so it happened that the young couple(who had inherited a phone connection) , rushed over to Naseem's house to call them when the phone call came.
Their grandma was sick, and the adults would have to leave to go see her. Late evening saw them dropping by to the young couple's flat, to say that they would be away, but that their son Hamid, would be staying because of his college stuff. Reassured by the younger couple, they left, for a long overnight train journey, no reservations due to this last minute travel; and all this very worrisome, as Naseem's husband had a heart problem...
And so the young couple called Hamid over for dinner that evening. Naseem had arranged for someone to come and cook for him, but he felt more comfortable with "uncle" types, who were much younger than his parents, and he hankered for someone to talk to, as he worried about a grandma who lay sick, and imagined things. The next day , Hamid left for college, after waving to his young "aunt" neighbor, a bit taken aback, as she packed sandwiches for him. He was a non vegetarian, and they were not, but tomato,cucumber and mango pickle was heaven between two pieces of buttered bread....
No one knows what he told his parents after they returned a week later, but Naseem came over to see her neighbor and just stood there, eyes full, as no words escaped her mouth.
Communication was complete.
They became friends, and it was a new experience for Naseem to have a friend who was not only from another religion (Hindu), but young, expecting, and working.
It was interesting to observe their household. Formal visitors almost never got to see or meet Naseem. Her husband, a devout scholarly Moslem with an Engineering doctorate, handled that. When families visited , the women came into the family area to visit Naseem with their children and the men sat in the study.
Then one day Naseem's husband was in pain. She came running with a phone number of their doctor in a big city hospital, and asked her friend to call. She herself would get tongue tied talking to a doctor, but she trusted her friend. And so there was this three way conversation where her friend translated the neighbor's pain and described it in detailed medical terms, locationwise to the doctor, with gestures that the doctor couldn't really see, but could probably telepathically understand, such was the intensity of the communication. The ambulance came, and Naseem and her husband sped off , knowing that they need not worry about their son . who would check things with the neighbor couple, when he got home.
They returned home that evening, Naseem's face wreathed in smiles, as she recalled her husband's face when the doctor demanded to know who was the young lady who described the symptoms on the phone so well ....
In all these events, what the younger couple considered totally normal and Naseem thought totally amazing , was the communication that developed between the old Professor and the young couple, particularly, the wife, as she was home more than her husband.
Years passed, and there was now a young child in the younger couple's house. Grandparents would visit, worry as grandparents do, and go home, asking the older couple to keep and eye on the young child. Naseem and her husband treated him like a favourite younger son, and all their friends and relatives also did the same.
Hamid had now graduated, and was planning to go to the US for his doctorate. Naseem's relatives started hinting that Hamid should get married and then go. It was easy for a young chap to get attracted to the good life, with some of its dicey aspects. Proposals were pouring in and Hamid settled on a wonderful educated Moslem girl, a doctor , a rarity in those days.
Naseem's husband had just one request. They attached great importance to the "ring ". They attached even greater importance to grandparents blessing the event. Would Naseem's neighbor friend accompany her to purchase the ring ? Of course. So a trip was made to a Mumbai suburb where the younger couple's parents lived, and a wonderful ring was bought at a reliable jeweller's, and followed up with a celebratory visit to the younger couple's in laws, who were only too delighted , to have Naseem come by with such great news..
They got home, and the young girl asked, if Naseem had a little box or something, say, in silver, with some religious Koranic inscriptions on it. Naseem was completely dumbstruck ...
"Why do you ask ? And how did you know, that I had such a little box? " she asked.
"I didn't really know," her friend said . " But in our religion, a special gift gets even more special when enclosed in something which has a blessing on it . So we sometimes enclose little things in boxes with pictures of Ganesha and so on.."
Naseem went in, and came out with a lovely little box with something like blessings from the Koran inscribed in Arabic on it. Her mother had got this for her on her pilgrimage to Mecca several years ago.
The engagement was duly conducted at the girl's parents' place. As the marriage date neared, in typical Indian style (regardless of religion), some relatives of the super conservative type would enjoy commenting , where none was required. Discussions amongst themselves, so designed that they would get back to Naseem and her husband. Her husband was a respected elder in the mosque, and no one dared say anything in his presence.
The marriage happened, the neighbor couple and their 3 year old son, were accorded the honor that is normally reserved for the best-man-and-maid-of-honor type folks.
Then one day after the guests had left, and the Hyderabad grandma was spending a relaxed few days at Naseem's, they were having a cuppa of cardamom-mint tea and the young neighbor and her son were visiting, in a typical rehashing-the-events session.
"You know, I have been wanting to tell you. " Naseem put her cup down, and proceeded to shell some pistachios she would be using that afternoon.
"My husband thinks your behaviour is actually a correct Moslem behaviour !
The younger woman suddenly paid attention . Grandma adjusted her scarf comfortably across her shoulder, chewed on a clove, and smiled an indulgent smile.
"You are educated, you work, but you are very dignified when you communicate with people you don't know, particularly with men. No airs. No coyness. You are so free with me and grandma, and you behave in so naturally helpful and respectful a manner with my husband, yet unafraid to ask questions that would help solve any problem. And at the end of the day, he was really impressed by you thinking about the box for the ring..... not just any box , but one with a Koranic inscription . It didn't strike any of my relatives, you know. ...."
The young girl watched her son playing nearby with Hamid's old toy cars, making revving noises amidst a spray of spit. He hadn't perfected that yet.
She didn't know what correct Moslem behaviour was supposed to be. She grew up with the same opportunities her brothers had, and had to compete for everything. All she knew was that people were people, religion was incidental, but there had to be respect.......
And she thought back to her parents who brought her up with deep respect for all religions, her school where she had best friends who were Jews, Moslems, and Christians, and her in-laws, who by virtue of having lived in another state , were so open to the various customs and rituals of other religions, and learnt to enjoy them with neighbors in those days...
People to people, the problem was so simple. Be a good neighbor. Help as you would, someone in your own family.
If only the countries listened. And followed the same rules.
The world would be such a wonderful place.......
**** Click the play button below to hear the marathi song "Sakhi Shejarini" made famous by Arun Date