For a simple man like Nandu however, such social permutations and the attendant tensions were peripheral to the struggle for daily existence which began in the morning and ended in the evening. If he earned enough for two meals and something to put away, he was happy. But this uncomplicated tenor of his life was now threatened.

His anxiety at the moment was not entirely for himself; it was for the abandoned waif whom he had picked up from the platform one winter, long ago, out of pure compassion and had adopted him as his son despite his community’s objections and warnings. When it became known that he knew nothing about the boy’s antecedents, they had advised him to take the boy to the police.

But Nandu would have none of it; instead he simply smiled and told them that what he was doing would only earn him “punya”. So this unknown boy became Nandu’s adopted son and when he was old enough, the “father” put him through the rigours of his own experience, as a thellawallah and rickshaw driver first and eventually initiated him into the group of porters. The boy was now on the verge of being registered as a porter. His identity? Bihari Hindu.

But there was a dark secret about this homeless boy and now Nandu realised that what he did out of love for an abandoned child those many years ago had now become a grave threat to their lives because of this. For this boy, who for more than seventeen years spoke almost all the languages that his “father” did, observed all festivals and pujas as a Hindu, was in fact a Muslim from across the border.

Nandu had discovered this quite by accident, during the first forcible bath that he gave the boy some days after bringing him home to his one- room lodging near the railway track. At first the boy appeared to be dumb; did not utter a word but would exhale long breaths as if something was choking him. And he would simply refuse to touch water, let alone have a bath as Nandu repeatedly told him to. So one evening he proceeded to bathe the boy himself and it was during the forced bath that Nandu discovered the terrible truth: the boy had been circumcised!

A chill ran down Nandu’s spine; he squatted on the wet earth and began to think what he should do. Should he take the boy to the Bangladeshi tenement near the brick kiln and tell the leader that he had picked up the boy from the railway platform and raised him as his adopted son in complete ignorance of his true identity? Would they believe him? Especially when he knew that there was always a simmering distrust between the two communities?

It was very likely that he would be accused of kidnapping the boy and handed over to the police. And his own people – wouldn’t they declare him “achut” because he had adopted a Muslim boy? Could he give up the helpless child thus making him twice-abandoned? He thought about all this for some time, intently gazing at the boy’s face and found that he did not have the heart to knowingly subject this little helpless child to such a dark future. He resolved that he would protect him and give him a secure life.

Nandu, at that stage in life, was full of self-confidence and believed, with a false bravado, that he could shield the boy not only from others but from his own true identity. But unfortunately, what he failed to realise at that moment was that he was proposing to chart the destiny for another human being with a misguided notion of altruism.

He dried the still unresponsive child, dressed him in new clothes, sat him on his lap and asked again what his name was. The boy remained mute like so many other times before. But on this night, Nandu told him, “Suno, tumhara naam Ajay hai, samjha?” Still no reaction, so Nandu shouted into his ears, “Ajay, Ajay, Ajay, samjha? Tumhara naam Ajay hoga.”

The boy stirred as if from a stupor. Wriggling out from Nandu’s lap, he squatted against the wall of the hut just as Nandu had found him on the platform that night with his back to the farthest pillar. The man and the boy stared at each other, neither moving nor trying to make contact. It was the boy who made the first move. Shuffling towards Nandu and pulling at his dhoti, he spoke, “Amar naam Ajmal.”

Nandu sprang up and jerked the boy to a standing position shouting, “Tumhara naam Ajay, samjha?” The boy saw the anger in the big man’s eyes and lowering his own began to cry. When his sobs subsided, he uttered just one word loudly, “Ajay”. Nandu was overjoyed that the little boy had accepted his new identity without much fuss. But he still worried that if anyone by chance happened to see him naked, the dark secret would be out. So he pulled the boy nearer and told him that he should never ever appear naked before others. He added, “Do not bathe with your friends in the pond, ever. If they ask, say that you do not know how to swim, understand?”

The boy mutely looked at his “father” and nodded meekly but Nandu felt that though he was still young, the boy had understood that he was “different” from the other boys around him and that he should hide that difference in this part of his body from all other eyes for his own safety.

But what Nandu failed to grasp during this exchange was the fact that both he and this little waif belonged to two exclusive worlds where, starting from the moment of birth, their identities and destinies were mapped out by the diktats and nuances of two opposing forces of faith. The process of exclusion started from the naming of children which declared to the world at large which community they belonged to.

When the little boy accepted his new name, it was actually out of his sense of being adrift without any anchor or protector in an alien environment. Subconsciously, he must have understood the danger of exposure; it however did not signify any renunciation of his original identity. From the moment he acquired language, the boy must have imbibed the nuances of his community affiliations which he tried to assert during his initial declaration of his real name.

But these subtle implications did not seem to register on Nandu’s simple mind. He merely thought that a cosmetic change, like coining a Hindu name from a Muslim one, was sufficient unto the day and would protect his ‘son’ from all future perils.

So, as a result of this little drama in a candle-lit thatched hut by the railway tracks, a little Muslim boy named Ajmal became Ajay, a regular presence among the porters and linesmen. That was some seventeen years ago, but now the father was deeply disturbed for his future. The ageing porter decided that he had to do something in order to ensure that the boy found a safe haven in this strange land where, due to his unwise love, he had inadvertently condemned his “son” to become a twice-impugned pariah beyond the geo-political definition of “outsider”; the poor boy actually belonged nowhere.

Nandu frantically began to consider his options: could he take him to his village? No. Could he leave him alone when he himself eventually left Dimapur? No. Nandu spent a whole day at home mulling over this seemingly insurmountable dilemma. By the time Ajay came home from his work, Nandu had come to a decision: he would confess to Ajay, ask for his forgiveness and together they would discuss a future course of action. After a simple meal, sitting beside Ajay, the penitent man began to speak: “You see, beta, you are not my real son,” to which Ajay replied brusquely, “Yes, I know.”

Excerpted with permission from The Tombstone in my Garden: Stories from Nagaland, Temsula Ao, Speaking Tiger.