In January, the cold settled in like a guest that never intended to leave. The sunshine that sieved through vast blankets of muddy clouds was the colour of weak tea. The rivers that gave the land its name exhaled mist, which mingled with moist fields readying for the rabi crop. Sharp bitter rain arrived.
Fog as tall as men invaded the plains, and Niki discovered the childish delight of extending her arm into the fog and watching it vanish. The mist was sitting in their garden and had inched to the windows as Nooran spread the folding bed in Biji’s bedroom for the night. In the study, Niki was busily organising Jinder’s desk under Biji’s supervision.
Jinder was at his farm overseeing the wheat crop. If the police and newspapers were to be believed, terrorists were sneaking across the border under the cover of mist and night. The increased police patrolling at the border meant that the fields that edged it routinely suffered from police highhandedness. Which meant that Jinder, a gentleman farmer, was spending more time at the farm as the freshly sown wheat was tilled. On those nights, the women huddled in the room for warmth and stories as they cracked groundnuts and chatted. As Niki snuggled into her, Biji confirmed with Nooran that she had secured the front gate and all doors.
“Not this today, Dadima,” Niki said, thrusting the illustrated Mahabharata aside. “Tell me another story.”
“Shall I tell you a story about when I was a girl?”
Niki’s eyes widened. “You were a girl? But you are so old!”
Biji chuckled. “In Lahore, I was a girl – Zohra.”
“Zo-hra!” Niki cupped Biji’s cheeks.
“That’s my name,” Biji grinned. “And my best friend Ameena lived down the road, and we would meet every day after school to play together, and then after college to chat and study, at her house or mine. Though, I preferred her home.”
“Heaven on a plate. Or hell – depends on who’s talking about it.”
“Dadima, tell na!”
“Ameena’s ammi made this dish called nihari, a thick, spicy gravy with tender meat in it. But I wasn’t allowed to eat at Ameena’s home. We could play and study and swap secrets and lie in each other’s beds, but food was a no-no.”
“Because that would make me Muslim.”
“See,” Biji said, taking Niki’s hands in hers.
“There were once two boys who were neighbours. They were alike.” She waved Niki’s hands. “But over time, they started to believe they were so different, they even stopped talking. Then a guru came and made them shake hands. That handshake is a Sikh. I am Sikh, you are Sikh – “
“And Nooran is?”
Both Niki and Biji turned to look at Nooran. She paused in the middle of cracking a groundnut. “People say I am Muslim, but Nooran is Nooran.”
Niki swung her head back to Biji. “Go on,” she urged.
Biji patted Niki’s head. “I was okay with not eating. Who cares about food anyway! But the day Ameena’s ammi made nihari, I would know as soon as I walked up their garden. My mouth would water, I would make loud sucking sounds, which made Ameena accuse me of eating the tamarind toffees we usually shared. That damn nihari was trouble. It wafted out of the kitchen, filling the whole house with its aroma. So, whether we chatted inside the house or on the rooftop or studied in the garden, there was no escaping it. Ameena was immune to the charms of nihari, I wasn’t, and her Ammi soon found out.”
“A mother’s eyes trail her children everywhere. And Ameena’s ammi devised a simple plan, which I put into action promptly. I flew back home and started to walk to Ameena’s place once again. Only this time, I recited the kalma as I walked.”
“It is a prayer that when you recite you become Muslim. So I recited the kalma, became Muslim and ate nihari at Ameena’s. It was every bit as delicious as I had imagined. When it was time to return home, I recited the mool mantar, which you know, on the way back.”
“Wah, Biji!” Nooran flicked an appreciative hand. “You solved the problem of religion.”
“Shhh...” Niki admonished, a finger on her mouth.
“So, from that day on,” Biji popped a groundnut in Niki’s mouth, “I had a simple formula: while going to Ameena’s, I recited the kalma and became Muslim and on my return, I recited the mool mantar and became Sikh again. And I ate whatever I felt like at Ameena’s. It was no different from when we played with our dolls, Ameena and I. We could make our doll a teacher, an air hostess, a memsahib, get her married, make her have a baby – it was all up to our imagination really. And I had realised that grownups played at religion too. Eat beef, you become Muslim. Eat pork, you can’t be Muslim. Grow a beard and you become Sikh. Wear a thread and you are Brahmin. In fact, the adults had developed a rather funny system of games and rules. Ameena and I kept it simple. She did the same in reverse when she came to my home and Maji, my mother, who always cooked vegetarian food, had no problem with us sharing meals.”
Biji sighed and gazed into the distance. Her nose pin set off her elegant profile: high forehead, slim nose, full mouth. With her right hand, Niki angled Biji’s chin back. “So, where is your friend Ameena?”
“In Lahore. It’s a long story – “
“Tell me, tell me, please tell me!”
Excerpted with permission from The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HarperCollins India.