When Daya was born, her parents took the decision not to impose any single religion on their daughter and their home. It was not though a godless space but one with many gods, with every god. They celebrated both Diwali and Christmas, they had above their front door a carved wooden Jesus, and to the side of the entrance sat a Ganesha from Mamallapuram.
The chubby Ganesha sat upon an elegant stone lotus – the flower a feat of the sculptor – which, because of its upward-curving petals, also served as a bowl in which Daya’s mother Asha, floated real lotuses torn from a nearby water body in which only buffaloes and their keepers – stray village boys – swam, both sets of bodies glistening in the noon sun.
Initially, Asha had not wanted to buy the statue because Ganesha’s mount, his mouse Mushak, hadn’t been carved into the masterpiece. “I just wish he was there – it would be complete, you know?” she had said to Gyan but he had convinced her of its superior sculpting, pointing out cleverly the naughty smile on the elephant god’s face.
When they brought it home and set it beside their front door, Asha had said a small prayer, through which she had asked for Daya. After the prayer she had garlanded the statue with the jasmine she usually ribboned her hair with, and placed sweetmeats by the god’s feet. The next day they were gone.
For six days she continued to leave sweets at his feet. Each day they disappeared, leaving her bewildered. On the seventh day she opened the door to rush down to Vaikuntha where she could hear her husband calling her name for something, and that’s when she saw it – a tiny brown mouse, no larger than her palm, sitting in the statue’s lap, nibbling at the mithai he held firm in his tiny pronged paws. It was the first of many wishes the Elephant God would fulfil.
They had hanging on one wall of their living room a huge stretch of textile the colour of earth on which, painted in exquisite calligraphy, were two lines by Faiz.
Kahan hai manzil-e-rah-e-tammana hum bhi dekhenge,
Ye shab hum-par bhi guzregi ye farda hum bhi dekhenge:
Thahr, ai dil, jamal-e-ruh-e-zeba, hum bhi dekhenge.
There was no accompanying translation, but Asha would translate slowly if anyone asked.
“Where is the promised heaven at the end of this road of longing?
I too wish to see it.
This long night will pass me by too,
This promised tomorrow, I too will see it.
Wait, my heart, we too shall witness the soul’s true beauty someday...”
Faiz had died soon after Daya was born, and knowing her mother’s deep love for his poems, friends had sent her the artwork. Ever since, Asha had begun to learn Urdu, so that she could read his poems in the original language, that language India had mostly lost at Partition when it was hidden in people’s mouths and carried on trains across a border so young it didn’t quite yet know where it stood.
Daya could still recall her parents drinking with friends and Gyan raising a glass to the Faiz poem, speaking louder than usual, intoxicated, saying, “But our souls...must always be Sufi!” His friends would all knock back their drinks, eyes squeezed shut in response to the strength of the imported liqueur one of them had bought in black, and Asha would say, “He’s not Sufi, jaan!”
Gyan would kiss her and say, “His soul was!” And she would laugh and shout “Remember! God is not religion! THIS is religion!” and put on Rolling Stones or Kishore Kumar and they would all clap and begin to dance.
Irreverent Asha who one sunny day in a car had said to Gyan thoughtfully, “Who invented the first luggage belt, you know, for airports?” He looked confused. “And who invented the first hand-dryer? Or toaster? See, you don’t know. But you would agree that they were all lazy people, right?”
He laughed, “Or maybe they were geniuses. At the very least they were efficient buggers.” Asha pushed her rose-tinted sunglasses up her nose, “See, that’s what I’m saying. Who invented religion? It must have been a lazy person. Or as you put it...an efficient genius.”
For a long time, Daya hadn’t understood what religion was. She knew who god was but she had so many images for him. For her. She understood the pantheon, and that Jesus belonged to Christianity and Allah to Islam, but she hadn’t quite grasped the differences. In her house, they had never spoken of those differences, believing fiercely that you don’t make the distinction. We are all the same.
But wasn’t it true that everyone was different? It was an argument her parents would have at times. You can teach children the purest fact of life, that everyone is the same. Humans eventually. Or, do you teach them that despite being different you must treat everyone the same because we are eventually the same?
Bones, muscle, souls, blood, shame, hate, joy. In the first case, was a child not going to grow up and eventually be surprised by the differences she had never been shown? It was a fine line, and Daya had never understood it. Never understood she was one of the children who had been taught the simplicity of sameness, without the complications of difference. And because she had never identified with any one religion, Daya had no sense of the other, but what was a charming innocence about the world at age twelve, was edging towards ignorance at twenty.
“Aaftab,” he said, extending a hand.
“Daya,” she smiled.
He stood, reached into his pocket again and took out a single bent cigarette and a lighter. “I was just about to leave when you walked up actually,” he said, pausing to light it, his head at an angle. He exhaled and in doing so seemed to gain some composure, the invisible thread that ran through his body from the top of his head straight down his throat, through his ribs, behind his navel and between his legs, pulling him upright again. She would learn over time how measured a young man he was, how outwardly calm.
“I’ve seen you before,” he said, one eye scrunched shut to avoid a wisp of smoke. “At the library.”
“You’re a student?” she asked.
“Was. Law. Graduated recently. And you?”
“Markova. Graduating next fall hopefully.”
“I’ve never met a dance student before.”
“Listen, did you keep your student card?” she said suddenly, frowning.
“Your student ID.”
“How were you in the library then?”
“I got the public pass,” he responded, bewildered.
“You paid for it?”
“Well done. You might be the only person who ever did.” That grin. All her white teeth.
“I’m a lawyer. Thought I may as well start off an honest one.”
“Are you really?”
“No, I meant a lawyer.”
“That depends on whether you think someone becomes a lawyer when they graduate or when they start practising law.”
“So a non-practising lawyer?”
And months later she would ask, “So are you Muslim or not?”
“Well that depends...”
“Ah. A non-practising Muslim.”
“Something like that.”
“When do you start?”
“Next week actually. Right here in Cardiff city centre.”
“Is it your dream job?” she smiled.
He laughed a short, sharp laugh and she smiled wider, pleased that he understood her humour.
Now she laughed.
“The firm’s alright.They seem like good people.”
“Good. Well, if you see me at the library again, come and say hi.” She said this with a breeze in her voice.
“I will.” He paused a moment, politely. They smiled again. Then he turned neatly on his foot and walked off down the path.
The next time he saw her she was outside the library staring at the sea bindweed creeper that grew up its northwestern side. They spoke about flowers, which he knew so little of but had grown to love, first from his mother, her only concession to softness, and then later from Wasim.
The next time she was in the coffeeshop. She was tired that day, a heatpack pressed against her aching muscles. They spoke more. He did not want to stop listening.
And then he found her once in the Ottoman Empire labelling new books with “Library of the Arts” stickers. She told him he could keep her company. There was room for two chairs and no more. Aaftab and Daya sat there protected, transported, and when she was finally done labelling seventy new copies of A Manual of Perennials, he invited her home for tea.
Daya walked into his house and broke the still air with her scent, his living room suddenly transformed into a valley filled with lilies carried from some ancient empire into his home. He made her a cup of tea and they sat across each other at the small square dining table and spoke of other lives. She spoke with ease about her father, noticing that Aaftab did not mention his.
He told her how he had been in love once, she admitted she had never. They exchanged views on the students’ union, the new BBC series she hadn’t seen (and never would) but had heard all about. He told her all his siblings’ names and learnt that she had none. She told him how her feet bled so much some days they stained her pink satin ballet flats.
He asked to see and she gently kicked one sneaker off, toe against heel, pulled off the sock and put her foot with its blackened toes, its crushed and bruised edges forward. In that moment, Aaftab was so overcome by the need to heal every scar upon and inside this girl, he did that evening something he had never done before. He reached out and placed one hand beneath, and the other on top of her waiting foot, and enclosed it in the closest thing to an embrace he could give a perfect stranger.
When she left it was late and the moon was rising cold over the slanted roofs. He stopped her outside the door, a light hand on her shoulder. “Look,” he said. There under the broken streetlamp was the white owl. They watched her with a single breath held between them, until she flew off into the night.
Daya turned to face him in the dark, “The goddess Lakshmi travels on a white owl. When one sees the owl, they say the goddess must be nearby. And if the goddess is close, they say luck is on its way too.” They smiled as she walked off, towards her side of town, across Roath Park. Aaftab watched her, recalling how his father had once caught him reading a book about Hindu gods. He had snapped it shut too fast and it had caught Aaftab’s finger.
Staring out into the distance he had then said to his son, almost puzzled, “What could there possibly be to respect about a religion that cannot agree on one god?” Fifteen years later, Aaftab knew the answer.
That it had goddesses.
Excerpted with permission from The Heart Asks Pleasure First, Karuna Ezara Parikh, Picador India.
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