:By Mahapatra Nilamoni Sahoo
::Translated by Supriya Prasanta
I first got to know Sanatulla the day I joined class four in our village minor school. Our classes used to start in the month of January. Marigold flowers bloomed in plenty in the school garden. In the middle of the garden, stood a well and by its side two night queen trees. What I liked most about the school was that here pupils sat on benches and put their bags and books on tables. The primary school did not offer such luxuries. My friend, Mayadhar had not yet completed class three. He would visit me now and then and console me saying, in a matter of a few months, he would get enrolled in this school and give me his company.
I would sit quietly in the classroom. I knew well three, four pupils, but none of them were my friends. After a few days, this boy called Sanatulla came up to me and, placing his hands on my shoulders, said, ‘You’re Nilamani, aren’t you? ‘Yes’. He introduced himself and asked me to come out of the classroom with him. Sanatulla was fair and good-looking; he was taller than me. He was wearing a strangely designed pair of kurta and pyjama. The most attractive thing about his outfit was the white cap which adorned his head. I was impressed by him and walked out of the classroom escorted by him.
First we went near the mango tree at the back of our school. Sanatulla brought some stuff out of his pocket and offered me to eat it. It resembled a small slice of orange. I put it into my mouth and relished it. It had the fragrance and taste of an orange. Sanatulla said—‘Don’t chew it too hard, suck the juice slowly. Only then would you be able to relish it to the fullest. It’s a lemon-lozenge. You won’t find this stuff here. My uncle brought this from Cuttack.’ He also offered me a few raisins. These were not new to me, for my youngest uncle brought us raisins from Calcutta. After we finished eating the raisins, we had a few dates. And then he offered me two big-sized, sweet bara berries. As I savoured all this with great pleasure, my heart accepted Sanatulla as my new friend.
I had never had a Muslim as a friend so far. This Muslim friend of mine possessed many idiosyncratic and special qualities which were conspicuously absent in all my Hindu friends. I loved the way he spoke—his Odia was peppered with Urdu words and he always spoke in a peculiar accent. Apart from this, Sanatulla shared raisins or dates or lemon lozenges with me every day at school. As he was a Muslim, Hindu pupils maintained a distance from him. They did not make friends with him on intimate terms. Sanatulla became my bosom friend in no time. I learnt a new skill from him—how to catch fish with the help of a fishing rod. I would accompany him excitedly to the pond near the village market in evenings, and catch fish; for quite some time, fishing became an addiction for me. I also picked up another skill from him—how to make paper kites and coat strings with ground glass mixed with gum and fly them. What’s more, Sanatulla would go to Cuttack occasionally along with his uncle, who ran a business there, and would narrate to me experiences of visiting a circus or watching bioscope in the city. I got to know many more new things from him and my liking for him grew. Oblivious of everything and ignoring everyone, I spent all my time with him. As a result, my closest friend, Mayadhar became jealous; he even warned me a couple of times— ‘See! Don’t trust a Muslim. Don’t get so close to him. Some day, he would stab you in the back.’
I did not pay heed to Mayadhar’s words at all. I was so bowled over by Sanatulla’s personality I could never imagine that he could ever stab me! Why should he stab me in the back? Why should he betray me? Such a situation may arise only if I started quarrelling with him. I thought Mayadhar’s warning was an outcome of his jealousy.
True, feelings of suspicion towards Muslims flowed in our veins. I had read about existing tension between the Hindus and the Muslims in history books. I knew how the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs had defeated the aggressive Muslims. Moreover, our villagers and my family members would often talk about the brutality of Muslims. Indeed, Muslims of our village were volatile by nature—at the slightest provocation, they would be ready to hit, stab or riot. Muslim men had shaven heads but sported long fearsome beards. They ate beef, whereas we worshipped cows. Though there was a Muslim settlement in our village and a Muslim accountant worked in our house, I never held Muslims in high regard. The belief that they were an aggressive, fanatic lot had struck deep roots in me. Whenever we caught sight of a Muslim, we children would hide ourselves. We were particularly scared of a Muslim called Sikandar—he had a long, dark, and formidable beard; his round eyes looked as ferocious as a tiger’s. The man was extremely thin, but when he walked, his head would tilt toward his chest a little and again sway back. He would stare at us hard whenever we chanced upon him. That was enough to frighten us out of our skin. On account of such venomous suspicion and fear, I did not ever dare venture alone near the Muslim settlement even during the day. Later, I came to know that the man called Sikandar was not at all aggressive. On the contrary, he was fond of gossip—he loved making fun and cracking jokes.
Our village had a settlement called Dinasinghpatana on the bank of river Prachi. We used to call this settlement ‘Singh Settlement’. It was inhabited by Rajputs who bore the surname ‘Singh’. They were brave, strong and self-respecting. All the young men of this settlement knew how to wield long staves and burning hoops. They were adept at fighting with swords or knives. In that village, everybody sported tiger-like whiskers under their noses. All of them were handsome, stout and masculine. One look at them and you would grasp the meaning of the word Kshatriya, one who could be a warrior in the true sense of the word. They embodied all the qualities of being a warrior. Some of them had guns, and I had noticed since my childhood that these dare-devil Rajputs had actually kept the aggressive Muslims of our village under control. Otherwise, most of the villagers were scared of the Muslims even though they constituted a negligible percentage of population compared with Hindus. Anyway, the presence of forty, fifty Rajput families offered a sense of security to the Hindu inhabitants.
We children would often discuss numerous tales, true and false, concerning the Muslims. My youngest uncle used to read Bangla books. Some of the Bangla books in his collection were on legendary figures such as Shivaji, Guru Gobinda Singh, Rana Pratap, Tej Bahadur, and Padmini. By the time I studied in class four, I had taught myself Bangla. I had gone through them all. As a result, my dislike for Muslims had grown intense. That was the reason why I loved the Rajput kshatriyas of our village. If ever they came to learn of any tyrannical incident by a Muslim, they would immediately pick up staves, swords, spears and get ready for a fight. For this reason, the enmity between the Muslims and Rajputs of our village was like that between a snake and a mongoose. At the slightest of provocation, a fight between a Rajput and a Muslim would break out in our village. I still remember vividly a funny incident. During Raja, the swing festival, plays were performed in our village. Special arrangements were made for seating the audience for this purpose. Separate areas were earmarked for women and Muslims.
Once a theatre troupe enacted a historical play. In the last scene of the play, a conflict rose between a Muslim nawab and a Hindu king, which led to a fight. Some of the previous scenes had shown the nawab and his soldiers harassing Hindu women. While the scenes were being enacted, the Muslims in the audience applauded while the Hindus sat shrunken and quiet; but the Rajputs, in the audience felt so outraged that some of them slapped their own shoulders or thighs, some of them stood up, staves in hand, in excitement. The volunteers had to coax them and made them sit down. They had to explain to them more than once that it was a play, after all. At this point, the fight on the stage grew in intensity. The nawab had abducted the Hindu king’s daughter and had kept her a captive in the hope of marrying her. A battle raged to free her.
Drums were beaten, trumpets were blown loudly—the battle between the nawab and the Hindu king went on. During the battle, the commander-in-chief of the Hindu king was killed by the Muslim general and numerous Hindu soldiers fell to the ground, injured and dead. The gluttonous jester of the Hindu king simply shivered in fear and hid himself among the drummers. At last, there was a duel between the Hindu king and the Muslim nawab. Not many soldiers on Hindu king’s side were alive. Still, the Hindu king fought on bravely. The Hindu king would run after the nawab, a sword in hand—after some time, the nawab would chase the Hindu king. In this manner, the battle continued for a long time. All of a sudden, the twelve-year-old only son of the Hindu king arrived on the battle field dressed in battle gear, and addressing sharp words to the Muslim nawab raised his sword and gave battle to the nawab. Oh! What a terrible fight! The young prince would move his sword swiftly and charge aggressively towards the nawab. The battle drums were beaten more vigorously. Many Muslim soldiers were killed by the prince; they would fall to the ground, shouting, ‘ya Allah ya Allah’. In the mean time, the nawab’s hands grew exhausted, and it was found that he could hardly move the sword. The Muslim soldiers started to retreat and ran away from the battle field. At this moment, the Muslims among the audience rose to their feet excitedly, staves in hand, and some of them cried ‘Allah o Akbar’ and leaped on to the stage to engage the Hindu king in a fight. Seeing this, a few Rajputs in the audience cried ‘Bum bum Bhole’ and swinging staves, jumped on to the stage, and a fight broke out between the two parties. The play ended abruptly. The audience dispersed in panic. The troupe also ran away abandoning the musical instruments. The Hindu king, his son and the nawab also ran desperately to save their lives. And behind them, our Rajputs and Muslims, staves in hand, screaming ‘Bum bum bhole’ and ‘Allah o Akbar’ began to run.
Thus the night came to an end. Such incidents, big and small, had shaped my attitude towards the Muslims.
After I found a close friend in Sanatulla, I got an opportunity to understand the Muslims better through him. I had never been to the Muslim settlement. Sanatulla took me to his house. His parents lavished affection on me. Gradually, through Sanatulla, I got to know some more Muslim boys— Kinu, Lalu, Rahemat, Oli, Keramat and others— and they too became my friends. I played marbles with them. I went on fishing expeditions with them. I was so much under Sanatulla’s influence that one day I ate a cake, prepared with eggs, at his house. In a sense, I lost my caste for him! On another day, I even helped myself to mutton and paratha at his place. Only I had asked Sanatulla, in a low voice edged with apprehension—‘You aren’t offering me beef, are you?’ Sanatulla’s mother was a wonderful lady. She overheard my question and said— ‘Son! Our Lord would not forgive us if we played with your religious beliefs. Do we take beef? We worship goddess Lakshmi!’
I had seen corn-measuring baskets, which contained rice and were offered to goddess Lakshmi, at his house. I was overjoyed to see these. Sanatulla’s mother grew very dear to me. I would often go to Sanatulla’s house and eat food prepared by his mother. His father was an austere Muslim. His head was shaven, and his beard covered his cheeks—but he was sensitive and affectionate by nature.
One day, Sanatulla took me to their mosque. The mosque in our village was very big and beautiful. I had seen it from a distance, but I had never gone anywhere near it out of fear. To children like us the mosque was a weird and fearful place. Mayadhar had told me that a mosque did not house the image of any deity. Instead, it was full of swords, spears and other such weapons; Muslims kidnapped Hindus and murdered them inside its premises. I found the mosque neat and clean when I went inside with Sanatulla and came across a few Mohammedans praying silently. Sanatulla asked me to wait and sat down to read the Namaz. The scene enthralled me. After he offered his prayers, we went and sat down on a pile of sand near the mosque. I asked him—‘Sana! There’s no image of deity inside your mosque! Who do you offer up your prayer to?’ Sana said—‘We’re Muslims, we don’t have such a large number of deities like the Hindus have. We’ve only one god—Allah. He’s God, the supreme Lord.’ I asked him—‘What does Allah do?’ He said—‘We all are born from Allah. This world moves by his mercy. If one led a righteous life, Allah would accept him into heaven. If one led a sinful life, Allah would punish him. He would suffer after his death in hell.’ I seemed to have found a point of entry into the philosophy of Islam through Sanatulla. I had overcome my fear and suspicion for Muslims. My interest in their religion grew. I could see that our religion shared much in common with Islam, and asked him—‘Sana! Are our Jagannath and your Allah the same?’ Sana said indignantly—‘Nonsense! How could your Jagannath ever equal Allah?’ I said in an injured voice—‘Why? Our Jagannath’s the Lord and he’s given life to us, and he also bestows happiness on the righteous and consign the wicked to hell.’ ‘Eh, your Jagannath’s only an image,’ Sana said furiously, ‘it’s got eyes, nose, hands etc. How could he be compared with Allah?’ I said—‘If your Allah didn’t have eyes, hands or legs, how does he move then? How does he punish the sinners? Our Jagannath holds a mace and a sudarshan disc in his hands and slains the wicked.’ I cited instances of the elephant in distress, Prahlada and Hiranyakashipu, but Sanatulla’s face reddened. He got so angry at my words that he hit me on my back and said in a fury—‘Shut up. Mind your words, if you tell such words sitting near the mosque, you’ll see what I could do to you.’
I looked up at Sanatulla’s face. Suddenly, it appeared so strange and unfamiliar. His handsome looks had charmed me earlier, but at that moment I was shocked by the expression it wore— how could such a comely face come to resemble the look of a butcher all of a sudden? Besides, why did he get go angry while we were gossiping? Did I say anything offensive? Mulling over the matter, I gathered courage and asked him— ‘Sana! What did I say that you got so worked up?’ Sanatulla gave a hard look at me and said in a harsh voice—‘We Muslims can tolerate anything, but can never stand the criticism of our religion.’ ‘When did I criticise your religion? I only said that your Allah and our Jagannath are the same. You say that Allah’s none other than God. We say Jagannath’s none other than God. What’s wrong in all this?’ I tried to offer an explanation. Sanatulla said, his voice still harsh—‘You mention our Allah and a mere image in the same breath? You compare our Allah with a mere image?’ I asked—‘Does Allah not have an image?’ He said firmly—‘No, impossible. Allah’s in heaven.’ I asked—‘Have you seen heaven?’ Sanatulla fixed his gaze on me, but did not make an answer. He stood up and said—‘Let’s go.’ I too rose to my feet. We went into the street together, but Sana did not utter a single word. I took his hands in mine and said in earnest—‘Sana! How come you’re a Muslim? How come I’m a Hindu?’ Sana said—‘Listen! Your ancestors lived here. Our ancestors lived in Arabia. Our ancestors defeated your kings. They abducted women from your country and married them. We’re born from them. Our men’re Muslim, women’re Hindu. Those who’re born from such union become Muslim.’
I felt enraged when I heard this from Sanatulla. A doubt rose in my mind—what did Sanatulla tell me today? Why did he behave so strangely today? How his voice and words became so harsh? I did not hurt him in any way. I did not criticise his religion! After we walked a little distance, Sanatulla said—‘No, you go home. I’ll go to my uncle’s house.’ I don’t know what came over me I gripped his hands and did not let him go. I said—‘Listen Sana! You said that mothers of Muslims are Hindus, and fathers are Mohammedans. I ask you, tell me—Is your Mother from a Hindu family?’
Anger and resentment rushed through me. Sanatulla’s appearance enraged me, and someone inside me spurred me—‘You should throttle the neck of this Muslim lad and kill him.’ Astonishingly, fear covered Sana’s face. He looked at me piteously. His eyes were moist but I did not feel the slightest of pity for him. The way he insulted me, I was determined to take revenge on him.
I must have said ‘speak up’ twice impatiently, when he blurted out—‘Yes, yes, my mother’s a Hindu girl.’
I felt thunderstruck when I heard Sanatulla’s reply. I felt even more humiliated. What should I tell him or what should I do—I could not decide. I found tears stood in Sanatulla’s eyes, and he was trembling in fear. Still, I ignored all this and pulling his hands, said—‘Then, let’s go to your house and ask you mother.’ At my suggestion, it seemed as though blood disappeared from his face. He trembled in fear. At this point, my bosom friend Mayadhar turned up there out of the blue. I felt my courage and my wrath growing manifold. I told him about the matter from the beginning to end. He also said excitedly—‘Let’s go; let’s go to his house, and ask his mother. And if what you said was a lie, mind you, Sanatulla! We would smash your head.’
Sanatulla almost broke down. We dragged him to his house. He was twisting and turning and weeping. The moment we reached his home, suddenly Sanatulla’s mother’s eyes fell on us and she came rushing towards us. What’s the matter?’ She asked in a frightened voice—‘What happened to my son? Oh, Allah!’
Sanatulla continued to weep as before. His mother took him into her arms and asked us, her eyes filled with tears—‘What happened, boys? What happened to my son?’
Before I could say anything, Mayadhar came out—‘Nothing, Auntie. He criticised our religion. He said that you’re a Hindu girl.’
In an instance, Sanatulla’s mother’s face grew pale. Her eyes looked terrified. She stood stock still. Sanatulla was weeping, burying his face in her lap. I no longer wanted this scene to continue, but blood had shot into Mayadhar’s head. Jealousy and anger had grown within him like a mountain because of Sanatulla’s friendship with me. He repeated his question—‘Auntie, please tell us the truth. In the name of Allah. Please tell us the truth.’
Evening was approaching. It was the month of Kartik. The month coincided with the celebration of Muharum. Inside the mosque, a priest was praying loudly— ‘Allah… o… Akbar…’ At the same time, not far away from the mosque, the sound of the evening prayer, bells, conch and pipes came from the Mahadev temple. The courtyard of Sanatulla’s house was weakly lit by the dim light of a lamp. We sat down in the veranda and sat eating cakes, deliciously made with coconut milk. I devoured the cakes without a thought. Mayadhar was in a dilemma—how could he take food at a Muslim household? We both belonged to Brahmin families. Mayadhar came from an even more orthodox family than mine. I said to him—‘Eat, eat a piece of cake.’ Mayadhar was indecisive but took a morsel in his mouth, and the taste of the cake made him forget his austerities. The sound of bells, pipes, conchs could still be heard from the temple. One could also hear ‘Allah… o… Akbar…’ from the mosque.
Taking us by surprise, Sanatulla’s mother said—‘Sana’s so loose-tongued! His father had told him never to tell this to anyone. This unreasonable fellow told you. Look, you’re like sons to me. Please don’t let it spread. I was fourteen—a Brahmin girl—our family lived in Balasore. Sana’s father had a betel trade there. I had run away with him. Ages have passed since! I’ve almost forgotten the land of my birth in these twenty or twenty-five years! I’ve now no news of my parents. I’ve three brothers and three sisters, whom I haven’t met since then. They must be living happily by the grace of Lord Jagannath. You know Sana’s father. How good he is! So quiet, he never utters a word against anyone. He would pray fives times a day. He sincerely celebrates the Roza. I had told him—‘See! I’ve three requests. I would worship a corn-measuring basket filled with paddy in the month of Margashira in honour of goddess Lakshmi. We would never bring beef to our house—and every year I would go to Puri during the car festival and have a glimpse of Lord Jagannath. Please don’t refuse my requests.’ Sana’s father accepted them; he never placed any restriction on me. I could not conceive a child even after ten years of my marriage. I kept a manasik at Lord Jagannath. The Lord heard my prayer and Sana was born. I named him—Sanatana. His father called him—Sanatulla. I fondly call him Sana. Since the day I worshipped a corn-measuring basket filled with paddy in my home, prosperity came to us—we had two acres of land, now we have seven acres. Mother Lakshmi has blessed Sana’s father. What’s the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu! All that matters is to be virtuous. How does it matter what one believed in, what one worshipped. What’s the fuss about? Allah and Jagannath are one and the same. Allah dwells in a mosque, Jagannath dwells in a temple. One who can see a form, he claims that he has a form, one who perceives him as formless, asserts that he is formless. It’s same at birth and at death—one should utter the name of Lord on one’s death bed—be it Allah or Jagannath—God’s name should come to his mouth. He would attain salvation if he utters His name. The Koran and the Scriptures—they’re all the same.’
It was a cold evening in the month of Kartik. My heart was full listening to Sana’s mother’s words. I had finished eating the cakes but Mayadhar was still eating. He said enthusiastically—‘Auntie! We also worship Satyapir. We offer mashed ripe plantain to Satyapir. You know what is written in the prayer book of Satyapir?
Rama and Rahim are one—
No one in the universe can match
the qualities of those described in
the Koran and the Scriptures.
Allah and Jagannath— One Brahman, two forms
Fakir and monks utter His name.
Sanatulla’s mother’s face beamed with a smile. Her eyes looked brighter. She called out—‘Sana! Go and call your father. How would the two children go back home in the dark?’ But Sanatulla was nowhere to be seen. He had left the place in the middle of our discussion. Mayadhar said—‘Let it be, Auntie! It’s not late. We’ll go, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’
We got up and came out. When we were leaving, Sana’s mother said to us—‘Look, dear ones! Please don’t disclose this before anyone. Times are strange now-a-days—one is never sure of anything!’
‘No Auntie!’ said Mayadhar, ‘Please rest assured, we won’t tell anyone. We aren’t loose-tongued like Sana, are we? But where’s he?’
‘Who knows? The boy’s so unreasonable.’
We walked into the village street. Mayadhar held my hands and whispered into my ears—‘I knew this before! If Sana’s mother had not been a Brahmin, would Sana have been so fair and good-looking? Show me another good-looking lad like Sana in this settlement?’
At this time, Sana appeared out of the dark and demanded in a harsh and firm voice—‘Hey you, was I telling you the truth or not? You didn’t trust my words, did you?’
Mayadhar was really smart. He said—‘Yes, do you think we didn’t know this? Do you know how you’re born? Your mother couldn’t conceive a child for ten years. Then you know what she did? She prayed to our Lord Jagannath earnestly. You’re born in no time. Go and ask your mother. Why does she go to Puri during the car festival every year? Doesn’t she? To have a glimpse of Lord Jagannath. Go and ask your mother. Go!’
Sanatulla was not someone who would give up easily. He said—‘Damn it! Jagannath!! Don’t say that! My father prayed Allah and I was born by his mercy.’
Mayadhar immediately shot back—‘Who should we believe, you or your mother? Your father couldn’t find a girl for himself. He prayed to Allah and Allah arranged your mother for him. But your mother could not conceive and Allah could not help— ten years passed. So your mother prayed to Lord Jagannath and then you’re born. Who would we believe, you or your mother?’
Saying this, Mayadhar dragged me away, and we strode ahead without looking back and disappeared in the dark.
… … … …
When I was in college, our country was divided by our leaders into two parts on the basis of religion—Hindustan and Pakistan. Again after some years, Pakistan was divided into two parts—I don’t know on what basis.
This, however, did not affect us. We—Sanatulla, Mayadhar and I live together in this ancient land of India. Shovaneswar temple stands in our village; on the other side, there is a mosque. Lord Jagannath and Allah dwell in our hearts. We celebrate Muharrum, Id, Dasahara, Dola together. Sometimes we fight, we quarrel. Yet, we are of one blood, of a mixed group for sure. Whether Jagannath is greater or Allah—this still remains unresolved. It may remain unresolved forever. We would not let go of Allah. We would not let go of Jagannath. As I am proud to be a Hindu, Sanatulla is proud to be a Muslim. We have clung on to our prides. And we have clung on to each other.
Sanatulla is now middle-aged like me. His parents have died. Whenever Sanatulla meets me in village, he would hug me and invite me to his house for dinner. He has a five-year-old granddaughter. Such a lovely lass! Once I said—‘Sana! Give your granddaughter to me in marriage.’ Sana replied—‘Eh, do you think my lass would marry an old man like you?’ ‘All right, give her in marriage to my grandson.’ Sanatulla quipped—‘I’ve no problem, but first I would convert him into a Muslim. Only then would I give her in marriage to him!’ We rolled in laughter.
Like Mayadhar, Sanatulla is such a close friend of mine. If our village had not such a huge Muslim settlement, if we had not such a beautiful mosque, if no one prayed ‘Allah… o… Akbar…’ there—our village would not be so attractive a place. From one side—‘Bum bum Bholanath’, from the other, ‘Allah…o… Akbar’—these two voices no longer seem to contradict each other. It seems—these are two mantras embodying the same truth—two voices expressing love—Namoh namoh—Salam salam.
Mohapatra Nilamani Sahoo (1926-2016) is an acknowledged master of Odia prose. His prose carries a strange eloquence which is rare and unique in Odia literature. The present story is the English translation of Rama o Rahim ek, from the collection of short stories, Abhisapta Gandharba. The book received the Sarala award in 1983 and the Central Sahitya Akademi award in 1984.
Supriya Prasanta is an editor and translator from Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She has received Charles Wallace Translation fellowship for her work on women’s autobiographical writings in Odia. She has translated Odia classics such as Upendra Kishore Das’ Malaa Jahna and Mohapatra Nilamoni Sahoo’s Abhisapta Gandharba.