Flowers for the Deity

:By Krushna Prasad Mishra

::Translated by Supriya Prasanta

The Indian Airlines flight to Pakistan had announced its last call for passengers at International Airport, Delhi. The security officers reached just on time, and held Salim back, who was hurriedly going to board the flight, a bag in hand. The X-ray scrutiny had dictated the presence of a piece of iron of the size of a knife. On rummaging inside his bag, a large knife made in Bangladesh was found along with some illegal papers. The security officers took him to another room for interrogation. Salim could hear the sound of flight taking off. After interrogating him for a while, the officers sent him to jail.

Long back Salim had brought his family as a refugee from Bangladesh. Mujhibur Rahman was the prime minister of Bangladesh at that time. Muslim soldiers from Pakistan harassed Bengali Muslims; as a result, hundreds of Bengali Muslims escaped to India with their families. Salim was one of those refugees. His family—his wife, Poornima and two-years-old daughter, Shefali. What wealth would a poor fisherman have! He locked his house in village, carried his daughter on his shoulders, a bundle of clothes in hand and came to India accompanied by Poornima. A number of Bengali Muslims came with them and told tales of unspeakable, heinous torture on them in their own country. No untoward incident had fortunately happened with Shafali or Poornima by the blessing of Allah. They came to India halting at refugee camps. Most of the refugee went to Muslim populated areas in India—like Mumbai, Gujarat, Kerala. Salim came to Howrah— he mulled over the pros and cons, and went straight to Faizabad. He had come to learn that one of his distantly related uncles lived in Faizabad.  They arrived at his uncle’s house in Faizabad. His uncle had a small shop a little distance away from the Babri Masque, and his two bed room house on the first floor. He sold flowers for the deity—sindoor, bangles, and photo of Rama-Lakshman-Sita and Hanuman—at the ground floor. He was well-known and popular among the neighbourhood shopkeepers as an honest and humourous flower seller. When Salim arrived there, as the inheritor of the shop, both uncle and nephew started making more profit in the business.

Just after his arrival at Faizabad, the local people were heard discussing the possibility of constructing a Rama temple. Many intimately wished that a huge Rama temple should be built in Ayodhya—and how thousands of pilgrims would flock to the temple through the Nayabazar. Often, large number of Pakistani Muslims would gather near the shop run by uncle-nephew duo, and bring the topic of Babri mosque into their discussions. Every time Salim would stand for the Rama temple and urge against the Babri dome. His argument was that there was never a mosque at that place. How could it be a mosque? Namaaz had not been offered there for forty years. Ramalala’s idol was worshipped inside! The well-built Pakistani Muslims would become furious by his words and sometimes when they got extremely annoyed they would spit on the ground reprehending him as a kafir.

Occasionally, when he remained occupied in other works, his daughter Shefali would take charge of the shop and sell flowers, bangles, rings, sindoor to purchasers. When she sat in the shop, as though they could sense it instinctively, the sturdy Pakistani Muslims would come from their lodgings and crowd around the shop. They had nothing to buy in particular, where would they go with flowers and sindoor? All the same, by some or other method they would draw Shefali into their discussion. The Hindu flower sellers nearby would not like this and would warn Salim during their gossip.

Thus Salim’s life went on through vicissitudes till one day the Rama chariot led by Advani entered Ajodhya. That day all the Muslim shopkeepers were forced to close their shops. All Muslim families, frightened, fled to other places fearing a riot. Most of the flower-sellers were Salim’s intimate friends. They had advised Salim to send Shefali to some other place. But Salim, assured by other Hindu friends, did not agree to send his wife and daughter to a Muslim settlement.

Riot broke out and hundreds of young men of Vajrang party and holy men entered the site to demolish the mosque. One of them was fitting a saffron flag on the top of the mosque when police started firing and the mob dispersed in the narrow lanes of Faizabad and Ayodhya. There was no electricity supply that whole night. No clay lamps were kindled in any house in Ayodhya or Faizabad that night. As curfew tolled over the place, soldiers marched amidst screams of women and piercing cries of people stabbed and wounded in the riot.

For many days, no flower shop opened. Poornima and Shefali were nowhere to be found. Salim searched for them frantically— at shelters meant for riot affected families. His Hindu neighbours helped him a lot. For all their efforts, they could merely gather that the Muslims of the nearby lodging had kidnapped Shefali and Poornima in that night of the riot.

How long Salim could have lived at his Hindu friends’ house, cursing his fate, and reproaching himself? He had come to Ayodhya from Bangladesh as a refugee! While reproaching himself, he would exclaim mournfully but in a jocular vein—‘Brothers, Rama was a lucky man. His wife was abducted, but he got back his wife. I’m so unfortunate that I lost my daughter and wife at Rama’s birth place. Whatever you may say, what was I doing here? I was selling flowers, rings, bangles, sindoor for Rama. I should have been following Allah, read Koran. For my misfortune I left my country, fishing trade, and started selling flowers for your deity. If your deity had been a living god, would my wife and daughter had been abducted? Our Quran says— you’re idol-worshippers, kafirs! You run after an illusion. Your deity is also an illusion.’ Salim would not be able to say any more and break down; his eyes would turn red. He would clench his feasts and start beating his chest and pull his hair. His neighbours consoled him, but he would recklessly wander, looking for Shefali and Poornima, peeping into every house and lodging of Faizabad, calling out their names.

After a few days, he sold the shop he had inherited from his uncle to a shop-keeper in his neighbourhood, and took the money and started a journey for Pakistan. Someone had informed him that some Muslims had abducted and taken Shefali and Poornima to Pakistan on that night. When he sat in the train to Delhi, he said to the gathered friends—‘Brothers, I start my Lanka-journey to search for my Sita. Once say with me, ‘Hail to Sri Ramachandra!’ With this applause, the Nilachala Express left the platform for Delhi.

The train started moving—Salim turned his face from the window and looked at the passengers sitting in the compartment. His berth was on the top. Preoccupied, he went up to the berth, slept on a side and began looking at other passengers. Their chit-chatting, eating, drinking, making the bed, quarrelling with each other—all seemed to him what a happy life should be. To work for the sake of one’s children, to quarrel with the wife over small matters, to get crossed— ah, life filled with joy! Salim thought he would spread his bed sheet after sometime, but sleep overcame him. It seemed to him as if Shefali and he were roaming round the Babri mosque and seeing the images scooped on its pillars. Shefali halted at the image depicting Rahu’s head, moving from flowers, creepers, animals, birds, and fairies. Seeing the Rahu’s eyes and teeth, Shefali cried out— ‘Look, look, Rahu!’

The ticket inspector shook Salim heavily to wake him up and check his ticket.

***

Krushna Prasad Mishra (1933-94) was a noted Indian writer, who wrote fiction and non-fiction in Odia. One of the major contributors to short story form in Odia literature, he had to his credit thirteen collections of short stories. He also edited an Odia literary journal, Manasa, which nurtured many young talents. The present story explores human capacity for violence in the pretext of religion.

Supriya Prasanta is an editor and translator from Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She edits the online literary journal, Indian Literature Today.