“Kashipurajeshwari …” chanted the 87 year old Seethamma in Sanskrit. The little house reverberated with the ringing metallic tone of her voice as she tied a clean, soft, white sari around her hunched sparrow like body. “Susheela!” she called as she knotted her silvery grey hair into a small tight bun at the base of her neck. “Coffee Kodu”. Susheela placed a steaming hot cup of Mysore coffee in a steel tumbler on the stool and settled Seethamma into the plush sofa.
She then switched on the television as Seethamma fumbled with her hearing aid. “Muslims aa?” enquired Seethamma rather loudly, referring to the characters in the melodramatic soap opera. “Illa, Seethamma. No,” said Susheela, averting her kohl lined eyes. “Hindus aa?” queried old Seethamma, not giving up. She began to narrow her grey eyes to try and follow the story line.
Susheela had come into the household to help take care of Seethamma during the day. She was Muslim and her real name was Shakila Begum. She belonged to an organization of Self Employed Women in Bangalore, who followed the Gandhian principles of truth, non violence and inter-faith integration. When she was hired, the family briefed her of Seethamma’s antiquated religious prejudices. “Aaa?” said old Seethamma, when Shakila was presented to her. “Susheela -na?” she added, conveniently mishearing her Muslim name for a Hindu one.
Very quickly Shakila settled into a new routine. Every morning, she stepped off the bus at the Jayanagar Bus Depot, cloaked in a black burqa, only her face exposed. A brisk walk past the vegetable, fruit and flower vendors brought her to 27th ‘A’ Main Road. “Salam walaikum” she greeted the owner of the Iyengar Bakery at the end of the street. There, under the shade of the tall Gulmohar tree, she divested herself of the outer burqa and adjusted the pleats of her nylon sari. While she waited for her warm potato bun and butter biscuits to be packed, she bought herself a small garland of jasmine flowers. A quick transformation into a day time Hindu woman was complete when she placed a small dot in the middle of her forehead and the jasmine garland in her hair at the base of her neck. Packing her burqa into a cloth bag, she made her way up the street to begin her work day.
Seethamma read the Kannada language newspaper everyday. She followed all the news from riots in Bihar to religious tension in Hyderabad and floods in Bangladesh. Susheela served her warm spongy idlis for breakfast and later helped her with her bath. They spent most of the early afternoon in the verandah. The old lady waited, often in vain, for the postman to bring her letters and weekly checks from her son in the distant United States. Susheela sat patiently on the cool red oxide floor with her embroidery. Sometimes, when Seethamma was in a garrulous mood, she told her young granddaughter tales of her girlhood in the lush green Shimoga district on the banks of the Bhadra River and of the big flood that destroyed her rich father’s ancestral property. “Ajji, what happened to your grandfather’s mistress?” the granddaughter sometimes asked jokingly. “Sh….Sh.shhhhhhhhhh…” she would say, her eyes twinkling. She did not want young unmarried girls to talk of such things. Later in the afternoon, Susheela helped the old lady get settled in her bed for a nap. She then retreated to the verandah to pray and recite verses from the holy Quran.
The summer wore on. The fronds of the lone palm in the front of the house grew limp in the hazy heat. On one such afternoon, Seethamma grew restless. She watched the dusty blades of the ceiling fan rotate. All was quiet in her deaf world. On a rare impulse, she drew herself to a sitting position. She reached for her walking stick and shuffled out of the room to the verandah. Standing in the doorway, her bleak eyes followed the Islamic prayer ritual of her faithful aide, Shakila Begum. The old lady stumbled back to her room, bewildered. She hobbled over to the corner, to Susheela’s cloth bag. The black cotton burqa had a soft silky feel.
The evening news on the television flashed images of pilgrims in Mecca. Seethamma’s rheumy eyes followed the procession of thousands of Muslims, all dressed in white, as they walked around the central cube shaped building. Susheela paused in her bustle to follow some of the coverage. “Eid! The Muslim Festival!” she said into the old lady’s hearing aid, before walking away with the dinner dishes.
After finishing up with her daily duties, she bent over to take leave of Seethamma. A wad of notes was pressed into her hand. “May your Prophet bless you,” said Seethamma in Kannada. “Eid Mubarak” she added in Urdu as Susheela exited the room.
Outside the room, Susheela froze. “How did she….!”
The next day Susheela came to work punctually. Her sari was tied neatly and she had the usual jasmine blossoms in her hair and the dot on her forehead. She placed her cloth bag in the same corner of Seethamma’s room and went into the kitchen to start breakfast.
“Muslims, aa?” the familiar metallic voice rang out, as the soap opera began.
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