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"Aunty, aunty!", shouted Zakir in his shrill voice perched atop the high stool, brush in his right hand and a packet of tambaku clenched tightly in his left. The emptiness of the large room made his voice echo. It was nine-thirty in the morning and he already had been working since over two hours with his boys. The days weren't of winter yet, but the calm of morning had a pleasing effect on him. Otherwise too he was never short-tempered or irritable, just a little fidgety with his depthless words and childlike actions. He was half done with the painting-job which was to be finished a week before Diwali so that his aunty could have enough time to bring a sense of order into the household, currently strewn all over with dust, paint blobs, and tattered newspapers.

"Aunty! Where's my tea? Have been wanting since so long now. If you can't give it to me now then I'd better go out and have it. Can't wait anymore", and he rattled off the orders for his perfect tea to be made with cow's milk, tea bags from the Nilgiris, herbs, three teaspoonful of sugar. Luxury, when could be had, shouldn't be refused. The chai from gallah was no match for his signature morning drink.

"Sorry, sorry, beta. I got busy with pooja and totally forgot about your chai", she spoke while hurrying to offer water to the Tulsi plant in the verandah. The rattle of the utensils and the clanking of the stirrer soothed his frayed nerves somewhat. He kept the brush aside, popped the tambaku in his shirt pocket and climbed down the stool. He and his boys waited at the backside of the home, patiently this time as even bhajiyas were being fried for them today.

"Zakir", his aunty shouted from inside the kitchen while cleaning the kitchen slab. "Zakir! Come here. Have some work for you today". He went inside with a bhajiya in his hand while attempting not to bite too much of it lest he burn his tongue.

"Yes, aunty"

"Now that your uncle has gone away for some work and won't be returning before evening, I need you to take all of those idols of gods and goddesses and the paintings as well and immerse them in the pond next to the highway"

"But aunty, that pond is far away and I am not going there right now", he said in his trademark swagger. His mannerisms and way of talking were more Hyderabadi than like that of the state in which he had spent his lifetime. He was only thirty-four but always had stories to regale one with of humour, awe, and sometimes disgust.

"Beta, am not taking a no for an answer. You need to do it today well before your uncle returns. If he sees these being disposed of then he is going to fight with me again. Don't you remember what happened last week? Those old bedsheets? And also don't eat any non-veg food today before immersing them"

"Alright, alright. Don't stress over this. I will do something about it. Maybe I will take them with me when I go for my namaaz in the masjid during lunch time. That should work, right?"

"Yes, yes. Should work", and she closed the refrigerator door and headed upstairs for some rest.

Zakir, a Musalman, was pious about his practices and beliefs. However, when it came to work in his aunty's home, he kept them aside and did whatever she asked him to do. Whether it was buying milk in the morning or getting vegetables from the nearby market in the evening. Or even fetching flowers for her morning pooja. And his aunty too, a Hindu, was least concerned about ritualistic righteousness. To her, he was still the young starry-eyed boy who had helped her paint the home more than nearly two decades ago. He was still his beta.

He was done with his portion of the wall of the drawing hall and thought of heading to the masjid before it became too crowded on that Friday. He called out his boys and proceeded with them to the masjid. The idols of Hindu gods and goddesses and the pictures of Rama and Sita were all jostling for space in the large plastic bag hung upon the front of his cycle. The front wheel against the bag made a chiseling sound.

On reaching the masjid he pondered upon where to keep the bag but decided not to keep it hanging outside for the fear of it being stolen. Thieves, after all, have no religion, he thought to himself. And anyways it was just a matter of half-an-hour or so and hence the bag won't be noticed by anyone inside. No harm intended and no harm done.

"Asalaam Alaikum maulvi sahab", he wished the head of the masjid. "Alaikum As Salaam" came back the prompt greeting. As the worshipers kneeled the loudspeaker started playing the prayer as a call to the neighbourhood muslims to come and pray. After his prayers, rather than going straight for lunch he slept for some time inside the premises to give rest to his tired self. The afternoon sun had showed no respite to them on their way. A quick lunch at the nearby Halal Meat Restaurant, and he and the boys were back at their workplace. She too had just finished her lunch and was busy watching satsang on the television. They resumed their work but couldn't continue for too long as suddenly a crowd started building up in the lane outside. They, for some unknown reason, were howling religious Hindu chants and with a great fervor.

"Aunty, looks some sadhu baba mandli has come for donation. Maybe some food as well they would want. Or is it some festival today? Ramnaumi?"

"No, it's not. Otherwise how could have I missed it? But still let me check", and she got up from the chair and flipped the dirty calendar on the window. The hydra-hands of Lord Ganesha bestowed blessings upon her from the front page, while Lord Krishna gazed at her from his serene eyes from the second page. On the lower right hand corner was the block where she had marked all religiously-important days and nothing was marked for that day. It wasn't a day on which she would have to get up at four in the morning, wash the idols, pray to the sun, keep a fast, recite never-ending mantra or feed the cows with the symbolic roti. It was one of those days on which she could just pray for a couple of hours and see some satsang on the television set and be content with it for having done whatever she could to dedicate herself to the gods. And the goddesses. And their avtars. And to just about everyone except her frail and neglected body.

"No, no. There isn't just about anything today. Maybe some kirtan has been organized by the temple nearby. Let me check", and she stepped out of the door. The frenzy quickly convinced her of the non-religious underpinnings of the crowd. Some were shouting anti-Muslim statements, while many had sharp-edged weapons in their hands. She asked one of the men from the crowd on what was happening. "Doomsday! Doomsday for the Musalmans today. They have hurt the feelings and beliefs of us, the Hindus. They will not be spared. They will....", and he disappeared in the meandering crowd. But before she could go inside, a man, old for his age to be involved in such activities, came up to her and cautioned her, "Some Hindus have been hurt and their homes attacked by Muslim followers of the nearby masjid. Our Hindu brothers didn't do anything. They were innocent, and yet were attacked. You be safe and stay inside. Don't venture out. And stay clear of Muslims. They are not worthy of being trusted. They stab you in ...", and before he could finish she went inside and closed all the open doors and windows.

"Zakir! Get down at once from this stool", her voice loud and frightening like never before. Zakir was bemused by this but nonetheless followed her instructions.

"Where are all of your boys? Where have they gone? I can't see anyone around", she thundered.

"They have just gone for having some paan, aunty. They will be back soon. But what happened, aunty? You seem very agitated".

"Don't question. Let's go upstairs. This crowd outside doesn't make me comfortable. Some Hindu-Mulsim skirmishes have happened and it is not safe for you and your boys to be seen around", and she grabbed his thin arm and pulled him upstairs. She forced him inside the smaller bedroom and asked him not to come out or call out for her till the next few hours. She locked the room from outside.

"And I hope all of your friends are safe and return safely either to their homes or here. These times are not good...", she spoke as she tried to comfort him. "Zakir, beta, hope you have immersed those idols in the pond. Your uncle might be returning anytime. You did, right?"

And his thoughts drowned him.


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