I have been upon this earth and in a secular, plural and multicultural India now for half a century. I have known many Eids. Eid, is usually a national holiday for one to relax, have a nice breakfast, kachuri and torkari when one lived in Kolkata and paranthas with dahi and achaar now that I am in Delhi and then go for a movie. When I was in school I heard how women friends of the family would partake in the sweets prepared in the homes of their Muslim friends followed by liberal helpings of biriyani. In those days, biriyani was not as commonly available as it is now and only when my mother’s brother’s wife especially cooked it for us we could have the delicacy. In my school there were a few Muslims friends but they were never quite intimate to call us over for their ceremonies. It never occurred to us that we would call them over as well.
But the days just before Eid there was the roja and of that I have many memories. There was a workman who fell unconscious while painting one of our walls; he was fasting the day long and the hot sun of autumn got him. As he lay almost unconscious, my mother looked on helplessly since he could not be given water to regain consciousness. There was also Jalil, our scrap dealer who would refuse tea or refreshments while he weighed cast away books and old newspapers on his scale. Then of course there was Gaja, our gardner who invariably haggled for his Eid bonus. Grandfather would despair because Gaja wanted a bonus every Durga Puja too. Please make up your mind Gaja, Grandpa would say, whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, you can’t celebrate a Durga Puja and an Eid. Grandfather was urbane, educated, professional middle class and he had no idea that Durga Puja was perhaps a festival that Bengalis celebrated irrespective of whether she was a Hindu or a Muslim. An uncle who is a doctor of course had his iftaar invitations from homes of his students and colleagues who had their fasts during Ramadan.
Then came JNU; a secular and a liberated University where religions were not supposed to matter. So no Muslim in the campus ever spoke a word about Eid and we were, in our turn, careful never to acknowledge that those born as Muslims lived on campus as one. Days and years passed on with Eid being only a holiday for us, a day for movies and meeting up for coffee.
This Eid has been different. We now live in a down market colony of the NCR. We have a Muslim family in a flat that overlooks ours. On one morning I happened to wave out at them when I felt that the lady looked towards me and smiled. After that day we often exchange smiles across the stretch of road that runs between our houses. Then one day we met this lady at a neighbour’s house where she learnt of our addiction to biriyani. From that day onwards, she sends a bowl of steaming hot freshly cooked biriyani whenever she makes it. Through this steady flow of biriyanis we have learnt to keep track of Shab-e-baraat, bakri id and meethi id. The biriyani bowl progressively is being accompanied by rezala, siwain and kheer.
Just as we were wondering which film to watch on Eid, Nusrat calls me up. Nusrat and Imran, a couple who I met as fellow passenger on my flight to Kolkata are our new found family. “Aunty”, says Nusrat, you must be with us for lunch on Eid. Imran is a fantastic cook and is jealous of his culinary secrets. He cooked the most amazing biriyani that can be ever made by a human hand on earth. Both Nusrat’s and Imran’s mothers are visiting them and they have a son, Aman. The five of them chatted with us thrilled to see Kolkattans after a long time, complaining how they hated their exile in Delhi since Imran is now posted in a Delhi hospital and how they were looking for a more decent accommodation than the cubby hole into which they were cramped up in a Laldora colony. Two of Imran’s colleagues joined us for lunch, eager for biriyani, savouring the sweets of Meethi id and talking of the travails of healthcare in Delhi. My dream of having homecooked biriyani was fulfilled at last and Nusrat filled a huge bowl of biriyani for us to take home so that we could have another helping on the following day. From now on, they said, every Eid they will expect us over, because in Delhi they have no family but us. I assured them that the family for them will increase with each passing year as we will introduce them to more of our friends. In the evening we visited our neighbours with some sweets and they returned our visit with a huge box of kaju barfi. This was my first ever Eid in a plural, multicultural, secular India of which I am a free citizen.