“Chai, Khatai and a Militant” — An Excerpt from Sandeep Raina's A Bit of Everything (Context/Westland, 2020)
Fatima’s and Asha Dhar’s mothers began to meet up soon after their daughters’ weddings. Events like births, deaths and weddings could evoke new emotions in Varmull and build unlikely connections. This new friendship was one of those. At first, the two women chatted outside their homes, but when they attracted attention, they met over chai and khatai at the Dhar house. When the TV show Ramayan began to be aired on Sunday mornings, the meetings became frequent and longer. The entire street came to know about this unusual bond; that was the problem with Tashkent Street: its houses had porous walls, with just half-baked bricks, mud and straw. So everyone came to know of everything.
‘I can’t understand the trittam-krittam, trit-prit Hindi they speak in the show, and no one at home tells me anything,’ said Firoze’s mother, as an explanation for why she went to the Dhar house every Sunday, where Asha Dhar’s mother sat with her, offered her tea and took pains to translate for her.
‘Mother, focus on your Pashto, not your Hindi,’ Firoze would laugh. He told Rahul he knew her real reason for going: she could not stay away from food. Anyone who had eaten at the Dhar house knew how finely minced their muss was and how red hot the nadir-gad.
Pt Dhar had a problem with these chai and khatai meetings. When he could not contain his feelings, he spoke to Rahul. ‘You know, Professor, it’s fine that our Arun is friends with the Khan boy, but we have daughters in the house, Choti and Gudi. It’s also fine that the Khan bai spends her Sundays with my wife, but filling her up with stories of her daughter’s in-laws? I don’t want such talk in my house. Ramayan is just an excuse. And she’s quite an eater, by the way. You should see her devour the khatais,’ said Pt Dhar, shaking his head. ‘I don’t want to say much, but you must talk to Firoze.’
‘What do you want me to tell him?’ asked Rahul, wondering if Pt Dhar wanted the Khan bai to stop watching Ramayan, talking to the senior Dhar bai and eating at their house, or whether it was Manzoor who was bothering him.
‘Manzoor is not interested in Ramayan, but he’s always there, sitting near Choti and Gudi. He doesn’t drink or eat either, so why be at our house?’
The two mothers would be reminiscing about their daughters’ childhoods or the trifles they had faced as new brides. Rahul couldn’t see what was wrong with that. And Manzoor was such a good friend of Arun Dhar that he even wore a pheran with a ladh. It was only later that Rahul found out Manzoor had gotten the fold stitched into his pheran for Asha Dhar’s wedding so that the Pandit women from the groom’s side would not know that he was a Muslim boy—they might have refused to be served by him.
It was true that Manzoor was careless with his speech and quite argumentative, but he was a good friend to Arun Dhar. He just liked being with him. Why did he need a reason to be at their house? Rahul decided that it made sense for Doora to see if everything was all right at the Dhar home and if Pt Dhar’s fears had any grounds. After spending a Sunday morning at the Dhar house, Doora reported, ‘The Dhar aunties have become fussier with all that clean and unclean business. A metal plate is clean, but porcelain is unclean; ash is clean, soap is unclean. That is all they talk about. But I don’t think the Khan bai notices this.’
‘Notices what?’ said Rahul.
‘That they don’t let her drink in their cups. Her khatai plate is separate too. Which is fine. All Pandits do that.’
Rahul wanted to correct Doora on this, but it was not the time for an argument. Doora could make sweeping statements and be dramatic when she wanted to make a point, ignoring the impact such generalisations could have in Tashkent Street, where maintaining the fragile relations was key to survival. Varmull, on the border between two nations that had been split from each other because of religion just forty years ago, had a long history of violence. Then why create these unnecessary small wars?
‘What does Manzoor do? Where does he sit? Did you see him do anything silly?’ asked Rahul. ‘Does he notice the separate cup and plates for his mother?
‘Simmers? He is Arun Dhar’s friend. Why would he simmer over something so silly? Tell me what else does he do? Why is he there?’
‘He watches Ramayan. What else?’
Rahul found this curious because Pt Dhar did not think Manzoor was interested in the show.
‘And his mother pours herself cups of sheer chai, with lots of cream in it,’ added Doora.
Doora’s detailed report of the Khan bai’s food consumption was not what Pt Dhar was after. He would be at their door soon, demanding to know if Rahul had spoken to Firoze about the matter. So the next Sunday, Rahul went over to the Dhar house himself. Rahul had an electricity meter, unlike others, which meant he did not have to depend on Afzal for illegal wire taps. Deprived of another house to extract money from, Afzal accused him of tampering and always ensured that his house had no electricity on Sundays at the time of Ramayan. This did not really affect Rahul, but now this, in fact, came in handy. He had an excuse to visit the Dhars.
The Dhars were all sitting on a woollen gabba, the male members with their pherans tucked around their feet, and the TV blaring in a corner. Manzoor sat right next to Arun Dhar, who was sitting next to Gudi Dhar and Choti Dhar. Manzoor’s mother was squeezed between the two Dhar women. The older Mrs Dhar was translating while Triloki’s wife chimed in softly, in line with her family rank. As the actors appeared on the screen, Arun Dhar and Manzoor listed their names and copied their expressions. Normal teenage behaviour. Rahul forced himself to watch the episode, saying how much he loved the show, which was untrue, and explaining that they had no electricity at home, which was true. Everyone in Tashkent Street assumed that Pt Dhar could control the availability of electricity because of his ‘connections at the DEFF’. What Pt Dhar had not told anyone was that it was just him and Afzal, the electrician, who controlled the load shedding in Tashkent Street.
Rahul looked at Manzoor carefully. Fine curly hair sprouted on the boy’s cheeks, and there was a fuzz of a moustache on his upper lip. Dabs of some cream had dried up on his forehead, which was bursting with acne. The boy blushed when Choti Dhar said, ‘How girly, Manzoor. What is that cream?’
At the door, Rahul said to Pt Dhar, ‘You have no reason to worry. He’s a good lad and a good friend of your son. Everyone in the street knows this.’
‘But Professor …’ began Pt Dhar.
‘Varmull is known for the trust people have in each other,’ Rahul cut in, and then said a quick goodbye and left.
A few days later on a snowy morning, Rahul saw Manzoor and Arun Dhar walking past his house. They were holding books inside their pherans, thick woollen caps pulled over their ears and mufflers wrapped round their faces and throats. Firoze would have made sure that Manzoor was in good company. Arun Dhar was a quiet, gentle boy, after all.
‘Hello, sir,’ said Manzoor. ‘Let me know if I can help you in the garden, though I might not be as good as Firoze baijan.
‘Thank you, but just study for now,’ said Rahul. ‘There’s a lifetime left for gardening.’
Later, he would wish that he had said this more forcefully, had seen what Pt Dhar saw in Manzoor and had not brushed off what Doora had noticed at the Dhar house.
(Excerpted with permission from A Bit Of Everything by Sandeep Raina, published by Westland Publications. Imprint: Context).
About the Book and its Author
A Bit of Everything (Context, 2020) is a recently published debut novel by Sandeep Raina. Born and raised in Baramulla, Raina left Kashmir in 1990 after graduating from the then Regional Engineering College (now NIT, Srinagar). After living in Delhi for a decade, and later in Istanbul for three years, he moved to England in early 2000 where he is presently based.
A bit of Everything is described as a “devastating exploration of what it means to lose one’s home, laying bare the many ways in which the violence of a land tears apart the everyday lives of its people.”
In an interview with Indian Express, Raina said that love for Kashmir and Kashmiris was one of the reasons for writing this novel, years in the making, which author Basharat Peer praises as “a necessary, beautiful novel, written from a place of love.”
“Because love must prevail, which sees us through the most difficult of times, the worst of tragedies and bridges all divides that we bring upon ourselves,” says Raina about the motivations behind his literary undertaking.