Janani hated her name. “Call me Jen,” she’d say, flicking a neon-blue curl off her high forehead. “I am not a mother goddess.”
Or: “Seriously, do I look like a fucking baby-producing machine to you?”
The only child Janani had ever loved was a hybrid with pudgy fingers and an elephant head. One day, while having her bath, Parvati had scrubbed the skin around her breasts and thighs in circles, first gently, then hard, and out of the slough she had fashioned a child smelling of sandalwood, musk and sweet-scented sweat. We will never know what the infant Ganesh had looked like. What we do know is the story of his wrathful father Shiva who, upon returning home, beheaded little Ganesha for blocking his path, and then found an elephant head to replace his lack of good sense – a singularly male failing and one that is not the preserve of the gods alone.
Janani had a terrible hangover. She and Kabir had been up all night, listening to music. She didn’t know whether it was all that kissing or sipping Old Monk that had left her tongue inflamed. She could barely keep her eyes open in the shower. She sat down on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor in a padmasana and let the running water cleanse the night’s debris off her skin.
Janani did not have the time to blow-dry her hair. She literally ran the last stretch to college, past the David Sassoon Library, past Hope Street. Her dark curls, still dripping water, glistened in the sun. She got to class and slid into the front row. There they sat, Janani and Babita, two tall girls, both of them an inch short of six feet. One shaking her curl-laden crown, while the other’s thick long plait, slick with coconut oil, swayed gently across her back. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. Yet each day they gravitated towards the same bench, as if they were meant to sit side-by-side. They greeted each other with a smile – you could barely see Janani’s eyes when she laughed. They disappeared into her face. Babita, on the other hand, had large, expressive eyes. They seem to have been drawn by the finest masters of Jain miniature painting – in three-quarter profile, a further eye seemed to escape the contours of her face.
Their teacher for this course could have been mistaken for a solemn Madonna, with her perfectly oval face and high cheekbones. But there was something about those plump lips and cleft chin that betrayed a certain wildness. Roshanara knew she had a fifteen-second window before the millennial mind began to wander. But there were greater threats than Insta. The trio of trolls sitting behind Janani and Babita made obscene threatening signs each time Roshanara interpreted sacred iconography from a feminist or Marxist perspective. They had already shot off a few letters to the Committee of Patriots or the COP. Their complaint, give or take a few words, was mostly the same: “Muslim professor, Roshanara Husain, casting aspersions on Hindu myths.” They used stock bureaucratic phrases, quick to condemn and criminalise. Their vocabulary was as limited as their imagination. And their addendum always misspelt their most damning term of condemnation: “Sikular libturd!”
Janani and Babita deliberately sat ramrod straight in the front row to block the view of the three trolls. Rakesh, Rajesh and Rupesh would spray the girls with their stale dhokla spittle each time they opened their mouths. The girls didn’t know which was worse, being sprayed at or the creepy sensation of having hot air blown on the napes of their necks from time to time. Janani ignored them but Babita would sometimes turn back and yell, “Bojohs!”
Janani would whisper in her ear: “Babs, it’s ‘bozos’, bow-zows”.
When Babita got excited, you needed a working knowledge of Bihari to understand her English: “That ijh egjhactly what I am saying – bojohs!”
Two days before, at lunch, Babita had returned the favour, baffling Janani by making her repeat the word ‘chapati’ several times, going off into peals of laughter each time.
“Of course I’ve got it, Babs, it’s cha-paa-tti,” Janani kept saying in exasperation. Babita resigned herself to a facepalm. “No Jen, it’s ta, a soft ta – cha-paa-ti.” The soft ta – like soft anything – wasn’t Janani’s strong suit.
Roshanara was a scintillating storyteller. While the haters sowed the country day after day with their rakta beej – every drop of blood that fell to the earth after a lynching or an assassination seeded another army of bloodthirsty assailants – Roshanara and her group of academic colleagues had instituted a seed bank of stories. The Katha Beej Bank collected all kinds of endangered stories, old and new. Tales from which pressure groups like the COP had removed every trace of Islam, of Sufi culture, anything that had been officially stigmatized as ‘anti-national’. Tales that had been muted in the popular epics, but which had stubbornly lived on, on the tongues of adivasis, Muslims, Dalits and women. Tales that smelt of mahua and beef and menstrual blood.
Their current mission was to preserve Makhdoom Pir’s manuscript of the original teachings of Yahoo Baba of Vivaad, a much-loved saint revered by people across class, religion and region. “Although his devotees religiously repeat his mantra, ‘Naam anek malik sirf ek’, ‘His names are many, but there is only one Lord’, Yahoo Baba’s Sufi lineage has long ago been suppressed and disguised in the costume of popular Hinduism,” said Roshanara, as the trolls began to grumble.
“In his idols, as they are produced now, the man who had worn a wanderer’s torn black robe is dressed up in a royal purple brocade and shown riding a golden eagle like Lord Vishnu. There is no record of who Yahoo Baba’s parents were, or where he came from. But, over time, a family lineage was manufactured and Baba became known as the son of a Brahmin couple who had died in a forest fire. In the Yahoo Baba shrine, contemporary icons of gods and goddesses sat incongruously in the glass case that had once contained only his humble belongings, a needle and thread, a chillum, and a pair of broken sandals.”
Janani was intrigued: “What kind of a name is Yahoo Baba? He sounds like an Internet guru.”
Roshanara laughed: “No, no, Jen. Yahoo is a Sufi invocation. It means ‘O God!’ ”
Above the trolls’ rising growls of protest, Roshanara said more forcefully: “And now the little village of Vivaad has grown into the big city of Mahavivaadpatnam, a centre of religious commerce and real estate speculation.”
A few months ago, Roshanara had gone in search of Makhdoom Pir’s home on the outskirts of Mahavivaadpatnam. The priests who now controlled Yahoo Baba’s shrine had put out the story that the manuscript had been taken apart and sold by the Pir’s descendants to American researchers. Roshanara couldn’t locate Pir Saheb’s home. Instead, she landed at a stable where the Victoria driver was preparing his horse for a ride. The poor creature’s bones stuck out like parched hills in a landscape. Waving a whip in the air for emphasis, the driver corrected Roshanara. “There is no such thing as Yahoo Baba. You mean Yahoo Deva. The god of the holy breath.” He dropped his whip and began to demonstrate a forceful breathing technique. Throwing his head back and then throwing it forward, he expelled his breath vigorously through his aquiline nose: “Hu, Hu, Hu, Hu, Ya-aaa-huuuu.”
“You see Yahoo is the divine breath,” he said. “The same as what we call Vayu in Sanskrit. Yahoo-Vayu – see?”
“But we do know that he was called Yahoo Baba for more than sixty years,” Roshanara tried again.
“Don’t tell such dirty lies! He was no Baba-Kaaba. Our Yahoo Deva came down from heaven on a golden eagle and went back to heaven on that same golden eagle. Bhagwan Vishnu sent his personal eagle, Garuda-ji, for Yahoo Deva’s convenience.”
Roshanara looked up at the sunlight breaking through the hole in the thatched roof. All this etymological acrobatics had left her head in a spin. After being waylaid by touts a few times, she finally reached Pir saheb’s house in the refugee colony. The asbestos sheets had heated up the 10 by 10 feet room strewn with clothes and bedding. Pir saheb’s grandson, Ali, gave Roshanara a glass of adrak chai. On the wall was a fading photograph of Yahoo Baba sitting in his black robe on a chatai. Ali, a gaunt child-man, said: “Baba had taken refuge in this temple and called it the Saraswati Devi Masjid. Both Hindus and Muslims were welcome to offer their prayers there.”
Ali brought out the manuscript carefully from his battered Godrej almirah. It was crumbling. Some of the century-old powder fell on Roshanara’s lap like a drizzle of grace. Her fingers shook as she held this vulnerable document that had been stained and discoloured, devoured in places by insects. But despite the ravages of time, it held itself together by a thin thread of faith. Allah’s name was invoked several times in this Arabic and Persian manuscript. She also detected a few words in Brajbhasha.
The sound of Brajbhasha lit up Babita’s eyes.
Babita asked Roshanara: “Why hasn’t anybody published this manuscript?”
Rupesh barked at Roshanara: “Publish? Rubbish. If I got my hands on it, I would burn it.”
This wasn’t an empty threat, but Roshanara continued: “The manuscript can’t be published. The priests of the Mahavivaadpatnam mandir, who guard the Yahoo Baba idol with their rotund bellies and conspicuous sacred threads, will not entertain any discussion on Baba’s Sufi heritage.”
Janani cut in: “So Yahoo Baba is a Hindu god now?”
“Always he was Hindu god!” shouted Rakesh. “Yahoo Deva, Yahoo Deva, how many times to say? How much you libturds will lie? We will show you!”
The trio banged their fists on the table sending tremors down the girls’ spines and sprang up to mimic a funeral. Holding their pretend corpse above their shoulders, they barreled into Roshanara, who jumped aside in alarm. Their voices could be heard in the corridor as they intoned like mourners: “Ram naam satya hai.” Ram’s name is the truth.
And then a fainter but no less definite call to arms, “Ram naam hi satya hai.” Ram’s name alone is the truth.