As the autowallah maneuvered his vehicle through the clogged arteries of the old city, he decided to break the silence with an offhand comment about the “unchecked” mushrooming of roadside stalls.
They were never here during the Congress’s rule you know. Only once Bajpah (BJP) came into power did we start seeing these people crowd the narrow lanes. Now all one has to do is pay hafta (protection money) to the guys in Gandhinagar (the capital of Gujurat) and they will let you set up shop wherever. You see that road there? It used to be a one way when Congress was in power. Look at it now. Pay hafta and you can set up whatever you want.
I asked him twice, what he meant by the “guys” in Gandhinagar.
The Bajpah sarkar (government) in Gandhingar.
I got down in the middle of Manek Chowk. I walked the one way and it didn’t seem to hold anything interesting. So, I walked back the way I had come in the autorickshaw. With some imli (tamarind) candy accompanying me on the walk I soon found myself across the road from the main entrance to Jama Masjid. Might as well photograph this beautiful looking building, I thought to myself, all tourist like.
I saw the sign before they spotted me. “Please make sure your legs are covered till below the knees” said a part of it. I was wearing shorts. In a somewhat desperate dash towards modesty, they just about made it to my kneecaps. But it wasn’t going to work. The two men lazing at the entrance of the mosque stopped me. I protested.
Look. They are below the knees. <gesticulating>
I’ll pull them lower even if you want. <smiling>
I’m a Muslim by name! <indignant>
A Syed no less, Allah dammit it! <spittle flying everywhere>
Why, in Hyderabad, where I’m from, they let you in wearing shorts like these (they don’t. I lied) <righteousness is out of control at this point>
Be as that may, we can’t let you in.
One of them, probably noticing the genuine sadness that had crept over my face, said that I should just buy a towel. Or a dhoti (long sheet wrapped around the waist). He told me where to get it and that I shouldn’t pay more than 30 rupees for a towel if that’s what I want. The first stall I went to, right outside the mosque, said they didn’t have towels big enough for me. The second stall just said no. The kind, entry denying, man had by now come down the steps to see how I was faring. He walked to the first stall and told him to give me a towel I could cover myself with. Lo behold, a towel was found!
That will be 50 rupees.
Hey! This guy said 30! <spittle made a brief comeback>
Very well, have it for 30 then.
The kind, entry denying, man then proceeded to tie the towel for me before I could protest and tell him, that as a man of the world, I have tied many a towel around my waist. He did a good job of it though. He stepped back, nodded, and asked me to carry on – have fun now, no one will say anything. And no one did. Even when the tattoo on my calf insisted on peeking out from under my makeshift modesty protector – not a word. I spent an hour photographing the mosque, its courtyard and once I got to talking with the Bihari caretaker, I even ventured into the cordoned off portions. As I was leaving he told me about a mazaar/dargah (mausoleum) that I should visit – Shah Alam. He said something about the Prophet visiting that area and the place where he rested is where the dargah stands today. Chances are I probably misheard him.
Walking out, I came across the towel enabler and asked him how I could get to this place. He told me where to take an autorickshaw from and how much to pay the guy.
Keep the towel, you will need it there.
Two women sitting outside a tea stall looked like the kind of people who’d help me figure out what direction to head in. I asked them exactly that.
Hold on, I’ll get you an auto.
“Arey Farrukh!”, she yells, while walking beside me to an empty auto.
Farrukh is told where to take me and I couldn’t be happier. Along the way he points out the mosques we pass by and who built what for whom. As we near Shah Alam, he tells me where to go and drop off my slippers while raising a caution flag about my indecent lower attire.
Slipper guy tells me I can’t go in wearing those shorts. Luckily for me by now, I’m truly a man of the world. This world anyway. I am armed with a towel my dear man, I say, have no fear. I quickly wrap the towel around and wait for him to admire my ingenuity and such like.
No. People will say things. Why should anyone say anything to an outsider? Hold on. I’ll get you a dhoti.
Before I could protest, he was off. A small crowd of comers and leavers to the place had gathered around me in the mean time, giggling at the idiot Indian standing there in a towel. Hastily, I removed the towel and collected whatever shred of dignity I could from around my feet. An old man sitting under a tree had been approached and a few words exchanged. The slipper guy comes back and tells me to wait.
He is getting a dhoti for you.
Sure enough a few minutes later the old man saunters up and hands over a blue dhoti. I’m going to wrap this around my person and be on my way I think.
Nope. Slipper guy opens it up, asks me to step inside, then proceeds to tie it up all proper like.
Now you are good to go. Enjoy your time here.
And I did.
Sadly, by the time I got back, he had left and there was someone else in his place.
I went to this lovely place for lunch and then took an autorickshaw from there to the place I was staying at. This time it was a young boy. Didn’t know the way and realized I wasn’t from the city. I managed to direct him without too much difficulty though.
You aren’t from here but are so good with directions!
The roads aren’t too confusing, maybe that’s why?
Getting out of the auto, courtesy of the heavy lunch and general tiredness, I said “Allah”. It’s a terrible habit and very unbecoming of an atheist. Sometimes it’s Allah, sometimes Christ and other times, just a nondescript ‘Ahh’.
He immediately turned around –
You are a muslim?! Why didn’t you say so!
Yes, I’m a muslim from Hyderabad. My name is Syed Ali.
My name is Shadaab.
I’ll remember that because its the name of a popular Hyderabadi restaurant I think to myself.
Rummaging for change, he notices that I don’t have the exact amount.
Arey.You don’t have to pay anything. It’s absolutely alright.
No, I have change. Don’t worry.
I pay him. He smiles and leaves.
These are common enough occurrences in big cities. Helpful strangers. People not out to rob you blind. Kind people. Nothing unique by and in themselves. Rare, possibly. But still common enough one could argue. So, why did it affect me the way it did? The men at the mosque and the auto wallah?
More on that in the next post. For now, I give you the many faces of Gujurat.