THE IDEA OF INDIA: Saeed Ibrahim

Saeed Ibrahim
Hakim propped up his bicycle against the large Gulmohar tree and waited for his friend Harish at their morning rendezvous as he had done each day for the past twenty-five years. Together they would cycle to their place of work, a sugar mill located eight kilometers from their village. In their younger days the morning ride along sugarcane fields lined with tall, ten feet high stalks towering high above their heads, had provided an energizing start to their day. But now the lithe, muscular bodies of their youth had been replaced by the sluggishness of middle age and the two friends trundled along slowly and with effort, needing to stop a couple of times on the way to recharge their flagging batteries. 
They paused to take a short break in a sugarcane field. It was the harvesting season and they watched as a mechanical harvester moved along the rows of cane removing the leafy tops of the cane and cutting the stalks into short pieces which were then loaded into bins and taken by trucks to the sugar mill. 
 Harish, being the older by a few years, had begun to feel the strain even more than the younger Hakim.
 “How much longer will we be able to carry on like this, Hakim bhai?” he asked ruefully as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his cream coloured angavastra which he wore thrown across his shoulder over his shirt and dhoti.
 “Only a few more months and then we can both retire,” his friend and co-worker reassured him. He removed the knitted white skull cap from his head and, pulling out a large yellow handkerchief from his kurta pocket, he too mopped the sweat from his forehead and the back of his neck “We have worked enough all our lives and now we deserve to rest and take it easy.”
“Yes I know it has been a long time. I still remember the day when we first met at the factory,” reminisced Harish. “We were both young men in those days. You had been given the work of receiving the cane at the factory and unloading it from the trucks and I was in charge of weighing, cutting and shredding the cane and preparing it for juice extraction.”
“Yes, I remember it all as if it were just yesterday,” Hakim sighed, moving towards his bicycle. Having been sufficiently rested, the two men remounted their cycles and pedaled the remaining three kilometers to the sugar factory.
Harish was a generous and large-hearted man who believed in the idea of service before self, always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need. Hakim was God-fearing, sincere and hard- working and devoted to his family. The two were drawn to each other by their shared values; but it was an incident that occurred in their first year at the sugar mill which was to cement their friendship and establish a deep and long-lasting bond between them. 
During one of their lunch breaks Hakim and Harish had decided to stretch their legs and had strolled along the vast premises of the sugar mill where separate buildings housed the various stages involved in the production of sugar. They entered a warehouse at the far end of the factory grounds where the refined, commercial white sugar was packed in 100 kg, polythene lined hessian bags. The weighed and sewn bags were then arranged in stacks of more than 32 bags to a height of 7-8 meters from the ground. They were passing by an area stacked with such bags when one of the workers on duty wanting to extract a bag of sugar, pulled at one of the bags from the stack, causing a cascade of bags to come tumbling down. Harish, who had noticed the worker’s careless act, had, in a quick reflex action, grabbed Hakim’s arm and pulled him aside in the nick of time. Had it not been for his presence of mind, Hakim would have been crushed to death under the weight of the collapsed bags. He owed Harish his life and it was a debt he would not forget for the rest of his life.
Sugarcane was the region’s major cash crop, and Shakkar Nagar where Harish and Hakim lived was a quiet little village of about 100 families with the nearby sugar factory providing gainful employment to a large number of skilled and unskilled workers. Harish had preferred to remain a bachelor and he lived with his widowed sister Sushila not far from Hakim’s dwelling. Harish and his sister, who belonged to the priestly Brahmin caste, were staunch vegetarians and followed all the Hindu religious rituals. This did not, however, preclude or undermine their interaction and friendly intercourse with Hakim and his family, which comprised his wife and two sons, all of whom were devout Muslims and strictly adhered to the tenets of their own faith. In fact, the population of the village was a mix of both Muslim and Hindu households that had been living together in harmonious coexistence for centuries, respecting each other’s customs and traditions and participating freely in one another’s festivals and religious holidays.
Diwali, the festival of lights, was around the corner and Sushila was busy preparing her home for the festival. Despite her age-related aches and pains and a recent bout of ill health, she washed and scrubbed and scrupulously cleaned every corner of her house. She invited Hakim’s wife Rehana to attend the Lakshmi Puja that she performed in the evening, praying to the goddess for peace, wealth and prosperity for their two homes. Hakim’s two boys lit diyas which they placed inside as well as on the exterior of Harish’s house, giving a luminous glow to the surroundings. The following day Sushila prepared a sumptuous vegetarian lunch to which Hakim and his family were invited, and Rehana came, carrying gifts of fruits and sweetmeats.
Only a week or so after Diwali and the joyous time the two families had spent together, Harish’s house was plunged in grief. He arrived early one morning at Hakim’s house, shaken and tearful:
“Hakim bhai come quickly! Sushila has not woken up this morning! I tried to shake her awake but she is not responding. I fear something terrible has happened to her.”
Harish’s worst fears were confirmed. Sushila had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Harish was devastated by the sudden and unexpected demise of his faithful and devoted older sister. The two had long been a source of comfort and support to each other, with his sister keeping house for him and he providing the companionship and security of his presence. Her absence left him lonely and forlorn. Her passing away had also come at a time when he and Hashim had finally taken up the much-anticipated retirement from their various duties at the sugar mill. Without the daily involvement that his employment had offered, Harish felt the emptiness and void even more. 
Hakim called daily at Harish’s house to check on how he was faring. One day, on finding him particularly despondent and cheerless, he suggested:
“Harish bhai, why don’t you come and stay with us for a few weeks? The change of atmosphere will do you good. Besides you know how much Rehana and the boys enjoy your company.”
Seeing the worried expression on Hakim’s face, Harish replied, “I am doing fine, Hakim. Don’t worry, I will be alright.”
Later, after Hakim had left, Harish reflected on what Hakim had proposed. It was true that he was feeling terribly alone, his friend’s concern for him was genuine and besides he did get along well with Hakim’s family. He made up his mind to accept the offer. The following day was a Sunday and without announcing his decision he arrived at Hakim’s house carrying a small bag with his clothes and essential requirements. Rehana was the first to see him and rushed to welcome him. Stooping low to touch his feet, she sought his blessings. Harish was deeply moved by this gesture of reverence performed generally in Hindu families as a form of respect for an elder. Rehana, who considered Harish as an older brother whom she respected and admired, had acted without a second thought. Harish in turn placed his hand over Rehana’s bowed head offering her his blessings for protection and a long life. Hakim moved forward with outstretched arms hugging Harish warmly, whilst from behind, his two sons greeted Harish in unison:
“Welcome home, Harish uncle. It’s so good to have you with us!”
Rehana rushed to make some tea, and the family sat down together as if in celebration of a long due reunion. Space was at a premium in their modest two-bedroom house. The boys offered Harish uncle their room to provide him some privacy. But Harish shrugged off their offer, preferring to remain, as he put it, “in the centre of all activity.” Succumbing to his wishes, Rehana set up his bed and a comfortable chair beside a window in a corner of the front room. Harish was happy with this arrangement which made him feel more at home and part of the comings and goings of the household. Rehana was also careful to serve him specially prepared pure vegetarian meals as per his dietary requirements.
While Rehana busied herself with her household tasks and the two young men were off at work, it was the very picture of harmony and peace to watch the two retirees with their daily devotional readings from their respective holy books, each in his own corner of the room. Sometimes they would sit together enjoying long chats reminiscing about old times or talking animatedly about current affairs. At nights when the whole family sat together after the evening meal, the boys would talk about their day’s activities and Harish uncle would often regale them with stories and tales from his childhood. The days passed quickly and Harish felt himself so totally at home, that what had started out to be an experimental stay of a few weeks to help him tide over the loss of his sister, was now turning out to be a permanent arrangement. No mention was ever made on either side, and it was taken for granted that Harish uncle had become part and parcel of Hakim’s household and an integral member of the family. When the festival of Eid arrived, Harish joined in gamely in all the festivities and even bought a new set of clothes for each of the family members. 
This happy state of affairs continued for over a year until anxieties began to surface concerning Harish’s failing health. It started with a bronchial attack with a deep racking cough and a prolonged chest infection which took more than two months to go away. Hardly had he recovered from this illness than Harish began complaining of shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing and a general feeling of uneasiness. His movements began to slow down and his intake of food was considerably reduced. The decline in nourishment caused acute weakness, and very soon Harish took to his bed and got up with great difficulty only to visit the bathroom. Despite medication, Rehana’s nursing care and Hakim’s constant monitoring, Harish’s condition grew worse and he lapsed into a semi-comatose state. One day with great effort he opened his eyes, drew Hakim close to his face and, in barely audible tones, whispered into his ear:
“When I am no more, Hakim, please ensure that my last rites are performed as per our Hindu traditions.”
Hakim held his hand tight and holding back his tears he reassured his life-long friend:
“Go in peace dear brother. I will make sure that your wishes are fulfilled”
Harish’s parched lips widened in a faint smile. His head lolled over to one side and he was gone. 
True to his word, Hakim made all the necessary arrangements for Harish’s funeral. He procured Ganga Jal from the home of one of his neighbours and as per the custom, he and his two sons donned dhotis. They were told that in order to lift the bier, it was essential also to wear the Janeu or holy thread. This too was acquired, and the required attire complete, the three male members of Hakim’s family, along with a neighbour as the fourth poll bearer, lifted the bier and proceeded to the cremation ground.
To make sure that the promise to his friend had been maintained to the last detail, Hakim’s elder son lit the pyre and on the twelfth day after the cremation, as custom required, he had his head tonsured.
What a beautiful expression of solidarity, oneness and the true idea of India that was!
***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bangalore based writer, Saeed Ibrahim, is the author of two books - “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India, and “The Missing Tile and Other Stories,” a collection of 15 short stories. Saeed was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and later, at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. His other writings include newspaper articles, travel essays, several book reviews and two essays for the Museum of Material Memory. His short stories have been published in “The Deccan Herald,” “The Beacon Webzine,” “Bengaluru Review,” “The Blue Lotus Magazine,” “Borderless Journal,” “Muse India,” “Outlook India,” “Indian Periodical” and “Different Truths.”
 

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