It was like one of the many instances when I was travelling to Bangalore, and like most times I was about to reach before time to the bus stand. In fact this time I was an hour earlier and was travelling light as I was only going for one day.
So I asked to the auto driver if I could get to eat something nearby, he said “Haan bahaiya paas mae kaafi hotel hai”. I asked him to drop me there instead of the bus stand, got down after a while, paid him and starting walking towards where I saw the crowd was. Hyderabad’s government bus stand (I always travel by government buses or at least wherever I can help it) is in a place called Afzalgunj and it’s a predominantly Muslim place as the name suggests. And you can feel it by the way people are dressed, by the sign boards in Urdu, by the whole green coloredness of the place. Ironically that street I started walking into was called ‘Ram Mandir Road’ (I came to know this later). But as I said it is predominantly Muslim place near to the bus stand where people of all religions come and go; and there is this Hotel named ‘Jai Maa Durga Hotel’ on that street and it is so overtly and in your face Hindu that you almost get jarred by it. If the name isn’t enough for you it has lot of big pictures of Hindu Deities hung over the counter which is quite visible from the street and on top of that it has Gayatri Mantra playing in loop very loudly. So that is what that place’s USP is, that it is a Hindu place in a Muslim locality, it doesn’t compete on price, it was expensive than the place I ate; it is not clean or orderly, that is why I decided to give it a skip; it is just pretty garishly Hindu. There are a few Muslim cafes on the other side of street which look dingy, Irani Hotels as they are called here and their owners eye ball me while I’m walking down the street looking left and right for a place to eat.
They know I’m not their customer; I’m dressed in a grey t shirt, blue jeans, expensive shoes , clean shaven, short hair and I could be any one, any religion, an atheist maybe, but they know, somehow they know. I’m never more aware of my religion than this point, my last name, the fact that I’m allowed to worship an idol and I’m not circumcised. Anyways after a few paces I come by this place called Hotel Nandini which is a lodge which advertises “Restaurant Attached. South Indian North Indian Chinese”. I know these kinds of restaurants, I trust these kinds of restaurants. Order a Butter Roti and Dal Fry here and you can never go wrong.
So I enter this one intending to do just that. But it’s a busy place, the table I took is in one corner and a place like this doesn’t want to score very high on service and waiter response time. So I sit there waiting for someone to notice my waving hand or hear my cry of “Bhaiya”, which automatically labels me as a North Indian. I could have said Guru to be from Bangalore, Thambi to be from Chennai, Boss to be from Bombay, Dada, Babu or Dost or anything else. But being from where I am I start with Bhaiya. And nobody notices me or at least bothers with me for some time. Till then I hear two waiters being called from the manager, one was Aslam and other one was some common South Indian Hindu name which I don’t remember now. I decide in that instance whom to call and shout ‘Aslam’ as soon as he is dismissed by the manager. My decision was based on the fact that Aslam being Muslim has a good chance of understanding Hindi and thus it would be easier to explain to him what I want. And I am correct, I say “Bhaiya ek Dal Fry aur ek Butter Roti laga dena” and he nods and asks “Mineral Water chahiye aapko?” I reply in the affirmative and he walks away.
I look around and I see most people are eating that fixed thali or meals as they are called here with their hands, they are mixing curd, rasam, some kind of Pulusu into rice and eating with their hands and making, to me, a mess of it like South Indians usually do and I look at that with the derision North Indians usually do.
A curious incident happens at this time, Aslam trying to practice his newly learned Telugu asks another waiter standing near the fridge ‘Okaa Bottle Ichindi’ and everybody starts laughing at him (he should have said ‘Okaa Bottle Kavali’, and even I know he’s wrong) and he gets embarrassed and looks around for some sympathy, his eyes meet mine and I smile at him knowing how does it feel to make a mess of a simple statement in a foreign language. I have made a mess of Kannada, Bengali and many other languages in my life. I know the kind of alienation he feels at this moment just because he doesn’t know the local language. It’s not his fault, he wasn’t born here, he wasn’t taught this is in school, his father and mother didn’t speak this language to him when they first tried to make him talk, he didn’t watch any movies in this language; it’s not his fault and he knows it, but he feels embarrassed nonetheless. He smiles back at me and gets back with his work, feeling slightly reassured that there is at least one more guy in this room who is as incapable as him in speaking Telugu, that he is not alone, that somehow we are bonded. And then the words of my mother flash into my head that she had said to me probably more than 15 years before.
And it is going to sound like Nirupa Roy from a 1970s movie but I’m quoting that line Verbatim “Beta dharm kabhi jodta nahi hai, dharm hamesha todta hai”