What the ABVP doesn’t want you to read: “Maniben alias Bibijaan”
A homely tale from Narendra Modi's neck of the woods
July 23, 2019
Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), protested in Delhi University against the inclusion of "objectionable material on the RSS" that portrayed them in a bad light. Terming some of the content of the syllabus of history, political science, English and sociology desciplines as "anti-RSS", ABVP staged a violent protest outside the Vice Regal lodge during the academic council meeting on July 16. Of the things the protesters found "objectionable", "anti-RSS" and that "portrayed the Indian culture in a bad light" is a short story by Shilpa Paralkar called "Maniben alias Bibijaan" which is based on the Gujarat Riots and papers entitled "Literature in Caste" and "Interrogating Queerness".
Below is the full text of the short story by Shilpa Paralkar.
Manu stared at his wife of three weeks. "Are you crazy?" Sejal refused to be cowed down. "If you don’t believe me, come home in the afternoon and see for yourself." Manu smote his forehead and looked heavenwards for help. They were standing at the bus stop. Luckily, at this time of day, there weren’t too many people around.
He spoke clearly and slowly, as if speaking to one of his particularly slow students. "Are you trying to tell me that my mother… Maniben Parekh, who’s 62 years old, who’s been a widow for the last 30 years and who hasn’t stepped out of the house for God knows how many years, is entertaining a man in the house every afternoon?"
Manu shook his head in disbelief at his wife’s wiles. "Look, Sejal," he tried to reason with her, "I told you that we would go on a honeymoon as soon as I can afford it."
"He calls her Bibijaan. Every Thursday afternoon, she makes sheer kurma. And she doesn’t give me any."
"You mean he’s a…?"
A triumphant Sejal hefted her bag and leaned more assuredly against the railing. She knew she had her husband’s attention now. Manu, the young and promising secretary of the Gujarat Yuvak Bajrang Dal, looked like he had been whacked across the face with a folded parasol.
"You aren’t joking?" Manu’s voice was weak and hoarse, but hopeful. Sejal shook her head and was about to reveal some more details about his mother’s afternoon escapades when Manu stopped her with a desperate gesture. He looked around for a quiet place to sit down. He needed to think. By himself. Without Sejal’s smirking face crowding his thoughts.
Manu Parekh taught ninth standard elementary physics at the Shishugriha Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad. Not a particularly bright young man, he was nevertheless a reasonably popular teacher. His neatly parted black hair, ascetic features and polite voice never failed to make an impression on the parents of his students. And this was also why they sent their children to him for ‘tuition’, and not to the gruff, pock-marked and impatient Joshi Sir.
Joshi was far more intelligent and a much better teacher, but it was Manu who made the extra 400 rupees every month. Teaching Boyle’s Law and Archimedes’ Principle to coy, simpering 13-year-olds who giggled at everything he said, even as his mother frowned at them from behind the kitchen door.
Manu’s mother frowned at everything. She frowned while lighting the lamp in front of her dead husband’s photograph every evening. She frowned at the milkman who always managed to spill a few drops outside the door. She frowned at the neighbour’s children who ran up and down the common corridor, rattling the shaky window frames with their fingers.
So when Manu walked into the house on the evening of March 3, 2002, carrying a largish brown box, she looked at his feet and frowned.
"Your chappal is broken. Why didn’t you get it mended on the way?"
"Huh? Oh, yes." Manu looked around for a place to put down the box. His mother, still frowning, cleared away her sewing and watched impassively as her son pulled up the cardboard flaps, lifted out a television set and put it on the bed.
She peered at it for some time and then shuffled into the kitchen to look to her kadi. That night, as she gathered the washing, she noticed that the brown shirt Manu had been wearing that day had a long, black, sooty smear down the left sleeve. It came off on her thumb, and she frowned.
The next day, the milkman did not come. Manu stayed home. So did a lot of people from the chawl. There was much whispering in the corridors, punctuated by bursts of raucous laughter. Young boys would suddenly run out of the chawl and just as suddenly rush back in. A blackboard with some digits had been put up on the ground floor. And the numbers kept rising through the day.
Every now and then, Manu’s friends from the chawl dropped in to see the television set. As his mother watched disapprovingly, they nudged and backslapped Manu, who revelled in their admiration. After Manu had gone out with his friends, his mother finally mustered up enough courage to switch on the TV set.
The screen flickered for a few seconds and then the face of an old Muslim man about the same age as Manu’s mother filled the screen. He was in the traditional Muslim cap and was weeping bitterly.
Manu’s mother frowned and tried to change the channel. But the Muslim fellow wouldn’t go away. A little perturbed, but not too much, Manu’s mother switched the TV off and went into the kitchen to cook. When she switched the TV on again in the afternoon, the Muslim man was still there, crying. She sat down on the bed, puzzled.
After a while, the man stopped weeping and looked up. "I’m thirsty. Can you give me a glass of water?"
Manu’s mother simply stared at him. He burst into tears again, mumbling incoherently about ingrates who took TV sets from his shop but denied him water. Manu’s mother got up, closed the two windows that opened into the corridor and then handed him water in the cup she reserved for Damu, the chawl’s odd-jobs man.
When the man handed back the cup with some water still in it, Manu’s mother pursed her lips. "Drink it up. I don’t like to waste water."
"Sorry," the man said with streaming eyes, "I always left some for Nafisa. She insisted on drinking water from my glass… My granddaughter. Nafisa. She was five. I had taken her along to my shop. Ya Allah, will He ever forgive me?" And he started crying again.
Manu’s mother frowned.
"You cry too much for a man."
"Bibijaan, you would cry too if you had seen what they did. They came with lists and kerosene cans. I begged and pleaded, but they destroyed my TV shop, looted it, then locked Nafisa and me in the back room and set us on fire. I screamed. How I begged, ‘Let my grandchild go. Take everything, but let her go.’ But they only laughed. And Bibijaan, they even fought with each other over who would take the bigger TV sets."
Manu’s mother was silent. Then she said: "Don’t call me Bibijaan."
The man wiped his runny nose on his sleeve.
"OK, I won’t."
In the evening, as usual, Manu came back and watched the news, MTV and a bit of Star Plus.
The next day, after he had left with his friends, Manu’s mother switched on the TV set. The Muslim man was reading the Quran. "Salaam Walekum. Shall I read it out loud?"
Manu’s mother frowned.
"OK, OK," the man said quickly. "I won’t. Don’t switch it off."
There was an awkward silence. To fill it up, the man leaned forward and cleared his throat.
"Shall I tell you about my family, then? How my forefathers settled down in Porbandar and started their business…"
Manu’s mother was intrigued. Her parents were also from Porbandar. She had grown up there. She had spent a happy, idyllic fourteen years there before coming to Ahmedabad to stay with Manu’s father’s family. She had never liked Ahmedabad. Not then, not now. These days, standing in her dark kitchen, she found herself thinking more and more about her maternal home in Porbandar. The open courtyard. The crooked neem tree. The swing made from her grandmother’s blue and pink checked godadi.
The next day, Manu’s mother found herself telling the Muslim man about Rama, her eldest sister, who had jumped into the well on Dhanteras day. Ever since, Manu’s mother had wept silently on every Diwali. And she had been bitterly disappointed when the only child she ever had turned out to be a son. She had wanted to name him Ram, but the family she had been married into did not believe in listening to daughters-in-law.
When Manu came home that evening, he was in a belligerent mood. "I’m going on a trip with my friends. I don’t know when I shall be back. Could be a few weeks." His mother merely nodded and went into the kitchen. Manu frowned, looking uncannily like his mother for those few seconds, and then went back to watching Who dares wins.
Over the next few days, Manu’s mother and the Muslim man unravelled a lot of memories together.
"Did I tell you about the time my Abbajaan caught his third wife slipping love notes to the butcher on a mince-stained newspaper?"
"Hey Ram. What a scandalous family yours seems to be. Meat-eaters, and now an adulteress too. But wait till you hear the story about my great-grandfather and the English mem who travelled all alone on a big ship to meet him."
"This? I got this when I fell down from Uncle’s roof. Uttarayan, of course. Thirteen stitches. And Ammi didn’t talk to her brother for months after that."
"You know, there was this Muslim family who lived down the lane. Whenever my sister and I walked past their house on our way to the temple, she would unfailingly throw stones over their compound wall."
"Ya Allah, was that really you? How plump you were — how many litres of ghee did your parents feed you every day? That was Rama, wasn’t it? See, I could tell without you pointing her out."
"When I was eight, I was determined to marry Gandhiji. I used to write him long letters in my mind."
"I wanted to be a boxer. But Abbajaan forbade it. And just to make sure I didn’t ever bring up the topic again, he sent me off on Haj. That was the end of my boxing dreams."
"I wanted my son to be a professor, but he’s become a schoolteacher. I suppose one should be grateful for what one gets."
"I miss eating sheer kurma. Will you? Really?"
One day, the Muslim man hesitantly broached the topic. "You do know what’s happening outside, don’t you? That your son is part of…" Manu’s mother stiffened and looked away. Her eyes filled with terrible shadows and her fingers plucked at the hem of her sari.
After a long time, she shook her head resolutely. "No, I don’t know."
The Muslim was torn between venting his anger at her deliberate obtuseness and not causing her more pain. Finally, to ease his indecision, he asked her for a glass of water. When he was about to drain the glass, she stopped him with a look.
"Keep some for Nafisa."
He broke down at that. So did she. Not noisily, like him, but with gentle harrumphing noises. Two sobs, one snort, two sobs, one snort… reminding him of the ponies in Law Garden, where he used to take Nafisa for rides, and the funny, gassy sounds they used to make. He laughed out loud despite his tears.
And decided never to mention it again.
Two other topics were not touched upon. One was Manu’s father, and the other was the Muslim man’s wife.
When Manu returned from wherever it was that he had gone to, he was a little puzzled at his mother’s behaviour. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was not the same. He struggled to figure out what it could be.
And then he noticed it quite by accident. One evening, he jogged her arm accidentally and spilt some tea on her sari. She got him another cup and sat as usual on the bed, sewing. Idly, he ran his eyes over her sari, trying to trace the tea stains, when it struck him — her sari had little prints over it. He looked closely. They were mango-shaped and pale blue in colour. Not very noticeable, but he had never known her to wear anything other than pure white saris.
Again and again, his eyes returned to his mother’s sari. It wasn’t just the prints. He was sure of it now: something else was different. Puzzled, he looked around their small room, mentally ticking things off. The walls seemed to be OK. Also the cupboard. The bed was the same. The TV was in its place, too. It struck him only after he’d finished his tea. When he had spilt tea on her sari, she hadn’t frowned at all.
Since she was in a good mood, Manu decided this was as good a time as any to tell her. "I’m thinking of getting married."
"My shakha pramukh’s niece. Her name is Sejal Patel." And in anticipation of her frown, he rushed on, "They are Vaishnavas too."
"Does she work?"
"She helps organise all the shakha meets. Arranges for the pamphlet printing… things like that. But don’t worry, she knows that she will have to help you around the house."
"And after she finishes the housework, will she go out to work or will she be home all day?"
"Well, she won’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary."
"So she will be home most of the time?"
"Isn’t the house too small?"
Manu blinked in surprise.
"Too small? But… nothing can be done about that."
Manu’s mother put aside her sewing and sighed.
"You’re right… nothing can be done about that. Well, I suppose the four of us will just have to manage."
Manu watched his mother’s frail figure as she slowly walked past him into the kitchen. He hadn’t realised that she was getting so old. Now, she had forgotten how to count. Eventually, she would start forgetting names and what not.
He was suddenly glad that he had decided to get married. Poor thing. She could do with some help.
Maniben alias Bibijaan was originally published in 2003 in The Little Magazine, Vol 6, issue 3 titled 'Via Media', and was shortlisted for the magazine's new writing award in 2006. Republished here with permission from the magazine.
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