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Translated from the Telugu by Jyothsnaphanija

After Eid prayers, the expanse of the Eidgah filled up with a spiritual joy. Exhilarated children rushed towards the streets. “Anna! Id mubarak bhai”. People greeted each other in joyous festive tones. The Eidgah grounds resounded with alai-balai greetings. My chotu bhai rolled the janimaz spread on sand and handed it to me.

We headed towards the Eidgah exit. On our way out, observing people greeting one another, hugging every shoulder—uncaring whether they knew them—with festive zeal, made my eyes fill-up. Everyone was wishing everyone, everyone got wished by everyone. For a moment the Eidgah seemed to be a world full of children. Children in new, pearly white clothes, with bright caps on their heads, “Eid mubarak” greetings in their smiles, creating a world of oneness.

With slowed down steps we went out of Eidgah gates. My ears were assailed by the cries of needy people “ba kairat karo ba,” urging us to drop a few rupee coins in their plates. They pressed on us, imploring our response. 

Most who heard and saw them, found and threw some rupee coins into their plates. We followed these people. My chotu bhai took out the newspaper wrapped parcel of rupee coins from his pocket and gave me half of them. Ramzan is the festival of giving. This is the day we learn to give something to others as a humble offering. We are taught this from childhood. Parents send their children to Eidgah with small change so that they can give to others.

During my childhood, on the day of Ramzan, my father would take out coins of different denominations, symbols and sizes from his precious newspaper parcel, mix them all up and throw them on the nirji stone flooring of our house as if they were a pile of pebbles. Then he would give me a handful of coins and another to my chotu bhai and take the remaining himself. I still cherish this moment of division. With the handful of coins in our palms we felt like we owned the Eidgah. Those days there weren’t these many people, but we had lots of fun. Now, we have more people, less fun. Nevertheless, this could be just my feeling. “Did you see abba jaan?” I asked my brother. “Saw him during the namaz recital. He was in the first row.” He replied.

Abba jaan came early today. He is always punctual. Every year he arrives at the Eidgah early. As we planned to go on a bicycle, we had thought we would arrive at the Eidgah much earlier than our father. But we started out late. On the other hand, my father’s journey on foot began early and he arrived on time. He got a place in the first row, while we somehow managed to get a place in the last row on a shared janimaz to do the prayers. In my childhood, abba jaan would wake us up and say “Haven’t you woken up yet? Not wearing new clothes? Can’t you see, the whole village is heading to Eidgah.” Then he would make us rush to the Eidgah. Why didn’t he wake us up today? Why didn’t he force us to be quick enough on our way to Eidgah? Did he think that we are grown up now and did not need the sweet warnings of elders anymore? An unnamed melancholy filled me up at the gap that had grown between us and our father, because of our growing up.

The sun expanded his territory of heat. I couldn’t find my father in the expanse of festive people. Balloon sellers were selling balloons of bright colours and adding their festive glow to the Eidgah. The roundabouts were encircled by these sellers of round balloons. Children and adults circled these roundabouts. The plastic sticks of ice seemed to have grown well-adjusted to the tinkling sound of the ice seller’s vehicles.

Eidgah is usually thought of as a world of men. But how many girls in bright coloured frocks and bright smiles could I see that day! They reminded me of my elder sister. I missed my aapa badly. She was at her in-laws’ place in Raichur. Last I spoke to her on phone she had said, “Your brother-in-law wants to make the festival here. I am not coming this time.” 

The emptiness of her absence, particularly on this day can never be filled. When we were little, my aapa would come with us to Eidgah. “Don’t I have enough headache with these two hopping monkeys, your brothers? You too want to add to my pain? Do you think girls go to the Eidgah?” Abba jaan would scold her. Aapa would go quiet for a while and then ask, “Isn’t that Fatima from the house next door, going to Eidgah with her brother? Why can’t I?” “So you too go with that Fatima” father would say. Aapa would have far more fun with Fatima. They would hang at the roundabout, buying colourful balloons and piles of colourful ribbons. Like a little girl, she was crazy for those ribbons. I would buy her ice cream. We would walk hand in hand while eating ice cream. Brother never left abba’s hand while walking back home.

I came back to the present moment. I looked for my brother. He was busy throwing piles of change into the plates of the needy. I put my hand in my pocket to search for some change. I was looking for the elderly or disabled. Why should fit and capable people beg for money when they can do some kind of work for living? I began to reflect. In my perception, no one there was really needy. Saying no to these able and healthy hands I headed out.

Then I began thinking how people would think of me. He has great job prospects in Hyderabad, still on this auspicious day, he has nothing in his hands to give to the poor. They would talk behind my back. Then I again veered to the thought that offering money to lazy souls was uncalled for.

My feet stopped at the sight of an old woman sitting on a stained cloth a little away from the crowd. “Ba. Allah ka din. Kairath karo ba.” The woman’s voice asking for help, reverberated in the empty space. By her speech, I thought she is a Muslim. Then I noticed, she was not wearing burkha. In Rayalsima, the non-Muslims speak Urdu almost like Muslims, establishing a bond like one’s own relatives. Vaishyas were known for their excellence in mingling with people. Once again, I went back to my childhood days. Near my home, Komitamma would sell grocery items in her home-cum-shop. Whenever I took a paisa and went to her, “Kyaba. Kya hona.” Fondly, she would ask, as to what I wanted to buy. Her son Lakshman was of my age and my dearest pal. We used to play and study together. Lakshman’s home was full of customers buying grocery items, so he couldn’t concentrate on his studies. He would come to my house, and we would study together. Though we were in different schools, we were in the same class and the lessons we studied were the same. Lakshman passed out from Usha Kiran Private school, and I passed out from the government school. The other day, I met Lakshman’s mother and learnt that Lakshman had got placement as a software engineer in Bangalore. “Ba. Alla ka din. Khairat karo ba.” The old beggar woman’s voice struck my ears through the din and brought me back to the present. I took a five-rupee coin from the coins which my brother had given me and offered them to her.

I was searching for another five-rupee coin. Then something I saw, again took me back to my childhood days. Hanumanji and Gandhiji standing side by side. Those days, local goddesses Gouramma and Gangamma would fill up the Eidgah spaces with their festive energy. Two women would carry a big plate on which sat the idols of Gouramma and Gangamma, with rupee-sized tilakams on their foreheads and in each hand neem tree branches. People would drop coins in the plate.

Sugali tribal women were even more fun-loving. Shaking two wooden planks on which anklets were wound, they would sing bhajans. When they saw someone trying to flee away from their jingling shrill sound, they would encircle him and demand money. It was a big tamasha for us children at that time.

Unconsciously I looked at Gandhi baba. The way he held his stick, without the slightest movement despite the silver paint on his body, he could have fooled anyone that he indeed was a real statue of Gandhi. Only the blinking his eyes gives him away. Children gathered around this child to catch him blink and shout, “Dekh. Dekh. Grandpa is closing his eyes.” A boy who came to Eidgah gave a ten rupee note to the boy in Gandhiji’s attire. The Gandhi picture on the ten-rupee note showered a toothless smile. In return for enacting Gandhi the child Gandhi got a note with Gandhi’s picture. Putting my hand in my pocket I too, gently threw coins that my fingers snagged, on to the cloth spread before this child Gandhi. The coins plinked softly.

I moved two steps forward and saw children gathered around Hanumanji. Conjuring various expressions Hanumanji had cast a spell on the children. He bent his head to take coins from the children. My memory darkened recalling the slogan I had seen that morning on bus stand walls. “Hanumanji ayare. Jihadilog parare.” As Hanumanji arrives, Jihadis will flee from here. How did slogans such as these get written in the green and pure village landscape? Why did the police let go of these slogans?

“If you are done with sharing coins, let’s go.” My brother said, bringing me to the present. I gave all the coins to the man in Hanumanji’s attire and followed my brother out. “Did you notice! Hanumanji in Eidgah! Hanumanji’s hunger doesn’t know that it is Eidgah. Eidgah people don’t know that this is Hanumanji’s hunger. For everyone, hunger is the real god. Hunger is same for everyone. I am feeling pangs of pain in my stomach.” I said what I felt. “You’ve got spoiled enough after going to Hyderabad anna ... Every small thing strikes you like a pelting stone. Didn’t you recognize the man who was enacting Hanumanji’s role to enthrall the children? We used to fondly call him our own earthworm. He used to live near our house on the hill side. And he did well in studies. Do you remember? His father sang long shlokas during Sankranti season. You know he lost his mother when he was in the fifth standard. Then his father stopped sending him to school as there was no one to cook at home. At times he took up some construction work here and there. But whenever there was a festival, he would enact Rama or Hanuman. During peerla panduga, his energy was indescribable. Enacting several roles, he would bring out the funny side of everyone in the village. How could you forget him!” he asked. I said nothing for a while. Later I said, “I remember everything. But I see our village differently this morning. The people of our village. How pure they are!” I spoke. He couldn’t understand anything. 

With a tired expression, he took out the cycle from the stand under the tree and on to the sandy road. He gave me the janimaz. We put on the footwear we had kept at the back of the cycle. As I was about to climb behind by brother, I heard a clacking sound. I was shocked. “Cycle chain is broken.” I screamed. But he was unconcerned. He was used to this sound perhaps. “You are joking. Why would it break?” he asked without getting down from the cycle, moving it slightly forward. “Come, hop up,” he said.

I was apprehensive that it might break. Then I started looking at the cycle carefully. The sound was still there. But the cycle was going forward with an equal balance on both the front and back wheels.

After we had cycled ahead a little, I asked him, “On the way towards YSR estate, you see Gandhi Hanuman temple. There, don’t the Muslims have shops even now?” “Of course. Why won’t they have? They sell coconut and flowers before god’s home, you see? Isn’t the holy month of Shravan arriving next? Who can even guess the income these Eidgah people will earn then? In two weeks, the Eidgah faqirs will all make money in Gandhi Hanuman mandir,” he smiled. “Here we don’t have differences. Such stories of differences may happen at other places. Not here. Divisions won’t reach our village. If someone tries to drive a wedge between us to generate fire, the whole village will be united in beating that person black and blue.” He spoke.

I heard thunderous sound of the cycle chain again. I started believing that it won’t break. I adjusted a bit on the seat and sat comfortably. The cycle wheels went forward.

Vempalle Shareef is a prominent modern Telugu short story writer. He has received Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in Telugu for his short story collection Jumma Kathalu in 2012. He obtained PhD in Journalism from Potti Sriramulu Telugu University in 2019. Currently he is focusing on the completion of his new short story collection and a novel.

Jyothsnaphanija teaches English Literature at ARSD College, University of Delhi. Her first poetry collection Ceramic Evening has appeared in 2016. Her poems have recently appeared in Quail Bell, ShotGlass, The Hopper, Mixed mag, short stories in The Bombay Review, articles and reviews in Kitaab, Cafe Dissensus and others. She is also a singer and a traveler.

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