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A Hostile Home

By Aru Karthik

I can’t remember the first time I saw the Ganga. Neither can I remember a day in my life where I have not seen the Ganga. My parents didn’t leave me with much. All the left me was my name, Farouk. And yet, it seems to be enough for every face to turn scornful as I walk on the banks of the Ganga. I often wonder how I wound up here, in the Ganga ghats of Banaras. Growing up with no roof over my head and living off the scraps the shop owners threw me at the end of the day. Perhaps it would have been like in the movies, where a wailing child clutching a damp piece of paper would be lying on a rain-soaked pathway, and a fortunate soul would find the child. Except, in my case, I imagine, when they saw what the paper said- Farouk-, their faces, instead of lighting up with joy would turn distasteful. They would leave the child and walk on. Or perhaps it was nothing like that. I never dwell on it, having long- ago discovered that it brings me no joy to do so.

Here, in the Ghats, most people know of me. But no one seems to want to know me, and by extension, I do not know anyone. To an outsider, perhaps, it may seem like I am isolated, and companionless. I have no family, no friends and not even a friendly face. But the truth is quite the contrary. Every minute of every day, I spend beside my closest companion. My mother, my guide- The Ganga. The steady-flowing, placid ganga. The brimming, enraged Ganga. She speaks to me, and I speak to her. She sings to me, a melody that makes me feel as if I were lying down with my head in her lap and her soft, cool hands were brushing through my hair. When the world slashes my heart in half with their harsh words, I run to her, and she takes me in her arms. She shields me from the world. She heals me with her soothing voice. She brings me the joy someone with my fate should never know.

One evening, I walked through the bustling Gulleys down to the Ganga, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. I was getting to the spot where I usually sat by as fast as I could, having abandoned my post because of unbearable heat. A group of Pundits saw me making my way down and moved to block my way.

“We have had enough of you, boy,” they said, “It’s time we returned you to your kind.”

They said ‘your kind’ as if I were different from the same human beings they were.

They took my hand, and ignoring my protests, dragged me to a part of town I had never ventured into before. Some men wore white caps on their heads, and the women were clad in long, black dresses that covered them from head to toe. I watched them with curiosity.

The Pundits took me to a man standing outside a domed building painted green. He too, wore a white cap on his head. He towered over me intimidatingly, but his were kind eyes, crinkling in the corners. The Pundits left after saying something to the man in a low voice. I turned to follow the Pundits, back to The Ganga. My feet always took me back there.

But the tall man said, not unkindly, “You will stay here from now on”

I looked at him in surprise.

“It seems like you have been lost of a long time, but Allah has finally brought you back to where you belong.,” he said with a smile

Something about his words brought tears to my eyes.

“My name is Farouk,” I said, rather diffidently.

“That’s a beautiful name,” he said in a soft voice.

I smiled and nodded. I thought so too.

Over the course of my first week living with the man- Muhammed, he’d told me, was his name- I learnt that I was to steer clear of the riverbanks where I used to sit by, entirely. I’d also learned that the domed building was called a Masjid and I was to offer prayers there three times a day. Muhammed was wonderful to me. I did not have to live off scraps anymore, thanks to his wife’s lovely cooking. People’s faces did not change when they saw me. No one knew who I was. I was not scorned, and my fate seemed to be looking up.

Yet, all I could hear were the pained cries of my Ganga. I could hear her calling out to me, every day, and I could not respond to her. By the second week, her cries became too loud to ignore.

‘Just once will not hurt,’ I thought. At night, I snuck out of Muhammed’s house. The roads were unknown to me, but sure as fate, my feet led me back to The Ganga. I stayed for hours, simply listening. It felt like a long, familiar embrace. Just as I started to see streaks of purple on the horizon, I dashed back to Muhammed’s house.

Muhammed was already awake when I got back.

“I-I went to offer prayers,” I lied, scrambling for an excuse

“You lied to me, and you disobeyed me. You must be punished,” Muhammed said calmly.

I was locked into a dark room with no food for three days. I cried and screamed until my throat felt like sandpaper. I was so, so very afraid. I called out to Ganga, to Muhammed, to my parents, but I never received a reply.

Finally, after the longest three days of me life, I found myself squinting at daylight.

“Come out,” I heard Muhammed’s voice.

I came out of the room and ran as fast as my legs would take me, out of the house, through the Gulleys, past the Pundits and back into the familiar arms of my mother. I knew I was back to a hostile place, but I also knew I was home. People would always treat me like I didn’t belong, but I knew, so long as the stars and the sun withstood, my heart would beat to the rhythm of the Ganga.

By Aru Karthik

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