Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Parable of Munir Chacha

I am inspired by Khalid Hosseini to write a story in his style. Needless to say - it is all fiction - do enjoy.

My first meeting with Munir chacha was when I was very young. I am told that Munir chacha, Abbu and Ammi went to school together and when I was born Munir chacha and chachi came to visit. Munir chacha's daughter was born later that year, and Abbu and Ammi went to visit. I didn't realise at that time that I would come to idolise Munir chacha or that I would join his trade. I saw him more frequently as I got older, and in each meeting we spoke longer and longer about the delicate nature of reality, the beauty of symmetry and how it implies conservation, and how merely looking at the densities can tell you so much about how things will turn out. Slowly but surely, over many years, I learned the basics from Munir chacha, and I became stronger in the faith. I think I only made the connection when one day out of the blue, Ammi remarked that she was yet to see anyone as strong in the faith as Munir chacha.

It was hard not to be drawn to the faith. When I was in school, I met Daddu. He knew I was Abbu's son, but I knew from the instant I met him that he was something quite apart from the others. We only spoke for a few minutes about how sound travels in air but it was clear that even at something as boring as a school function, Daddu never lost the sharpness of his mind. Abbu and Ammi were great followers of Daddu. They were unhappy with the way that Asef Mian ran the company and when Daddu succeed him, there were celebration among the cognoscenti.

Daddu's time at the head of the company was unfortunately too short to make a real difference, and he was eventually succeeded by Altaf Bhai. I knew Altaf Bhai's son, he was a good fellow, very down to earth, also very strong in the faith. During Altaf Bhai's time, the company actually made progress in what many thought would be it twilight years. Our neighbour Ajju once told me that he feared that the company would simply shut down altogether. Ajju was very close to Daddu, and the Daddu's star was not on the ascendant.

I learned much later that Daddu and his friend Thevar had gone up to the Polymath and spoken their mind. Thevar had gotten carried away and said something that was not his place to speak about and the Polymath had become offended. The Polymath and his nagging wife who he refused to ignore had different priorities, and they simply did not have time to deal with the issues that Daddu and Thevar brought up. Perhaps this was the cause of all ills.

Then suddenly one day the dawn came, the Polymath and his wife went home, and Altaf Bhai was replaced by Guruji. I had never met Guruji but Abbu and Ammi were suddenly all smiles. They said a ray of hope had emerged from the darkness and the path of light had emerged. In his first khutba jumma, Guruji had read out the riot act to the idolators and the kafirs parading as momeen. He warned that the company would do well to return to what it was supposed to be doing in the first place and not waste time on frivolities. Clearly the company had a long way to go before things were fixed, but once Guruji spoke, there was no choice in the matter. Abbu and Ammi returned home that day convinced that the heir to Jehangir had finally emerged.

I saw Thevar occasionally in my college days. He had the most painful habit of reading from his diaries instead of carefully weighing his words in measured speech. It was stream-of-consciousness writing, made for interesting material if you were attempting psychoanalysis but was dreadfully dull otherwise. Unlike so many of my classmates, however, I kept silent - I knew who Thevar really was. My classmates weren't that bright and openly spoke of their impatience with this. To them- Thevar was another old man trying to lead a congregation that was fast losing its faith. On that terrible day, Thevar directly offered a job to the best students in our college and to my disgust, they turned him down on his face. I loved my college and my friends, but this was intolerable insolence. Only someone of Thevar's pure soul could withstand such humiliation -a lesser man would have the offenders strung up on the university gate.

Little did anyone know that all perceptions of Thevar would change soon. For while my classmates zealously sought minor positions in firangi madrassas, Thevar and Daddu were laying the ground work for a show of faith unlike any that people had seen before. I learned much later that Sikandar Mian, Munir Chacha, Ajju, Shijju, Amina bibi, Kainad bibi, and many others were already told to prepare for the zarb-e-momin. I saw less and less of them now as I was away from home. Abbu and Ammi were either clueless as usual, or perhaps they knew and didn't see it fit to tell me.

Finally in the hottest days of summer, when Firdausi felt the winds blew in the right direction - he gave Thevar and Daddu the go-ahead. Guruji, Munir Chacha, Ajju, Shijju etc... worked night and day to make it happen. There was one other person in all this, Maulviji. Nominally Maulviji was Thevar's right hand. Some said Maulviji was close to Asef Mian's cousin, others said Thevar trusted Maulviji completely. I believed they were all wrong, you see - Maulviji had once been Agha Sahab's man.

Men are mortal, and it is never a good idea to compare them to things more permanent but sometimes I feel it does help. If the world is like the night sky, Thevar was the Southern Cross, Guruji was Polaris and Daddu was the Moon. But Agha Saheb - he was the Sun. Once you become Agha Sahab's man, you simply never stopped being one. I feel that summer, Daddu and Thevar worked largely in the night and confided in very few people. I feel whatever was really done in the dark, it was known probably only to Guruji, Sikandar Mian and Munir Chacha. The rest - even Agha Sahab were probably in the dark.

When the ground shook, Firdausi composed a poem and recited it from the minibar . The world looked on awe. Whatever Thevar and Daddu's plans were, I suspect Agha Sahab had his own plans and Maulviji set them into motion almost as soon as the ground stopped shaking.

Ofcourse as with anything else, there was a debate. It cropped up when Sikandar Mian, Munir Chacha and the rest were at Firdausi house for tea. Sikandar Mian and Munir Chacha felt debate is good, I agree with them that our faith strengthens when we question it. But in such debate, misfortune saw opportunity. Soon tongues began to wag that something unfortunate had happened and we were all living in a world of illusions. A day after the meeting with Sikandar Mian and Munir Chacha, Altaf Bhai and Asef Mian invited themselves to poet's house and recited to him all sorts of stories. Unfortunately for them, Firdausi had seen many summers and many winters. He was not one to be shaken by doubt, he politely listened to what they had to say and when they were done with their tea, he showed them the door.

Tragically most others were not so strong as Firdausi. Doubt began in a single breath but spread like a wildfire. The consequences of this fire were most terrible. All of them, Sikandar Mian, Munir Chacha, Ajju, Shijju, Amina bibi, Kainad bibi, and the hardworking others all got royally shafted. Despite their efforts, all they got was nominal acknowledgment. There was no reward for their actions, where ilm should have ruled, siyasat took hold. Sikandar Mian was exiled, sent to work outside Hamid Seth's house, Munir Chacha was shunted to a corner of the company. Abbu and Ammi looked very unhappy again and all this while Marikh hung boldly in the night sky. It was as if Allah was mocking us - "So you think you have faith? well let's see then - shall we..."

Some years ago, Agha Sahab died and I can only imagine how terrible that must have felt for Maulviji. The mantle of the Sun now fell on Agha Saheb's old friend, Masood Saheb. Not long after, Firdausi left and his place was taken by the Polymath's nagging wife. Fears that had been gnawing at people insides began to find voice. Eventually a proposed marriage with the scion of a distant imperial lineage brought everything out into the open. Now even the random rowdies in the Mohalla knew about the concerns that had heretofore remained in the khanqah.

I was appalled at the way things were proceeding. I can't stand matters of the spiritual nature being discussed in public by pretenders of knowledge. I didn't know what to do and when possible I simply ignored what was being said - hoping (incorrectly as it turned out) that all this would simply go away when the awam tired of it.

On the face of it, the marriage proposal to the khan-i-khanan's son was sound, but so were the fears that it raised. This created a difficult situation. As it turned out that unlike his predecessor, Masood Saheb had many enemies and when the debates became public, knives came out and the blood-letting began. The absence of Agha Sahab and Firdausi was strongly felt, but I wonder if either could have controlled this carnage.

Maulviji now openly led the charge and random mawalis began to contribute to his words. A strain of vituperation entered the debate, and with Altaf Bhai and Asef Mian egging people on, Daddu, Guruji, Thevar, Munir Chacha, and Sikandar Mian became targets of public ire. I don't know what was right, but I felt that after all they had done for the faith - all they got was abuse at the hands of an enraged public stoked by those with vested interests. Daddu, Guruji, Thevar and Sikandar Mian were all forced to defend themselves.

In time the rage subsided, and the faithful returned to the mosque to hear the words of the faith spoken, but the damage was done. Guruji and Daddu faded away. Sikandar Mian continued to work outside Hamid Seth's house but even more quietly than before.

Ajju, Shijju and Kainad bibi retired around the time that Ammi did. Now Ammi and Kainad bibi are planning to spend their retirement studying the faith together or perhaps shopping together in the bazaar - whichever catches their fancy.

And Munir Chacha decided he had enough. Much as he respected Daddu and Guruji, he had joined up to become strong in the faith. Siyasati maamlat were not something that interested him. He could have stayed on if he wanted, but he too left - before his time. No accolades, no parties... nothing. As quietly as he could, he went to his home in the that tiny mountain town to live out the rest of his days with his family.

Perhaps that is why I respect him so much more now.