My friend, Gufran.

There’s a lot more to say about Gufran. For now, I will put here the Mint Lounge column that I wrote last week.

 I could hear her from a distance. My daughter screaming in terror. Or is she squealing with excitement. Possibly both. Areeka, another child, comes running to alert me.
“Maami, Maami…Sahar, Sahar…”
We are visiting Afzal’s parents in their home in Adilabad, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur district. This haveli is a neighbourhood in itself, a sprawling space carved into rooms, corridors, terraces, verandas and enclosed lawns. It is hot and dusty. It will rain soon. I am peeling langda mangoes, my palms dripping sweet, ochre juice.

Dangling a dead lizard in his hand, Gufran, the cook’s son, has just chased our nine-year-old child all around the mango, jamun and guava trees in the inner courtyard.

“My teeth were chattering, Mamma,” a breathless Sahar reports. “My heart was beating really loudly. You better fix this Gufran.”

I hold my child in my arms. Later when she is calm, I try to explain Gufran to Sahar.

“I am not going to scold Gufran,” I tell her. “He is a neglected, abused child who only seems to get any attention when he is naughty. We won’t repeat that pattern with him. Gufran deserves respect. Like every child.”
“Maybe you should write about Gufran,” Sahar says. “Write what you were saying to me about him.”
A hollow laugh escapes me.
I cannot write about Gufran. I suspect I am neither insightful enough nor powerful enough to be able to tell this story. I feel guilty and confused.
Maybe I misjudge myself. It is likely that I am very powerful. There is a false sense of security in inaction. In feeling powerless to change things around us. That lets me off the hook, doesn’t it?

Gufran and I go back many years. When I first entered this home as a bride, Ammi, my mother-in-law, had draped a large chaadar over me. In keeping with tradition, the bride was not to be seen before the formal function, the waleema.

Covered in pink and gold in the middle of a crowd, being able to see nothing but my own feet, I felt like I had walked into a Rahi Masoom Raza novel. That’s when Gufran and I first met. The little brat had crawled through the jungle of adult feet and entered the darkness of the extra-strength veil that covered me. A pair of black eyes beamed at me from near my knees.
“I have seen her. I have seen the dulhaniyan!” announced the three-year-old, beating the entire village to the spectacle that was I.
The next few days were magical and mystifying. Gufran was always there, unofficially the bride’s best friend. When he was not inside my room, leaning on the bedpost, he would climb on to the window ledge from outside, holding on to the grill. Grinning his baby teeth at me.

Gufran’s mother, Hadeesun, is what we would call an awesome cook. She massages newborn babies and post-partum mothers. She is nurse to the sick. She needs a complete medical check-up and possibly long-haul medication for herself.
Gufran’s father is a roadside vendor, selling handkerchiefs and assorted things in Mumbai. I hear about his shifting addresses, footpaths and fortunes in the city.
This boy is not the only Gufran I have met. We see and un-see Gufran everywhere around us. Outside multiplexes, balancing shoeshine boxes on their shoulders. Selling bridal fashion magazines and flimsy toys at traffic lights. In this house it is impossible to ignore Gufran and Hadeesun. This home is not posh enough for physical boundaries between them and us.
Gufran is resourceful and creative. Just like a child. He is disobedient and loud. He sings. He plays with catapults. He loves gadgets, taking apart whatever he can find and trying to make it work.
He needs a good education. Love, attention and positive strokes. His energy attracts me, like a powerful magnet.
What is the difference between Gufran and my children?
When I speak to him about himself, his brashness disappears. I ask him what class he is in. Show me your books. What songs do you know?
Gufran, my friend from many years ago, is no longer used to tenderness. He looks fearful, smiling nervously.
“My real name is Danish. This is my school belt. Take a photo of me,” he says with a Bhojpuri twang. I pat him on his shaved head and get my camera.
In the front veranda of our home in the village, there is a very nice old chair. Gufran chooses this chair to pose for the camera. This is the cook’s son, sitting on the landlord’s chair, flashing his teeth at me. Till a generation ago, women of this house were never seen in this outer courtyard. I am the new woman here. He is the new child here.
I feel strangely triumphant. We book tickets for Hadeesun to come to our home in Delhi to visit a doctor with us.
(As of now, Hadeesun will arrive in Delhi with Ammi and Papa on 11 July, 2012 and stay till July 19. I hope to get a her a check-up from Dr. Dewan. Her younger sister, Taslimun has negotiated permission for her from her husband in Mumbai. Taslimun says that she topped up her phone card and spoke to Hadeesun’s husband for 2 hours to convince him to let her travel to Delhi for a medical check-up.)

A girl like me and a girl like her.

Maine shaadi naheen ki hai. Maine yeh bachcha gode liya hai.

Geet Oberoi stepped back from the counter and raised her voice.

“I have never been married. I have adopted this child.”
This is the passport office in Bhikaji Cama Place in New Delhi. It is nearly time for the counters to close. Geet has been here since 9 in the morning, her fifth visit since August 2011.  9 months later, there is still no clarity. This time, she refuses to leave till she gets a commitment that the government will issue a passport for her seven-year-old daughter, Indya.

“But, madam, the application form is not complete. What is the father’s name?”

“There is no father,” she repeats. “I have never been married. I have adopted this child. The adoption deed is attached with the application.”

“Adoption deed. Ha! Anyone can get an affidavit made,” says the Officer. How do we know you didn’t just pick up the child from anywhere and get a false affidavit made? I want the court order.”

“The court order is also attached with the application,” Geet says. “Here is the original.” The order from the Tis Hazari Court clearly states that she is a single parent adopting a child.

“Oh, this is a legal adoption?” the officer says, looking at the papers, as if for the first time.

He sends her to another desk, then to another room. She is told to wait till they call her name. Then asked to return another day. Everywhere, the same line: “But the father’s name is necessary. He is the guardian.”

I was in my car on the long drive home from work earlier this week, when Geet called me. She has two little children, I have three. Sometimes months go by before we connect with each other.

I first saw Geet on our first day in college. B.A. Psychology Hons., Indraprastha College, DU. She was sitting on the teacher’s table in our small classroom. Big hair. Big voice. Big painted nails. Talking to many girls at the same time.

Bossy, attention seeker, I thought in my head. And put a cross on her. Fortunately for me, she didn’t rule me out. I was right about her being bossy. Despite my I’m-too-good-to-make-friends-with-common-people snobbishness, she made sure we became friends.

Geet made me do ludicrous roles in college skits, playing Michael to her Teja. When I said Library, she wanted Canteen. I would go for Debates, she’d drag me to Fashion Shows.

I used to spend pocket money on second hand books. I hardly ever ate. She would splurge on the moment. In Geet’s company I learnt to eat bread pakodas and sev puri. I cannot pass a gul-gula street vendor, without remembering Geet. Don’t ask me what they are, they are something round one eats with chutney and filed radish. We learnt to take lifts together, in the hot Delhi afternoons.

What is a girl like me doing with a girl like her, I would often think.

I asked Geet about her father. He had died when she was five years old. Her two younger sisters, who are twins, had been two years old. Their mother is an international-level athlete who had held the India record for shotput and discus throw. She became a sports professor in Delhi University. That there is no father is a matter of fact in this family. Nothing more, nothing less. Their youthful father’s photographs are part of every living room they move to.

We finished college and moved on. Higher studies, careers, love lives, homes and travels. (The in between stories of these years is another book. Finding Harleen, attecding her wedding, nursing Rachana to recovery, picking me up from sickbed to attend my own wedding, building homes and businesses…)

Six years ago, I was in my office when Geet called.

“I have brought Indya home,” she said to me.

She was on her way back from the Welfare Home for Children in Delhi. Geet, her mother and her 10 month old daughter had come to a temple nearby. I went to meet them.

All these years later, Geet was in a Khadi kurta and salwar. I was wearing a business suit. Geet was holding Indya on her hip. Tears streamed down my face. Someone has to do the crying bit too, I consoled myself. I took photos.

“It was as if they could not hear me,” Geet is saying to me after her day at the passport office. “I kept thinking that these guys just don’t understand what I am saying.”

“Oh God, I know what is going on here,” I say. “They are just harassing you unnecessarily. We’ll have to find someone who can influence them from above.”

My trained Indian brain scans my memory for “contacts”. Who can we call? Getting a passport made for one’s child is a perfectly legal, simple procedure. All we need is some “influence” to get it done.

“Help me find the word for what I am feeling,” she says to me. “It’s not outrage, not even humiliation. It was as if I was being pushed into a corner and made to apologize for my choices. As if I have done something wrong by adopting my daughters. I just feel very sad.”

Soon she will reach home to her children, Indya and Maya. I didn’t realize it till I started writing this, but in all these years together, Geet has never called me for help before.

A slightly shorter version of this was published in Mint Lounge here.

Literature and Great Cinema

Unlike all you smart people, I cannot read the books and watch the films that you see and review. My brother buys books for me, honouring a silent pact we made in our childhood. He hands me a few new and DVDs everytime we meet. I try to read them sometimes, then keep them safely on shelves.I have a collection of DVDs for when I will have time.

I do have time now, but something else is the matter.

A 12 year old girl’s mother is raped and killed in her employers’ home. The murder is covered up. Her father accepts money to not press charges. The author describes the funeral. A gardener who may have been a witness is distraught and howling. No one pays any attention to him.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif.
I put down the book. I start rocking. I only realize what I am doing after a few minutes.
I’m a writer and a film-maker and this is a strange long pause in my life.