By Satish Purohit
The curious tale of how a Hindu boy committed the Holy Quran to memory, earned a degree in Islamic studies and fell in love and married a Muslim girl.
‘Na main deval, na main masjid,
na Kabe-Kailash mein.’
‘I’m not in the temple or the masjid,
not in the kaba or the kailash.’
A Pathan friend of mine, an Urdu novelist and poet, says Ramesh Mishra is too naive to amount to anything. “You want me to tell it to him on his face?” he asks, his eyes twinkling, mischief written large over his wisened face. “He is too good for his own good. No wonder people take him for a ride. He agrees with everyone and everything. I mean, a man has to disagree with something. It shows you have spine.”
I understand why so many men of the world like my lovable Pathan friend who swears by his faith one instant and pities someone in the other because the poor wretch will never know the glories of quality Scotch, should call Mishra a simpleton.
Mishra has lived with and been around old world people and has made some really daring New Age choices without worrying too much about the consequences. He has gone with the flow and has paid a dear price for it. Seen from a certain perspective, one has to be insanely foolish to live as one thinks right – something Mishra has always done.
Mishra, a Sarayu-Pareen Brahmin, grew up in the Muslim-dominated Gol Deval section of the Null Bazar neighbourhood of Mumbai, and picked enough Urdu, Arabic and Persian on the way to qualify for and earn an Aalim-Fazil degree and memorise the Holy Q’uran. Today, he makes his living from writing screenplays, songs and translating books and articles from Hindi, Marathi and English into Urdu. An Aalim-Fazil is a graduate in Islamic studies and memorising the Q’uran earns one the epithet hafiz – a personage of much respect among Muslims.
“When I look back, I can’t explain why I should have been drawn to Arabic and all things Muslim. I must have been a Muslim in some past life. There is no other way to explain the way my life has shaped up. The pieces just don’t fit otherwise,” says a 50-something Mishra.
We are sitting in a restaurant owned by a Memon Muslim from Gujarat, one of those fast-disappearing places where buying one cup of super sweet tea served in a chipped cup and saucer earns you the right to while away hours discussing this and that.
Mishra begins his tale: “My father Shankar Mishra was an orthodox Hindu who spent hours praying before pictures of deities but was also an amazingly broad-minded person for his time and age. People from our village back in Benaras who were lower in the caste hierarchy visited us in Mumbai. They would be welcomed into the house and served in the same vessels as other family members. The shocked men narrated the tale back home and when the panchayat back home heard of this, they said many mean things about him,” Mishra says.
When he was six, in 1957, he accompanied some of his Muslim friends to the local branch of a reputed Islamic seminary. The kids had to present themselves for the lessons or return home to a beating. “It was a fairly large classroom. Individual faces and names must have been fairly indistinguishable in the gaggle of noisy kids that poured in and out of Maulana Abdul Waheed’s class all day. I was not spotted or questioned for weeks,” explains Mishra.
Maulana Abdul Waheed
“The maulana, may God be kind to him, was in his mid-30s. He was gloriously bald and had a beard and big buck teeth. He stammered. On my first day at the seminary, he recited some passages from the Holy Q’uran and asked his wards to repeat the recitation. I joined in and this is how it all began. I became a regular there,” says Mishra. “I was the one who got the pronunciation right most of the times. A few days into this, the maulana asked me my name. Ramesh Mishra! The cat was out of the bag.”
The surprised teacher called other members of the community who were conversant with the nuances of Arabic. They were surprised to see little Ramesh’s power of recall and his flawless pronunciation. Together, they made a beeline to his house and made a rather unusual request of his father. Would he allow a team of scholars to train his son in Quranic studies for which he had unusual aptitude? “If my father was surprised, he did not show it. He said yes, no questions asked,” Mishra recalls.
The lessons continued uninterrupted and nine months later Mishra had memorised the Quran. “I had a good voice so I could recite like a professional in the fashion that is referred to as kirat-kari. All was well till my brother-in-law visited us. Being my sister’s husband he enjoyed some clout being the jamai of the family. He saw me visiting the madrassa and did not like it. He told my father that he was taking me with him to a town near Benaras. I would get an education that suited the family I was born into. He would not take no for an answer,” Mishra says.
The trip to Benaras was not to bear fruit. Mishra, used as he was to the ways of Mumbai, had a difficult time adjusting to the ways of the small town. A few months after he reached Benaras, his extended family decided to move him to Bhopal with some relatives. He was definitely not going to Mumbai, they decided. There, he began his schooling afresh in Hindi but continued to read Urdu magazines in secret. “In the beginning, it was difficult mastering the Devnagari script. However, I soon overcame that hurdle. I was nine when I wrote a letter in Urdu to the editor of a literary magazine I used to read. They published it and I tasted blood for the first time. I sent a poem I had written and they published that too,” says Mishra.
A colleague of his uncle’s, Rashidbhai, who was an aalim-fazil and a poet, learnt about Mishra and took him to the editor who was shocked to see him. He had expected someone much older. “Rashidbhai also learnt of my command over Arabic and asked me to recite some verses. From then on, he took it upon himself to get me to learn Arabic. He pressed upon my relatives to let me attend the Taj-ul Masajid seminary in Bhopal. They did not care where I went to study as long as I was not getting into trouble.”
|I must have been a Muslim in some past life. There is no other way to explain the way my life has shaped up.|
Four years at the seminary earned Mishra his Aalim-Fazil degree at the age of 13. It was also the time the observant Hindus in his family took fresh umbrage. They had not known what he was doing in Bhopal. “What is it with your son?,” they asked my father, “Why does he keep going Muslim on us?”
Mishra was sent to Benaras again with strict instructions to relatives to do everything to keep him away from anything Muslim. Here he was admitted into Std VIII through ‘influence’ and gradually completed his schooling. In 1968, he landed in Mumbai. “My writing was appreciated but a singer was what I wanted to be. Rafi saab was my idol. Around this time, I began to ghost write songs for the son of a noted lyricist who had the lineage but not the talent. While my singing did not amount to anything, I began to ghost write scripts, one of which was sold by the lyricist’s son without my knowledge. I was hurt and refused to work with the man. He pleaded and tried to pacify me by offering me money. I remained unmoved. He suffered because of my decision and I suffered even more. One of great regrets is not having patched up my relationship with the man,” Mishra says.
Mishra fell in love with a Muslim neighbour around that time. “She was the sister of my mother’s friend. The sister was 16 years younger than her. We met, fell in love and decided to get married. This was 1962. My relatives were horrified. They promptly excommunicated my father from the community. My father surprised me yet again. He did not have one angry word for me. He accepted my decision with amazing grace.”
Mishra had a daughter whom he named Fauzia. A son was born to the couple a few years later. “My father-in-law told me that Allah had been kind to us by giving us Fauzia. Would I let him raise my son? I told him ‘Abba, he is yours’. He has grown up a Muslim.’
In 1990, tragedy struck. Mishra’s wife Razia and his daughter Fauzia died in an accident. “That was the end of a beautiful chapter in my life. Of all my children, Fauzia (Mishra married again, this time to a Hindu Maharastrian and has two sons from his second marriage) was the one who inherited my love for language and my way with words. She was born to a Muslim woman and bore a Muslim name but was an ardent Krishna devotee,” says Mishra.
Mishra says he has little patience with organised religion. “I was born in a Hindu family and have studied Islam very closely. As far as I am concerned, it all boils down to rightful living.
What I respect about Islam is its message of brotherhood and its insistence on purity of body, mind and soul. However that is where it ends for me. My Muslim friends often ask me why I did not embrace Islam. Well, I was not convinced that changing my name or my faith made me a better person,” says Mishra. “However, I am grateful for the gifts that Allah has bestowed upon me. I make my living from the Urdu, Farsi and Arabic I learnt in the madrasas. It is – Allah be praised – what brings bread on the table.”
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