By Jamuna Rangachari
An inspiring story of an uncommon man and his extraordinary adopted parents
The boy was waiting with his little sister for their mother. Their mother had asked them to wait at the entrance to the temple while she went to finish some shopping.
It seemed ages since she went. Whatever could have happened? Thankfully, his sister went off to sleep on the steps; otherwise she could have become very cranky.
They had come to Srirangam, their hometown, for Grandpa’s 60th birthday which was to be celebrated in a grand way. His father, cousins and other relatives were to arrive after a couple of days. It was pretty boring here – he should have come with his father, he thought.
He sat down near the steps beside his sister and waited impatiently.
“What are you doing here?” a man asked sternly.
“Just waiting,” answered the boy, a little nervously.
Another man passing by said, “Come on, relax. He is not doing any harm.”
Then, turning towards the boy, he asked “Are you waiting for someone? You look a bit worried.”
The man was tall and muscular. He was wearing a long kurta and churidar. The boy noticed he had put on very unusual slippers. The slippers were wooden with just a button-like projection to hold the toes. The boy remembered seeing such slippers somewhere, but could not recollect exactly where.
“I’m waiting for my mother, she went to a shop, asking me to wait here with my sister and said she would come back in ten minutes. It is now past half an hour,” the boy answered worriedly.
“These shops are sometimes very crowded. Don’t worry, she will soon be back. Till that time, I will wait with you,” the man said, and offered the boy some peanuts.The boy hesitated. He wasn’t sure whether he should accept these. “No, thank you,” he said.“Hello Ramprasad,” a person called out, and the man turned around and waved.“Is your name Ramprasad?” the boy asked.“Yes,” he smiled. “I am Ramprasad Sheikh; and what is your name, young man?”
“Siddharth Iyengar,” said the boy, pleased at being called “young man”.It suddenly struck Siddharth that the man’s name was very odd indeed. “What an odd name, uncle, a Hindu first name with a Muslim surname!” he exclaimed. “Yes, it is odd, isn’t it? Well, there is a story associated with my life,” said Ramprasad.“Do tell me,” said Siddharth Ramprasad smiled and began, “Tell me, have you heard of Gandhiji?”“Of course, Gandhiji is the father of our nation,” said Siddharth, recollecting where he had seen those types of slippers. “Hey, now I remember. The slippers you are wearing are just like Gandhiji’s. I saw this in a book,” he told Ramprasad.
“Good observation. Gandhiji had very few belongings. One of them were these kind of slippers. My father was with Gandhiji when he went to Kolkata after our country was divided into India and Pakistan. Hindus and Muslims were fighting with each other. A Hindu man came to Gandhiji and asked, ‘You expect me to forgive the Muslims. My little boy has been killed by Muslims. Do you expect me to forget that? How do I forget my pain?’ “Gandhiji said to him, ‘If you really wish to overcome your pain, find a young boy, just as young as your son was, a Muslim boy whose parents have been killed by Hindu mobs. Bring up that boy like your own son, but bring him up as a Muslim like his parents. Only then will you find that you can heal your pain, your anger, and your longing for retribution.’
“You see, Gandhiji knew that it was not any religion which was bad, but it was the evil in people which was bad. “My father was a great admirer of Gandhiji. He was thinking of adopting a child at that time as he was childless. My father was deeply moved by Gandhiji’s advice to the Hindu man, and decided to adopt a Muslim child and raise him as a Muslim.”
Ramprasad paused for a while and then continued, “My original name was Iqbal Sheikh. My father stuck to his resolution to bring me up as a Muslim. He arranged for a tutor to teach me the Quran, and I was made to recite my namaz without fail.
“My mother was a wonderfully loving person. She accepted me completely. She called me Ramprasad or a gift given by Lord Rama.
“Naturally, I was part of the Hindu pujas at home. My mother used to sing melodious bhajans, and told me many wonderful stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
“I really consider myself a Hindu and a Muslim. When I am required to fill in my religion in certain forms, I fill it as Hindu and Muslim,” said Ramprasad.
“It must be hard, being both a Hindu and a Muslim?” Siddharth said, fascinated by his story.
“There is no problem in following both the faiths. But I have had to answer, ‘Who am I?’ all through my life. You see, people want to classify everyone; on the basis of the language they happen to speak, the colour of their skin and in their minds, the most important one, their religion. As I defy the normally accepted rules of this classification, most people have been uncomfortable with my name. It was frustrating to be viewed as an object of curiosity all the time. At one stage, I wanted to change back my name to either fully Muslim or fully Hindu,” Ramprasad said, and became a bit pensive.“And…?” Siddharth prompted.
”I still remember the day I told my parents about it. Both of them became very quiet when I told them I was not too happy as Ramprasad Sheikh.
“My mother said, ‘Do what your heart tells you, my son. To me, you will be my Ramprasad. No one can stop me from calling you that.’
“My father said, ‘Ramprasad, we in India greet everyone with a namaste. Do you know what it means?’ I did not know then. “My father explained that ‘Namaste’ means, the God in me welcomes the God in you.”
“Such a small word means so much?” Siddharth asked, astonished. “Yes, it is funny how the words we use most frequently are the ones least understood,” continued Ramprasad. “My father said, ‘In India, we believe that there is God in each of us, and all religions are equally respected. That is the tradition of this land, the heritage that we have inherited. You and your name are symbolic of this India. Do you have the courage to carry that on your shoulder, or will you change your name because some people are confused about it?’”
“So, you decided to stick to Ramprasad Sheikh?” Siddharth prompted, again.“Yes, my father’s words hit home. Now, I am travelling through India, discovering her in my own way. “In doing so, I have realised that, in our country, it was the act of worship that was considered sacred. Who or how, one chose to worship never mattered. A classic example of this is right here, in Srirangam. There is a goddess here, Thullukka Nachiyar, have you heard of her?” asked Ramprasad.
“No, but the name sounds as interesting as yours – Thulluka means Muslim, and Nachiyar, (Hindu) goddess in Tamil. I know that,” Srinivas replied.“Smart fellow. Naturally, her name being what it is, this Muslim-Hindu goddess is close to my heart!”Siddharth’s sister got up. “Where is Amma?” she asked, rubbing her eyes. “She will come soon,” said Ramprasad and kneeled down.“What is your name, my child?” he asked her.“Suchitra,” she said. “Suchitra, would you like to know the story of a princess?” “Yes, I love stories,” she said “There once was a Muslim princess, whose father had taken away a Vishnu idol from the temple here.” “This temple?” Suchitra enquired, pointing to the dome. “Yes, this one,” Ramprasad confirmed. “Idol is something like a doll?” asked Suchitra “Yes, something like that.” “I guessed that – because idol sounds like a doll,” said Suchitra, happy that her guess was right.
Ramprasad smiled and continued, “You are as smart as your brother. Now, the princess fell in love with the idol. Then the priests of the temple had a dream which told them where the idol was. They came to take it away. The princess was very upset as she did not want to part with it, but she had to give it away as the priests wanted it back. The princess could not live without the idol and so, came here, to the temple of Srirangam and “disappeared” into the image of Lord Vishnu. Since then, she is considered a great devotee and is worshipped here in this temple as Thullukka Nachiyar.”
“Then I can see her?” Suchitra asked.“Of course,” replied Ramprasad.Almost immediately, the children’s mother arrived. “I am so sorry, I got lost in the maze of shops. Are you okay,” she asked the children.Both children replied at once. “Amma, this uncle was sitting and talking with us. He has told us so many interesting things,” said Siddharth. “Amma, let us go to see Thullukka Nachiyar,” said Suchitra. “Wait. One at a time,” said the children’s mother. She turned towards Ramprasad.“Namaste,” said Ramprasad folding his hands and the children’s mother did the same. Siddharth smiled.
NB: The temple of Srirangam is situated near Trichinapalli, a town in Tamil Nadu, South India. It is one of the most important temples of Lord Vishnu. The story of the Muslim Princess (Thullukka Nachiyar) is true and the temple still has a painting of that princess on the wall in her honour. Extracted from One, a collection of short stories on religion published by Rupa & Co
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