If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 7 April 2017

Noor Mohammed and other Indian Muslims

I didn’t think there would be a direct bus from the Old Airport Road to my home. So, I boarded one for Marathalli, a junction on the way, where you could find a bus to anywhere in the world.

The conductor is a charming young woman in uniform: a khaki jacket over a khaki sari – only sarkari babus can have the imagination to contemplate a khaki sari! I am sure the girl hates it.

And why khaki for all so-called low level jobs? It’s a kind of apartheid, isn’t it? If I was the chairman of BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation), I would introduce bright orange uniform with floral designs for women employees, and dark blue shirts with paisleys for men, like those my fashion icon Nelson Mandela used to wear.

My meditation is interrupted by the woman in khaki as she approaches me for ticket. She has a good look at my head and issues a senior citizen ticket for ₹14. It doesn’t matter these days, but even a few years ago, I would have been mildly irritated to have been bracketed with oldies. Alas! Time changes. And I guess I got a concession of 30%.

I secretly thanked BMTC (Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation) for the compassion, although, thanks to an accident of my birth in a certain social milieu, I belong to the microscopic minority of Indians for whom six rupees means nothing. But it does matter to most, particularly those who are on the outskirts of a physically active life.

Looking for an auto rickshaw, I met a fellow senior citizen who looked at least twenty years older than me. He asked me for a reasonable amount, but I haggled a bit out of sheer habit. And more importantly, because I think of senior-citizen concessions only when I am a potential beneficiary.

Noor Mohammed had completely gray hair and a seven-day stubble. He looked quite frail and I wondered how he managed to drive an auto rickshaw in the hot summer in Bangalore traffic. In India, it is politically correct to ask a man’s age, and so I asked, ‘How old are you, Noor Mohammed?’


‘That means you are exactly my age!’, He didn’t notice the touch of surprise in my voice. And I continued with the small talk, ‘Where do you live in Bengaluru?’

‘I don’t live in Bengaluru, I am from Ramanagara, a distance of three-four hours.’

‘Ramanagara? Where Sholay was shot?’

‘Yes’, he replied tersely. He obviously didn’t care much for the fame conferred upon his hometown by Sholay, or for that matter, David Lean’s Passage to India.

‘Then how come you are here?’

‘I don’t have children. I have a foster daughter. She is 21. Bees aur ek.’ After a pause, he repeated as if from far away, ‘Bees aur ek. She has a hole in her heart. So, we brought her here and put her in a hospital. My wife too is in the hospital. The doctors are doing some tests. By this evening, they will tell us when the surgery will happen. She was an orphan. … My wife and I brought her up since she was this small’, he took his left hand off the clutch lever and put the straightened palm about six inches above the floor. ‘What can I do now? Throw her away?’

He seemed to read the unasked question in my mind, and continued, ‘We are staying with some distant relatives here. They have this auto rickshaw. They asked me to drive it and earn something. Bahut achche aadmi hai woh log.’

Of course, they are wonderful people. I ask, ‘How much will the surgery cost?’

‘A lakh and seventy-six thousand. I have a little bit. For the rest, I’ll take a loan. … maybe, I’ll ask the people with whom I'm staying. Udhar le lenge.’

I was not surprised. The poor in India have a unique social security network where they help each other to tide over crises. Only recently, our domestic help asked for a small loan as she had to send ₹30,000 (roughly her three months’ earnings) to her sister in Delhi. Her sister is taking a house on rent and needs the cash to pay security deposit.

The calm fortitude with which the poor in India faces financial turmoil is amazing. Noor Mohammed’s daughter is in hospital, she needs a life-saving surgery, he doesn’t have the money, and he isn’t sure who he can approach for a loan. But at least on the surface, he is completely unfazed. He hopes to get a loan. Period.

Noor Mohammed is not an exception. He is the rule. The poor slog it out to earn two meals a day and a roof over their head. The unique phase in life called retirement that some people have between work life and death doesn’t exist for them. They invariably age prematurely and die uncomplainingly when the time comes.

If a hole is discovered in the heart of a child, they will try their best to fill it. But if they can’t, so be it. They will accept it gracefully. I recall Ajijul, a mason in Kolkata, who told me – as if he was giving me information about a distant cousin – that his oldest son and principal assistant in work had died in an accident a few weeks ago. That boy too, incidentally, was 21. Bees aur ek.


Noor Mohammed’s daughter would have all the dreams that a girl like her would. A loving husband, children, a little less of drudgery and insecurity, and a little more comfort and stability.

Please join me in wishing her all the very best.


In normal times, I wouldn't add this. But today, I feel compelled to.

Life is not easy for the poor in India. And countless authentic statistics tell us that a huge majority of the 17 crores (170 m) Indian Muslims are much more like Noor Mohammed and Ajijul, and much less like Mr. Azim Hashim Premji, an Indian industrialist near the top of the Forbes list of rich people. 

Let me also ask a question to some of my friends who are educated and compassionate and love the present BJP regime: How does it feel to be poor in India? And how does it feel, on top of it, to live in the fear that any day, protectors of cows might lynch you to avenge the death of a cow that never died?

Friday, April 7, 2017 

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