Filmmaker and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s book My Daughters’ Mum chronicles her life as a journalist, wife and mother. Written with a rare honesty, insight and humour, it also touches upon the problem of everyday discrimination in modern India. Here is an excerpt published with permission from Simon & Schuster.
My husband Afzal was going to be in Amritsar for a night and I offered to book a room for him online. Besides the fact that I am a good person and like to be helpful, this also ensured that I could spend some time being online, without him accusing me of wasting my time on the Internet.
My husband is an old-fashioned man who still believes that there is a boundary between the online and offline world. I, as you may know, like to see myself as being trendy, if not a trendsetter.
‘Find me something old-world, something classy and charming in Amritsar,’ he said.
‘I doubt I will find anything like that in Amritsar,’ I replied.
Unlike me, Afzal is not a realist. He can imagine anything anywhere.
I am not only practical, but I am also very efficient when I receive instructions. I found a homestay with an elegant website, photographs of luminous curtains, enchanting dark wood furniture and an aesthetic feel that was minimalistic – all of which made me think that this would be a very expensive place to book.
I showed the photos to Afzal and no such thought occurred to him. He asked me to book it, and immediately began to fantasize about a second visit when all of us would stay together in those large rooms.
‘People with homes of this sort probably don’t like children occupying their property,’ I told him. ‘We will have to speak in whispers.’
The difference between Afzal and me is that he is a dreamer and I am khadoos – a grouch.
I dialled the number mentioned on the website and my call was answered by a very gracious, polite voice—by the woman who was the owner of the homestay. I spoke in my most courteous manner to match hers. She had grown children who had moved away and now there was this big house. The homestay ensured her husband and she had company every now and then, and the money that trickled in helped maintain the estate.
I agreed with everything she said. We discovered common friends and nostalgic connections with Pondicherry and the Aurobindo Ashram. She told me of the room charges. She said my husband could pay when he arrived; a room would be ready for him.
‘Money is not important, people are important,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course,’ I replied. She gave me the number of the caretaker who would answer the door if she wasn’t there. Everything about our conversation was positive and warm. It offered the instant high that many online chats and phone exchanges do – when we seem to connect with strangers who reaffirm our faith.
Finally, as the conversation drew to a close, I mentioned my husband’s name to her to confirm the booking.
After that, the lady stopped sounding very articulate. I wasn’t quite sure what had happened as I hung up.
I dialled her number half an hour later and directly asked the question that troubled me. ‘I felt some hesitation on your part before I ended our last call,’ I said.
‘No, it’s not that,’ she replied. ‘I want you to make a full payment in advance via an online bank transfer.’
‘Is there a problem because you heard a Muslim name?’ I asked.
‘We have to be careful, you know. My husband and I had some Muslim friends ourselves. It’s not that we don’t like Muslims. You know how the world is these days.’
She then told me an elaborate story about a Muslim woman who had come to stay as a guest, borrowed some money from her and later duped the family. She was concerned that she had to share information about her guests with the local police and she would have to answer awkward questions if Afzal stayed. She said that her husband wasn’t well enough to take charge and she was worried.
I told her I would call her back. This is when I discovered the real difference between Afzal and me.
I narrated the episode to him. I told him that there was no reason to stay with people who regarded him with suspicion because they equated Muslims with terrorists and con men.
Afzal insisted that he would stay with this couple with a posh accent and an elegant house in Amritsar.
While I had immediately written them off, Afzal was sure that he wished to engage with them. Whereas I felt snubbed, he was calm. He told me to make the advance payment online. ‘It is important for this woman to meet me, Natasha,’ he said. ‘What good will it do if we get offended and start fighting with people? How will we deal with those who are really dangerous if we don’t face up to those who are our own?’
‘Look, I will book you a really fancy room somewhere else,’ I said, now feeling rash enough to suppress the voice that said this move was a waste of money.
‘This woman at the homestay needs to meet people like me,’ Afzal argued. ‘Trust me, I have studied in Tilak Dhari Singh Chhatri Inter College in Jaunpur, a senior school for upper-caste Hindu boys. I was the only Muslim in my batch. Boys would search for me just to see what I looked like. The son of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader in the city became my best friend. He took me under his wing to protect me. Eventually I became the favourite student of the teachers.’
‘So you think this lady will see your beautiful face and twinkling eyes and feel better about the world?’
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘I’m sure she has a beautiful, antique porcelain tea set. I want to have tea with this couple. It will be charming.’
The difference between Afzal and me is that while I spend a lot of time worrying about the state of the world, this man always has a good cup of tea on his mind.