The convocation had ended, the participants and the visitors were dispersing from the venue. Among them were Feroz and his parents. He guided them through the crowd, intermittantly pausing to stretch his neck back to trace Sandhya, who was a few yards behind them with her parents. He halted at the car park and ushered his parents into his car. Sitting in the car he waited observing through the side mirror for Sandhya to enter her car and occupy the seats. He started the car and Sandhya followed him in her car, maintaining the safety distance.
“Where are we going?” His mother Noreen asked, seated next to him in the front seat.
“To the restaurant,” he replied.
“Should we offer the proposal there?” His father Akram asked.
“Yes please,” he replied.
“What is the hurry? Why don’t you wait for another year or so?” Noreen questioned.
He remained silent, he loved his mother and avoided arguements with her as much as he could.
“Papa, please remember not to bring up any sentimental issues,” he said after a while. They had discussed it at length and he had convinced them that all other matters barring the proposal should be left to him to sort out.
“OK, you are the boss,” Akram smiled and replied.
They had reached the restaurant and he was lucky to find a parking space without much ado. He had reserved a table for six people and the usherer escorted his parents to it while he remained waiting for Sandhya and her parents to fetch up. The restaurant was crowded with every table occupied and the noise level too was quite high.
“Come, follow me,” he told Sandhya as they entered from the door. The introduction formalities between their prents were completed earlier before the commencement of the convocation, it was now time for them to get a bit more familiar with one another across the table. The waiter arrived promptly to take their order, Sandhya and Feroz chose the dishes and the drinks which they and their parents liked. They ate more or less in silence, interspersing with customory mundane conversation. Most of the talking was by Akram, who after consuming the dessert, cleared his throat and looking at Atul, Sandhya’s father, spoke out modulating his voice in soft and humble undertone, even though the table was well secluded and at some distance from the rest.
“Atul Ji, we like your family. Feroz and Sandhaya have been together for the past two years. We have learnt from them that they love each other and want to get married. Feroz has asked me to request you and Asha bahen to give your blessings. Noreen and I will be delighted to have Sandhya beti in our family,” Feroz said.
For a moment Atul felt his heart sink and his mind blocked. He looked at Sandhya and Usha. He bent his head and closed his eyes and kept silent.
“No, never,” Usha his wife, blurted out.
Atul held her palm and pressed it. He looked at Akram with a smile and glanced towards Feroz and Sandhya.
“I agree with Usha. I can not agree. I am not in a position to give my blessings, it is just not possible,” Atul said.
“Is it because of my religion?” Feroz asked.
“Yes, that is the only reason,” Atul said.
“What if I have no religion?” Feroz asked.
Atul looked away and did not reply.
“For me my religion is a totally personal affair. I am Muslim because I was born as one. Whether I follow it is entirely up to me. If I believe in God, it is me and me alone who will answer to Him. It is me alone who will burn in hell or enjoy heavenly delights. No one else will help me or guide me. So what difference does it make to anyone if I follow a particular religion?” Feroz spoke at length.
“What about Sandhya? Will she remain a Hindu, after you marry her?” Atul asked Feroz.
“It is entirely up to her,” Feroz replied.
“I will accept my husband’s decision. I have to spend my life with him and his family members,” Sandhya interjected.
“But he is a Muslim and they are terrorists, who kill non believers” Usha said in a firm voice.
“Yes mummy I have been a friend to a terrorist and a killer for the past two years. A terrorist who took care of me when I was sick, who made notes for me when I could not attend classes, who protected me from those who wanted to bespoil me, who helped me in my dissertation so that I could get my degree and some one who was always with me when I, a lonely girl in a foreign country thosands of miles away from you, needed company and care,” Sandhya said and paused. She looked towards her father with pleading eyes expecting him to be reasonable and caring.
“Papa, you are an IAS officer and have worked with many juniors, coleagues and senior Muslim officers. How many of them were terrorists? Were their family members terrorists? Can you name any one Muslim terrorist that you have come across so far ?” Sandhya asked her father.
“I have personally not come across any Muslim terrorists. However, there have been a number of acts of terrorism performed by Muslim insurgents. They have targeted churches, temples, killed many innocents and destroyed many properties,” Atul replied.
“How many? A few individuals, a group whose members inspired by foreign terrorist organization, home born developed groups bent on taking revenge due to actions taken by the Government agencies which caused them sufferings and pain,” Sandhaya remarked.
“What about Kashmir? The Muslim terrorists are bleeding our Defence Forces. Every day there is an encounter,” Atul said.
“They are Muslims from a country which has been our enemy since our independence. They are killing more Kashmiri Muslims, their own religious people. I do not want to remind you of the killings and destruction caused by Hindu groups and organizations. Are they terrorist? Will we term them as Hindu terrorists?” Sandhya spoke in a soft voice.
“Sir, I love your daughter and will keep her happy. I respect you and hope and pray that you will permit us to get married. I assure you that forever, I will remain your humble and sincere well wisher,” Feroz said and got up.
On cue all of them left their chairs and followed Feroz towards the exit. The waiter returned the credit card to Feroz at the counter. They shook hands, bid adieu and drove off in their cars to their appartments.
Feroz lay awake, pondering at the dinner proceedings. He was dissapointed and dejected; he had not expected such open and raw antagonism. His thoughts went back to his first meeting with Sandhya. His cousin’s sister was in her final year in the same college and Sandhya shared the apartment. Late one night she rang up requesting him to come to her apartment immediately. On reaching, he found her applying wet cloth on the forehead of a girl lying on the bed.
“She has had a very high fever for the past six hours. After I gave her Tylenol, it came down a bit. She has to be taken to the hospital emergency. My exams are tomorrow, I have to burn the midnight oil. Can you do it?” she asked.
He collected her identificatin details, carried her to his car and dropped her on the back seat.
At the hospital he had to wait for a considerable period before the doctor was free to attend to her. After various tests were conducted it was found that she was suffering from mild pneumonia. She was shifted to a bed in the ward under the care of the night nurse. It was in the early hours of the morning he returned to his room and hit the bed without changing his clothes.
To be continued …..