Razia Bi alias Sunita Jadhav alias Penny D’Souza was a shrewd woman. No one would guess it looking at her face. She was tiny, plain, her hair tied up in a tight bun. Her face was so insignificant that she could switch identities at will. She was anyone, and no one. The only distinctive features in her face were her eyebrows. Black, arched like impetuous question marks flung into space, quivering over tiny, brown bead eyes.
She wore faded cotton saris. Un-starched, wound tightly around her wiry frame, she seemed ready to catapult into action every moment. She was not a criminal by nature, but had learned to switch roles with ease, tell lies with impunity, and yet sleep with an easy conscience. She was not thick-skinned, just that she was so tired by the end of the day, and the hours of sleep so short anyway, she did not have to woo sleep.
Anyway, she did not even think she was committing any crime. It was hard work, she did. Very hard work. And she didn’t even get paid enough most of the time, but that’s the way of the world.
She had forgotten even when she started on this life of aliases. Perhaps, it was the fat, very fat woman with her diamond earrings, on a huge swing, suspended in the living room. The swing did not swing at all with the fat lady’s weight. She looked her up and down, and suddenly asked, “What’s your name? You’re not a Muslim, I hope.” She stood still for a moment, then glibly said, “My name is Sunita. I’m a …”. The fat lady held up a fat imperious hand. “Your caste doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not a Muslim.” She got the job, though she didn’t keep it for very long. The house was huge, and had to be mopped twice a day, her back hurt, and the fat lady was stingy.
But after that, it seemed to her, that wherever she went, people asked her what religion she belonged to. She learnt smoothly to be a Muslim with a Muslim family, a Catholic with Christians, a Hindu with Hindus. Her faded saris and faded silver chain around her neck, green glass bangles on her arms did not brand her and she was safe.
The slum where she lived had the poor of all religions; they were the same in their poverty, and the same in their joy in festivals. She knew the nuances of most religions more than the people she worked for, and it was easy for her to pretend that she was fasting during Ramzan, that she was going to be busy making sweetmeats for Diwali, that she was observing Lent, or that her son wanted a new shirt for Christmas.
As the years went by, she herself forgot who she was, her real name, her real religion. Living became more and more expensive, and her weariness did not satisfy her needs. She did not see or hear the unrest around her. She did not see the houses in her slum re-align into communal groups. She crossed the dirty lanes, the smelly ‘naallah‘s, and the tiny hovels absentmindedly every day, not noticing the hostile glares, the muttered grumbles.
When the rioters came to her house, she looked at them curiously. They had swords and iron rods and burning torches, their faces were distorted with cruelty, but she did not know what they wanted of her. They asked her name, she looked at them as she did her prospective employers, wondering what answer they wanted her to give. Were they Hindus, or Muslims, or Catholics? Who should she be – Razia Bi, or Sunita Jadhav or Penny D’Souza? Her confusion kept her silent. Her silence saw her dead.
* naalah – gutter