BY ALI PETER JOHN
The Riots of Bombay (it was not Mumbai then) were in full blast. There was no lockdown like there is today, but people were scared of coming out of their homes. The situation was extremely tense. The Riots had grown into a Hindu /Muslim riot and people of both communities had gone berserk and the violence in every place was almost beyond the control of the police, but there were still some police officers (Inspector A.A. Khan was one I remember very vividly ) who faced a blood -thirsty people ,sometimes armed with just a hockey stick . The scenes of those chilling times can still make the blood boil curdle and almost grow cold …….
I was living on Yari(Friendship) Road which was one of the most badly affected places in the city . I lived in one of the older buildings which was called Mom Apartments , which was mostly Muslim dominated and was one of the soft targets of the other community . I was caught in a dicey fix , with a name like Ali Peter John and people who were very closed and even those who lived the same locality and the same building looked at me like they had never before the riots . I suddenly had any number of advisors and sympathisers who asked me only not to leave my house but not to leave the area and they even asked me to send my wife and daughter to my village , Kondivita in Andheri (E) which they said was a very safe place to be in . I refused to let them go and I had a reason.
Let me tell all those who still do not know that I may have a name like Ali in my name (that was because my father was a Muslim, Haroon Ali), but I have always been a Roman Catholic , the religion in which my mother Mary , brought me up as a RC . It was to be very crucial ceremony for my only daughter whose name , Swati I had given out of sheer paternal love , without knowing that she would have to face complications in her life with a name like Swati Ali (Swati was a name that could neither be Catholic or Muslim because for a Catholic to be known as Swati and then to have a surname like Ali was to make thinks only more difficult. My brother Roy Ali , had to also face problems because of his name as Roy was both a Catholic name and a Bengali surname.
The ceremony for which Swati who was only eight had to prepare for more than two months was and is still called Holy Communion which meant the coming of Jesus Christ into the life of a child , which is celebrated in a way which was as good as a wedding .
My wife , Usha (another complication) is very is one who very easily gets panicky . After seeing the situation all over Bombay and especially on Yari Road and in our own building said that there would not be any kind of celebrations , but I was determined to have a celebration because the same occasion would not come in Swati’s life again and I went ahead to plan the celebrating with my friends who were mostly from the film industry and a blend of both Hindus and Muslims , but for whom religion was not a major issue , they believed in humanity more than religion , which I sometimes felt was a believe they had picked up from me or had rubbed in into them because of their being very good friends for years.
I had to invite some of my friends from the industry which had made me whatever I was .I could have invited the entire who’s who of best names, but I invited seniors like my mentor, K.A.Abbas, Ramanand Sagar(whose office at Natraj Studios was the first Industry office I had ever entered and was welcomed like any senior or well -known name , even though I was just a newcomer), Dara Singh and Gulzar among others.
My wife and her friends raised an alarm when they heard the names , Ramanand Sagar and Dara Singh.They knew that Sagar Sahab was the maker of the well-known epic serial , “Ramayan” and Dara Singh was playing Lord Hanuman in it. They had also heard that the serial and Ramanand Sagar were being mentioned often during and between the riots . There was a section of the muslim community that believed that it was the” Ramayan” serial that was responsible in some way for the riots. They asked me to request both Sagar Sahab and Dara Singh not to come for the party that evening for which I had put so much at spake .
Sagar Sahab and Dara Singh arrived in two different cars , but at the same time . There was a hushed silence and for a moment even I felt a little nervous as there were riots still going on just a few minutes away from Mom Apartments .
The silence continued and it was embarrassing for me to see some of my neighbours who had come to the party but slunk into their flats as soon as they saw Sagar Sahab and Dara Singh.
The party continued and Sagar Sahab made it a point to first to wish Swati and her mother there was hissed silence again when Sagar Sahab lifted Swati in his arms and blessed her , followed by the World champion in wrestling Dara Singh .
It was only the beginning. It was soon time to cut the celebration cake the tension around was palpable and there was a little hesitation. Sagar Sahab who had seen the world realised it and took an unexpected initiative.
He decided to stand by Swati, my wife and me and encouraged Swati to cut the cake . But the highlight and also the most tense moment was when Sagar Sahab the man who many were still looking at with mixed reactions surprised everyone by deciding to raise the toast which meant that he would carry a piece of cake and a small glass of wine in both his hands and say something good to bless Swati , my wife and me . It was a ritual that is normally done by the head of the family or a senior relative or well-wisher of the family . In that one gesture , Sagar Sahab had changed the entire atmosphere into party.
Dara Singh again followed Sagar Sahab in raising a second toast . It was something that had never happened in a Catholic celebration , two senior men who were staunch Hindus and who had made headlines with a Hindu serial like “Ramayan” taking part in a fully Catholic Celebration . There were murmurs and whispers in the small crowd and the first man to embrace Sagar Sahab and Dara Singh was Gulzar who was a man of words , but who said what he wanted to say to the two great men without saying a word. He was paying his tribute to them for their noble gesture which proved that they were true believers in humanity more than any religion to make matters more interesting (Scary for some) the great men also had their drinks and dinner with all the other guests.
The news of what was happening at Mom Apartments spread all around and soon there were policemen outside the gate and it was Sagar Sahab who went up to them and told them to leave as there was no fear of any kind of untoward happening at this party and certainly not because of him or Dara Singh.
The panic was still seen on some faces as some man with menacing looks arrived from nowhere and before anything could happen, Sagar Sahab and Dara Singh walked through this crowd and they were silent and moved away. Sagar Sahab and his” Hanuman” took one more bold step when they walked all the way to the main gate without any fear and while people just kept looking at them as a they were guest from another planet . That was one evening when I realised that a few gestures could work greater wonders for communal harmony than all the preachings , sermons and the books written by holy and not so holy men and women .