Not a mere Billi

A few months after the communal riots in Delhi last year, I ended up doing something that I never have before — I went to Shaheen Bagh. I now do it regularly, and am greeted fondly by Muslims and Hindus alike. The only change is that I now go with a cat that was born there

Not a mere Billi

I have a cat. Her name is Ballu, though my wife Anjali calls her Bella. Ballu has yellow eyes with black specks. She has four legs and one rather long, black tail. Yes, she is jet black, except for her tongue and paws, which are a very bright pink. She has a tiny white spot on her tummy, but I have assured her that it will soon become black too, and she concurs, letting out a rather contented purr. Ballu has two ears, two eyes and a very small nose.

Ballu also has... STOP!

I would love to go on with more affectations, for this is getting quite romantic and Ballu is loving it, but this creed-fed essay is over. Because Ballu is far more than just soft fur, sharp claws, fangs and a tail... Why? Well, because she is a Muslim, and no ordinary one. Barely a few months old, little Ballu has already got people from different communities to bond, even dance without a care, as only we in India can, with gay and shameless abandon. How did Ballu do this? Well, other than the fact that she meows quite cutely, she is also a very strict disciplinarian. When angry, she claws, gnaws and hisses.

It is this clawing, gnawing and hissing that are striking a chord with communities and bringing people together. Why? Well, Ballu.

Her human birth mother, Shazia Didi, is a gem, a wonderful lady in Shaheen Bagh. Months after the riots and shindig last year came the lockdown. Shazia Didi, a cat-lover beyond compare, grudgingly agreed to give up one of her cat babies for adoption when the lockdown was over. A few days later, a little black demon was mine. Her Chintu became my Ballu, and opened up a brave new world. It also opened up some misty eyes. Why? Well, Ballu.

More than a kitten

Ballu is not just a kitten, she is a choreographer too. Even in these still Coronavirus times, people see her back home in Shaheen Bagh for an hour every fortnight near the Tayyab Masjid (mosque). Here, Ballu meets her human birth mother, and people waiting for her celebrate, pet her, even dance—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians alike. Yes, safe distancing is maintained, but I somehow can't stop them from rejoicing over a cat that is returning to her mom's for a nanihaal visit. An hour of rejoicing later, I return to my South Delhi home, full of kebabs, love and affection. Why? Well, Ballu.

Before the little kitty became mine, I didn't know Shazia Didi or anyone else at Shaheen Bagh. I had only seen a few of them on television, squatting on the road in protest. Now, thanks to Ballu, I have been to Shaheen Bagh many a time. And I have made more than a few friends, some admirers, and a mélange of brethren. Why? Well, Ballu.

In India, only cricket has the same intrinsic ingredients to bring about human togetherness and celebration, forcing us to leave aside our ingrained bitterness for a few minutes—as we do when a Kohli or Afridi or Bravo or ABD hit a six or a four. Or when a Bumrah, Broad, Allan Donald or Stark break the stumps. How did I figure this out? Well, Ballu.

Muslim cat — really?

A cat is a cat is a cat. Right? Well, no. For the times are a-changing. The Ballus of the world are becoming increasingly special. Why? Because felines like Ballu are more than just a little ball of fur; and the way they make people connect is a manifestation that all is still well where it really counts, regardless of what we see on television and certain sections of the media. For a moment, forget all the sordid things that we are bombarded with in certain media outlets, and remember things that truly matter, things that we grew up with, the fond memories of growing up in peace and harmony.

Ballu does that for me and some others, the new friends I have made in Shaheen Bagh—like Imtiaz Bhai, Maulana ji, Ravi Shekhar, Ismail and Anurodh. It's a long list, and growing.

Clearly, the normal person on the ground remains rooted, meeting and greeting people with simple human respect and decency. Like when I first parked my car outside Shaheen Bagh's narrow, winding streets to pick up Ballu. A Maulana saahib went out of his way for over a kilometer to guide me to the Tayyab Masjid and waited with me for 20 minutes, till a sobbing Shazia Didi came with the tiny Chintu (now my Ballu), and trusted me with her little one. As I cradled Ballu in my arms for the first time, my peripheral vision caught at least 20 people of a different cloth, eyeing me with distrust, for I had deigned to pick up one of their own, dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt.

Unique phenomenon

Today, a few months later, things have changed dramatically. Most of those very same 20 wait for me on alternate Sundays, when I take Ballu to Shaheen Bagh to re-appear in their lives for a bit. Yes, Ballu still hisses, gnaws and claws. Why? Well, Ballu. She is a kitten, after all. And as Shazia Didi plays with the kitten now fast turning into a cat, it happens; "Chai, Rajeev bhai, aur thoda nashta" (tea, brother, and some snacks). If I try to decline, they take offence, and over some months, I have learnt to stop declining. Of course, the chai soon escalates to kebabs, roomali rotis and korma. It turns into a real party, with a sullen and deprived Ballu watching with naked disdain and anger.

And this is the true moral of life; tolerance and camaraderie, regardless of caste, creed or religion. Tolerance needs to be a moral imperative, since intolerance is really bad for our character and for society as a whole. Religion is a matter of faith, of belief, not of evidence. Even Wikipedia throws up an interesting explanation, saying multiculturalism is a word that describes a society where many different cultures live together; it is the simple fact of cultural diversity.

In a multicultural society, there is not an official culture that every person must be a part of. Instead, all cultures are respected as much as each other. Tolerance is a big help for multiculturalism, and xenophobia makes it difficult. A multicultural society is composed of people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures living and working together. India has always been

one such society, and the few rips that have appeared in this fabric due to various factors need to be mended fast and prevented from recurring.

We need more Ballus

The fact of the matter is that we need more Ballus, more intermediaries with no personal or vested interests. Unfortunately, the last couple of decades have seen the birth of many with an opposite bent of mind, people who have deliberately and viciously driven a wedge between communities to further their own narrow agenda, be it political parties and organizations, conniving individuals or self-proclaimed sects, swamis, babas and bhakts.

These people have fractured our beliefs and thinking to a great extent, causing a dangerous divide in society. Some of them now do so shamelessly and blatantly, even when there is media presence and cameras are pointing at them. In fact, I have witnessed and heard shocking statements and outbursts from such people, especially when there are cameras looking their way. In their quest to achieve their

narrow personal goals and objectives, they are turning a blind eye to the tremendous damage they are causing in India, which has always been a nation that has symbolized large-scale tolerance and togetherness.

And finally, let me end this rant with a beautiful quote from Joseph Campbell—"Every religion is true (in) one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble."

The writer is a communications consultant and a clinical analyst.

Views expressed are personal

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