By Uma Sudhir
It is not so often that I feel shocked and close to tears during my reporting assignments. But on Thursday at the Nampally courts in Hyderabad when I saw Papalal burst out in anger and then break down, a defeated man, I felt it is not so easy to stand up against the odds.
“What is my crime? That I brought home a Muslim girl and took care of her as my daughter?” Papalal was asking in anguish.
It was heartbreaking to see his wife Jayshree, 8-months pregnant, carrying three-year-old Ekta, holding the hand of 8-year-old Sonia, all of them crying their heart out, even as policemen stood around looking amused.
Just two days ago when I had met the family, the children had been laughing, playing, even as their father explained how they were being harassed by people in the locality. He had shown me the big stones that were being flung at their home, to terrorise the family. They wanted Papalal to give up the girl who had probably been born to Muslim parents. How could she possibly live with this Hindu family?
Papalal had found the child, when she was hardly four years old, at the Gokul Chat bomb blast site in Hyderabad in August 2007. The child had embraced him tight, terrified by what she saw around her. No one came forward to claim the child, so he took her home.
The child said her Ammi’s name was Fathima and her Abba was Basheer and `donon jal ke mar gaye‘. Thats when Papalal and Jayshree got an inkling that the child was probably born to Muslim parents. It made little difference to the couple. He and his wife Jayshree have been taking care of the child as their own daughter for the last four years. They call her their eldest daughter and named her Anjali.
But when it became known to Muslim groups, they demanded that the child should be handed over to them. Papalal resisted. A Human Rights Law Network lawyer Raheemuddin who volunteered to legally assist the child and family says a prominent Muslim politician summoned the family and asked why Papalal should not give up the child.
“Is it better for the child to grow up in an orphanage rather than with a loving family? Why don’t you first concern yourself with the poor children, roaming around like orphans around the Mecca Masjid,” was the reply. The politician apparently appreciated the point and did not pressurise the family further.
Muslim religious leaders however said the Hindu family could keep the child but she should be brought up as a Muslim. “We don’t make her wear a bindi or do poojas after the Maulana from Delhi told us madam,” Papalal’s wife Jayshree tells me.
Next it was the turn of people from their own community to object to a Muslim girl growing up in a Hindu household, in a predominantly Hindu locality.
Following threats, Papalal approached the State Human Rights Commission who ordered that the police should ensure the safety of the child and family.
Like most things perhaps in the child’s life, being dictated by faceless outsiders, even her name was not given either by her biological parents nor her foster parents. The SHRC advised that she be named Sonia, so the name remains religion-neutral.
But social harassment continued. There was social boycott, the child and family was verbally abused, they would close doors on the child and tell her she did not belong there. Papalal and his wife Jayshree were nicknamed Khan and Begum. Papalal’s professional fortunes took a nosedive. He used to earn his living painting Gods and Goddesses on the walls of HIndu temples. Now they tried to ensure he got no work.
“Whatever the pressure, till our last breath, we will not give up this child. Didn’t Raja Janak find Sita in the soil and the world accepted her as a Goddess. Did anyone ask Sita’s religion? Sonia is a Goddess to us. We were childless for five years. After she came, my wife became pregnant. She will always remain our eldest daughter.”
Papalal’s brother who had initially supported the idea of keeping the child subsequently turned against her, under pressure from community members, who threatened them with social boycott and brainwashed him. There were disputes between the brothers, that led to a physical fight on Thursday night and criminal cases against Papalal, apparently to pressurise Papalal to either give up Sonia or quit the locality and go underground.
I worry about Jayshree, Papalal’s wife, in the third trimester of her pregnancy. What will happen if there is an emergency and Papalal is away in jail and no one in the community dares to go against fundamentalist opinion to come forward and help. Jayshree cries and sheds tears but she is strong in her resolve: “Am sure God will be with us. Nothing will go wrong madam, she reassures me.”
Almost as though to test Jayshree’s resolve, I ask if all this trouble is really worth it. Why don’t they simply agree to give up Sonia?
I look at Sonia. The same eyes that were readily lighting up with a grin the other day were full of tears and fear today. How lonely that little one must feel and how terribly frightening to think that the one love and acceptance she found could be taken away from her. Thankfully, Jayshree’s answer is what I expect it to be and almost involuntarily she reaches out to hold her eldest daughter.