And Baby Mariyam misses Khalid Saifi

By Ajaz Ashraf  / Mid Day

The sparkle of Nargis’s gold nose stud cannot match that of her smile, which imparts a cheery glow to the conversation we are having in her third-floor apartment in Delhi’s Khureji Khas locality. We are discussing her husband Khalid Saifi, a founder of United Against Hate, who languishes in the Capital’s Mandoli Jail. At the centre table is Mariyam, 8, busy doing her homework. Nargis’s sons—Yasa, 13, and Taha, 12—are away at a boarding school in Kerala. I point to Mariyam, with trepidation, and Nargis smiles and says, “She has seen everything.”

On February 26, 2020, the Delhi Police picked up Khalid from the Khureji Khas sit-in against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Next morning, Nargis went to meet him at Mandoli Jail. He was brought to her in a wheelchair, with both legs plastered, two fingers broken and tufts from his beard plucked out. His sight threw her into a numbing daze.

Weeks later, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was invoked against Khalid. “It will be a long, long fight,” Khalid said, promptly outlining the principle around which he hoped Nargis would organise her life without him. Do not cry before anyone; live with himmat, courage. He explained, “If you live with himmat, so will the children, so will I.”

This sentence is a beacon to her as she sails in India’s sea of injustice.

That sea has metamorphosed Nargis, who, until then, was oblivious of even online transactions and where to pay utility bills, and stepped out of home with Khalid and children once a week to go to a mall or restaurant. All this and more she now does alone, she says, re-arranging the scarlet dupatta on her head, her eyes twinkling with pride.

Smilingly, Nargis speaks of her newly acquired ability to read seemingly ordinary gazes. She can discern a gaze that silently says, Bechari Nargis—Poor Nargis. And because she does not wish to be pitied, she has stopped attending weddings. Just a shade better is what she calls how-can-she-be-smiling gaze. She does not feel the need to explain herself. But the worst of all gazes is that of relatives, half-hoping she would crawl to them for help. She has not.

Nargis courts only those who make her feel proud of being the wife of Khalid. They are those whom Khalid befriended during the movement against the CAA, and friends from Symbiosis School and Symbiosis College, Pune, from where he did his MBA. A friend ensures that the monthly ration, from flour to cooking oil to tissue paper, is delivered at her doorstep. Another mate supplies a monthly stock of goodies the children love—chips, chocolates, muesli, etc. Some order toys online for Mariyam. Friends take out the children for their weekly outings, as their father used to. Some spend hours playing carrom with the children. Friends admitted Mariyam to a convent school this year; they foot the tuition and hostel fees of Yasa and Taha, who were separated from their mother for the first time in their lives last month.

These Good Samaritans include both Muslims and Hindus. The eight years of hate campaign against Muslims have not effaced love from every Hindu heart. The I-me-myself culture of post-liberalisation India has not claimed all.

Before the boys were to leave for Kerala, they met Khalid in court. They cried, for they knew they will not meet him until their holiday break. To boost the morale of the boys before they went to hostel, friends sent the family on a 15-day tour of Kerala, where they camped under the stars and frolicked on the beaches. Mariyam butts in, “It reminded me of our trip to Goa, where we and Abbu bathed in the sea.”

Mariyam, in full flow, lets out a secret: Mummy delivered a speech at a function in Kerala; she was given a prize. She proudly fishes out the prize—a memento, really—for me to admire, as Nargis laughs a laugh that echoes with the suggestion, “See, how much I have changed!”

Ernest Hemingway, in The Old Man and the Sea, wrote, “[Wo]Man can be destroyed but never defeated.”  The sharks of the state can torture and kill but cannot vanquish the human spirit.

Mariyam says she cried for Abbu on Eid. Because you did not get Eidi, I suggest, dreading a teary twist to our conversation. She nods. Nargis says Khalid has the habit of lying on the bed with one leg resting against the wall. And Mariyam would swing from that leg or lie on it, like, like… “Like a monkey,” Mariyam says.

Mariyam loves to ask Khalid questions impossible to answer. As evidence, Nargis shows me a video of an exchange between Mariyam and Khalid, who is allowed a daily five-minute call to the family. Mariyam: Why does 2 come after 1? Khalid: Because 1 comes before 2.

Just as false cases precede exoneration, I think.

Indeed, the state’s sharks have UAPA as their teeth, with which they hope to bite off a chunk of every dissenter’s life. Yet, like Hemingway’s old man, Nargis and Khalid remain unafraid of the sharks swimming in the sea of injustice.

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