(father), let’s go, bhau! I want to see how Amjad the Hanuman fights Ravana’s
army, for Rama to save Sita ma.”
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty
was 1995. I was seven years old. But I remember that time like it was
context of the communal polarisation that characterises our country, fuelled by
our 24/7 television news channels, is it possible to imagine a seven-year-old
and his friends eagerly waiting to see an Amjad play the role of one of the
most revered Hindu gods?
rife with religious bigotry. I can’t help comparing the seven-year-old that I
was in 1995 with the eight-year-old daughter of a cousin in Mumbai whom I
visited recently. As I tried to strike a conversation with my niece, she told
me that she hated Muslims. I was taken aback to hear this from an
eight-year-old. I asked her why she felt so.
one day at the park, a boy pushed her, so she knew he had to be a Muslim. I
asked her how she had reached such a conclusion. The little girl replied that
she had read a WhatsApp message about a boy who had pushed a girl, and he
happened to be a Muslim, so this boy had to be one as well.
different her childhood is from mine! In 1995, it was fairly common to hear
children in my village, in western Maharashtra, insistently telling their
fathers, “Bhau, I want to see how Amjad the Hanuman fights a war for Lord
I grew up
in a tiny village, Mhaswad, in Satara district. It was located in a
drought-prone area and surrounded by grassland, where wolves, hyenas, snakes,
and scorpions were a regular sight. The majority of the 5000-odd people in the
village were from the Dhangar (shepherd) community, a nomadic tribe. The rest
of the village population comprised people from nomadic tribes such as the
Ramosi, OBC and Dalit communities.
Village fair, 1999
Chaturthi and Eid were my favourite festive holidays – there was delicious
sheer khurma to be had on Eid and a treat of plays and skits to be watched
during the nine days of Ganesh Chaturthi. Pandals were erected in the village
where local theatrical groups – mandals – staged their performance on all nine
days of the festival. Whether it was stories from the Mahabharata, the saga of
the Taj Mahal or the episode of Hanuman burning Ravana’s Lanka, I loved them
In 1995, my
favourite play, drawn from the epic Ramayana, was performed by the Golden
Ganesh Mandal. The president of the mandal was Amjad, who was about 17 or 18.
comprised three episodes – Hanuman going to Ravana’s Lanka and burning it down;
Hanuman, unable to identify the sanjeevani herb, uprooting the entire mountain
and carrying it on his palm to the battlefield where Lakshamana, hit by
Meghnad’s arrow, lies unconscious; and the final war.
his team had worked hard to create a set for the half-hour play. They had made
mountains out of thermocol and even created a ‘forest’ by placing eight to nine feet high trees (which
had been cut) in the performance arena, securing them with ropes and stones so
that they would not shift when someone climbed on them.
Amjad outdid himself in the role of Hanuman. The search for Sita in Ravana’s
kingdom, accomplished by jumping nimbly from tree to tree, brought the house
down. So did the part where he lifted the
mountain – we knew it was made of thermocol, but such was Amjad’s
performance that we felt the sheer weight of the mountain that was being
carried so that Lakshmana’s life could be saved. I watched that play every single day for the
entire nine days.
and I were beside ourselves with excitement. We shouted ourselves hoarse,
encouraging the actor, “Go, Amjad Hanuman, go – lift the mountain, kill the
demons!” After the festival was over, I dreamt for weeks about Amjad the
The year Amjad could not take part in a play during Ganesh Chaturthi.
the village loved Amjad. He was a star. Once he contracted malaria during
Ganesh Chaturthi and could not perform that year. It was the first time in six
or seven odd years that he was missing during the festivities. Everyone was
terribly upset that Amjad, their hero and the best actor among all the
performers at the festival, was out of action.
village made a beeline for Amjad’s house to commiserate with him. Not
surprisingly, he was in tears at missing out on his favourite festivities. On
the last day of the festival he insisted on coming to the pandal and performing
the final prayer before the Visarjan (immersion of the god’s idol in the
come to our fields to collect durva (grass used on ritual occasions) for the
performance of the ritual during the festival. He knew the entire prayer to the
god (Ganesha Stotram).
I also have
strong memories of how my mother (born in a Jain family), and my father (who
hailed from a Hindu OBC community), always wanted us to learn about different
religions and cultures. During Eid, we gifted dates to all the Muslim families
in our village.
Author Prabhat Sinha’s grandmother, or Akka, at 84, in 2014: a woman of
indomitable spirit, and her grandson’s ‘best friend’.
grandmother, or Akka as she was called, was a single mother and a hardworking
farmer. She was my best friend. Akka was a devotee of Lord Shiva and Bali raja.
The latter, she believed, was the patron god of farmers, during his reign,
farmers were rich and prosperous.
Diwali, Akka would fashion an idol of Bali raja from cow dung and pray to it.
The person who used to help her make the Bali raja figure was one of my closest
childhood friends, Razzak. We were constantly at each other’s homes, partaking
of meals and planning the next outing.
My devout grandmother always took him and me to the Shiva temple, where
she regularly prayed.
I had no
interest in such things. It was Razzak, so curious about the gods, having heard
so many stories about them from my grandmother, who invariably pushed me to go.
In fact, he was quite familiar with the local Shiva temple and knew its rituals
better than I did. Sometimes he would even help my grandmother prepare for her
my grandmother, Razzak, and I would pay a visit to the Sufi shrine of the Peer
baba of Pulkoti without fail. It was about 5 km away from our village and we
would go on foot. I loved going there because the shrine was located on a hill
and Razzack and I would race each other down the hill. On the day of the Peer’s
urs a wrestling match would be organised by villagers from all communities.
The annual wrestling match organised during the urs of the Sufi Peer
baba of Pulkoti.
For years Akka
– and one person each from several hundred households (about 20%) – keep a fast
either on the first or last day of Ramzan.
then. In 2002, I left for the US and pursued my studies there, returning
intermittently for varying periods. In 2017, when I came back for good, I
realised with a pang that the present is disquieting – in my village as
recent workshop at the Mann Deshi Champions Youth Development Centre, which I
run to train rural girls to compete for employment opportunities in the
government sector, such as the police force, I had invited a historian from an
American university to hold a zoom session (in the time of COVID-19) to speak
about the rich history of India. In the course of his talk the speaker happened
to refer to the unique element that the Mughals lent to India’s architectural
traditions. He mentioned the Taj Mahal as a vibrant example.
concluded his session one of the students at the Centre stood up and asked,
“Why don’t the Muslims of India go back to their country?”.
stunned, but not surprised. The student’s question reflected not a personal
bias but our collective failure to free our children’s hearts and minds of such
Amjad the Hanuman, now in his early 40s.
I take solace in the fact that Amjad, the Hanuman of my childhood dreams, is a
hero in the real world too. In his early 40s now, every day he drives the Mann
Deshi Champions bus, a facility we provide to ensure that no girl misses her
classes at the Centre for reasons of safety or the cost incurred at having to
reach the Centre.
Hanuman, who helped Lord Rama reach his goal, Amjad, in his own way, is helping
these girls get closer to achieving their dreams. The young girl who asked the
guest speaker the question is one of them, as is his daughter Alafia, who
aspires to become a police officer.
to mythology, good always prevails over evil. However, our fight against
community stereotypes, based on virulent religious prejudices, and discrimination
is far from over.
it becomes the most normal thing once again for a child to say, “Let’s go,
Bhau, I want to see how Amjad the Hanuman fights Ravana’s army”, and for a
present-day Prabhat and Razzack to share a universe unclouded by communal
hatred, will this fight be over.
Prabhat Sinha, a former athlete, is a sports
agent and a honey hunter. He runs a sports programme for rural and tribal
children of Maharashtra, Manndeshi champions, and hopes that his proteges will
represent India in 2024 Paris Olympics.
Headline: ‘Go, Amjad Hanuman, Go – Lift The Mountain, Kill The Demons!’
Source: The Wire