It happened in a place called Kazipet some 80 kilometers from Hyderabad. It’s a small town with a Catholic Church and a convent, a popular Christian Hospital and girls’ and boys’ schools, all in a row. Round the corner at the end of the dirt road was a popular Muslim saint’s Dargah. A lot many Hindu residents would worship at the Dargah during weddings and send their children to the Catholic School. The nuns in the hospital were famed for their loving care of patients. Religions nudged along in Kazipet without friction.
One summer day it rained incessantly – not a regular occurrence. The unpaved road was flooded, and though the rain had let up, people waded in ankle-deep muddy water on their way home from work. I was coaxing my reluctant bicycle through the slush when I heard a woman shout for help.
I noticed a female head in a shock of greying bobbed hair above the rushing brown water in the roadside drain. She held on to a tree-trunk, he fat arms with a single gold bangle straining from drifting away in the current. She called for help, by turn, in English, Telugu and local Urdu which passed off for Hindi. All three dialects were spoken in Kazipet; the last two were easily understood by all while English was for Anglo-Indians who lived in the railway colony a couple of kilometres away and nuns who worked in the hospital or taught in the schools. The students in the engineering college nearby spoke another variation of English.
By the time I got down from my bicycle, a small crowd had collected around her, arguing among each other, but not making a move to rescue the woman. One asked in Hyderabadi Urdu, “Aunty-ji, how did you get in the khadda? Machi pakadtha, kya? Were you trying to catch fish?”. Others laughed. The woman spat.
I let drop my bicycle and bent over the pit, gave her a hand, then both hands and heaved her up.She was so heavy that I thought I sprained my back. The tree-trunk saved me from sliding down with chunks of mud that gave way.
Her clothes, which must have been white before she fell, were wet and brown. Thick chunks of mud crept down leisurely down her fat legs when she stood up with a slight hunch. Her pink skin showed through the streaks of mud and water.
You could see her teeth chattering, body shuddering as if from fear of death. Kazipet is never cold, and the rain had only cut a couple of degrees from the usual 38 to 40 in summer.
I gave her my handkerchief to wipe her face.
“Thank you, son,” she whispered in a voice that trembled. “I could have died there, but Jesus brought you along. None of these fools, all Hindus, or may be katuas, tried to help me. But you’re a good Christian.”
Katua was a derisive term you’d never expect a lady to use. It referred to Muslims who, it was well known, had a bit of their foreskin cut off.
She sat down on her haunches, unmindful of the creamy water, her hands on her head, elbows resting on her shaking knees.
“I am not a Christian, I’m a Hindu,” I said, more out of defiance than any special pride in the religion I was born in.
The woman, who should have been over sixty , looked up and said, full of pity and genuine concern :.
“Then you better become one. I will tell Brother Sala to help you. No matter how good you are, if Jesus can’t save you, you will go to hell.”
Brother Sala was a preacher I knew who was de-frocked from becoming Father Sala for the crime of fathering a couple of kids with a pretty Lambadi tribal woman and admitting it. The locals thought of the rolly-polly man with lots of admiration and some amusement.
“Push her back in that pit,” shouted one of the onlookers in that peculiar Nizam’s Urdu, who evidently understood what she had spoken in English. “You’re going to hell anyways.” The crowd laughed aloud.
I laughed and moved to pick up my bicycle. The woman probably believed I was going to push her. She jumped up with a start and ran, her feet splashing water all around. You wouldn’t think , the way she ran, that she was old, heavy , just retrieved from the terror of drowning in muddy water, and clumsy in her wet clothes.
I heard that she went and told her folks how a terrible young man was going to push her into the muddy pit and how Jesus saved her.