In a world afflicted with the rapidly spreading cancer of religious intolerance, this story of a Hindu man adopting a Muslim boy reinforces our hope that humanity still prevails over blind communal passions. It’s a story particularly relevant in a country such as India where religion is so central to people’s lives and spiritual traditions run deep.
An angel and a lost boy
It was a cold winter evening in 2003. As darkness fell, the children who were playing in the park adjacent to the Safed Baradari in Lucknow, India started dispersing. Soon the playground was empty but, Aiku Lal Sandil a tea vendor, noticed that a small boy was still there—all alone and crying. The only information Aiku Lal could extract from this seven-year-old boy was that his name was Akbar. Aiku Lal took the boy to the police station, but found that there was no report of any missing child who matched Akbar’s description. So, assuming that the boy would be from the same locality which has a sizeable Muslim population, Aiku Lal decided to provide him shelter for the night and took him home.
The next day, Aiku Lal commenced his search for the parents of Akbar with a missionary zeal. He solicited the help of his neighbours, requested the maulvi to make public announcements in the local mosque after the Friday namaz (Muslim prayer), placed advertisements on TV and in the newspapers, but no one came forward to claim the child. And so Aiku Lal, the tea vendor, who was a bachelor, made two unusual decisions. The first, that despite his meagre income, he would keep Akbar with him and raise him as a son; the second, that since Akbar was born a Muslim, he would bring him up as one.
In a new home
And this was how destiny brought Aiku Lal and Akbar together. He did not use the boy to assist him in running his tea stall. Instead, Aiku Lal, who himself had never attended school, decided that his “son,” Akbar, would. So while Aiku Lal continued to run his tea stall, Akbar attended school and Aiku Lal ensured that Akbar never missed going to the mosque every Friday for offering namaz. The care and attention Aiku Lal showered on Akbar was phenomenal and soon the locals accepted them as a model father and son duo, albeit from different religions. Aiku Lal ensured that Akbar never felt out of place. Though himself a vegetarian, Aiku Lal did not curb Akbar’s liking for non-vegetarian dishes. On the contrary, he himself went about learning how to cook the meat dishes his “son” was fond of, so that he could prepare and serve him the same.
As time passed, Aiku Lal took the third and most usual personal decision of his life—that of remaining a bachelor; the reason of which is best explained in his own words, “I can’t pinpoint the day when Akbar became my son. But once I realized our relationship, I decided not to marry. A Hindu wife might object to mothering a Muslim child. I will not let anyone come between us or separate us.” Just when it seemed that it was the typical “and so they lived happily ever after” story, there came a turbulence which had the potential of shattering the bliss of Aiku Lal and Akbar.
Setback and victory
This unbelievable story of a Muslim “son” and a Hindu “father” was picked up by the media and featured on a local TV channel in 2007. Soon a couple from Allahabad came forward and claimed that Akbar was their son, who had gone missing in 2003, when his father left him unattended while he was drinking at a local liquor vendor. Though no one could explain as to how the boy ended up in Lucknow, DNA profiling confirmed their claim. The parents sought custody of their son, but Akbar refused to go back and so the biological parents filed a case in the Allahabad High Court. Besides accusing Aiku Lal of exploiting the boy as a child labourer, the counsel of parents cited another major reason—since Akbar by religion was a Muslim, his being raised by Aiku Lal would “create dichotomy and disharmony in the social sphere and in their relationship.”
The judge was however not impressed by the arguments put forward by the counsel representing Akbar’s parents, who themselves had not even taken the pains to lodge a police complaint regarding their missing child. Noting that Aiku Lal had taken good care of the boy, enrolled him in school as well as not even changed his religion, Justice Barkat Ali, in January 2008 gave a landmark judgment which read, “We are after all a secular country and consideration of caste and creed should not be allowed to prevail. If there can be inter-caste marriages, which is not uncommon, there can also be an inter-caste father and son relationship and that need not raise eyebrows.”
The mother of Akbar challenged the High Court decision. After hearing the case and observing Akbar’s insistence on staying with Aiku Lal, the Supreme Court bench ruled that, “Let the child attain majority and himself decide the question.”
From the past
Though I have never met Aiku Lal the small-time tea vendor who earns about Rs100 ($2.00) a day, I know for sure that his meagre income and fragile financial position certainly don’t allow him to indulge in the luxury of acquiring social recognition or seeking moral salvation by adopting an abandoned child and willingly forgo the basic human desire to start one’s own family. So, what was it that motivated Aiku Lal to do what he did? For the answer, we have to travel back in time.
About 35 years ago, a person named Chaudhary Mujtaba Hussain, an employee of the governing body that looked after the Safed Baradari (a place of celebration and gaiety where the elite of the city solemnize marriages and hold receptions) found a small boy wandering aimlessly. On learning that he was an orphan, Mujtaba took him home and brought him up ensuring two things—one, that he would treat him just like his own son and the second that the boy who was a Hindu would retain his religion. Though Mujtaba’s wife did have initial reservations as she had to ensure that whenever meat was cooked, a substitute would have to be made for the newcomer, she subsequently got used to the idea. Though Mujtaba could not afford to send his adopted son to school, he nevertheless taught him English, Hindi and Urdu.
This boy was none other than Aiku Lal and he never forgot his “father.” He says, “I am a Hindu brought up by a kind Muslim man. When I found Akbar, it was like God telling me that it is time to return the love and care I got from his people. I was never forced to change my religion and having got that education from my guardian, it was my duty to take care of the child and bring him up as per his own religion.”
This story was widely reported in the press, thanks to the court case. Yet, this inspirational example of humanity transcending man-made religious dogmas has, to the best of my knowledge, never been considered for inclusion in text books or quoted by religious preachers in their discourses. Though the real reasons for this omission are not known, I would not be surprised that at a time when communally oriented strategies have become the source of gaining and retaining power, this example of religious harmony may prove detrimental to the vested interests of such elements.
The famous Sufi poet Bulleh Shah had said that although God gave us all-encompassing religion based on love, brotherhood and humanity, men “created” temples and mosques in their minds with a conditional, (if not a non-existence) space for these virtues. And it was these mental blocks that he preached should be demolished when he said:
“Break the mosque,
break the temple,
Break all that which divides.
But break not the human heart
For in that heart does God reside”