He makes the yummiest of croissants. They are flaky and marginally sweet, with golden layers on top that come off at the softest of touches. The smell of pure butter wafts along as the croissants slide out of the oven on a piping hot tray. Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe the crescent-shaped pastries.
I’ve known Dada for three years now. To me, he is the best baker in town. I like him partly because there is no one in the city who puts his soul into a loaf of bread, not to mention blueberry cakes and rusks, like he does; and partly because he is the only baker in the city who makes hot cross buns as an Easter treat. In a society where sectarian strife is ripe and bigotry is spreading like cancer, Dada fills me with a strange sense of hope. It is surprising more so because Dada doesn’t believe in a godless world.
So why does Dada fill me with a strange sense of hope? It may not be optimism but a faint hope that someday minorities in this society will be treated like human beings because of Dada’s hot cross buns. Ever since an article on Easter specialities was published in a widely read English newspaper, people have been visiting his bakery to taste them, even out of season.
For a long time I wondered how Dada could be different from the rest of the pastry chefs and bakers. And then, in the last days of the holy month of fasting, I discovered his secret.
Dada is a poet. He is not technically as sound a versifier as one expects a poet to be. The reason for it is his seventeen-hour-a-day presence at the bakery. He can’t leave business to his employees. They have often ditched him when he needed them most.
Dada was barely a teenager when his father asked, nay ordered, him to help him with his business. It consigned the young man’s love of poetry to the back seat. But Dada never stopped reading. He would buy second-hand digests at low-price bookstalls and flip through their poetry pages when there was time for the bread to pop out of the oven. His love of poets and poetry grew in the dark corners of the backroom of his bakery flickering with the light reflected by the fire in the oven.
Against all odds Dada managed to find himself a teacher, a client who, like me, loves his breads and croissants. His name is Agha Lukhnavi and he is an accomplished Urdu poet. Every time Agha comes to the bakery, Dada shows him his latest creation, a ghazal or a nazm, and Agha gives him a tip or two on how to maintain the metrical balance in a couplet. Dada is yet to become a technically flawless poet, but the imagery and symbolism he uses surprises even Agha, not to mention his friends. I’m still trying to fathom what Dada recited to me last week, ‘Your eyes are two lovers joined at the head from birth’.
Dada and I often discuss how society has changed over the years. He doesn’t have a moderate view on life, and believes that Sunnis are the best Muslims. But he is not what in modern-day parlance is called a fundamentalist. He likes to hear the stories of my romantic escapades and loves to give his advice every step of the way. ‘That girl is nuts about you, don’t let her go… You are too shy. Go full monty… Come on, enjoy while it lasts…’
Like me Dada does not like to watch news channels. We talk for hours and hours about how the news networks have turned society into an insouciant swarm of insects. I personally can’t describe the pain that I feel when I see the blood-drenched bodies of innocent men, women and children belonging to the minorities that live in this country, lying on roads or in buildings after a suicide bomber blows himself up in front of them. The live coverage of the gory sights must give the handlers of these suicide bombers a perverse heroic feeling. I guess these TV channels must thrive on bad, gut-wrenching news.
Early this morning eighty Christians (men, women and children) were blown up in a church in a small town by not one but two suicide bombers. The church’s outer walls were smeared with blood, its front yard strewn with the dead and injured, its air heavy with the helpless moans of the survivors.
I entered the bakery brimming with anger. ‘Dada, what the fuck is wrong with this society? There were children among them. How can someone be so heartless in the name of religion? Shouldn’t religion soften your heart? What is wrong with these fundos? Who is going to take them on? Or should we just keep taking it lying down and become one of them?’
‘Hold on, what happened?’ Dada appeared to be unaware of the incident.
‘They’ve killed scores of Christians in a church, in a suicide attack…’
For some odd reason a smile appeared on Dada’s face. It wasn’t his face anymore. The smile had completely changed his complexion. I tried hard to recognise him.
‘This is the only way to make these infidels realise the sins they’ve been committing all their lives… They should either become one of us or get ready to be eliminated. There’s no other way…. America needs to be put in its place… This is the only way…’
I looked at Dada with my eyes wide open. His voice, the voice that I’ve been hearing for the past three years, had become unfamiliar.
‘Come on, don’t think hard about these bomb attacks, have a croissant, fresh out of the oven… don’t you smell more butter today… have two….’