Growing up in rural Bihar and later in Kolkata, I have fond memories of the festival of Raksha Bandhan. In our ancestral village in Bihar, as a child I did not know for a long time that Dr Bhola mama, the homeopathy practitioner belonging to the upper caste Kayasth in our village was not my real mama (maternal uncle). It was only later that I learnt that since he did not have any blood sister, my mother had started tying a rakhi on his hand every year. The new relation that had suddenly begun then, has been maintained by both families even today and every time we visit the village we make it a point to meet him. I also remember his daughter tying a rakhi on my thin wrists.
When I was about 12 years old, my family permanently shifted to Kolkata. Our neighbour's daughters continued the tradition of rakhi here as well. But in middle and high school, it was a day of horror for most boys. The new girl in class you may have been eyeing for months may suddenly turn up with a rakhi for you instead! I myself had at least two such teenage heartbreaks. It did not matter if the girl was Muslim or Hindu, she would tie a rakhi and as a brother you were required to give some gifts (it would often be chocolates or pens).
As a Muslim, we were not very comfortable with artis and tika, so often only the ritual of tying a beautiful rakhi was done, followed by gifting sweets. Sometimes, our right hand would be filled with many rakhis and no one seemed to mind. When I moved to Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia for college, the ritual was not as widespread, but you still saw many girls tying rakhis.
Although a Hindu festival, Raksha Bandhan has truly turned into a secular Indian festival. Legend has it that Rani Karnavati of Chittor had sent a rakhi for the Mughal Emperor Humayun seeking protection from imminent invasion of Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. In 1905, as the British planned to partition Bengal under its policy of ‘divide and rule,’ Rabindranath Tagore invoked the rakhi to spread the message of mutual respect and communal harmony and encouraged members from two communities to tie sacred threads for each other.
The tradition has since continued in most parts of the country. But in today’s communally vitiated environment where call centers are being opened to register complaints against eve-teasers only if they belong to a particular community, segregation is becoming the norm rather than exception. The onus of blame is not entirely on right-wing activists though, as increasingly everyone seems to be turning more puritanical.
For me, among all Hindu festivals, Raksha Bandhan still inspires most respect in my heart simply because of its sacred concept of promise of protection. However, as I continue to live in the so-called ghetto of Jamia Nagar in Delhi, I miss those sacred threads spreading friendship, fraternity and harmony.
M Reyaz is a Delhi-based journalist. He tweets at @journalistreyaz