It is a cold December day in Kolkata. Inside the crowded minibus is a sea of shawls and long-sleeved sweaters. Outside, hidden in dense fog, a brave new world waits for 67-year-old retired headmaster Mohammad Manan Mandal. A world with infinite possibilities and then some more. A world where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has claimed those who re-convert to Hinduism from Islam or Christianity will be allowed to choose a caste for themselves and will not be subject to unfair treatment.
Taking a longing look at the tiny silver Jesus dangling between the ample breasts of the young lady sitting in front, Mandal's mind drifts to the curious religious history of his own family. Mandal's late grandfather, a sharecropper and a shudra, had read the kalma to please his Muslim landlord in what was then East Bengal and which is now another country. History was taking an unholy turn and riots were breaking out in the once-peaceful land. Mandal's grandfather had no love lost for Hindu gods as caste Hindus in his village had never spared an occasion to abuse him and his family for being lowly born. Durga pujo was off limits and so was work at farmlands of upper-caste landlords.
So the good man and his son traded gods to make a living tilling the land of Abdus Mian as the country went up in flames, neighbours killed neighbours, caste Hindus ran away in fear, and a new country was born. The Mandals stayed back, protected by Allah and the largesse of Mian Saheb, and a pudgy, brown bundle of joy was born in East Pakistan. Mohammad Manan Mandal was circumcised and sent to school with the Muslim kids, with no stigma accompanying him because of his last name. Many Hindus who had stayed back had by now converted to Islam to buy peace and some even took part in riots and rapes of the remaining Hindus to express solidarity with their Muslim brothers.
"Everything comes with a sell-by date. Even gods," Manan's grandfather told a young Manan when he was old enough to ask why he has such a mixed name. It was a piece of advice Manan would remember for his life, as he crossed over to India in his mid-20s, when the new Left Front government in West Bengal was adding numbers to its Muslim vote bank by handing out ration cards to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Manan became an Indian citizen, joined the CPI(M), got a job as a school teacher, and to right historical wrongs, married a Brahmin, much to the displeasure of her family.
Life has been good to Manan. Marx had done for him what many trips to mandirs could not do for his colleagues. As a card-carrying communist, he has been promoted faster than them and retired as a school headmaster. Yet, the last name still rankles him. Caste is cautiously avoided in public discourse in West Bengal, but a shudra-turned-Muslim is still a second-class citizen. "Yes, I will sell my god once more," Mandal thinks to himself. "Trade Marx to take part in Ghar Wapsi. I will die a higher caste Hindu."
The lady in front gets up. Inadvertently, Mandal blurts out: "Merry Christmas, madam, in advance." The lady who has been watching Manan ogle her all this while gives him a dirty look and says, "Moron!" "Not Moron, madam. Manan. The name is Manan Bhattacharya."