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A housewife from a small town in north India, who had shifted home to Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, was agitated. The question bothering her: how to keep an age-old festival tradition going. In her hometown, she had been steadfastly observing a custom since her childhood: On every navami of Navratra, a group of “kanyas" (young women) and langurs were invited home.

They were fed to their heart’s content, were given a token sum of money, and when it was time to leave, if any of the kanyas or langurs made a demand, her parents gladly fulfilled it.

“Kanyas" and “langurs"? You might be astonished. Which is this custom that brings together young women and langurs? Let us clear the suspense. In certain parts of the Hindi heartland, a “kanya" is a symbol of Shakti and langurs, in this case young boys dressed up as the monkeys, represent Lord Hanuman. Feeding them symbolizes feeding the Devi and disciples of Ram.

The housewife from Noida was nervous because in smaller towns, children gladly volunteered to become kanyas and langurs for the sake of festive tradition. But in the concrete jungle that’s Noida, where neighbours didn’t even talk to each other unless necessary, how would she manage to continue the tradition?

The security in-charge of her apartment block solved the problem. He said that on the morning of navami, children from the neighbourhood would assemble outside the apartments on their own. She could invite them for a meal whenever she was ready. So, the homemaker was glad to see nine kanyas and an equal number of “langurs" at the designated time.

She had lit incense and laid out a mat on the marble floor, apart from lighting diyas in her prayer room, which had been built in a corner of her home according to Vaastu principles. She was wearing a traditional red sari and had prepared halwa, chana and pooris for the festival.

Unlike her hometown, she could not have applied cow-dung to the floor, at an apartment in urban Noida. The housing society management had also prohibited lighting up havan kund fires indoors. But she wasn’t deterred. “Aapatkale maryada naasty"—in times of emergency, you cannot always strictly follow family traditions, her father used to tell her. She remembered what her father used to tell her. But what was she seeing here?

One of the “langurs" admonished his four-year-old sister: “Rashida, sit properly!" Then he quickly corrected himself and said. “Yashoda, sit properly." The housewife was in shock. In her hometown, inviting non-Brahmin boys and girls to Ramnavami celebrations was unimaginable. She decided to probe this. She asked the boy: “What’s your name?" “Ashok," he replied. “Do you call your father papa or abbu?" “Papa," he replied.

Now she turned to the sister. She was young and innocent, she couldn’t tell a lie for sure. “Whom do you worship, Bhagwan or Allah?" “Both," was the answer. “What do you call your mother?" “Ammi," she replied. “When you were coming to have food here, did your parents stop you?" “No," was the answer. Next question: “This holy thread that I’ve put on your wrist, will you keep wearing it once you return home or remove it?" “We’ll remove it once we go home," answered the girl. Her suspicions were confirmed. But she kept probing. “Do you celebrate Diwali?" “Yes." And, Eid? “Yes."

The housewife was in a dilemma. She called her husband about it. The hapless corporate slave answered even as he kept his eyes on his computer screen: “How does it matter? Children are God’s incarnations. Feed them well and give them a festive allowance." The housewife again remembered her father’s lines: “Aapatkale maryada naasty" She shed her reservations and fed the “kanyas" and “langurs" well.

She put some money in their little fists and touched their feet when they were leaving and whispered: “Come again next year, for sure."

Here, I am not talking about the collapsing walls of communalism but economic disparity. Where were the housewife’s children when this happened? They were in school and the children who visited her had never been to one. They were not likely to get this privilege of going to school anytime soon. When their parents headed out to make a living as labourers, the kids keep loitering through the day. They were born in slum clusters which have cropped up like blisters on the face of concrete jungles. Will these children of the 21st century spend their entire lifetimes in slums?

It is pertinent to mention here that the group of children included both Hindus and Muslims. Slums don’t discriminate between people on the basis of religion.

I wouldn’t have written about this subject had I not read about India’s dismal record in the fight against hunger in Mint. According to statistics from the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) global hunger index, our country is worse off than Nepal, Bangladesh, Senegal and Rwanda. We lag behind nations whose names most people haven’t heard of.

Those debating national security, the martyrdom of our soldiers, GDP growth, repo rate and urbanization often forget that in order to secure our borders forever, it is essential to bridge the gulf of economic inequality.

Why are subjects such as these missing from highly intellectual and political debates?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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