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Namesakes: An unlikely Hindu-Muslim encounter
In 1956, a few weeks after I started my career in Bombay, I took my first ever flight. I was travelling on work to Aurangabad. Being my first flight, I was both excited and a bit nervous. Those days, along with the luggage the passengers were also weighed, as the exact payload of the flight was be taken care of, in view of the limited fuel carrying capacity of the aircraft.

I checked in at the Kala Ghoda office of Indian Airlines. There I was informed, that my return booking was not yet confirmed. However, not to worry! En route the pilot would be informed about the status of my return flight, who in turn would let me know aboard the flight.

We boarded the Avro aircraft and settled down in our allotted seats. As the flight started cruising, the chit-chatting among the passengers started. I too introduced myself to the gentleman who was in the next seat.

My neighbour, Mr. Khan informed me that he worked for the Urdu section of Radio Moscow. He was on his way to Aurangabad to visit his parents. We talked a lot about how things were in Soviet Russia. He was not particularly happy there. Apart from the icy weather, there was a shortage of practically everything in the stores. Things which we took for granted in India! Housed in stately Stalinistic edifices, the stores hardly had anything to offer. There were queues for bread, butter, potatoes, and other daily needs.

As we were conversing, an air hostess emerged from the cockpit, and called out, 'Mr. Saksena, your return ticket is confirmed'. She was also holding a piece of paper for me. I responded, 'Yes', and reached for the paper. To my surprise my neighbour Mr. Khan too responded with a 'Yes' and raised his hand! Of course, he withdrew his hand in a split second, with 'I am sorry'. He also appeared to be embarrassed, that he had responded against my name!

After he composed himself, he volunteered this story:

"You will be surprised, Mr. Saksena, that my family and I have lived for a few years under the assumed surname name of 'Saksena'! That is why, even today sometimes I respond to the name, 'Saksena'!

In Agra, his family ran a thriving leather business. But they felt very insecure during the Hindu- Muslim riots. A relative in Aurangabad suggested that they relocate to relatively peaceful Aurangabad. Not only did they shift to Aurangabad, they assumed the surname of Saksena, with Hindu first names. Even the sign at the entrance of their new home carried the name, 'Saksena'.

After a few years of peaceful existence, they formally went through the due process of reverting to their original Muslim names!

It was very clear why Mr. Khan and his family chose temporarily the surname, 'Saksena'. In those days, we Kayasthas could superficially easily pass off as Muslims. My elders mostly wore sherwanis and churidars to work. Our mannerisms for greeting others and conversing with them were often similar to those of any Muslim, possibly because they were proficient in Urdu and Persian, too.

Familiarity with Urdu and Persian came about, because they were the official languages at the courts. 

From the above, it would be clear, why Mr. Khan and his family chose a Kayastha surname, like 'Saksena': We mostly dressed alike, were non-vegetarians and also spoke Urdu.

After landing at Aurangabad, I wished my namesake Mr. Khan/Saksena goodbye and promised to hear his broadcasts from Moscow.

After hearing Mr. Khan's odyssey, I thought to myself that life can be stranger than fiction! 

Post Script:

Come to think of it, Mr. Khan's story is not that unique. In riot torn Budaun (UP) some of our own distant relatives converted to Sikhism. They adopted the surname Jaffa and sported beards and turbans.

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