April 03, 2020
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SULTANAT Apa drove an optimistic red Lada, spewing smoke through the rain. The Sanyo music system played Uzbek renditions of old Hindi film songs. Installed tenderly at the back amidst discs of fresh naan (the roof leaked over the front seat), I swayed contentedlyþto Awara Hoon, quite overcome at how perfect strangers in Uzbekistan took one look at my unmistakably Indian face and smothered me with food, affection and practical help.

"Oyvoyvoy!" screeched Sultanat Apa suddenly. Her car had stalled and refused to start despite her peering into the bonnet and shaking her fist at the sky. A young denimclad Uzbek in a natty BMW was flagged down and Apa roared off to fetch a mechanic. She wore a medal of state on her chest, for having birthed 13 children. Anyone she met bowed instinctively to her irresistible force. Her house was a museum of Uzbek artefacts (including a clutch of calendar gods from Sivakasi and huge photos of Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Hema Malini).

Apa had been to India thrice, adored everything Hindustani and even drove (at 80 kmph) down Marine Drive. Though I'm genetically incapable of making rotis, she'd insisted on videotaping me slapping a naan into the huge medieval tandoor in her backyard. My protesting squawks were ignored, a huge glove was pulled over my hand and one of Apa's many daughters-in-law looking quite worried, muttered in my ear that the honour of Hindustan was dreadfully at stake if the naan didn't stick. But I'd said Bismillah-ur-Rahman-ur-Rahim and gone thwack. My reward was a cheer from Apa's entire clan and the gift of a lovely headscarf, because Apa was thrilled that I'd invoked God just so.

She was driving me to see the world's oldest Quran at Tashkent's Barrak Khan Medressa when we'd come unstuck. "You'll be safe here!" Apa chuckled as she disappeared in a jingle of chains and a flap of scarves. Looking out, I'm afraid I had a terrible fit of the giggles. We'd stalled exactly at the head of Shastri Kuchasi and the kind bronze face of Pandit Lal Bahadur Shastri smiled protectively just outside.

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