Noticed him the moment I handed the first chaddar of the day about ten minutes back. Could not have missed him even if he would not have chosen that part of the pavement to sit down eventually. That man stood apart in the crowd. The way he was moving – ambling along the alley, in front of my shop, and peering at the houses and the shops in a queer manner; as if trying to remember something. His eyes were scanning evey aspect of the narrow and congested streets deeply. Quite slow and very different from the fast moving horde of tourists going towards Dargah sharif purposefully.
Don’t know why but got a queer feeling from the start. An intuition, a vibe, that he had something to do with me. And it only grew stronger when he came to a stop, roughly diagonal in front of the shop, across the street, and peered in this direction and the small street going inside towards Kayastha Mohalla.
It was unsettling, the way his eyes lingered upon me. Could feel my heart sinking as he sat slowly, as if in a trance, on the dirty pavement there. He hasn’t moved a muscle since then, and I too have become immobile, struck down by apprehension and curiosity.
Come on! Get a grip on yourself!
Cannot place him- haven’t seen this man ever, of that I am sure. Also can’t place him otherwise- means in the established boundaries and patterns of humanity. Normally I am able to assess a person quite soon and can identify from which strata of society he or she belongs and the purpose of that person’s visit to Dargah Sharif; to really bow down in front of Khwaja sahab or merely to have a look at the famous shrine while on a visit to Ajmer.
These eyes have seen a lot of changes and countless pilgrims on these roads over the years; yet; they cannot decipher this man.
It is clear that he does not want to visit Dargah sharif but what is mystifying is that he isn’t venturing towards the nearby hindu areas of Kayastha mohalla and Beejasan Mata temple either. He is just sitting and staring- at the street.
Need to examine him more closely to obtain a clue. All right, age- about fortyish may be. Dressing- clad in a bright yellow T-shirt and a jeans, the belly protruding enough from the T-shirt to belie his wish to portray him as a supremely fit man. The complexion is fair and he might have been handsome once in his youth.
Ok, body language now-shoulders are hunched, hands folded in lap where they are writhing and lines of anxiety on the face. Don’t know why but he seems a well-bred and a well – behaved man, polite to the point of fault, to my mind. There is a certain restrain in his body language, a reservedness that exposes his nature to be that of an introvert person.
It is evident that he is battling some stress. Tension is palpable in his eyes and it is tearing him apart internally.
But why in the name of Allah is he sitting there and staring towards my direction!
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My sight fell upon Imran bhai and I was too shocked to look away. Think I stared for too long so as to make him suspicious. My steely gaze has unnerved him because I can see him fidgeting. He is trying to figure me out, and no doubt he would soon stumble upon the correct conclusion. Guilt has the uncanny ability to refresh the memories of the crime in perpetrator’s heart with a lightening speed. Whether he acknowledges it or not is another matter.
To disturb him or confront him is not my intention, I am here to face myself. But the sight of him sitting there on the same wooden plank of that very shop, after so many years, gave me such a chill that I could not look away, and froze.
It’s as if time has stopped for him, and for his shanty of a shop. Seems like he has been squatting there and selling those baskets of flowers and chaddars for Dargah Sharif since eternity.
He has not changed one bit! Should be above fifty now but looks exactly like he did a quarter of a century ago.
The trademark brown Pathani suit, the white round cap on his head, the unique style of his posture- one leg dangling down from the platform and other one pressed beneath the other thigh…Hmmm…If it weren’t for few white strands in his hair, here and there, the whole scene could be from early 90’s. Must have seen him, just like this, countless number of times on my trips to the school from our house.
But the same cannot be said about our family, certainly not. We have aged and moved on. Perhaps we have moved on too far. Otherwise how is it possible that I have not met Sumit for the last two years? I suppose it is difficult-logistically. Me being in Dubai and Sumit in Singapore. And no doubt Papa’s death two years ago have left us unhinged. Still, brothers should meet once in a while, shouldn’t they?
It’s like whole family has been scattered and the past forgotten.
The past that contained Rajiv chacha, my dear friend Nadeem, his father and Shenaz has been buried under the bulky layers of years, events, preoccupations, responsibilities and the present; ever- engaging present, fast- moving present and ‘ won’t let you breath for a moment’ present.
It could not have remained buried deep in my heart forever though. Not possible. Past has this tendency to sneak upon one when that person least suspects it. Like it did today to me in the morning. Got a tremendous shock while reading those headlines. A shock that emanates through frightful revision of old memories; ugly, deadly and monstrous.
‘ Delhi burns:- over 27 killed in Hindu-Muslim riots.’
‘ Fourteen bodies recovered in drains; national capital simmers.’
‘ Father steps out to get milk and never returns; four year old son awaits for him.’
How can everything still be the same? Same hatred, same divide in the society, same biases in the minds and same regrettable turn of events.The victims and perpetrators might have changed; the crimes and the sorrows have remained the same. The dead bodies could be different; the destruction they leave behind in the lives of their loved ones has remained, unalterably and regretfully, the same.
The feeling of Deja vu was so strong and ugly that it was beautiful, like a grotesque painting that shines due to its absurdity.
How ironic it is that I should have read those headlines today, when for once, I was at Ajmer, alone. Perhaps it was fate that conspired to bring me here on the pretext of the deal to sell the house.
Could not have overlooked the pull of this place after that- strong, magnetic and unrelenting; no. It is similar to the fascination that a haunted house holds over a kid. And it’s not like I have not given a thought of visiting these lanes ever in the past. On the contrary it has played upon my mind too often. One cannot run from one’s past forever, and today finally I could overcome the hitch, and so-what now?
Everything looks just as it was back then. Narrow congested streets, hordes of people thronging the streets and creating chaos by their haphazard movements, cows strolling on the roads, loud music playing from the shops and vendors selling souvenirs in the streets.
It does not feel that 27 years have gone by.
Dargah Sharif’s faint outline is visible in the distance. Opposite, the street bifurcates from the main road and goes into the bowels of the old city, twisting and turning, like a small tributary of a great river, and is lined by concrete jungle instead of a rainforest. To my mind there is no doubt that I can reach here in the dead of the night, everything is so familiar- shops, guest houses, petty restaurants and the mouth of the bifurcation of that street-adorned by Gulzar guest house on end and by Imran Bhai’s shop on the other one.
How easy it would be to get up this very moment and walk briskly on that street and then turn on the many small turns to reach our old house located near Beejasan mata temple. It’s so near, a few hundred metres down the road. Barely a five minutes walk.
But I am unable to gather the strength to enter that street- that tortuous labyrinth filled with familiar landmarks. I cannot…
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Who is he? What does he want? What is his deal?
I cannot pin him down.
Why is he sitting there and staring at the street adjacent to my shop?
It has been so long that he has been sitting there; mouth slightly open, pensive eyes, panting for breath, hunched shoulders and a ruffled demeanour.
Hope he is not having a heart attack or some other medical emergency.
Should I go and check upon him?
But… it does not seem that he is suffering from a heart attack, rather it seems to me that he is a ailing from the stress of old memories; yes, that’s what it is. He is definitely revisiting his painful past. Some tragic event has occurred there on that street and he is struck down by that memory.
He has that faraway look that dawns upon a person’s face while walking down the memory lane.
But what could it be?
Nothing has happened here in the recent past, infact apart from the violence of ’92 there has never been any other untoward incident…
Wait a minute!
Could it be so?
Ya Allah! Could this be that boy?
Allah! Please let be this that boy..No! Allah please let it not be him…I cannot face him.
He seems to be of right age. If that boy would have survived that fateful night he would be approximately of this man’s age today; and the look that he gave me a while back- that knowing and disdainful look; full of hurt and hate; it sent shivers down my back.
Why would I feel the way I felt if it would not have been for some connection that we have had in the past? Vibrations of that past are not only tormenting him but they have stirred something inside me too.
Still don’t know what got over me that night. Why did I behave like I did. But the whole atmosphere was filled with hatred! There were no rules, no precedents for such a situation.
It is not an excuse, and given a chance I would go back in time and correct my mistake, but it’s not possible. Haven’t I tried to do the next best thing possible – to be a good man, a better man since then? My Allah knows this. Isn’t it enough?
Then why this humiliation? This examination. Am I supposed to go down to him and apologise in front of everyone?
What if he is that boy who has now grown up! I am under no obligation to apologize to him. It has been so long! I can behave normally as if nothing has happened, as if I don’t remember anything or better still, that past does not bother me.
But his eyes!.. They are tormenting me.
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Imran bhai has definitely recognised me. He has that guilty expression on his face. Can see him clearly from here. He has gone visibly pale. But I have no desire to confront him. My wish is to revisit those days and in particular-that night. Though nothing good can come out of it, cannot stop now.
I don’t place Imran bhai guilty, or at least the most guilty. There were crimes committed by both the sides. If anything, Imran Bhai’s sin was less sinister than the heinous crimes done by other people of the two communities.
Hugh! Why did things turn out like the way they did? Why did the peace and harmony of this area got shattered in a single day?
Was the unity and harmony that was evident everywhere between hindus and muslims, living here for centuries, fake? Was it just an act?
Well, it did not seem like that back then. The trust and love was real, at least that was my perception. And weren’t we all told the heartwarming stories of co-operation between the two communities in times of need by our elders? Was it all false?
If there were any cracks in the wall of unity they certainly were not visible to me and other kids, of this I am quite sure. The adults must have masked their apprehensions well because life ran smoothly till the day catastrophe struck and everything changed.
That’s why my memories are neatly divided into two halves – before 6th december 1992 and after it. As if my life has been perfectly cut into two by a sharp knife. Earlier half was like being in paradise; carefree, buoyant, bright, filled with laughter and innocence of childhood. The latter half is dull and mechanical; heavy with lethargy, half-heartedness, responsibilities, anxieties and monotonous grind of life.
From the earlier half I miss Nadeem the most. How I miss him! My bosom friend. It has been so long that his face has started fading from my memory. The outline of the building in which he used to live on the ground floor is visible from here, it is unchanged. Undoubtedly, the fact that he used to live quite near to my own home, and his father too worked for railways, like Papa, played it’s part in cementing the friendship between us, and between our families in the initial days.
Can’t forget his vivaciousness and exuberance that starkly contrasted my shyness. It’s evident to me now that why, I, a timid, tongue- tied kid trying to deal with the dawn of teenage and not doing a good job at it, got pulled towards him–because opposites attract.
In hindsight, it seems, that our friendship was perfectly balanced. We complimented each other pretty well. His ease with the world and my awkwardness, his boldness and my reclusiveness, his carelessness with studies and my brilliance, his excellence at everything else and my dimness – we were in perfect equilibrium. No competition, no jealousy and no desire to outdo the other one.
What a loner I was before Nadeem came into my life. Could not converse with anyone, and was unable to break the ice. And even today nobody would label me as social. A friendship like that happens rarely in life.
These myriad lanes were our world, our playground. How happy were we in those days! Running from one gully to another to reach each other’s house in an eye’s blink in the evening to play cricket or exchange comics, that too after being together throughout the day at school. Inseparables-that’s what others used to call us.
Suddenly, I am unable to breath. Am hyperventilating. The rush of those memories has left me breathless and the pain is choking me…
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My heart was beating so fast a minute ago and how did I sweat! Perhaps he noticed it. But his unexpected emergence out of the dark shadows of the past left me overwhelmed for a while there.
‘But now that you have got a grip on yourself, don’t let your weakness show,’ the voice in my head says that and I agree.
I wonder, what is his aim? He has not done anything for so long now, except sitting there and staring ahead as if he has been hypnotised by the echoes of the tragedy.
Unusual as it might seem, but I am getting a feel that he does not want to confront me. There is no need to be alarmed.
From here it seems he is gasping. That is understandable. Today, after the appearance of this man, I too am finding myself flowing along the tide of memories, and it’s not a bad thing either. My heart has closed the door upon those ugly events for so long now, that it would liberating to go down that lane for once. Perhaps I would learn something about myself. Even if it amounts to be cross-examined by my own conscience.
Yes, I must do it today, before I stand in Allah’s court some day.
I miss those earlier days, before that calamity, when there was real bonding with each other. When in the congested lane of my house were residences of Sindhis, jains and Mathurs.
Everything is different now. Of course, on the surface all is calm, but there is a lot of restlessness in the deep. The trust and the camaraderie that we had, is long gone. It has been replaced by a fake politeness. We go along playing the charade of being good to each other, but everyone knows that it’s just play-acting. We smile at them and in return they beam at us patronisingly, but behind that smile is hatred; pure and raw.
Slowly but steadily both hindus and muslims have got themselves congregated. They have moved out of this area and got settled at the other end of the city; the newer one and the fashionable one. While we have been quietly buying all the properties around Dargah over the years. It’s like battle lines have been drawn and borders have been marked, and isn’t this a war? Cold war at its best.
Oh! What a fool am I …on one hand I am reminiscing about the golden old days of solidarity, and on the other, am categorising people subconsciously as – ‘We’ and ‘They’. Its strange, how human mind works- it craves to compartmentalise people into such categories.
How did this happen? It certainly was not so when I was growing up. There was no animosity here even when there were problems in other parts of the country like U.P. But it all changed that year when Babri Masjid was demolished. It was too great a shock, too big an assault to overlook.
I can only remember those days through a haze of resentment and uncertainty. It would amount to lying to myself to say that I wasn’t worried.
There was a lot of anger brewing in people here. At first nobody believed that it would be done, including myself. In the weeks preceding the unfortunate incident I regarded the growing rhetoric by the politicians as just that – rhetoric.
But as people started to gather at Ayodhya, the sense of unease grew. Still, for the life of me, I could not believe that it would come to fruition. That matter had been going on for ages and the general consensus was that it was much ado about nothing. And it was my opinion too. The mosque was an unused one, hardly important; the perpetrator of the alleged crime of breaking down the alleged temple had been in grave for almost four and a half centuries, and people had been worshipping Rama for thousands of years without whining to find the exact spot of his birth.
I mean how did it matter? All right, it might have mattered to some, but was it so important that the feelings of millions of muslims had to be crushed?
Of course, they asked us this question – ‘If that mosque is not that important then why not to demolish it and let a temple be built there? What about the feelings of hindus?’
I, for one, had no answer. That is where everything falls apart of course. One thinks that the other community should let go and the other community thinks exactly the same way.
Which side was right? Which one was wrong?…Who can say. The answers to these questions have eluded me for so long that I think they are unanswerable.
I don’t know how the seeds of hatred are sown and whether they can be nipped in the bud or not; and even this line of thought-this questioning, is the result of my advanced age I think. Because on that day I certainly did not think like this. Hell! I did not think at all. I was deeply offended and enraged by that act. We all were. It was as if we all had been stabbed or spat at – simultaneously, by them!
That feeling of helplessness is still fresh in mind that I experienced while watching those disturbing scenes on the television throughout the day, and it still creeps me out. As the structure was brought down and Karsevaks danced in ecstasy, a fire had risen in my belly.
It took some time for us to gather, discuss and react; but when we did, the action was swift and explosive, and it was inevitable. We all were swept away by the wave of revenge. We needed retribution. I needed it!
Unfortunately, people on the other side were equally high on victory, self-proclaimed judgement and bias towards us, and it’s no wonder that blood flowed on these streets.
If that boy, who has turned into a man now, sits there and pants due to the rush of disturbing memories, then it does not seem unnatural, and in the least, surprising to me.
My regret is that I am a part of his painful past…
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I should move. This is a busy thorough way and I am impeding the traffic. People are looking at me oddly as they try to avoid hitting me. Advika would never believe that I am attracting so much attention right now. It irritates her to no end that her husband is socially inept. A pathetic recluse! That is what she calls me. Ha! If only she could see me now.
But my legs have a mind of their own and they won’t listen to me. I am sitting on the pavement and looking straight towards that street, where scenes from my past are rushing by. It’s like I am sitting in a movie theatre and on the screen a film is being played, only it’s my story. Soon the movie will come to an end, and I will strech and walk away.
However, its not finished as yet. It has only reached the half-way point. The better and the brighter half is over.
Any time now I would see a Luna emerge out of the street and riding it would be Rajiv chacha.
He would be his usual charming self and behind him, and holding him tightly would be a boy-grinning, gangly and with large glasses; me.
Whenever I think of Rajiv chacha this is the image that comes to the mind. Because he died so young, barely 23, he would remain forever young in my mind, of course.
My eyes are brimming again. God! I am being such a baby.
Still can’t believe that he is gone. Just have to shut my eyes and his infectious laughter trickles down in my ears and soul. Of course, being just ten years older to me, he was more of a big brother rather than an uncle. Used to confide everything in him. He and Nadeem were my pillars, my safety nets. That they were lost in a single day is too difficult to accept, even after such a long time.
The events of that day, permanently etched upon my mind, are now rising in my conscience like dark shadows do in a grim setting during a horror movie.
It would seem freaky to anyone, except perhaps a shrink, that I can only recall those events in my mind in the way of narration to my alter ego. Or to an imaginary friend. Deep mental trauma does that to a person. This surely is an ego-defence mechanism, some abstruse Freudian principle of processing and internalizing a tragedy that prevents an introvert person from going insane. Doubtlessly, the effect of being present in the same surrounding again has amplified the agony, and here I go down that road, literally, on an emotional ride again, elaborating the gruesome chain of events to an unseen observer, and also simultaneously listening to them myself in my mind-
‘After returning from school that day, I, as usual had completed the home work, and other studies. And waited for the clock to strike Five-thirty in the evening. At that hour I could go to Nadeem’s place and from there to cricket field. But as the time approached my mother admonished me from going out. According to her, there had been some unfortunate developments in the country that day, and conditions could deteriorate anytime. I was annoyed. Everything seemed all right to me. Ok, perhaps a little less crowd on the roads but nothing significant. I told her that she was over-reacting. But she instructed me severely not to nag her. She was alone at home along with I, grandma, and Sumit, who was not well– cold or something. Papa had gone to Jodhpur on an official tour for three days, and Rajiv chacha had not returned after the college. Said that she had enough on her mind already to additionally worry about me too.
I was angry, quite angry. Did not understand what the fuss was about. Had no idea about the demolition of that mosque. I sat dejectedly at the front gate, hoping that perhaps Nadeem would come instead.
Around 6:30 pm mother came out and gazed at the road with a concerned expression on her face. I could see that she was anxious by the manner in which she kept on rubbing her hands together, and murmured,
“Where is Rajiv? Why hasn’t he returned as yet? It’s getting late,”
” He must have gone to his friend’s house who lives nearby- Prakash chacha, like he does everyday,” I told her.
In that era obviously there were no mobiles and mother’s concern was genuine. Though it did not look like that to me at all. I thought it was an opportunity to go outside. I was rotting away at home.
” Yes, I think you are right, but how should I contact him? There is no telephone at Prakash’s house. I am getting worried about him. I can’t go there, your brother is not well,”
“I will go and check there. It’s quite nearby, and will go from the shortcut, via the empty plot behind out house. It’s just a two minute distance. Will be back in an eye’s blink along with chacha.”
My mother was reluctant but agreed tentatively as she wanted chacha to be at home as soon as possible, and by then nothing untoward had happened, atleast in the vicinity of our house.
And so I jumped over the parapet of our home and landed into the plot behind, and immediately noticed that something was wrong. Street lights had not been turned on, and there was an uncertainty, and well, fear, somehow I felt that way, floating in the stifling air. It had started to grow dark. Everything was quite, nothing stirred. Still, I thought nothing much of it, rather I took it as an adventure. What a dumb wit was I.
I clambered on the road skirting near the plot and jogged towards the turn leading towards the intersection and the road to Prakash chacha’s place. As I turned, my feet got rooted to the..’
I have flinched with a jerk and hit a man passing behind me, with my head. As I apologize he is giving me a queer look. What can I say- that I was immersed in my flashback mentally, and jumped at a heart-wrenching point? He won’t understand, and yet it is true. That scene always make me jump, and crawl, and writhe. I can hear my heart racing away. I can get up and walk away. Why not? What comes next is gross, and crazy, and deadly. And I know it, don’t I? But I think I will stick around and go through it all- again, completely and totally, once and for all. That’s the point. Isn’t it? Of coming here– to revisit the past, cry about it and get closure. So I will continue again and nothing will thwart me now, hopefully…
‘ As I turned, my feet got rooted to the ground and my heart came into my mouth. There at the intersection, about fifty metres from me, stood Rajiv chacha surrounded by a group of about twenty men, all welding swords and lathis in their hands. Nearby, his Luna was burning. There was nobody else. He was pleading to them with folded hands. All of a sudden a man from the group hit him hard, and he went reeling to the ground. My tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth, and a shiver went down my spine. In a flash I understood the gravity of the situation and the reason behind mother’s concern. With an enormous effort of will, I stifled a shriek. I was standing some distance away and was in the shadows so they hadn’t seen me.
The man who had slapped him, and appeared to be the leader, spoke something harsh to the prostrate figure on the ground, and then to other men; suddenly; they all shouted a slogan or something. And at once they were all upon Chacha- kicking and thrashing. Before I could react they had picked him up and then they all went inside an alley that opened nearby, and that I knew had a dead end. In the light of his burning vehicle I got his last glimpse– head rolled to one side and arm dangling from his body listlessly.
My legs had turned to water. Did not know what to do, and whether anything could be done or not. I did possess the presence of mind that he needed help and that too urgently. I looked around, everything- all houses and shops were closed, shut tightly and were ominously dark. There was no use in banging any of them. Going home was pointless. Ma and grandma could do nothing either. As my mind raced frantically it occurred to me that Nadeem’s father was my best bet. Tariq uncle would be at his home, that was quite near, and certainly would rush to help me. And he belonged to the same religion as those men. That was the first time in my life that I had thought on those lines- religion and cast.
Immediately I turned back and sprinted towards Nadeem’s place, in a state of acute terror. It was a four-five minutes walk from there, and I covered it under two minutes. Though I saw no one, there were small fires raging intermittently as some or the other vehicle lay torched, or tyres burnt. As I approached that street, which is in front of me right now, I cautiously peered from behind a wall, there could be other groups like that. I was at the other end of this street. It was deserted except for a girl of about nine-ten years who was shuffling slowly on the road as if in a dream or in a shock!
From somewhere a beam of light fell upon her face and I was surprised to see that it was Shehnaz, Nadeem’s younger sister….’
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What happened that night should never have happened. No religion and no outrage, however strong and deep it might be, justifies the act of taking a person’s life. Everything is rushing back to me now. It is fresh, still, in my memory, it’s a wonder. Haven’t thought about that night in such a long time that I reckoned the details would have been blurred by now, but they haven’t. Not in the least.
Unfortunately, I too was involved in madness, though; I myself did not kill anyone; my Allah knows this. But I saw it happen and did not do anything. I was a willing part of the mob that killed a person brutally. This is an unalterable truth whether I admit it or not.
But, what could I do? Whole atmosphere was so charged. Didn’t hindus also committ the same crime? It was free for all.
There was a vortex of hatred raging here and we all were sucked into it inadvertently.
I distinctly remember that evening. We assembled at Abdul’s place around dusk, as darkness was about to spread it’s wings. He was the unspoken leader, nobody had said it so but wasn’t he the one who was the most vociferous against the demolition of the mosque and was willing to take the charge of avenging that shameful deed? Yes, we all followed him. It seemed easy and right.
I can still feel the heat of the flame of the rage that was burning inside me when I reached Abdul’s place, and well, wasn’t surprised to observe that everyone else was exactly in the same frame of mind. There were sticks, knives and swords lying there- shining. Felt a fascination for them. It was the first time, and the last time too, that I held a sword in my hand. How good it felt. Powerful. Vindictive. And deadly.
Abdul said that a great injustice had been done and that we had to teach them a lesson. That there were reports coming from all over the country of hindus killing muslims and assaulting our women, and that we had to protect our people. It never entered my mind to verify those reports.
By this time all of us were raging from blood thirst anyway, and soon filed out of his place. Must have gone fifty metres, hardly, when we saw him- a young man walking down the street alone, quite near to us. He was holding his Luna in his hands and was walking besides it, perhaps it was not getting started, and he was taking it back to his home. I knew him vaguely. Had seen him passing through the streets on his dark blue Luna quite often, and knew he was a Kayastha living nearby. He was an innocent college student but that night through our distorted vision all of us saw him as an enemy. I did too, I must admit. Why? Can’t say. He had done nothing wrong, only he was at wrong place at the wrong time. That was his only crime. Hugh! Everything seems so simple and uncomplicated in hindsight. My heart goes out to him now but that day…It was different.
In a second he had been surrounded by our group. He became sick of fear instantly and in a way it was quite heart-wrenching to see the terror in his eyes. One could smell his fear.
Abdul told him angrily that we knew he was a Kafir and that his people had desecrated a place of Allah and everyone, including him, would be punished.
Am able to clearly visualise the scene in my mind, never going to forget it, I believe, till I die. He whimpered that he was our brother and had been living amongst us all his life, that he knew many of us and dealt with us daily, and that he had done nothing and had foolishly stayed till late at his friend’s house. And that he would quietly retreat to his house. He folded his hands and pleaded us to let him go.
For a moment my heart relented but then suddenly Abdul hit him on the face and he fell on the ground. I was shaken. But then Abdul said that he was one of them – the enemy, we should not be befooled by his innocent face; given a chance he would not hesitate in penetrating a sword through our hearts and we should not give him that chance, and we should do it first to him.
Tempers were flaring and hormones were raging. Everyone started baying for his blood, yes; even me. Soon he was lifted and was carried to a deserted by-lane, and there he was stabbed mercilessly countless number of times.
Though I did not touch him. I was standing at the back, watching it all happen. I was enraged but somehow I could not hit him with my weapon. My Allah knows it. Infact, after seeing all that gore, I felt a bit of sickness spread over me. Wanted to vomit but was afraid that I would be laughed upon. Even today I am feeling a bit dizzy just by thinking about that dreadful spectacle.
‘So you quietly slipped away in the night, didn’t you?’ I ask my conscience and the answer is yes, that I chickened out. It’s tough to judge oneself, but I must do it, truthfully. Perhaps by recognising and admitting my guilt, I can take the first step towards my penance.
Don’t think anybody noticed my absence at that time. I remember thinking that I would go and sleep inside my shop, exactly here actually, after locking it from inside. Every moment of that night is fresh in my mind after all. But the worst was about to come, and I should relive that part too even if it degrades myself in own eyes…
As I walked towards the shop and turned into the street near the shop, I saw them – a boy and a girl standing there; alone but holding each other’s hand.
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‘I looked at her incredulously. Why was she there?
“Shehnaz! What are you doing here, it’s very dangerous,” though she was Nadeem’s sister, we had hardly talked before that day. I had always been engaged with Nadeem, and she in her own world. But in my sub-conscience I considered her as my sister; not only because one does it on behalf her being the sister of one’s best buddy; but also because I had no sister, and secretly desired to fulfill that place with her. Of course, I had not said one word of this to her or to Nadeem, but it was understood somehow.
“Amit bhaiya!” she cried with relief and came to me, and automatically I hugged her. And she was crying uncontrollably in my arms and there was nothing unnatural about it.
“Tell me what happened,”
“Nadeem bhaiya and papa!” she managed to utter between her sobs.
I felt a jolt,” What about them?”
” We don’t know where they are. Bhaiya went out in the evening, while mummy and I were in the kitchen, to buy a new cricket ball that he had been intending to buy all day from the nearby market. My mother did not have any idea about the conditions in the country and in our city. She had not seen the news. She never does. So, when bhaiya did not return for a long time, she was not unduly worried and thought that he must have gone to your place. But when papa came from the office about half an hour ago he became quite angry at her and said that things were not right, and that he would immediately go out to look for Nadeem bhaiya,”
” As he went out, mummy and I gathered at the window overlooking the road in front of our home and saw him walking down the street determinedly. He must have gone only a short distance when suddenly from one of the lanes a group of people emerged and surrounded him. They grabbed him and carried him forcefully to another street that was not visible to us. Everything happened so fast that we could not react. Then mummy shouted and pushed me towards the bed in the room, and told me to sit there strictly. Then she ran out of our house after papa,”
“Oh! What happened then?” I asked her, dumbstruck by her story.
“I was very frightened and trembled on the bed and waited for them to return. Mummy was gone for a long time. I was sick with worry, and ultimately I came out of the house and thought I would take the help of our neighbours. But nobody opened the door. In my confusion and fright I did not know what to do. For some time I sat on the stairs of our house then I could not wait any longer and decided to look for them myself, and was going in the general direction of your home, perhaps in the hope of finding bhaiya there, when I met you. I am so relieved to have found you. Amit bhaiya what has happened to papa and bhaiya? Where is mummy? Are they alright …I…I don’t know what is happening?”
I had gone cold while listening to her story. Nadeem and uncle! And what about auntie? What was happening? My whole world was coming apart. But I had to take care of Shenaz and auntie, and Rajiv chacha!
I was overcome with deep despair but thought that I had to be strong for her benefit. Suddenly I had grown up.
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine. First I will take you to your home, perhaps they might have returned. They would be quite worried about you. Come-on, let’s go, It’s not safe to be out on the roads.”
We started moving towards her home and immediately saw them- three men armed with swords coming toward us.
All three were wearing headbands that were orange in colour and had ‘Jai Shree Ram’ written upon them. They were fierce looking and looked drunk to me.
“Hey where are you kids going? Who are you? Are you hindus?” asked one of them.
I was petrified but tried to remain calm. And said, “Yes we are, please let us go to our home, we are brother and sister, and are lost,”
“Aren’t you the son of Mr. C. S. Mathur who works for railways?” asked another one.
I nodded and felt a huge relief due to the fact that they knew my father.
” She is not your sister, you have no sister…She is a muslim, look at her. You are lying to us, you traitor,”
I looked at her and it struck me that how was it possible to deduce one’s religion by one’s dressing, but yes it did look that way. Shehnaz was wearing a blue salwar kameez and had her dupatta around her head. My heart sank.
” No uncle you are mistaken…She is my sister..I swear,” Shehnaz was trembling besides me and I came forward instinctively to shield her from their piercing gaze.
” Do you think we are fools, we know who you are and who she is, now step aside …It’s time that we taught her a lesson,”
‘ She is my sister and I will not let you touch her!” I don’t know what had gotten into me but as I stood there, in the middle of mayhem which was bent upon swallowing my world, I knew only one thing that I had to protect her and this knowledge gave the strength to a reticent boy to stand up to those men, half-crazed with hysteria and lust.
“You will have to kill me before you touch her.. I will not let anything happen to her,” I was standing as tall as possible and as proudly as I could, with my jaw clenched and one fist tightened up and holding her hand with the other one.
It was foolish of me to think that I, a powerless thin young boy, could do anything against those men; but it was an instinct. I was not bluffing. I truly had in mind to go to any length to save my sister.
Perhaps they were unnerved by my resistance or perhaps they did not want to harm one of their own and face wrath later on. Or perhaps because she was just a kid and had not developed fully at that point of time so as to satisfy their lust. Or perhaps my words stirred something inside their hardened hearts; whatever it was; but they hesitated for some time.
Few tense moments passed away slowly then one of them said, ” You don’t know what you are doing son, they are not worthy of you. Now go back to your home with her. It’s very dangerous to be on the streets right now. We are letting her go but others might not,”
And they went away as silently as they had come. As I saw their backs toward us, a wave of relief passed over me. The rush of adrenaline abated all at once and I found that I was trembling and shivering, my teeth were chattering. Despite my show of strength I had been totally scared in my heart.
But that was one time in my life when I stood up for something worthwhile. The only time actually, before that night, life was a picnic and afterwards it has just been a burden.
We stood there some time clutching each other, unable to believe our luck. Then we started again, but that night was one long ordeal. Universe was hell bent on trying us, it seemed, for we had not gone few paces when a man’s form emerged out of shadows. We were quite near to the end of that street then i.e. near Imran bhai’s shop, indeed it was Imran bhai who strode up to us, looked at both of us and said,
” You are Tariq Bhai’s daughter, aren’t you? What are you doing here?”
Now it was Shehnaz’ s turn to speak for me, she nodded and said,
” I got lost while looking for my father and mother Imran uncle, this is my brother. Please take us home,”
He stood quietly for some time and replied, ” I know who he is, he is certainly not your brother. I have seen him. This boy is a kafir. He must be taking you to your death. Come with me, I will take you to your home. Don’t trust him…we should never trust them,”
I was shocked and appalled at the suggestion that I could guide her to her death. How could he think like that about a boy was beyond me but perhaps the air was so obnoxious with hatred and mistrust that he could imagine and believe in that notion.
” I am trying to help her and I might not be her real brother but our relation is not lesser than that,” I told him with conviction and thought he would be moved too as those men had been a little while earlier.
But he suddenly came towards me, urgently freed Shehnaz’s hand from mine and pushed me with such a force that I stumbled backwards and fell on the ground. Then he kept his right foot on my chest while holding Shehnaz with his left hand forcefully, as she was trying to get herself freed, and growled-
“You are not her brother. Ok..You are a hindu and a kafir and there can be no relation between us and you. That game is up. Now everything is clear to us. You cannot deceive us anymore,”
I was shocked to the core by his words and lay there looking at him like an idiot. My limbs had no power, my mind was not responding, it had gone into a shell. I stared at him foolishly.
” Listen kid, don’t meddle in our affairs. I have just seen a young men brutally killed, he was one of yours, not far from here and I will not stop from hurting you if you try to follow us. I am taking her to her home and you can go to yours or die on these streets. Today death is dancing on the roads. Your people and mine are out to kill each other. I will make sure that this girl lives but I don’t care for you, so run away try to save your puny life, if you can, anyways it does not matter to me,”
With these words he turned and jerked Shehnaz with him with such force that she was dragged along. She had been crying and pleading to him to take me along with them, that I could be killed, but he did not heed to her.
She turned towards me and our eyes met for the last time. There was an ocean of regret, helplessness and sorrow in those eyes. I saw her last time at that moment and then she was gone.
I lay there for some time. I had gone limp after listening to him.
I have just seen a young man killed nearby.
He was talking about Rajiv chacha! I was too stunned to react.
Eventually I got up and mechanically went to an old abandoned house in the next lane, where nobody lived. There was a way to get into it from the backdoor and climb up the dilapidated stairs to reach the first floor, which was over run with grime and dust. I knew about it because Nadeem and I had been there many times earlier.
I had no desire to go to my home and face my mother and grandmother after what had happened to Rajiv chacha. Besides it was not safe at that time to navigate those streets. I knew they would be half -dead from worrying about myself and about him, but I thought it was the prudent thing to do under the circumstances.
I was drained of all emotions and I distinctly remember staring at the ceiling for a long time untill sleep descended on to me. I was jerked out of my fitful slumber because of a blaring siren. It was early morning already and police was everywhere.
I came down and gingerly went out and then a constable saw me. He asked me what was I doing there, did not I know that an indefinite curfew had been imposed.
I told him everything truthfully and I was transported to my home in the police van…’
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Can never forget the look on his face. It had equal measures of humiliation and defiance. It is difficult to describe, and perhaps I imagined it, but as I pinned him down with my foot and said those words in an attempt to crush his spirit, it seemed to me that his eyes contained a lot of pride and self-respect along with shock and sorrow.
Don’t know how could I stoop so low so as to behave in that inhuman way. Not only I had separated the kids and uttered those inexcusable words to him but I had also left him, a young powerless boy, to die there. Allah be praised that he lived and is now in front of my eyes.
There was a burning desire inside me to prove that I was not a chicken, who was feeling queasy after the butchering of that young man, when I approached them. And I wanted to inflict some damage, do something macho to avenge myself in my own eyes. Though I did not want to kill anybody, that much is true. I must be impartial in judging myself, come what may.
When I saw him standing there with Tariq’s bhai daughter, all my bitterness burst forth out of my heart and flowed through my mouth like lava flows out of a volcano.
I know it was detestable. A better man would not have behaved in that manner in front of a kid. It was no way to prove my manhood. But I was caught up in the mood of the moment. We all were drunk on the poision of loathing. No excuse, but it is exactly what had happened. However, later I did try to redeem myself, didn’t I?
But before that, had to drag the girl to her home forcibly. How she fought with me! And though her home was very near, it had not been an easy task to take her there. However, the moment she saw her mother sitting in front of their house and banging her chest, she broke away from my grip and ran to her. They embraced tightly and both of them wept deeply for some time. It moved me. Yes, it was the point when I first felt the inkling of remorse, of that I am sure.
As I flow along with the mental tide of memories of that tumultuous evening, I must recount and analyse each moment, each action of mine honestly, to myself; specially to myself, before I even begin to hope to ask for forgiveness from him and the Almighty. Because it’s easy to lie to oneself, and in a way that’s what I have been doing all this time; but not today.
There was death lurking on every corner, so I herded them indoor quickly and locked the door. My heart sank while listening to her story- the manner in which her husband had been abducted, and her desperate and unsuccessful attempt to help him. It was heart-wrenching, her pain. Tried to console her but in the heart I dreaded about the fate of her husband and the son. Her despair and helplessness finally crushed my anger. Could feel my bitterness being dwarfed and washing away in front of her despair. That’s what it all lead to! That aftermath of unimaginable proportions.
The daughter kept on looking in my direction with pure disdain and I could not look into her eyes. By then, my conscience already had begun to bite me about leaving that boy unattended there in those circumstances.
That’s why I got up after about half an hour, and went back stealthily to look for that boy and lead him to safety, but he was nowhere to be found. I must tell him somehow that I did come for him.
Since then I have been burning in the fire of regret, though the fire had dimmed over the years. That’s natural I guess, human mind adapts to all situations and cannot go on living in sorrow, pain, guilt and regret with same intensity forever.
But it’s a glorious day today. I know now that he did survive, and I was saved from the ultimate sin- to be solely responsible for the demise of an innocent human being. And though it was unexpected and rather surprising, his sudden appearance atleast I made me face my guilt today.
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‘Life was never the same again. Rajiv chachas’s body was discovered in that gully in a terrible condition. Later we came to know that he had been stabbed thirty-six times.
Tariq uncle’s mutilated body was found in a drain after few days, quite far from where he had been nabbed, and Nadeem’s has never been found. To this day I live in the slender hope that perhaps he ran away to a far away place, and would one day materialise in front of us, smiling in his charming manner and with a perfectly sensible explanation for his prolonged disappearance. Though I know this is never going to happen but I keep on hoping against hope.
I never saw Shehnaz and auntie again. There was a curfew for many days and when things calmed down a bit, we heard that they had gone to Allahabad after few days, at Nadeem’s maternal grandfather’s place. His mother had survived the night but was seriously ill for a long time. His maternal uncles came here and kept the search for Nadeem going on for a long time, then it petered down as no result came out of it.
Meanwhile we were reeling under the loss of Rajiv chacha. Grandmother could not sustain the shock of her young son’s demise and became bed-ridden. She left us for good a few months later, but not before making us move. She absolutely forbade my father from going on living in the same house and the same locality.
A lot of people were shifting from this area after the riots and our family became one of them. We rented a place at Civil Lines after few weeks and shifted there. For me it was a relief. Without Rajiv chacha and Nadeem there were only bitter memories here. And I have ventured here for the first time after that.
Papa was transformed into a broken man. He could not forgive himself for his absence at a time when his brother and family needed him the most. Though it was not his fault that he was out of town at that time. Mummy cried bitterly for months. She blamed herself for not being able to do anything for her brother-in-law and for sending her son into the jaws of death. Though she could not have done anything.
But we had to live and live we did, in our slow, sorrow filled and guilt ridden manner. Eventually we sold our old home and purchased a new one at Vaishali Nagar, only a few kilometres from this place but a world apart.
But there is no energy and no zest in my life. Lights went out for me that tragic night and never came back. Dead people have no memory and no pain. It’s the people who are left behind that have to deal with them. For the longest time I did not allow anyone to sit on my bench in school. That place was reserved for Nadeem. Teachers also went along out of respect for his memory. But I could not keep it up forever.
So after brooding months on these lines, I moved on eventually. I was good at only one thing and it was academics. I managed to get decent grades after an year or two, and went on to pass the All India pre-medical test to become a doctor few years later, and have been practicing at Dubai for the last decade….’
Hugh! That’s it…I have done it. It’s over. The most traumatic events of my life transpired in these lanes, and I have faced them again today. Stood up to them and do feel lighter. Can’t say that I have closure but I do feel better.
They say that wound heal with time. It is wrong, I can say from personal experience. They never heal. We just learn to live them and their throbbing pain subsides to a dull ache. They are always present at the background of one’s mind, ready to burst forth afresh and pour out pus anytime, like they have done to me today morning.
Events happen at a lightening speed, they pick one up suddenly, like a twister, and swirl and churn in its chaotic winds; then all at once everything is calm, except there is a trail of devastation filled with death, mutilated limbs, fates and minds. Afterwards one can spend years and years dissecting the chain of circumstances and actions leading to those events; analyse each minute, each moment and each angle that was involved in the build up and execution of the tragedy; but nothing comes out of this exercise ever. Why did it happen this way? What if… All such questions are unanswerable.
I must return to the present now.
Sumit has been after me to sell off the house at Ajmer. It had been lying vacant after papa’s death two years ago. And now the deal is close to being done.
I was reluctant initially and even today I am not fully convinced. It is the logical thing to do, I know, but it feels ‘too final’ and ‘too decisive’ to me. With it my last contact with Ajmer will be gone. The fragile chord tethering me to my history will vanish.
Don’t know why I persist though. There is no point actually but still I can’t let go. It seems a travesty to pull curtain down on that sordid chapter of my life forever. I wonder what others would do or have done with their lives after suffering in similar manner.
Actually, that makes me think about Shehnaz. Wonder where is she now. What became of her? I hope that she has had a good life, though it’s hard to imagine. But if she has been able to carve out a good life for herself then atleast it will be of some solace to me.
Suddenly, it has occurred to me that why haven’t I tried to look for her? It could not have been very difficult. Perhaps I have been trying to run away from the past all along, rather than facing it. Well I should make a new beginning now. Atleast then this visit could be of some use.
An idea has sprung up in my mind, and it’s amazing why it did not occur to me earlier – I should look for her on the social media. Almost everyone maintains a presence there nowadays. Perhaps I can locate her there. It’s worth a try. I am hardly active digitally, with no presence to speak of, but she might be.
Alright, the web browser is open, and I have typed her name -Shenaz Aziz. There it is, hope something can come out of ..Whoa!
I cannot believe my eyes! There are many entries and the first one is a blog post by the title – My Brother. By Shehnaz Aziz, a dentist at Auckland, New Zealand. There is a picture ..it’s opening and…
There can be no doubt about it. She has obviously grown but I can place her anywhere. Same toothy smile, same dimples on the cheeks and same face cut as Nadeem.
So she is a dentist at NewZealand! And I can see a husband and a daughter in the picture. My heart is fluttering with happiness. To see her after so many years is an unparalleled joy and the fact that she turned out fine is ecstasy itself.
The title of her blog is intriguing, must be a tribute to Nadeem. The date is 20th march 2019, almost an year ago. And she writes :-
‘We are reeling after the shock of the deadly attack on the mosques five days ago at Christchurch and my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones.
Why does this cycle of communal violence and hatred keeps on repeating? Christians against muslims, muslims against christians, hindus against muslims and vice versa. It goes on and on. Someone takes a revenge of some terrible act committed by someone else and somewhere else on a totally innocent population and in the process creates new injustices, new tragedies, new grief and new bereavements, that would need to be revenged and avenged later on another unsuspecting population.
Where will it end? I don’t know, but I do know how it can end; atleast begin to end. And that is if we starts believing in each other as humans and not as hindus or muslims or christians. Religions are good but only if they make us a better person. If they implant seeds of suspicion, distrust and bias towards others then I would run away from religion at a lightening speed. Why can’t we simply interact with others on the basis of simple rules of humanity and common sense? We all know the good things religions preach but most of us fail to incorporate them in our lives. Rather, we generalise people based on their beliefs and not on their actions, and merits and demerits. We see them through a tinted glass and find them tainted.
I am not speaking in a clichéd and a preaching manner. This is coming from a person who has lost her father and her brother to communal riots. Yes; hindus killed my father and my brother many years ago, and regretfully I have to say muslims also murdered many hindus in those clashes. There were losses on both sides. There were demons on both the sides, but there was Amit bhaiya on my side..’
I stop reading it. My name has cropped up and my eyes have started to brim. She remembers! Before I break down totally I should complete the blog :-
‘ Yes, he was a hindu and he stood up to protect my life and honour when it mattered most. He was not my real brother but he was much more than that. He did not shy away from offering his life to save mine, he did not think that I could be slaughtered because of my religion or because he was alone and they were three strong men who wanted to assault me and kill me. When he stood that night in front of me in protection from those beasts, he was not a hindu but he was my brother. It does not matter that he could have been easily overcome by those men and that they could have taken me anyway; but what matters is his intention, his action and his commitment to save a muslim girl whom he considered his sister, even as his own people lay dying. And in the end he did succeed in turning them away. The need is to stand up to hatred and not succumb to it, the need is to rise above the bias, anxiety and distrust arising from some people in the name of religion and believe in humanity and nothing else.
Unfortunately we got separated that night in regrettable circumstances. I don’t even know where he is right now or whether he survived that night. But my heart says that my brother is alive and I urge him to contact me if he reads this.
Because I need him…The world needs people like my brother to come to the forefront and help people like me in fighting this madness that has gripped the world.
Amit bhaiya wherever you are, I salute you and I love you, more than Nadeem bhai.”
Oh God I am sobbing uncontrollably now and tears are running down on my face. I am sitting here on this pavement on a busy thoroughfare and weeping like a lost kid. It is embarrassing. People are noticing me and talking in whispers, even Imran bhai is visibly upset, and I think he is getting up to come to me. I have signalled him to stay put in his shop.
These tears are good. They were long overdue.
My sister is fine and is dealing with her loss in a much better manner. Perhaps I should have been more vocal and more proactive against communal violence all these years, like she has been. Our story and other incidents like them are not something to be hidden and grieved about in solitude. They can be shared and an awareness can be brought about.
Atleast I can try too and do my bit, like her. I can see some closure coming my way, and a ray of sunshine bursting from the veil of dark clouds.
Will contact her soon and together we will ease each other’s pain and of others, if we can. Even if we influence a handful number of people, or even one person, it would be a worthwhile effort.
Shehnaz is younger to me but I think is more mature and more wise. She has shown me the way to deal with the pain and loss, and I now I feel invigorated.
Don’t think I will sell our house at Ajmer now. It’s my last link to my past and from that past I will try to frame a new future. Yes, that’s the way forward. Not only that, I need to bring my family here and introduce them to my gruesome past. Kids do not know any of this, and even Advika has a vague idea about Rajiv chacha and Nadeem. I have never been vocal about it. They don’t know what transpired in this city. How two communities came at loggerheads and committed the biggest sins. They, and others like them, need to be aware. Then only they will understand about the disastrous consequences of fanaticism and hatred. Sumit will need some convincing but he will come around, I am sure. Of course, he does not remember much about that time as he was very young then.
Finally; I think I am ready to go now. But before I go there is one thing I need to do–
I get up and give a smile to Imran bhai.
He is startled and I think he is wiping his eyes.
He is not a bad person and I don’t want to keep a grudge against him. Like everyone else he was caught up in the current of rage. But I think he has repented enough. This is the start that I, him and the world needs.
I will not talk to him today. The smile is enough for now, but I will return soon and will try to engage him in our effort and perhaps it will do a whole lot of good for him too….
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Ya Allah be praised! He is smiling at me.
A little while ago he was crying copiously while looking at his mobile. I got worried and was in the process of getting up to go to him when he gestured with his hand to stop me.
It’s amazing how we can communicate without talking to each other, after everything!
I think he and I perfectly understand each other at some basic level, as can all humans; the need is to pay heed and trust our instinct about others. It’s almost always right. Unfortunately I have learnt this the hard way.
Don’t know what did he see in his mobile but whatever it was, it has given much needed relief to him. He has stood up and is smiling at me. And his smile is like the rainbow that appears after the rain when sun comes out of the clouds.
It has given me assurance that he has forgiven me. That even after everything he still believes in me as a person and is ready to give me another chance. Why can’t everyone be like him?
He is going on his way but something in his manner tells me that he will be back soon to talk to me and perhaps engage me in his life.
And I will be ready with open arms and an open mind to walk along with him on the only true righteous pathway….