I opened my copy of a national newspaper this morning, feeling hope. Strange, because like most of us, I haven’t looked at the newspaper as anything but a source of despair for quite some time now. The last few days of hearing, discussing, reading about the Delhi rape
case has disturbed me, like many others into silent, shocked introspection and some very vocal Facebook outrage.
And so I guess a part of me was hoping for some news in there today that might reinstate my faith in the country’s people, media and law to redeem the savage chaos that has replaced our strong sense of humaneness as a nation.
But instead I see a man I hoped never to set my eyes on again, right here on the front page. A man whose very presence in a seat of power is a matter of as much collective shame to the nation as the rape of that innocent girl on a late night bus by men who just knew that they would walk away smirking and feeling absolutely chuffed with their manhood right under the Prime Minister
and President’s seats.
I see Mr Narendra Modi
in my living room today, or NaMo as his PR agency
has very smartly coined (It means “a humble, reverential salutation” in Sanskrit) smirking back at me from my coffee table.Most pro-development citizens of my generation might think, oh, there goes another writer, harking back to the fellow’s past again, even though since 2002, this awesome guy has built roads, brought investment into the state, built roads, cleaned up the cities,built roads, boosted local economy, built roads, brought in e-governance and did we say, he’s built roads?
I can see why someone building long-lasting, durable roads in India
can be raised to messiah status by us, pothole-stricken Indians. Roads are a big deal for us. That someone is fixing them on his own accord without the need for morchas and dharnas, should cast something of a halo around his head.
And yes, living in Mumbai and being shaken to bones every time I sit in an auto would make me vote for him as India’s next
Prime Minister even if they weren’t even holding an election! But I cannot get myself to forget these few moments that continue to haunt me. As hard as I try, I cannot get the
ringing of that phone out of my ears. Or that doorbell that jolted through a very silent night. Allow me to tell you about them.
I am born and brought up in this beautifully chaotic old city area of Ahmedabad
, called Khanpur. Growing up, my grandfather and father, both senior government officers, constantly reminded me how my apartment building was an amazing example of the city’s cosmopolitan fabric. We had a the Bengali Mr Chaudhari on the ground floor, dad’s evening drink buddy Porus uncle on the 2nd floor, a Hindu ex-police chief, grandad’s good friend and journo Rajdeep Sardesai
’s grandfather Pant Uncle living on the floor below us. The Ferros on the fourth floor always kept their doors open for us kids on Christmas day
with delightful plates of guava cheese and decadent plum cake.
Each of these people’s faces I can still clearly see in my mind as we celebrated every single festival together, as people chit-chatted and greeted each other in the lifts, or Uttrayan when the whole building ganged up together against other buildings and fight for glory on our terraces.
I grew up very aware of how distinctively beautiful our social fabric was as Indians and how each of these cultures was a part of me, even though I was by religion a Muslim.
After all, I was the courier girl for iftar trays sent to all the said neighbors every evening, every year for every Ramadaan
we spent in Ahmedabad. This was my home. This was my childhood.
But as kids we weren’t naive about what was slowly beginning to simmer underneath the cordiality and civility of this society around us. Over the years our Gujarati textbooks in second language class started spending fewer pages on Shabri’s story and more on Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan making us argue over these guys we barely knew. Azaans stopped playing on loudspeakers one day, spurts of car burning and bus torching
incidents over a religious procession became a yearly occurrence and in our building, all our wonderful non-muslim neighbors began to move away to the other side of the city
one by one, to be replaced by Muslim families who found it disconcerting to live in ‘Hindu’ areas any longer. (For those who don’t know, Ahmedabad is for the most part ghettoized into the old ‘muslim‘ city side and the newer ‘Hindu‘ side of the city, divided quite symbolically by the Sabarmati river
on whose bank lies Gandhi’s famous Ashram.)
In Gujarat, the lack of true interest in education had over the decades created such fertility for rumor mongering and brainwashing amongst people, that it wasn’t rare for a
18 year old walking around the street to delude himself into being a direct victim of the 1947 Partition and carrying a grudge the size of Pakistan for it, or for a 4 year old to call
someone a Pakistani for wearing a green t-shirt. History in this part of the world, is truly a contorted mystery to most. But who can you blame when even schools push kids towards science and maths, hardly ever bothering to correct blatantly lying,
manipulative history textbooks. ‘Study economics if you so badly want to be different’, parents opine to children who dare to want to think on their own. So you can imagine why the aam junta here for the most part believes in either of only two ways of life: calculative, business-like, ‘ghata-munafa, paise ke liye ghade ko bhi baap banana padta hai’ (for money you might even need to call an ass your father!) kind of reasoning, or to
be like time bombs, ticking away with suppressed hatred for the fellow next door who forced a ‘daughter of his community’ to convert her religion to marry a boy she loved.
Such base passions in two of the state’s most populous communities was not news to any of us living amongst it. But for years the lazy, pot-bellied ministerial cabinets in the state dozed over these sentiments, adding fuel every once in a while, in very measured quantities to this fire, so people just about bordered on hatred for each other, but never enough to disrupt the financial priorities of the average Gujarati businessman.
Until January of 2002. When, a man named Narendra Modi, very nondescript, safari-suit clad, ironically bearded man,
was put in the Chief Minister’s seat, to the general public’s curiosity. Who was this guy? What was so special about him? Nobody really paid any attention. Until 28th of February, 2002. When he took that proverbial canister of fuel and flung it straight into the simmering flames. The Godhra carnage happened. I remember mum rushing to stock up on groceries sensing a curfew at the least or a full blown riot at the most over The next day or so. I remember calling up my friend three floors below us, joking that with our 10th grade board exams five days away there’s no chance, there can be any
shut down. Our academic luck just wasn’t that great!
We were shut down for three months. Three months of rumors of milk being poisoned and people emptying packets of it down their drains, three months of waiting for the indefinitely postponed board exams to be announced even as muslim family friends advised my father to ask me to drop out of them that year, three months of sitting with my friend every day textbooks in hand on the terrace watching spirals of smoke, eyes filled with tears as someone’s house burnt or that someone himself perhaps, or nights of sitting up watching the silent riverbed from my balcony, dreading the sight of a mob
sneaking up on us if we dared to fall asleep. Three months of watching smirking newsreaders on the local news not able to hold their smiles as they understated the number of deaths. And then that one day in early March, when just after a mob had attacked our neighborhood, been fought off by the slum dwellers that lived under our buildings and we were sitting in quiet shock that the phone rang. It was my aunt’s old
school friend. A wonderful lady married to a leading city dentist who’s son’s marriage my aunt had recently fixed with a distant cousin of ours. They were under attack. This
unassuming quiet family, who had till two weeks ago been planning their son’s summer wedding, were standing cowered in their own home in a two square foot area in the balcony, as a mob pulled out people from homes, burnt their cars and scooters, threw flaming bottles into their windows and set their home on fire. The son and father, both national champions in rifles, finally took their guns out and fired to scare off the mob.
The son was arrested later that day under POTA. And for the most painful seven minutes, my family were on the phone with them, as they begged and pleaded us to send some help, anyone we knew, to save them. We had been stitching new clothes for
the wedding… How was this happening to them??
Two nights later, we were standing in the balcony watching the river, my father and I. He kept asking me to go to sleep, I kept insisting I wanted to keep watch too. We saw a
police van creep up our street below, sirens oddly quiet. A few minutes later, our door bell jangled four times. I hadn’t seen AllahRakha our, watchman of more than 15 years ever look so flustered. Two policemen were at the front gate forcing them to open it. He feared they might be doing it to let in a mob since ours was one of the few areas where people were obviously still untouched. My father told him not to do so under any
circumstances. Mrs Pant, the late police-chief’s wife went down to speak to them, as everyone hoped the presence of a well-connected person, especially a senior citizen might scare them off. From what I heard later the conversation went something like this:
Mrs Pant asked them their reason for wanting to enter the apartments, if they had a warrant. And the policeman simply laughed at her and asking her who she was. When she proudly told them exactly who she was, the only retort she got was, “A Hindu? What are you doing living here then?” Knowing the law and being a woman of sheer guts, she made sure the gates remained tightly shut that night. Even as we all sat in our homes,mirchi powder, kitchen knives, sticks lined up on dinner tables, we knew our building had escaped by what some might rightly call, our ‘connections‘.
And yet those days of terror weren’t what scarred me or children like me in those three months of madness (even though we did hear whispers and rumors that little 10 year
olds in the city’s mushrooming relief camps were demanding to be strapped with bombs so they could go blow up a certain head of their state. They had after all only seen their
mothers raped and burnt to the bone by mobs of a certain political affiliation). For the more privileged lot like us, who still survived safe and relatively of sound mind,one hot Ahmedabad afternoon, we were just sitting in silence after yet another riot had broken out two blocks away and the fighting, gunshots and molotov blasts had simmered down.
And our phone rang again. It was my school friend who I’d spent the best half of my teenage years clinging onto and pinky-swearing with. She was her usual giggly self and I didn’t really feel like smiling at the sound of her voice even as I’d spent a good two months not seeing or hearing from her. She was asking me why I had cut off and if I’d like to go watch a movie at this fancy new multiplex (They’d just become the rage in our not-so-cool-as-Bombay city). At which point I did want to throw my head
back and laugh hysterically, or cry, because how could she not know..? Or worse still understand? That my family and I had been living in sheer terror for three months while
life went on as normal for her. That I had had to cower and hide my name on my exam sheets and pretend to be Parsi when an invigilator in the board exams asked aloud for all the muslim children in the hall.
This wasn’t the Partition and a country where 70% of its population still existed in abject illiteracy, this was two years after the Y2K bug threatened to wipe our emails out. Yet my life as a young teenager was defined by which side of a goddamn river I lived. How could she not know that living less than 15 miles from her door, I would be shot dead or worse if I so much as stepped out to buy chocolates, let alone go for a movie during curfew hours. I told her, “how can I come?
My area is still under curfew.” And she said, “What rubbish? Its all perfectly normal here.” I quietly hung up, even though my head was screaming in frustration, ready to implode.
I don’t live in that city and that state anymore. We left less than 2 weeks after this last incident. We hadn’t a scar to show for the violence, but the mind had been marked. A government bent on singling ‘my kind’ out had managed to instill the fear of law,
especially in the wrong hands in this country, in my heart. The PM remained silent and when he did say something, it was some muffled, throaty poetic nonsense about swords clashing that made no sense. The police made their loyalties very clear. And this man, our chief minister, trusted with my individual well being and safety and security as a child growing up in his state, appeared on my television screen each evening, smiling.
And so I wonder now, a few months away from this country’s general elections when I know for a fact people will get swept off their feet by this man’s histrionics and promises for better roads, how can we not care? I want to ask that childhood friend, that police officer, that ambulance personnel that refused to drive a corpse to the cemetery because it was Muslim: How can we not care to make the more human choice?
Because that is our problem. Not choosing to elect the devil or the duffer. A government, right from local representatives in this country is drunk on this heady sense of power because we, the people, dont care enough about each other and they know it.
Let him come to power. Let him make us better roads. Let him build us a whole new goddamn nation like he chants on news and radio channels all day. But dont give him the satisfaction of knowing we dont care enough to save the other, help the other, and stop him when he comes after one of us!
Because if he knows he will use that knowledge like he did in Gujarat when he wiped out homes, neighborhoods and the emotional threads that made them that, murdered one’s trust in law and order, crushed our moral meter that tells us when enough is enough, and most importantly, stamped out an innocent friendship…
Simple things that define us.
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