May 23, 2002. I entered the narrow lane that led me to a cluster of houses where nobody lived now.
I had often heard about this place. Constantly. Since that day on the morning of February 28, 2002 when an entire family had been roasted alive in their vehicle as they were fleeing the mobs from their home. I think there was a picture in the newspapers too. It was in Naroda, on the Ahmedabad – Mumbai Highway, that Mr. Modi’s recall of Newton’s third Law saw its macabre mechanism unfold. The news, that about 90 more Muslims had been killed in a locality adjoining this highway took a while longer to reach me, or perhaps a while longer to sink in. It took me further three months and about a couple of thousand more lost lives to decide to come here and see for myself.
And here I was now, with a video camera and a local friend in tow trying to figure what was the best way to get in past a few Gujarat police personnel who wouldn’t let us. There were not many of them, but what were they doing here? The remaining people of Naroda Patiya were now in a refugee camp at Shah Alam Dargah, unwilling to accompany me to their homes here. Some locals, who may have formed the mobs that day, were still out here watching us. Who were the police protecting here?
We hung around a bit thinking of options; burnt a few cigarettes, gulped down a few cups of tea at the roadside ‘chai tipri’ facing the burnt out, vandalized shell of the Naroda Patiya mosque and ended up being surrounded by a small mob of locals. The police gang immediately came over to free us and took us to their post. I do not remember how exactly our informal interrogation went; how it changed its course into an exchange of views about the events of that day, but it did not take us long to fathom that now we were face to face with the people who may have witnessed, have stood by or even participated in the carnage that day. I particularly remember, that when the policeman in charge described to us how a Bajrang Dal leader ‘speared a pregnant lady and drew out her foetus’; his blue eyes actually seemed to shimmer with pride he was unable to hide from us fellow Hindus.
So, finally realizing that we were just harmless ‘carnage tourists’ with a camera to convince him with, the police in charge accompanied us down the narrow entry lane of Naroda Patiya to a cluster of houses where nobody lived now. What I remember ten years later about that day is a difficult endeavor for me to put down in words; much like taking a printout of a hazy and grainy video recorded by the eye.
We walked down many narrow lanes, from the highway entry point to its dead-end common boundary wall with the family quarters of Gujarat police personnel. Here it was confirmed to us what we had been told or had read earlier. The besieged residents, especially the women and children, had pleaded with the families of police personnel across this boundary wall to let them through, but only at the end of the day when the carnage was over were the hungry, thirsty, tired and fearful survivors of Naroda Patiya let in and put in vans to be transported to Shah Alam Dargah relief camp.
We crisscrossed the lanes of Naroda Patiya many times while all the time accompanied by a running commentary from the Police men who ‘guided’ us. But the details, which they did not hesitate to divulge, were off course common knowledge to most of us already. I guess, we were mostly trying to corroborate what we had heard from the residents in the refugee camps earlier, or had read about in the newspapers or various human rights reports. When we asked to be taken to the infamous well at the other end of the locality, we were advised not to go there, the place had been sealed up. I do not remember clearly, if we were told that the well had been cemented up. It was at this well most of the bodies were speared, cut up, dumped and burnt.
But except for the constant, excited, remorseless, running commentary provided by our accompanists and for our probing questions, our walk down the empty lanes of Naroda Patiya that day was like walking the eerily silent streets of the other world, something one can only experience in dreams or in the broad day light of a living nightmare. Living nightmare it was, to see homes waiting for its people, rotting cooked food in utensils, half eaten rice and vegetables served in a plate …chapattis turned hard like a cardboard piece cut in round shape and clothes put to dry still hanging on clotheslines. While there was neat order in one lane, in the adjacent one, there were cloths, utensils and household items of every kind strewn about all across. It stood out perhaps as the only evidence that a catastrophic violence had taken place here. No, the houses had not been destroyed, or burnt or pillaged or looted; only people had been vanished here. Maybe I don’t clearly remember now if there were a few looted houses and a few burnt structures here as well. I do not remember this too well perhaps because the memory of burnt out shells of apartments (the image of melted down ceiling fans with twisted blades still vivid in my mind) in the richer parts of Ahmedabad across the river Sabarmati; a river that divides Ahmedabad neatly into haves’ and have not’s, Hindu/Muslim areas, where we stayed in a partially burnt, empty Muslim apartment block, is too powerful a memory to override all other memories of vandalism done elsewhere. The evidence of violence of that day was stark and visible however in the Muslim localities across the highway from Naroda Patiya. Here we were accompanied not by police but by a few young boys from the mob that had surrounded us earlier. Most of the houses here were totally or partially gutted, almost all were looted and vandalized and worst of all, the walls had been smeared with soot and saffron coloured slogans that betrayed my religion.
At Naroda Patiya however, in contrast to what we had seen all over Ahmedabad and in the surrounding villages, after so many months, the only other stark evidence of violence visible here was in the absence of people, absence of children playing in the streets, absence of women at a dripping tap in the corner street. An aching absence; almost too painful to bear or comprehend, of any sound of a human voice, children’s laughter or a bird’s chirp. It was as if people had just vanished into the thin air in mid-activity at the start of a just another normal day.
There was no blood anywhere, but a strange stench; not of rotten or burnt flesh but of putrefied cooked food and uncollected garbage. In some homes, it was like the smell one senses when entering a dark space infested with bats, but this place seemed unusually bright here; almost as if washed by light all over, like a film set just lit up and ready for the shooting to begin. Yes, that was how it looked, like a film set which only needed some people to come in and play their assigned roles of normal looking inhabitants performing their routine chores. It almost appeared as if things had been deliberately left untouched here from the day the carnage took place, like a scene of crime that was still in need of investigators to gather their forensic evidences.
It felt difficult to connect the empty locality with the carnage that had happened here only a few months earlier. For my sense of disbelief to break I must have strongly yearned for this brightly lit, almost undisturbed small and neat looking locality to be connected with all its dead at the moment of their pain to form a complete picture of a gross and criminal violation. When I returned to the Shah Alam Dargah relief camp that evening and told the survivors of Naroda Patiya about my visit to their empty homes, my expectation that they would besiege me with questions about the state of their empty homes was only answered with silence, the same kind of silence that Naroda Patiya had greeted me with. At that moment, I sounded to myself as if I had disbelieved their stories, as if I had accused them of exaggerating their losses to me, as if I had felt deceived or cheated by the apparent serenity of their empty homes.
It was only a year later, on March 23, 2003 when I found myself at Nadimarg in Kashmir, at the site of another massacre that I could connect the blood soaked bodies of the dead on cremation pier with the bright light of their empty homes to form a complete picture of a gross and criminal violation, a carnage. I understood then, the silence of the survivors of Naroda Patiya.
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