Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Home for the Holidays

Everything looked normal – or probably, as normal as a place like that could look.
As Rajeev stepped off the train and onto the dusty platform at Anand Junction, he looked around, and that sudden feeling of mild depression that always gripped him when he reached this place settled firmly in his heart and lower intestine, forcing an unsettling increase of pace in the one, and a nervous little release of digestive gases from the other.
Not a word was spoken on the fifteen-minute drive back home. Rajeev’s dad spent the time racing across the highway, a ribbon of almost-melting tarmac set amidst tobacco plant and banana fields, while Rajeev himself observed the passing landscape, studiously avoiding any conversation.
It hadn’t always been like this: Rajeev’s parents had moved to Gujarat while he was in his second year at college in Bangalore. He had no idea why they decided to leave Bombay for the godforsaken village of Shivri, twenty kilometres from Anand in Central Gujarat. His parents, on the other hand, had no idea why Rajeev didn’t like their decision.
Over many an anguished phone call, his parents had explained that they had had it with city life: with the pace and the bustle, and now that his father had retired, they would rather spend their time in peace and quiet, amongst whom Rajeev’s dad was fond of calling ‘their’ people. More than anything else, they said, it was important that the entire family (Rajeev included) get back in touch with their ‘roots’. Bombay had been a generational stopover in their family’s journey, they said, and it was time to go back home.
For Rajeev, however, a muddy little village that was more extensively populated by cows than people was not nearly home. It had no cell phone signal coverage, no cinema theatres, and aside from his parents, no people who spoke English at all. As far as Rajeev was concerned, Shivri was the stopover, an unreal hell of boredom that regularly sucked his holidays away.
Moreover, it was full of Gujjus.
Rajeev had never really thought of himself as a Gujarati before he went to college. Once he started simmering in that little melting pot of an academic institution, however, he found himself answering questions about his ethnic identity far more often than he was used to.
Before college, the only major identity brackets that he was used to categorising people in were ‘townies’ and ‘burbies’. Aside from where a person lived, everyone was a Bombayite. At most, your school or college was the finest division of identity.
In college in Bangalore, however, you could be no more nor less than a Bong, Chom, Mal, Gult, Tam, Digga, or Gujju. The more imaginative labels included Mal-Chom (a Keralite from Delhi), Bong-Tam (a Bengali from Madras), and the freakiest among them all, Ding-Dong (a Bengali Christian from Delhi.)
The Mals were always forming Mal mafias, the Choms acting aggressive and beating up juniors, and the Bongs furiously debating the relevance of Communism in today’s world - or so the story went, and so you were meant to do. People who until then had not even known three words in their mother tongue were now strenuously asserting their identities as doyens of their inherited cultures. In all this, Rajeev felt more than a little isolated – there were hardly any other Gujjus in college, and those that were, were either freaks of nature or final-years that Rajeev could hardly even look straight in the eye, leave alone speak with. In any event, whenever conversation turned in such a direction and Rajeev’s Tam roommates started waxing eloquent on the supremacy of Tamil literature, music, dance, and culture, all that Rajeev could weakly come up with was the supremacy of Gujju Rummy games on local trains.
He hated having to carry that label.
He hated coming to his ancestral house in Shivri even more.
A trip such as this was a total waste of the holidays, in Rajeev’s opinion. Mind made up firmly to sulk the coming week away, Rajeev stomped up the steps to what was once his Grandfather’s room, and had now been converted for his use. Prospects for entertainment looked bleak: he had managed to carry back only three books from college (having spent the money budgeted to buy books for the holidays on a drinking binge with friends the night of the last exam), the computer at home was on the blink (again!) and his mother was visiting relatives in Rajasthan.
At least he would have the house to himself while his father was on the farm all day.
After enquiring solicitously into Rajeev’s comfort, his father left for the farm. Rajeev bathed, and went downstairs to the hall and the T.V., his only link with the real world. He flipped through the movie channels, each of which was showing films he had already seen. Rajeev knew that before the holidays were over, he would watch any old drivel, even films that he already seen thrice before, and hated the first time, but he wasn’t about to give in to that kind of desperation just yet.
He flipped to the news channels, and that earlier small feeling of depression now changed into a cold, hard fist that clenched his heart, and almost stopped his breathing.
Somebody had set fire to a train compartment full of Hindu karsevaks at Godhra station, no more than three hours ago. The first footage of charred bodies being dragged out of the train, some still fused with scraps of half-burnt saffron clothing, was now being splattered onto television screens across the world. As reporters went into adjectival hysterics, Rajeev slowly turned and looked out the large windows onto the dusty village lane.
Not a soul stirred there, but the sound from various television sets, all tuned into news channels covering the same story, seeped out from the neighbouring houses, thickening the air into a clogging poison of panic and fear.
Rajeev ran up four floors to the terrace of the old house, and looked out across the village. The house had been built off the main road of the village, and was the highest in Shivri, so Rajeev had a good view from here. The road itself began as a dusty turnoff from the highway, bloated into a bus stop and a small traffic circle around which people usually sat in the evenings, and then took a ninety-degree turn into Shivri proper. The back of Rajeev’s family house faced this part of the road, just after Ismail bhai’s tailor shop and the Cooperative Bank, and across the road from the tiny village mosque. A lane led off from the main road where it turned into the heart of the village, and the village Police Station stood ten metres from the mouth of this lane. Rajeev could see the entire T-shape of this tableau from his terrace, bereft of people, settling slowly into what could have been just another dusty March evening. The turn in the road and the Police Station were on Rajeev’s right when he faced the mosque, and houses cluttered the road towards his left.
Three hours. And already nobody on the streets. Three hours! Rajeev could very well still have been on the train from Bangalore! Small beads of sweat slowly caked the dust that rose from the road and was now settling upon Rajeev’s face.
Rajeev’s father came back home, and they talked more that evening than they had in the past two years. Rajeev was, not to put too fine a point upon it, shitting bricks. His father saw that, and tried to assure him that nothing would happen. These were ‘our’ people, after all. Shivri had had no communal riots, ever, and all this kind of thing only ever happened in other places. There was nothing to worry about.
His father’s friends came over after dinner, as they usually did, and to his own surprise, Rajeev found himself staying behind to hear them talk. They usually spent their time talking about people from the village who had emigrated to the U.S., and were now doing very well for themselves, thank you, or about such-and-such a person’s daughter running away with such-and-such another’s son. Today, however, the talk was grim, and the tone much heavier.
Riots had already broken out in villages not more than ten or twenty kilometres away. Fifteen Muslims killed in Vadodara. A mosque set ablaze in Ahmedabad. A madrasa sheltering women and children ravaged in Surat. There was talk of how people already had lists with the names and addresses of Muslims in Ahmedabad, and Ramesh uncle spoke about his cousin in Rajkot, who had told him about the little stockade of swords, knives and cutters they were piling up there.
To Rajeev’s surprise, not everyone sounded shocked. Suresh uncle almost smiled when he talked about houses being set afire in the next district.
The next morning, Rajeev’s father got ready to go to the farm, as he usually did. Despite Rajeev’s entreaties not to step out of the house, he left at nine, as he always did.
Rajeev spent the next two hours staring at the news. Things were rapidly worsening. The riots had spread across almost all of Gujarat now, and some of the worst-hit areas were in the same district as Shivri.
He pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his suitcase and went up to the terrace. After looking around at a street as deserted as it was the evening before, Rajeev sat down on the ground, keeping his head below the parapet so that no one would be able to see him from the other houses, and lit up. The nicotine sped into his bloodstream, calming his frayed nerves somewhat.
Halfway through the cigarette, he heard the first bloodcurdling yell. That “Jai Shree Ram!” was followed by a spate of other, enthusiastic bellows.
Rajeev froze; he stared bug-eyed at the sky, the cigarette forgotten halfway to his mouth. The noise slowly escalated, and now the cries came more regularly. Rajeev threw the cigarette away, and rose inch by inch, until his eyes were just above the parapet.
A ragged crowd of fifteen was marching slowly up the road from the left, yelling slogans all the way. They didn’t look like they were carrying any weapons, but they were shouting loud enough to raise the dead.
In the next two minutes, the stretch of road behind the house turned into a seething mass of shouting, yelling men, none of whom were older than thirty-five, and the youngest of whom was clearly still in high school. The mob yelled and yelled, and with every cry of “Jai Shree Ram!” or “Maaro haaramiyo ko!” Rajeev’s pulse quickened just that little bit more. They pelted stones at the mosque, then, and the sound of shattering glass added to the cacophony.
Ten minutes later, Rajeev saw a jeep leaving the Police Station, siren blaring, slowly trundling down the road towards the mob.
They ran. Nothing else happened that day.
The talk that night was even more morbid.
Rajeev’s father had told him not to worry too much earlier that day. The police would do their job, he said. That’s what they were for. All the Muslim families had already left the village, locking their houses behind. An unnecessary precaution, he said: nobody would be killed in Shivri.
That evening, however, Ramesh uncle told them what he had overheard at the hardware merchant’s shop earlier in the day. The Sarpanch and the merchant were conspiring furiously when he stepped into the shop. Not noticing him, they continued for a minute or so more, and Ramesh uncle had listened quietly.
The few Muslim houses in Shivri were in a tight little knot just behind the mosque. If these, and the mosque, were to be erased you would have a largish block of land, just off the main road. Prime property. You could build a market there, one said, and make loads of what people would pay you for shop permits. You could sell more cement and construction goods than you have in the last decade to people who want to build shops there, the other told the first. Fine, then, let’s talk to our people.
The next morning, two havaldars settled upon a pair of rickety chairs opposite the mosque, and yawned the day away. Rajeev spent the day between the news on television and sneaking smokes on the terrace, comparing the seeming calm in Shivri to the insanity on the news.
At exactly six in the evening, the two havaldars got up, kicked the chairs to the side of the road, and started waddling back to the Police Station in the slowly gathering dusk.
Bloody hell…” Rajeev muttered. Why in the name of fuck were they leaving now? In five minutes, they were at the Police Station, where Rajeev saw them, two other havaldars, and a couple of more senior officers sitting at a bench drawn up at the mouth of the lane, facing the main road. They’re going to keep an eye on things from there, then, Rajeev reassured himself. No cause to panic, not just yet.
Rajeev had brought his father’s Handycam up to the terrace that evening, and he decided to shoot a little video of the deserted road and the mosque, and the entire spooky spread of the village so he could show it to friends when he got back to college. He brought the camera up to one eye, shut the other, and the world was now a black-framed image.
He panned the camera slowly across the main road, starting from the highway and the bus stop in the distance, with a little detour to the Police Station and then finally down the road to the mosque.
The shouting began again then. Forgetting to move the Handycam away from his eye, Rajeev turned towards the stretch of road on his left. A larger crowd than the day before was making its way down the road. Some of them held flaming torches, and their burning reds and oranges were scarier against the twilight than they might have been in the dark.
Forty men, vermilion smeared across their foreheads, reached the stretch of road behind Rajeev’s house. There were more shouts of “Maaro kutto ko!” and “Saale Pakistaaniyon baahar niklo!” today than the “Jai Shree Rams!” of yesterday.
Focusing on one particular face that seemed a little familiar, Rajeev realised that it was Manish, Suresh uncle’s son. He seemed one of the more enthusiastic stone-throwers, and joined the group of men who were now breaking down the wooden door of the mosque with iron rods. A small ball of disgust came into his mouth, and Rajeev spat the acid-tasting bile out. Manish! This was no uneducated hooligan – at least he hadn’t thought so, until now!
Moving the frame across the crowd, Rajeev realised that most of the rioters looked like they came from any ordinary, middle-class family in the village. They didn’t look like ruffians or petty criminals – these were everyday folk!
By this time, small knots of rioters had broken away from the main crowd, and were attacking the houses behind it. Rajeev watched, shocked, as a group of three smashed a door down and ran in. In another minute or so, furniture and small household goods came crashing out of the first floor window. Soon enough, he saw the three of them pushing an entire cupboard off the first floor balcony. The cupboard crashed down into the narrow lane and clothes came spilling out. That sight somehow frightened Rajeev more than anything he had seen so far: that cupboard spilling its contents out onto the dust of the lane was somehow like seeing a dying man, his stomach slashed open, spilling his intestines out into the world.
It wasn’t all about destroying things, however: Rajeev saw men running out of those houses with a pressure cooker here or a radio set there and putting them safely at the side of the road, to be taken away home later, and in one case, two men carefully cradling a television set away.
Rajeev panned to the right, where the policemen calmly watched this menagerie of madness from their spot outside the Police Station. They moved nary a muscle.
Sickened, Rajeev took his eye away from the viewfinder, and looked around. He realised that he wasn’t the only one looking at this carnage: there were watchers on every terrace. He saw that he was the only one crouching and hiding, and slowly stood up. He caught Ramesh uncle’s eye then. His house was next door, and he was standing on the terrace with his two young sons.
Ramesh uncle looked across to Rajeev, and shook his head furiously. Not understanding, Rajeev looked perplexed, then looked down in the direction that Ramesh uncle was now pointing at. The red power indicator light on the Handycam! Rajeev quickly switched it off.
He turned again to the horrible drama being played out on the street. Two men were rolling two LPG cylinders through the gaping hole where the door of the mosque had once been. They came running out in a few seconds, and then, a blast shook the walls of the mosque. The cylinders had burst, and the first cracks appeared in the wall of the mosque.
The riots continued, on and off, for a week and more. Despite his protestations, his father drove him to the station on the day Rajeev was supposed to head back to college. He didn’t want to leave his father there alone, and his father didn’t want him to spend a minute more than was necessary there.
Things had quietened down by then; trains were running smoothly once more, and no more riots had been reported in the past two days. In any event, the train would be outside Gujarat in six hours time. There were very few other vehicles on the highway, however, and in more than place, they passed the charred remains of cars, handcarts, and some things that Rajeev didn’t want to identify, or even look close enough at.
In college that semester, and in all the semesters after, Rajeev refused to answer to the name ‘Gujju’, something that he had grudgingly done before. He talked to his parents more often, and they studiously avoided any talk about returning to roots or mingling with ‘our’ people. As summer placements and trips with friends took over his holidays over the years, Rajeev visited less often.
In the short break he had taken between the end of term and beginning work with the Bombay branch of an MNC, Rajeev visited Shivri for the last time.
The village was a miniature of the State: polarized between the overwhelming majority of Hindus, and the few Muslims who had come back to Shivri after the riots, their houses, possessions, and dignity all snatched away from them.
He found the place even more stifling than he usually did. The bearded and bespectacled mass murderer won term after term in the elections; and you still couldn’t say the word ‘Muslim’ out aloud even at home: everyone just looked down and away, and called them ‘Ms’, some out of shame, and more out of disgust.
Rajeev piled his bags into the boot and climbed into the driver’s seat. His father sat shotgun, and his mom in the backseat. They were dropping him to the station, but unlike earlier, his father let him drive his car now. He turned out on to the main road, and as they passed the place where the mosque once stood, Rajeev stole a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.
The new vegetable market was bustling with activity.