Muzaffarnagar is in the news because people there are killing one another. You may have caught the headlines and the analyses. Did you catch the fear? The fear of having to live in the middle of the killings, the fires and the hatred? I did. It was another year, 1992. It was another place, Jogeshwari, a suburb of Mumbai. The fear is always the same. It doesn’t age. It doesn’t let go.
My son carefully kissed his brother through his mother’s bulging tummy as she was about to step out to catch her train to work. Right then, the people who had set fire to the timber mart next door, walked past our window, carrying large stones and sticks and petrol-filled bottles, shouting how they enjoyed setting shops on fire. Our days of riots had just begun.
From our first-floor window, we called out to the security guard of our building to close and lock the gate. Before he could do that, one person rushed in. Gathering courage and ignoring the family’s chorus not to open the front door, I went out to check who the intruder was.
I found him hiding in the stairwell. He eyes told me the story. He was there not to kill, but to escape death. He was a worker from the timber mart. The fear in his eyes appeared to reflect the roaring flames next door. We could hear the explosions, as we looked at each other, sharing the same fear.
I took the steps back home, wondering about his religion and mine.
We had been detachedly following the developments thousands of kilometers up north on TV and the newspapers. Members of one religion had brought down a place of worship.
Nearer home, we heard later, one family in the slums across the highway had been burnt alive in their hut.
That is how we would build our reality for days to come—based on what we heard, garnished with what we imagined.
The newspapers told us that we were at the epicenter of the riots sweeping through Mumbai. We were suddenly conscious of the inflammatory demographic mix of our little suburb, where we had moved less than a year ago.
Then the newspapers stopped. They imposed curfew. They wanted to isolate our locality so that the problem did not spread.
Local trains passed through without stopping at our station. Soldiers lined the streets and the rumor was that the government did not trust the local police to implement the law impartially.
I walked past a soldier. He did not meet anyone’s eyes; his finger was not too far from the trigger of his automatic weapon. I felt he was afraid too.
Living on morbid humor
With no chance of going to office or shops, the residents of my building started gathering every evening on the terrace. We discussed the latest rumors. We readily laughed at morbid jokes. Those who had ventured out regaled us with tales of how they had actually seen killing mobs in action. “They plunged the sword straight through his stomach, again and again.”
All of us tried to look unfazed; it helped that all of us belonged to the same religion.
We were happy that we did not have the nameplates of residents at the entrance. Rumor was both the communities were picking their victims based on the displayed names. Ring the bell and kill. Names disappeared. Doors stopped opening. Life cowered indoors.
Any building name that could be remotely linked to a particular religion was replaced with some innocuous name overnight. Names of flowers were a favorite.
Which side, God?
Large signs appeared in front of places of worship: “This is a fire temple of Parsis.” “This is a church of Christians.” They were effectively saying, “We are not on either side; let us be.”
A small temple that used to receive only fleeting attention from rushing commuters when the bells rang for the morning and evening worship was now the center of attention. Worshippers spilled on to the road and blocked traffic. The loud clanging of bells and the screamed chanting was not to deafen the Gods, but to spread terror. It was to counter the “others”. How could they use loudspeakers to announce their time to pray?
There were times when “those” loudspeakers would blare at odd hours, especially late at night. Based partly on what we understood and partly on how we felt at that moment, we would try to decipher if the words were a plea to the almighty, an exhortation for revenge or an offer of refuge.
Some moments we felt things were returning to normal; other times we resigned ourselves to the new normal.
We would go to the terrace and look across the highway. Whenever we spotted smoke, we conjectured another house had been set afire, maybe with bodies inside.
Milk in times of curfew
Every morning I would step out for milk and whatever else I could lay my hands on. Occasionally, I would manage to get a newspaper. I would take it back home and all of us would devour news of the other world.
One morning the police blocked my way to the dairy.
“You can’t use the main road.”
“I just want to get some milk.”
“You can’t use the main road,” uncaring repetition with a hint of threat.
So I took the bylanes, circled around the patrol post and reached the dairy. Even the buffaloes, normally sleepy and disinterested, appeared on edge.
Every evening I would see the police van, a few minutes before curfew time, crawling behind policemen who wielded their batons to encourage pedestrians to speed up and the roadside hawkers to place their wares inside the van.
My wife could no longer get bread from her favorite bakery. The owner belonged to one community; his workers belonged to the other.
The other world
On the first day they relaxed curfew for a few hours, I made bold to make the trip to office. It was the same crush in the train. The world seemed to have gone on.
“How come the others managed to reach office?” boss opened his sea-facing window and asked. As I was early, I had gone to his house that was right next to the office in a posh locality.
“But are they from the same suburb?” his wife asked her husband.
“What is the name of the suburb?” I told them.
“Yes, they mentioned that in the news,” he said. For him, my suburb was as distant as the demolished place of worship was for me.
“And now you want to go back home,” he did not bother to hide his disgust.
“Yes, before the curfew,” I mumbled.
“You can stay in the office, if you want,” he tried to cheer me up. The problem was the place I stayed in also had my son, my pregnant wife and her old parents. I needed to be with them.
“How do people manage to live there?” his wife said to no one in particular.
“OK, you go,” boss said. “Take care,” he said as an afterthought.
On my way back I wondered if the train would stop at my station. And, how, exactly how, I was supposed to take care of myself.