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Lest I Forget

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Memories from the far end of Bombay riots

I’ve managed to erase most of the memories of the days around December 6, 1992. A few fragments, however, remain stuck to my consciousness like a stain, and wouldn’t go away however much I try to wash them off. I was one of the luckier ones, of course – I was at the far end of the pool, where the ripples came only to subside. Thus the privilege of ‘forgetting’. I’m aware.

I was working in State Bank of India, Churchgate Branch, and less than four months pregnant at the time.

I remember that I was coming back from somewhere, though I’m not sure where. The train I was on was largely empty, but had stopped in the middle of nowhere. No one seemed to know why, though there was a general sense of disquiet in the air that the demolition of a mosque in Ayodha had caused. But at the time it seemed far away. And despite rumours of repercussions closer home, fear had not struck. At least, not me, not yet.

A good half an hour or so later, someone who scrambled up the train said there was dangafasad going on ahead, and that was the reason the train had stopped. After that, the train, with all of us inside it, was eerily silent.

Relief came as a long whistle, and there was a general buzz among us, commuters.  Just as the train was about to move, a heavily pregnant woman struggled up the steps sweating and panting. A few people rushed to help her. She flopped down on a window seat, still sweating profusely and sobbing all the while. She was trying to say something, but was mostly incoherent. The only words we could make out were: “They had swords!”

When she recovered enough to talk, she said that she had run away to escape a mob – they were not coming at her, but. They had bloodied swords and torches, though, and someone told her that a woman, similarly pregnant, had her stomach cut open.

I can’t recall the rest of the trip. Except that the heavy window pane fell on the lady’s hand and she started crying again. 

What I remember of the rest of those days are the random discussions that used to happen.  At work, in the train, among colleagues… On how if you were passing by this road, it is safer to wear a bindi. But if you were taking the other, your bindi could get you killed. About how a Hindu colony protected a Muslim family, or how a Muslim family that kept their Hindu friend and his family safe in their house…

Things like that. 

That was the time I learned that one’s name and surname could become something that saved or destroyed, depending. The first time I became aware of religion, in a way I had never been.

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I was in Bombay on March 12, 1993, as well. And again, what I remember are the most frivolous details of the day. Like the extra-large white and blue dress I was wearing because that was the most comfortable one for my extra-large stomach. And how I was sweating excessively and feeling slightly sick as I walked from Second Road to Chembur Station, but would not take leave. Because it meant one less day at home for my delivery, back in Coimbatore. 

At the station, I began to feel dizzy. Two women from Adelphi – my personal banking customers – held me up and sat me down. They told me it was better that I went back home as I did not look well enough to get through the day. They put me in an autorickshaw and left.

When the call came for me in the afternoon, I thought it was to inquire after my health, or to say that they missed me at lunchtime. But the voice at the other end was hushed. “I’m glad you took leave, Mini. There has been a bomb blast at the Stock Exchange. We felt it in our PB department (which was in the basement).”

It took a while for the news to sink in, as it did for everything that happened afterwards.

I remember the warnings that were being repeatedly heard on railway stations, trains and BEST buses. Please make sure that there is no unclaimed baggage left under your seats or above you. If you do find anything suspicious, inform the authorities immediately. Do not touch or go near it… Announcements to that effect. BEST buses went the extra mile – they started playing old songs, which would be punctuated every so often by such announcements.

To this day, each time I happen to hear the song tum agar saath dene ka wada karo, my heart skips a beat. And my stomach tightens in anticipation of the abrupt pause after main tumhe dekhkar geet gaata rahoon… And I almost wait for the voice that would tell me to check under my seat.

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My scars, however, are thin. Barely visible, considering. I’m aware of that.

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And yet, one has to remember. Always

 

 

*PC: Google images.

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A Letter to A, Post His Mortem

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Dear A,

I have to tell you this. Yesterday, after so many months of your untimely, unexpected death, you occupied my mind space for a good while.

Are you surprised? I am. 

I was trying to send a photograph to someone via WhatsApp, but I couldn’t. Instead, I received a rather grim warning that my storage is full, so I better clean up stuff or else. I had no option but to comply, you see. So I went to Storage and started deleting chats one by one.

Your name came up in my list of contacts, which was quite unexpected. I had forgotten that we used to message occasionally, enough to take up 7.4MB of my old-fashioned iPhone – which is about as spacious as your apartment was, the last time we were there. 

A couple of jokes, good wishes for the now-old 2018, some articles about the state of our country, and something on Bitcoins – that’s what you’d sent. I’ve replied in polite emoticons, mostly. You must know that I’m not big on WhatsApp conversations.

By the way, the last message from you (which I have not replied to), dated March 30, 2018, is a video.  A man in a business suit is speaking in Hindi about why cleansing your ‘system’ is vital for good health. You were huge on health, I remember, what with diet and exercise plans and all that.

Life’s little ironies, right? Your heart didn’t give a damn, ultimately.

We had our comment-reply transactions on Facebook too. A few months before you died, you had taken to making short motivational videos. To be honest, I was ambiguous about them (having never been one to take to motivational speeches), so I kept well away. After I came to know of your death, though, I wished I had watched them, just so I can claim half your niceness reciprocally. 

But then, that’s what you were, right? Unfailing kind, unwaveringly considerate – right from the first time we met at the gate of my hostel in Tilak Nagar. Yes, it has been that long!

You and S, your then-new wife, were waiting at the hostel gate with Shiva, to be introduced to his wife-to-be. Then one day, we came to your house, met your mother, and listened quietly to your collective anxiety at not having an offspring yet.

Later, you and S helped Shiva appease his family with a quick round of astrological manipulation. With the help of an astrologer known to you, my horoscope was changed to match Shiva’s.

See, I’m shaking my head and smiling as I write this.

I don’t know if you are aware of it, but that little lie fell flat – literally at the altar. When the temple priest asked me about my star, I blurted out ‘moolam’, instead of the ‘chothi’ that my new jatakam required of me. But my father-in-law, the gentlest man I had ever had the fortune to meet, just smiled benignly and let it pass. No one from my side of the family had the slightest inkling of that little drama anyway, so that was that.

When I returned to Bombay alone after that hurried wedding to stay with my husband’s aunt, you and S had visited me diligently. I was pregnant, confused and completely unprepared as a mother-to-be. Then, when Shiva came down for a visit, we came to your house. You and S were trying to feed your curly haired, doe-eyed elder son at the time. A year or two later, you guys moved to Qatar.

When was it that we made that boat trip to Elephanta Caves? And which year was it that you all had come to our house in Trivandrum – the one that had nutmeg trees growing in the backyard? For the life of me, I can’t recall the timelines. You would have, I’m sure. Because you were the one that remembered everything including birthdays and anniversaries, and sent your wishes without fail.

You guys were in Sharjah when we moved to Dubai, and you were among the first ones to reach out. But by then, the equations of your own life had changed. Your search for— What was it that you were looking for? Meaning of life? Peace? Whatever it was, it had already begun to appear as cracks on your family wall. I saw the bitterness that had etched harsh lines around S’s smile. But yours was as white as ever, to my surprise.

It wouldn’t hurt you now, would it, if I admit that every time I visited your apartment, I couldn’t wait to get away from it? As much from the clutter of your brown-gold-ochre space, as from the darkness that hung like cobwebs in kitchen conversations. Maybe the darkness in my own head intensified when it came in contact with another. Which is why, like the lotus, I keep seeking sunlight.

After you all left the UAE, these occasional social media messages were our only contact. And then you died, just like that. Your heart gave way – just like your father’s, Shiva said.

Anyway, late as it is, I have something to tell you. It’s about this one enduring image I have of you, the one I have carried with me all these years, regardless of everything that came after. A collage, made of pieces of a memory from back then when Mumbai was still Bombay, and I was a 22-year-old in the big city. At a time when Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Railway Station was just a cleared out patch of land near our hostel. We girls used to walk there after dinner in our housecoats.

I can’t recall why I left my aunt’s flat in Sion so late that Sunday evening, especially since I was alone – I’m usually more prudent than that. In my hurry to get back to the hostel, I hopped on to the first train from Koliwada Station, assuming it would go to Chembur, so I can get down at Tilak Nagar. It was only when the train reached Kurla Station that I knew it terminated there. The only train that would stop at Tilak Nagar after that, they told me, was waiting at a platform at the far end of the station, and would leave in a couple of minutes. I ran in the direction pointed.

It was late, it was crowded, and I was panting with panic and exertion. I stood on the platform, inches away from the train, paralysed by the crowd rushing in. And then I heard your voice, calling out to me from the train that was almost moving. You told me to get into the train quick; there was no other train that day which would stop at Tilak Nagar. I scrambled up, pushed ahead by the crowd.

Did I cry? Or did you sense that I would, any minute? Either way, you stood there, rock solid, making sure I was unharmed. Then you got down with me at my station, and insisted on walking me to my hostel. You kept talking all the way, inane small talk intended to reassure me. Later, I came to know that you were a more compulsive talker than I am. By the time you left me at the gate and walked away in the direction of Chembur, I was almost normal, and grateful. Immensely so. 

Your kindness that night, dear A, has stayed with me all these years. It has survived your death, and I know it will see me to mine. Despite everything that was heard, said and known, that is how I will remember you.

I want you to know that, wherever you are.

Regards,

Mini

This wasn’t what I wanted to write about!

“What kind of times are these, when 
To talk about trees is almost a crime 
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

– Bertolt Brecht

 

I started writing this post yesterday. In the notepad of my head, that is.  

I began by writing about my walk around the park, about the nostalgic scent of neem trees in full bloom, about the elderly couple I pass by every morning. I wrote about how the bench under the ‘poovaaka’ tree I was planning to sit on had come apart, and how I then decided to sit on a pink bench under the canopy of pink bougainvilleas that would contrast so nicely with my blue tracksuit. About the neat back-view of the Filipino lady who cycled past me in a snugly fitting grey and purple suit. Things like that.

You know what I mean – the good stuff. I had even taken a bunch of photos to go with the post, including that of a white-with-black-patches catperson who had stretched out languorously on a bench. 

But that was yesterday morning. 

Yesterday morning, much before the shockwaves of the details of eight-year-old Asifa Bano’s rape and murder hit the news. Before the comments from people who justified it, and the tweets that started with what about when— began to rise in yellow, bilious waves from the fault line of my stomach. Yesterday, while I still had the satisfaction of having taken a stand on some of the things that I should have, long ago, basking in the afterglow of having stood up to some well-meaning people. People I am otherwise fond of, who keep trying to convince me about the greatness of Hinduism and the need to protect it from malicious forces. Can’t you see? they keep asking me. 

I can’t. And yesterday I told them that. 

I used to not respond at first, silence being golden and all that. Then one day I decided that this was not the time to remain quiet. So I began to go to great lengths to explain why I disagreed with their sentiments. And shared whatever solid pieces of evidence I came across, to support my argument. See, this is what I’m trying to tell you.

This despite knowing that I would get thrice the number of what I had sent. And you see what we are trying to tell you!

It has taken me a while to register that there are doors to human minds which remain shut to logic and reason.

I was still naive, though. So I decided to out. Let’s not talk religion or politics, ok? I typed. I can never agree with you on these matters. To my pleasant surprise, our decision to agree to disagree was made amicably. I felt damn proud of myself for finally standing up to them. Because you see, for all my opinionatedness, I do have a fear of hurting the sentiments of those I respect. Or is it the residue of a latent fear of authority? Freud would know.

Last night though, I broke the mutually agreed-upon disagreement by bringing their attention to the sheer evil behind the abduction of an eight-year-old girl by some senior guardians of the law and religion who had kept her inside a DEVI TEMPLE (Oh god!) and repeatedly drugged and gang-raped her before wresting her life out in unimaginably barbarous ways. And those waving our national flag in support of the perpetrators.  I didn’t exactly ask, Can’t you see what’s happening? Because I was sure they would.

Now I stand corrected. Stripped of my illusions. 

Because today I am asked why there was no such outrage when Hindu girls were raped.  What about when– I am asked. Why only for this? I reply that I cannot believe that they are saying this, given the circumstances. But we are talking about the—

Stop being one-sided! I am told. 

One-sided. As if there are subtleties to child rape and murder that I am incapable of understanding.

I give up. Even my 3KM morning walk has not given me enough endorphin and serotonin to keep going. Maybe I should have stuck to our agreement and not talked religion or politics.

You should have! Now stop sharing your one-sided sentiments. 

I’m stopping. Here. Now. Maybe there’s nothing quite as impenetrable as those doors that are locked and keys thrown away. Doors to human minds.

***

This was not what I had wanted to write about. Even when I sat at my laptop a while ago, this was not what I had as topic of the day. I had still meant to write about my sanity walk, the sight and sounds thereof, and the high that it all gives to my menopausing self. Really. That was the intention I had started out with.

But how can I get rid of the image of light dying in a smiling pair of large, eight-year-old eyes from my mind? Or the overwhelming sense of defeat I feel in being able to do anything about it – not even convince those close to me.

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Photo courtesy: https://twitter.com/kalkikanmani

 

The Many Moods of a Working Woman

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Wada Koli, Nirona Village – Bhuj                                                            March 23, 2018

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Footnote:

When I asked her if I can click pictures, she gave me a half-smile and a nod, more with  resigned acceptance than enthusiasm. Then she turned away, leaving me – another alien with a camera and some good intentions – to my devices, and continued to watch the day’s proceedings in silence.  If I found her fascinating, so had others before me. More will, after. She knew that. In the meantime, she had so much on her hands. And mind. 

If the deep lines on her twenty-something face continue to haunt me, whose fault is it?