The following is an extract from I Am Ahmedabad, a collection of short stories
How does life matter when it can last or be lost owing to the nature of a mere hanging flesh of one’s body?
Surrounded by a berserk mob of 500 knife-brandishing men in the middle of an otherwise busy by lane of old Ahmedabad, he was crying inconsolably. And as the mob quickly moved away from him, it did not seem to matter much to him that he had not pulled up the trousers and underwear that was forcibly pulled down by the mob. He was frightened; he was disgusted; he was lonely and he was crying for death.
I still can’t believe how a 25 year-old, postgraduate Indian who had once dreamt of flying a fighter plane for the Indian Air Force could ever find himself lying in the middle of a road, naked, crying and not wanting to ever get up again.
As we learnt later, the same mob had come to my place – to kill my father and two brothers. Of course, they wanted to kill me too; by raping me. And they sure raped me. Repeatedly. Almost all of them. Till I started bleeding from all over and lost consciousness. They must have thought I had died.
But I did not. Maybe I was not destined to. Maybe I was destined to live with that naked man who was crying a few streets from us.
“OK beta, I don’t mind your going for a … what do you call it … “
“Funky. Funky means … I mean it’s just funky”
(smiles) “OK. I don’t mind your going for a … funky … hair colour. But are you sure it won’t damage your hair?”
“This is London mom. They know how to do it. It is not some Pol of Ahmedabad”
Daughters always like foreign land more than sons. Maybe because unlike India and its homes, foreign lands give them their own sky to fly. Fortunately, I know that it is only hair colour. Our daughter is almost like us otherwise. Or let’s say that she is like her dad – passionate about science and also fond of writing diaries. I know no one should read anyone’s diaries but both daughter and father are so careless that you bump into their diaries almost everyday. Now of course she is in London for her PG. But she was here till an year ago. And while she was always fun to be with, she somehow, not sure how and why, had borrowed a bit of her father’s cynicism. I had first found that out through her diary:
“Today there were reports of communal clashes from Wadi area of Baroda. My Maasi lives there. Unlike my parents, she and her husband are not of different religions. So, is that good? Maybe; if you are spared by both communities. Maybe not – if both communities gun for you. So what is it about this bloody thing called religion?”
Back then, long after the mob had left him; and long after his tears had dried up, he could do nothing but sit at the same place and stare towards infinity. It was only when a police van came and almost beat him away from the place that he had started walking … aimlessly, towards our street.
Half of the mob had left our place. I think my father and brothers were already butchered by then. I’m not sure though. Amidst the laughter, religious chanting and brandishing of the knives and hockey sticks, I was being pulled into the street in front of the burning homes. I was crying and shouting helplessly. And then I saw him standing at a distance; like a zombie. I shouted towards him for help. Some men immediately turned towards him but did not care much for the shaken, frail young man standing in the corner.
For some time I tried to shake him out of his slumber, as criminals took turn to rape in the name of religion. But soon my voice was gone. What was left was a gaze towards him, reciprocated by that strange, frozen look of his. The longer the moment lasted, the less painful my ordeal became. Now that I can be a little lighter about things, I would say that his frozen presence was almost like a painkiller for my incessantly raped body and soul.
Not sure when my eyes had given up on life around, but when I finally did open my eyes again, he was sitting right at the place where he was standing all through my death. I was too tired and he was still frozen. Not sure how many times I came to life and went back into deep black for the next few hours. But his look towards me was still beyond life.
Finally, when my head finally started feeling the pain below, on the other side of my torn behind, I started crying all over again. For the first time, he looked concerned and scared. He looked around for help, only to find burnt down homes and their laughing memories staring back at him.
And then, gradually, his life came visiting him all over again. He started breaking down. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he looked around to check where life had brought him. With reality hitting him hard, he could not help but pull his hair while crying. And yet, he suddenly realised that I was lying there, in a pool of blood. Naked down till the last breath of my existence. Though crying was now beyond his control, he got very concerned and came rushing to me. He sat down near my face. He tried to speak but all he could do was cry.
It was my turn to give a frozen gaze. I’m not sure how long we were like that, before a police van approached us. But either it could not have been very long or it really was very long. The randomness of the memory sums up our life of that moment completely.
“Take them both to VS hospital. I have talked to the Dean and they will be admitted under his direct care”.
The inspector in-charge happened to be my elder brother’s friend. Someone who I thought would have wanted to marry me. But I came to this world a few years too late for him.
Anyway, it mattered little to us whether the police was friendly or not. Life had said goodbye long back for us to worry about its mere details.
Yes, it made no difference to us both that the police took us for people of the same religion. That the police took us two people who were ‘together’ and that we were put in the same special room of VS Hospital.
God could not have given us a special room amidst a glut of bleeding bodies. It was something human. Something selfish for the love of a fellow human being. As I said, something human.
And that’s why I was scared for him. My elder brother’s friend, the police inspector, might have got tempted to throw him out of the ward and towards the blood-thirsty hyenas of our community. Sacrificing one for your friend would have been human too.
I may have been lifeless but the thought of another death did manage to make my heart beat a little more. With him looking absolutely beyond sense of the moment, there didn’t seem much left in his soul at that moment; but I didn’t want his body to die. I don’t know why.
I still don’t know why and how I could feel for him so much even at the peak of my destruct. Maybe it was because he was the only one with me during my death. Or maybe because he was the only man crying at the dance of destruct. I really don’t know why I had given him a name that was not his.
That saved him from the police inspector, but it might have put him in danger of being ‘short-listed’ by the goons moving inside the hospital, checking the names of the patients.
But as I later found out, I was being unfair to the policeman.
“I know his name is not what you had told me. In any case, to be safe, I neither wrote your true name nor his. I have put money, my card and clothes for you two in the polythene bag. I’m sending you to a friend’s place in Mumbai … “
Taken aback initially, he gets back to his policeman self – “I’ll drop him to the address mentioned in his wallet?”
A very perceptible silence followed that. Before he spoke again: “But our people have burned down his locality”.
At the risk of sounding evil, it almost made me happy!
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“So, why are you thinking so much about him? He’s not the only sufferer in the city.”
“He was the only one who suffered with me last night”
A long silence engulfed the place again.
“So, what do you want me to do?”
Living with new names and the consequent forged degrees – all honest except the names – in one’s own city can be quite an experience. New names meant new look too, in a new locality, with a new relation. Within three months, we two were about to give up and get back to our respective hells. But I found out that I was pregnant. No, it wasn’t his. We were barely in a state to live like that. It must have been of one or everyone of those satans of that night.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to have the baby” – I was sure.
He never spoke much. And he didn’t on that occasion too. His look clearly disapproved of my desire. But he was too nice a person to have stopped a lady from having her wish. Or maybe he just did not feel confident enough to stop me. For, till then, we were man and wife only for the society. And survival was the only thing that appealed to the hearts.
Eight months later, we were blessed with a baby girl. And her mere arrival turned him and me into man and wife.
We still pray in our own ways. It’s just that the pictures on the walls talk differently with the guests. And as I go through our family album – missing my daughter as I am – I wonder if I would have ever lived this well if I had not spoken on behalf of him to the police inspector. I guess not.