“Now it is good.”
“You can breathe freely.”
My fizzy drink is flat and warm; it tastes like orange candy. I take small sips, watching the level slowly recede. The boys quaff tobacco from small aluminium foil pouches with brand names like ‘Bhagat’, ‘Surily Sweet Supari’ and ‘Goa Silver’.
I sit alone on the bench. The boys stand around it, resting a foot on a stone, leaning their arms on the backrest, but keeping, at all times, a respectful distance from me. Sloe-eyed, loose-limbed young men clustered about the cigarette stall ignore us but a woman with a notebook accompanied by a group of males cannot be a common sight in a municipal slum and I suspect curiosity lurks behind the expressions of studied disinterest.
There is much coming and going around us. People enter from the main road through a wide gap in the wall and head for the slum quarters, an identical stream flowing in the other direction. Women, richly dressed, appear to be on their way to a fine event, a wedding perhaps, but it soon becomes apparent that the lustre of cheap thread and gilt and the plastic confections in their hair are just part of their daily armoury against the world. The boys are dismissive of the passers-by. “Lot of new people now here, sister,” they say, conveying the information in a tone of scoffing derision. “Low people… vulgar types. Start fighting over every small thing. And curse—baap re baap! Children. Even ladies. You can’t bear it.”
Beyond the oscillating thoroughfare rise the weather-beaten walls of a three-storeyed block of apartments. Iron poles thrust into cement prop up sagging balconies, and cracks like lightning streaks are visible on the drab façade, signs of the damage that occurred in the earthquake of 2001. The injured battlements gloomily look over this wide, open space with its ice gola cart, a cigarette and cold drinks stall, a solitary bench and a few tired, low trees. Shreds of patang flap from overhead wires. In front of us, a small fenced-off ground slowly fills up with rubbish. One of the boys gestures magisterially towards it. “We have a plan to make a garden here. Fill it up with grass.”
“This Umesh’s nana, you know, was head maali for the government parks. His mother was going to help us before she expired. She made the garden for Sophia School. We are determined to develop this vatika.”
I visualise the square with its limp fence and its drifting litter transformed into a patch of green. Gardens are all the rage now, a prominent feature of advertisements for upcoming housing projects. Across the river, swish new colonies have mini playgrounds with mock knolls and slides and swings. Perhaps the boys will try to replicate them, painting them in Disney reds and yellows. Or perhaps they will lay an angular strip of concrete, bordering it with beds of buoyant marigold and fragrant chameli.
Instinctively my eyes seek out Meraj, curious to know how he is feeling at this moment, listening to a plan for the future in which he has no part. The 34-year-old Muslim embroiderer is quiet. His eyes, sharp as diamonds, are adrift. The avid enthusiasm that had brightened his features and loosened his tongue, releasing memories and anecdotes of a past life not so much as an hour ago, has dissipated, the animation ebbing away like a retreating tide, making pronounced the hollows of his mildly scarred cheeks, leaving him looking haunted and forlorn.
I had been meeting Muslims in the city. I had met Salim, sullen and distrustful, a witness in a case involving the atrocities of 2002, in one of the distant bleak apartment blocks built by an Islamic charitable trust. I had been to Juhapura, Ahmedabad’s largest Muslim ghetto, where alongside old, close-set hovels were tall arched entrances to new colonies for middle class Muslims and, across the road, sprawling bungalows with the nameplates of bureaucrats and businessmen who had recently moved to the ghetto.
In the Muslim-dominated neighbourhood of Jamalpur in the old city, I was surprised to see a giant kite on a building, which said ‘Happy 2008’ under a photograph of the Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In one of the shops in the lane, all owned by Muslims, were regular size white kites with a grainy picture of the chief minister and the slogan: ‘Modi is Great—Happy New Year’. The owner, a burly man with henna in his hair, muttering that “it is better to eat than to die,” admitted that the warmth towards their bête noire was strategic rather than real, and arising out of a fear of renewed attacks at the time of the state assembly elections that had just gone by. As we talked, the mock irony in his tone gave way to a gloomy dissatisfaction with the openly anti-Muslim posturing of the state government. “Write,” he said, with a sudden flash of belligerence. “Write my name! We all have to die some day!”
A rickshaw driver, wiry and loquacious, with pictures of the Taj Mahal gleaming on his side panels, told me he and his friends had stockpiled arms in Jamalpur, ready for any attack from Hindus. “I may die but I will take ten down with me.” At a meeting organised to discuss the distribution of compensation awarded by the government for damages suffered in 2002, I heard young Muslim volunteers break into song: “No English in the land, still there is slavery/ Help ourselves must we/ Think, if we think of something, help will come from the sky.” I heard of random sweeps by the police on Muslim localities, scenes that seemed to belong to the West Bank, not to a sleepy neighbourhood in western India. A former corporator and Congress party man glumly contemplating his irrelevance in an avidly pro-BJP environment told me he was thinking of leaving politics. In one of the few remaining enclaves of Muslims west of the river, an elderly professor of English burst out: “this divide (between Hindus and Muslims) is smothering!”
And then there was Meraj. I met him while visiting a unit of Sanchetana, a non-governmental organisation working on health and education issues among the underprivileged. The local office was run by a group of largely Hindu women and while talking of the victims of 2002 they thought of their neighbour Meraj who lived across the street and they sent someone to fetch him. He arrived in his workaday clothes, a faded red T-shirt and pants. Wearing a bright shiny smile, he perched on the edge of a chair as if afraid to fully occupy the space or the moment. Of average height, sallow complexion, with short dark brown hair and a neat moustache, he was the kind of guy that would melt in a crowd. But there was an eager warmth about him that made him instantly likeable.
Meraj had grown up in the working class neighbourhood of Asarwa-Chamanpura. His family had lived in a compound of municipal workers where his father owned a pan ka gulla. Meraj’s childhood was the ordinary childhood of the lower middle class Ahmedabadi. He went to the local municipal school, played with his friends in the open square in front of the colony or in one of the houses, flew kites on the terraces, participated in ceremonial swordplay with his brother on Eid. Growing up, he studied commerce at a college in Kalupur. Education was not a family forte but Meraj says he had had some notion as a young man of becoming a lawyer.
Why a lawyer, I asked. He smiled sheepishly saying it was something he had seen in the movies and fancied. And then, as if to convey to me that it had been a serious aspiration and something he had thought of in later times, with disappointment, he explained how it could not come about. In his late teens he faced a number of obstacles, he said. Helping his father at the shop in the mornings meant missing classes. Then, an outbreak of communal violence in 1992-3 meant he had to stop going to college altogether because the route took him through tense Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods. Worse, his father, fearing an attack, had sent everything valuable in the house to relatives for safekeeping. “Textbooks were considered valuable,” he explained. Inevitably Meraj failed his second year exams. “Once the line is broken,” he said, “it is very difficult to connect again”.
Like other young men of uncertain means in the city, though, he had taken the precaution of providing for a back up in the form of a trade skill. He had enrolled himself in an embroidery course near Relief cinema on Ashram Road. There he had learnt ‘plain’ and ‘fancy’ embroidery and stitching. He had bought himself a machine and started doing piecework. In 1994 he got married. The wedding was in Mehsana, 76 kilometres from Ahmedabad, where the bride’s family lived; the feast was vegetarian out of deference to her Hindu neighbours. Meanwhile business was picking up. There was a great demand for embroidery and finishing on fabrics headed for the Gulf. Meraj did not deal directly with exports but took on orders from the Sindhi traders of Kalupur, Revdi Bazar and Hari Om Market. He would cycle across every few days to meet with his clients, hiring a rickshaw to bring back the raw material or the ‘maal’ as he called it.
As the orders mounted, he bought more machines and hired workers. His workshop bristled with reams of cotton, polyester and pashmina, saris and kaftans. The orders were getting so voluminous that he was thinking of buying a second-hand Maruti van. By then he had three small children and a car would have been useful for family outings as well. But he hesitated. It was not his way to give in to momentary impulses. His priority was to expand the business and if he felt the money would be better spent on buying machinery and hiring workers, then comfort would take a back seat. It was the typically Ahmedabadi way, to suppress present gratification for future growth.
Meraj was the quintessential Ahmedabadi entrepreneur, living not randomly but according to a sagacious plan for business expansion. “I was always saving,” he says. “Saving, saving, saving. I would take the cycle instead of the bike to save on petrol. I would sacrifice all the time just to put money back into the business.”
On 28 February 2002, the mob had burst in and destroyed everything he owned: household conveniences, vehicles, machinery. “Cha!” he exclaimed, “cha!” still incredulous, six years later, at the manner in which the rioters, with their wanton destructiveness, had rendered his pragmatism impractical and foolish. The cheer faded from his face, his eyes. All at once he seemed to be in a shadow.
In the Sanchetana office, in a room full of people, he was alone, wrestling with strangers, sudden and hostile assailants; alone with the ghosts of possessions collected with such care and consideration that they had a meaning beyond mere materialism; alone with the chagrin and the fury of having been demoted, for no fault or fair reason, from the bourgeois life he had so assiduously aspired to. I sensed that no list of damages, however comprehensive, could account for the feeling of betrayal and rankling injustice that rendered him temporarily incapable of speaking. Finally he muttered: “I should just have enjoyed my money instead.”
The moment of truculence passed. He resumed his story. Sudden flight across the railway tracks behind his house, two years in transit between a refugee camp and relatives. And then he went back to Asarwa-Chamanpura. “My neighbours mobbed me,” he said, breaking into a smile, “someone passed a five hundred rupee note from one side, someone from another. It was like I was the chief minister or something. I felt my house calling out to me. I felt so bad!” The family—Meraj, his wife and children, his brother and his wife and children and their father—again set up home in Asarwa-Chamanpura. On the face of it, things seemed okay but in reality they were living in terror of a recurrence of 2002. “Every time something happened, like a bomb blast… even if it was far away, it made us so anxious and frightened. We were always checking, fearful that the person away from home would not return.” Finally, tiring of the constant state of apprehension, they decided to move to an emerging ghetto.
Meraj fidgeted. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, smiled shyly. “I miss living among Hindus,” he said with a sudden beguiling ruefulness. “I am glad these benhs are here.” He indicated the Sanchetana activists in their cotton saris worn in the demure manner of Gujarati Hindu women. “When I see them across the street, I feel good, I feel like I am in my home in Asarwa-Chamanpura again.” The women laughed with gentle neighbourliness.
Asarwa-Chamanpura, what was it like, I asked him.
“Oh, sister!” The question seemed to turn on a light bulb in his head. All traces of gloom vanished in a blaze of incandescence. His eyes, his teeth, even the sandy streaks in his hair, lit up with a sparky luminosity, a dazzling effulgence of happiness. He spread his hands, rattled his head, indicating the impossibility of formulating a satisfactory answer. “My friends… the food… all my neighbours, Hindu, Muslim, we were… what can I say? It was just…great!”
I was struck by his enthusiasm. It was the first time, through the miasma of horror, callousness, opportunism and injustice that 2002 had come to represent, that I had heard the thrum of love and longing; an elegiac strain that had not been mutilated by the need to serve a cause, or render the instant; a residue that remained, like a wetness deep in the earth after the passing of thunder. “Would you take me there?” I spoke without thinking. I did not expect him to agree but he said ‘yes’ right away.
Asarwa was a village before it became a site for textile mills in the late nineteenth century. The old working class district was evident in the dark blue signboards of housing colonies, but one sensed a state of somewhat confused growth as well: in its bazaars, the small town; in its prolific businesses of steel, medical equipment, paint and textiles, the metro; and in the mill compounds and the sawdust fumes emanating from desolate lumber yards, the industrial suburb. Underlying these was the sense of old habitation, like a pair of shoes smoothened out by wear. Here were the residential quarters of lower levels of police and municipal staff—stable, securely employed government servants. Here were municipal schools and hospitals and cheap public transport. Here were the improvements made by generations of civic authorities: water supply systems, drainage, electrical lines and bus services. A long compound wall loomed, behind which the thin, stained facades of civic housing projects formed a continuous refrain. Meraj exhaled as if he had been holding his breath and slapped the side of the auto-rickshaw to indicate we had arrived.
A wide path ran in an arc, abutting a row of houses comfortably spaced out, each with a small yard out front, partially curtained off from the street by grills and asbestos sheets. Through the porous walls a hen levitated in a flurry of squawks and brown wings, setting her chickens a-scatter. Food cooked on old-fashioned coal stoves, a mother oiled her daughter’s long wavy tresses. A warm feel of rusticity hovered over those half paved narrow lanes. At the beginning of the arc, between the public thoroughfare and the residential part of the colony, in what appeared to be untended no man’s land, loose mud gave way to wild grass. Meraj stopped. He stretched out his arm, pointing at a spot where bent barbed wire poked out from a loose fence post. “My father’s pan ka gulla was here,” he said. The mob had torn it down. There was nothing there now; just a tangle of weeds. A few yards away was the house Meraj had grown up in. The doors were open and we walked in. A lady’s taut voice called out from somewhere: “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” Meraj called back.
“Oh,” a woman with a pallu on her head and a baby at her waist appeared. “It’s Merajbhai!” she shouted out reassuringly to an elderly lady who I glimpsed hovering in the back.
The rooms were joined to each other like compartments in a railway coach. The new occupants seemed to be a typically sprawling semi-rustic Hindu family just laying down a baby on a mattress or stringing beans in a tray on the floor.
There was no furniture, nothing on the walls. I recalled Meraj telling me that when he returned to the colony after the violence he had felt his house ‘calling’ to him, making him feel ‘so bad.’ I watched as he walked about, touching the walls with an eager, possessive wistfulness.
On the path, I had suddenly become aware that we were not alone. A rake-thin man in a yellow shirt and a white wide-brimmed hat had joined us. He had slipped in next to Meraj, matching his step with ours so unobtrusively that I could hardly tell he was there. Surprised, I slowed down. The stranger had prominent teeth and eyes that loomed owlishly behind thick glasses. No words were exchanged between the two men but I sensed something had occurred, like the sliding into place of grooves and ridges, the click of interlocking gears, so that though there were two, there could just as well have been one.
Meraj introduced us with a vague gesture: “Umesh”, a common Hindu name, particularly among Gujaratis. I smiled, nodded. The men stayed silent, sheepish. There was an evident closeness between the two; Umesh had been expecting us. But in my presence, a shyness had set in. I asked Umesh what he did. I was not surprised when he said he was a tailor.
Traditionally a textile manufacturing centre, Ahmedabad had become a supplier of stitched garments. The wholesale market at Gheekanta in the old city, a warren of thin lanes and hole-in-the wall shops spattered with kid-size jeans, polka dotted frocks, salwar kameez suits, zari-work chunnis and an abundance of men’s shirts, was estimated by some to supply half the country’s current demand for readymades.
“We ran across the tracks,” Meraj said, “just blindly ran.”
I tried to visualise it. Figures running, footwear falling, the old stumbling, children wailing. “Then I saw a mob, another mob coming towards us from there…” Meraj pointed at a spot further down the tracks. I felt his fear like a knife stab, the flat sunlight hot with menace. It was the first time I had heard of a second mob.
“Did you recognise anyone?” I asked.
“Who looked at the faces, sister?” he said wryly. “I could only see the swords glinting tim-tim.”
A woman’s voice called out from the upper storey of one of the drab buildings ranged on one side, delight in her voice, a startled joy at having seen him unexpectedly. Umesh’s home was approached through a small open yard. A few steps led to a toilet which stood outside the house. The house itself was tiny, just a room about 300 square feet in size. One side of it was the kitchen, neatly arrayed with gleaming vessels; the other was the sitting area, furnished with chairs and a high bed that doubled up as a settee. The walls were decorated with myriad representations of Hindu gods and goddesses. Laxmi radiated rays of embossed silver, Shiva struck a pose of magnificent and graceful rage. Umesh’s father, an elderly man with a stiff manner that gave the impression of a physical handicap, was ensconced in a chair. Umesh’s sister, a pretty woman in a house dress, welcomed us with eager smiles and set about making tea.
Soon the small tube-lit room was reverberating with laughter. Umesh and Meraj ribbed Rajesh about his sartorial style: he was wearing a pair of dark jeans with chains looped at the knee. All three men flaunted signs of their professional expertise. Meraj had an embroidered detail on his shirt pocket and Umesh had gaudy patches on his stitched jeans.
Rajesh, they informed me with an amusement the subject seemed to share, had a weakness for metal embellishments and because he was petite and could not get clothes his size in a store he was always buying jeans with metal doo-dahs and cutting them to fit. And then it was Umesh’s turn to be teased. “You see his hat?” Rajesh asked, at which Umesh grinned bashfully. “He always has it on. Not any kind of hat, only this kind that umpires and wicketkeepers wear.”
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Umesh was the wicketkeeper in their sometime weekly games. Like young men all over the Subcontinent, these three were passionate about cricket. In the past, on a Sunday, they would have been out playing in the open ground in front of the colony with a propped up thin cement sheet for a stump. Meraj, they told me, was a superb bowler, “faster than Shoaib Akhtar!”
I looked around the cosy room, at Umesh’s sister, a woman beyond the conventional marriageable age, enjoying the banter and arranging tea cups on a tray; at Umesh’s father whose dour silence I found unnerving though it did not seem to bother the young men one bit and they frequently brought him into the conversation with respectful allusions. Umesh’s mother, the woman with the green thumb who would have made a garden for the colony, had died some years previously. It seemed to me that an air of tragedy hung over the household; perhaps it was an intimation of ill health for a few months later, Meraj would inform me that the gangly Umesh, his best friend, had died in hospital; or perhaps it was just an unarticulated sense of loss. To the casual observer it would appear as if Muslims, Meraj and his family for instance, had suffered by being forced to leave their home; but in fact, this family of Hindus too had lost a source of sustenance and support.
I realised then that the fact of severance, and more importantly the reason for the severance, had been there all along. Underneath the chatter and the joy of reuniting it was there, like moisture in the air or wires buried in walls, invisible but palpable, invisible but potent, a dull leaden consciousness permeating the everyday and the forever. Time had not altered anything. The consequences of 2002 were real and unrelenting.
The Gulbarg Society was built in the 1960s at the initiative of lawyer and politician Ehsan Jafri. Jafri was the son of a doctor who came to Ahmedabad from the Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh and set up a clinic in the city’s blue-collar district. Jafri, influenced perhaps by his father’s clientele of migrant mill workers, gravitated to leftist politics, joining the Congress in the early seventies attracted by the socialist rhetoric of its young leader Indira Gandhi. He was not untouched by the entrepreneurial tug of his adopted city, though, and proposed to his Muslim neighbours in Dr Gandhi’s Chawl in Asarwa-Chamanpura, where he lived, that they should take advantage of the liberal housing loans being handed out by the state, buy a plot of land, and construct a society. So Gulbarg Society came about, a genteel complex of bungalows generously spaced out with spreading trees and a high surrounding wall giving it a measure of privacy and exclusion rare in the shabby neighbourhood.
On 28 February 2002, however, Gulbarg Society became the scene of one of the most vicious attacks on Muslims, and Ehsan Jafri, the pogrom’s most high profile victim. Accounts of the Gulbarg Society massacre convey the atmosphere of a gladiatorial arena with thousands surrounding the compound in a siege that lasted seven hours. Sixty-nine Muslims, many of whom had crowded into Jafri’s house for safety, were killed. Jafri himself was stripped, paraded, his fingers cut off, then his hands and feet, before being trussed by the neck with a fork-like object and dragged down the road and tossed into a fire.
The Concerned Citizens Tribunal reports that residents of the area saw neighbourhood goons playing cricket with the skulls of the dead.
The most eerie thing about Gulbarg Society now is the sound of the leaves. They lie everywhere, shriveled, dry, yellow. They cover the neat wide pathways that run around the low whitewashed houses. They lie on the swelling mounds around the bungalows. They fall from the trees; dropping lightly, incessantly, softly to the ground. The cosy cul de sac is a ghostly place. The three-storey building, at the far end of the compound, a later addition comprising eight flats and a row of shops looms abjectly. All signs of life—and there must have been plenty of it here once: the aroma of food cooking, the colour of wet clothes on a line, the warbling of a television set, the shrieks of children at play—have been stamped out. With every step I crush leaves.
There is rubble in the houses and air conditioners bent with heat. The windows are naked, with glass panes occasionally cracked. The rooms of Ehsan Jafri’s house are bare. The bathroom has a smashed commode. Stones, thick dirt and the drying excrement of stray animals are on the floor. The ceiling and walls are blotchy and blackened with soot. The flames destroyed, among other things, Jafri’s library, his collection of books spanning a range of subjects: culture, religion, philosophy. The now ravaged room on the ground floor was once his office with a desk, a revolving chair, two sofas and his law books, including bound volumes of All India Reporter; Ehsan Jafri had returned to the bar after his stint in Parliament and was a familiar figure at the Mirzapur Courthouse. Meraj, coming up behind me, points. “His table was there… he used to receive visitors on a sofa there.” His tone is nostalgic, remembering a time before the brutality, an older time when Jafri was alive and eminent and exuded the expansive comfort of a banyan tree.
In many ways, Jafri was a throwback to the past. Photographs of him in earlier days show a handsome man in a safari suit with a broad forehead and a thick shock of hair, standing at the edge of a group around Indira Gandhi, leading an anti-war procession, fasting for communal harmony, joining an official delegation to Kabul in the 1970s, courting arrest in 1977 and so on. In an old interview broadcast on All India Radio, he can be heard, talking in chaste Urdu, about the concept of ‘watan’ (homeland) and the natural beauty of Hindustan. Erudite, cultured (he was president of the Gujarat unit of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society and wrote Urdu poetry), progressive and international in outlook, he typified the secular, intellectual Muslim that gravitated to the Congress party. His work for the party, as a member of parliament in 1977 and after, had made Gulbarg Society a bastion of the Congress. For Muslims, particularly those from the lower socio-economic class, used to being blown about like chaff by ordinary vicissitudes, he was a pillar of strength. By demonstrating Ehsan Jafri’s vulnerability, his assailants had also shown the ineffectuality of an ideology and a party. Indeed they had conveyed the message that under the new dispensation to be like him was to court trouble. Like the mafia the old godfathers had to be beheaded before the new could hold sway.
The air rattles with the scraping, scratching, sighing sound of leaves eddying with the breeze. There are no people here, just nineteen empty bungalows surrounded by a wall, a spreading limda tree and the carpet of yellow leaves. There is a proposal, I have heard, to turn Gulbarg Society into a museum, a memorial against communal violence. I think it could be left just as it is with its reproachful emptiness and its shocked wounds.
An extract from Amrita Shah’s forthcoming non-fiction book on Ahmedabad, Highway Dreams: An Old City in New India