Tuesday, September 19, 2017
This is the Story of my relationship with religion:
I was in my 2nd Standard at an excellent Jesuit school in Ahmedabad when my class teacher Mrs Sinha asked “How many Hindus in this Class?”. It was for some Government count as far as I can remember. A majority of my classmates raised their hands. Then she asked “How many Muslims in this class?”, a few raised their hands. She proceeded to ask 1 or 2 more questions. I didn’t raise my hand at all. I didn’t know what those words meant, I didn’t know ‘what I was’. My bench partner on the day noticed this and complained at the end: “Ma’am, he didn’t raise his hand”. “What are you?”, Mrs. Sinha barked at me. “I don’t know”, I replied. She looked into my admission documents as I’d just joined that School and got back “You’re Muslim!”. That day I returned home and told my mother what happened. I asked her: “Mumma, what is Muslim?”, “It’s a name beta, we are Muslim”, she replied. That was how I discovered religion.
I was born & raised in an elite locality of Ahmedabad, which was predominantly Hindu but had a mix of a few others at the time. My first few years were spent in ‘Shri Krishna Apartments’ where out of 300-odd Apartments, we were the only Muslim family and this never became a problem with any neighbour ever. Our neighbours loved us and we loved them. Then in 1992, my grandparents’ home got burnt down in another mixed locality in Ahmedabad, right behind the famed IIM Ahmedabad. Some neighbours too came and joined in the loot, they were told. By this time, I had also learnt that my great-grandparents' home in the old city of Ahmedabad had been burnt a good 5-6 times over the years.
Coming back to my immediate family, in 1992, our neighbours still stood by us but some people in the adjoining neighbourhood had noticed that we were Muslim and began threatening my parents to leave the place. The builder of our Apartment - Kiran bhai stood by us and told us “Don’t you worry, I will deal with them”. But things kept building up. A few days later, when my father was driving his car, he was brought to a standstill thanks to a huge jam. It turned out that some BJP/VHP workers had stopped all cars and were climbing on the windshield of each to draw a Swastik. He was obviously shit scared but he stayed calm, waited for his turn to arrive, quietly got the swastik drawn on his car too and then sped away like a madman.
On another scary night when rumours were growing of more riots brewing across Ahmedabad, we ran away to a family friend’s place. He taught at IIM Ahmedabad and my parents must’ve thought his on-campus-home would be a good place to hide at. Somewhere in the midst of our conversation with our hosts, loud noises by a large group of people started coming from a distance.
My parents were certain that a mob had entered IIM-A, maybe they’d heard about us hiding there. Our hosts too were obviously scared and the predicament we had put them in further troubled my parents. Then our host got an idea and said “Let me dial the watchman at the gate and ask where the mob has reached”. When he called, he found out that the noise was from a Basketball match that was going on in the IIMA Campus.
Eventually things took a decisive turn. When we returned home one night, there was a paper stuck on our door, which said something on the lines of: “Last warning! Leave or else!”. That this had reached our doorstep was the last straw and my parents relented. Still, my mother was adamant that she does not want me to grow up in a ghetto and hence we moved to another mainstream locality, near the famed NID this time. Our lane was a mix of Hindus and Muslims at the time. One of the first neighbours we befriended was a lovely inter-religious couple - Indian Architects who studied in Paris. Their home in a similar Hindu-majority locality had just been attacked and they too had fled and come to this new place.
Although I was just 4 at the time, all these things made me further aware of Religion as a concept. As I grew up, often I was asked after a first introduction: Arastu??? Are you Parsi? First, I used to say “No, I’m Muslim”. As I grew up further, I would often lie: “Yes, I’m Parsi”. Sometimes I would say: “No no no no, I am Hindu!”. A few times when I dared to let it out: “No, I am Muslim”, I’d generally get a second response: “Oh! You don’t look Muslim”. Sometimes there would be no response but just a weird look on their face.
But regardless of whatever I said, I never felt as if I belonged to any religion. My family didn’t pray, we didn’t fast. The only time I would go to a mosque would be when my father used to take me on Eid mornings and I’d look around and rise, kneel and appear to murmur based on whatever others around me did. Post 1992, in the new Society we had moved to, gradually all Hindus moved out and it became a Muslim-only lane. So all of the boys used to gather, pray, fast, stand outside the mosque. But never me. They’d bully me from time to time, although my father’s hostility to everyone also contributed to that.
I remember being bullied even for things such as wearing shorts! “Maulana says we shouldn’t wear shorts”, they’d say. “Maulana says we shouldn’t watch TV”. Sometimes when the Maulana from the nearby Madrassa used to drive by on his bicycle, they’d abandon the cricket match we were playing and hide inside the car parking waiting for the Maulana to pass. I’d be the only one still standing there wondering what just happened! I remember being called a ‘Kaafir’ and much more multiple times while growing up. My relationship with religion then could best be described as ‘indifferent’.
I remember two more instances during that period. One was when we had made a rare visit to one of our Muslim neighbour’s home and their daughter asked me to confirm the rumours she’d heard: “Tum namaaz nahi padte?”, I said “Nahi”, she went on “Tumhe pata hai na ke 2 Jumme (Friday) tak namaaz na pade toh Musalman nahi rehte”. My usually ultra-aggressive father too stunningly remained shut and just made an awkward face. 'Namaz nahi padhoge toh yeh hoga, aisi saza milegi, waisa gunaah chadega' - Have heard this umpteen times, yearned for someone to tell me what good it will do or at least expected them to tell me to pray out of gratitude and not fear.
The second instance was when I got into a fight with a classmate from School over something on our Football ground. He came, pushed me to the ground and yelled: “Saale miye, ghar jala dunga tera”. I remember my first reaction to that being: ‘Shit, now the others too know I’m Muslim’. That fact had been considerably concealed otherwise because my name seemed secular (deliberately so, my mum had insisted I have that kind of a name), my appearance or accent didn’t betray signs matching any stereotype people had in their heads either.
I remember not seeing a Muslim girl in my lane after the age of around 10-12. They were either in burkhas or just indoors. I saw some of them the only time in their own weddings but there too, almost always, their faces and heads would be hidden.
Then around 1998, I remember that one day when I heard that my best friend’s parents’ general store had been burnt down. There was no riot in the city, just a minor communal rumour somewhere and just that one shop had been burnt. I remember going to their rival’s store next door to buy something the next day. As I stood there, that shop-owner was speaking to someone, the conversation went on the lines of “You saw what I did!”, “Ya but I gave the Kerosene” came the reply.
Sometime around this, I discovered one day that my father, who had a habit of making powerful acquaintances had been communicating on inland letters with the then RSS chief K. S. Sudarshan. He used to keep some of those letters with him whenever a communal rumour flew around. Those letters would help him escape a potential mob he thought! Sudarshan called us one night for dinner to an RSS headquarter somewhere near Ahmedabad. We were escorted by a car, the time was around 8.30 PM when we reached. I remember walking past a group of about 20-30 stick-wielding men in Khaki chaddis practicing their drills, it was scary for a child. As we walked in, Sudarshan sat on a sofa in a reasonably austere room. 3-4 people sat around him. The first question we were asked was: “Aap ka ghar aur office kaha hai?”, my dad replied and two men got up and went to the other room, returning after a while. Till this day, it is my suspicion that none of our properties were ever targetted because of something those men noted that night.
This became something that possibly helped us just a few years later. It was around 4.30 PM on the 27th of February 2002. I was about to leave for my tuition class when my mother called me from office. “Beta, don’t go, there’s some news of a riot, we too are returning home”. By then, I knew the drill, I cancelled all my plans and just stayed indoors. I remember my parents coming home soon after and us having a very interrupted half-sleep that night.
When we woke up the next morning and stepped outside our ground-floor home, I could see thick, black smoke on 2-3 sides. One of those seemed to be from quite close by, could it be my father’s office building we suspected, as that was just at the next crossroads. Soon we heard from neighbours that every single Muslim establishment in that building had been burnt down except my father’s office. Maybe it was the note those two men made that night that helped, maybe it wasn’t.
The local TV Cable channels were playing ‘Gadar’ that day. Soon after, neighbours began gathering in the entire lane. Despite being raised by an abusive father, the tension I felt at that moment as a 14 year old was new to me. I was scared for my life and that was because of the name I was born with! People around me were talking in a language I didn’t understand. There were talks about where we could run, who lived in what direction, people from what religion stayed in which neighbouring lanes. I had never felt more aware of my surroundings! Women and children were asked to go to the terraces to prepare kerosene bottles and throw them in case a mob attacked. Some of the more enterprising men said they will stand guard on both sides of our lane.
I remember my father trying to be brave and walking to one end of the lane that evening. He returned soon after and said he saw the late Haren Pandya leading a mob that was gathering at the crossroads just outside. It was many years later when my father happened to meet Mr Pandya when he told him: “Had I not been there that evening, your lane would have been burnt, I was trying to pacify the mob and steer them away”.
Seeing that mob then scared my father again. In the meantime, my mother also tried calling one family friend - A senior policeman. Always in the past, when we had called him in similar situations, he had immediately gotten a police point set up just outside. This time, to my mother’s astonishment, he replied: “Sorry, this time there’s nothing I can do”. My mother knew right then, this was different! After 10 years, it was now time for us to run again.
That same inter-religious couple who were our first friends in the whole lane approached us saying that one of their friends leads the Police Academy and lives in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura in Ahmedabad and has offered to send some policemen to escort us and host us in his farmhouse. Then we tried asking some families in our lane if they wanted to join and some space could be arranged for them too. All of them said ‘No’.
Some said they were worried about the black money, jewellery etc in their homes. The police academy chief was smart, he made the watchmen outside his home wear police clothes and drive down to our home in his police car. We then rode in our car escorted by them and left our home. I remember seeing this burning flame in a provision store owned by a Muslim uncle right outside our lane. I also remember seeing 2-3 mobs of 4-5 men on our way, all had trishuls in their hands, all wore saffron headbands. Suddenly this mystical area of ‘Juhapura’ seemed to be a saviour. I had never visited this area ever before. As we entered Juhapura, I remember someone in the car saying “Yeh border hai, hum aa gaye Juhapura”. The relief I felt entering a place I’d never been to still remains fresh in my mind.
I remember the next few nights. We stayed awake late into the night sitting on our host’s porch. We could see burning yellow lights (maybe flames) and hear loud noises and chants of mobs from 2-3 kms away, I discovered new practical laws of Science right then. The days would be no different. Every now and then black clouds of smoke could be seen in the distance and then it’d be a guessing game: “Woh Cargo Motors jala hoga”, “Woh so-and-so dukaan gayi hogi”.
Of course the phone kept ringing, newspapers did their thing. I remember one popular Gujarati daily having a photo of a terrace taken from many terraces away with what seemed to be the vague figure of a man wearing something white having something in his hand and the following (translated) headline on their front page: “Who is this gun wielding Muslim?”. We returned to our home after a week or so, I remember being about to enter our door when one of our next-door neighbours saw us and screamed aloud: “Lo bhagode aa gaye vapas” (‘See, those who ran have returned’).
There had been no damage done to our lane but a few homes had been vandalized in the vicinity. One of them belonged to a school friend and classmate of mine, “One of the neighbours took our TV”, he told me much later. A few days after returning, I remember my mother speaking to a family-friend aunty from our previous home - the one we had fled in 1992. She said they were so scared for their lives during the thick of the riots and there were strong rumours of trucks full of Muslims coming to burn them from Juhapura. I think I almost laughed. I also remember how one night, many months later, when my father and I opened the door to the room where my mother was sleeping, she woke up and started howling at the top of her voice. She thought we were rioters who came to kill her. After pacifying her then, we eventually laughed it off over the years.
Soon after, my parents began working at riot relief camps. I remember my mother going to those camps quite often. I had been once, some NGO was getting kids there to draw. I remember this one girl having drawn a red haired monster. Soon my dad revived his old NGO and took it up full-time with my mother. I remember this one survey my father got conducted with some pedestrians around Ahmedabad. One of the questions was: “What do you think of Juhapura?" (the same area we had escaped to). Answers ranged from: “It’s mini-Pakistan” to “There is a helipad there where helicopters from Pakistan bring missiles for war with India”.
Life moved on. Social activists began coming home, some film folk came too, there was lots of activity. An year later, mom and I finally left my father. Much later I discovered what had triggered that high a sense of empowerment and confidence within her after having been trodden upon for so long. She told me that in one of her visits to the relief camps, a woman came up to her and began howling: “Aap educated Muslim aurat hai, aap hamari haalat dekho, aap hamari madad nahi karenge toh kaun karega!”. That moment, she was liberated! The pain of 2002, the pain of that woman gave her a strange sense of empowerment. She realized that she did not need to bear anything, her pain wasn't the largest, she could be free, she could empower others too, she could still have a happy life!
Eventually she joined an iNGO and soon started the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Some of you may know the name from the recent Haji Ali and Triple Talaq cases). I was 15 when we left my father. Life became shockingly kind to me ever since I got out from those clutches. It was truly beautiful, I wasn’t good-for-nothing as I had been made to believe, I had skills too, I was liked too. After this ordeal, a lot of acquaintances too opened up to me on their respective domestic issues, I realized I wasn’t alone. After a period of selfish enjoyment to satiate my sense of being deprived, I became really passionate about empowering young people and started a non-profit named ‘The Difference’. We worked for 6 years with about 6000 College youth on educating them about issues such as Communalism, Gender, citizenship, even happiness.
Part two: here