Every Indian at some time or another has come face-to-face with communal disquiet. A few such memories and stories found their way in my first book Perfect Eight. For a young girl brought up in a uncompromisingly secular home, the Babri Masjid demolition was a devastating event. As were the 1984 riots. Both shattered this belief to the core that we were a country where Partition was in the past, not a living reality in our neighbourhoods, our minds and hearts.
Today, on December 6, I reproduce here an excerpt from Perfect Eight. This chapter was based on an actual riot I witnessed in Bangalore when once again I was made aware of the fact..that just under our collective skin, there lies a pulsing, impatient nerve, waiting to explode. I hope that someday, we will understand just how futile it is to destroy each other. To kill. Because we diminish our own humanity when we attack another human being. His life. His faith. His God.
The cinema hall stood right in the middle of two sharply-divided halves. One-half comprised a small temple, a police station, a few self-respecting apartment buildings and a prosperous New Taj Mahal restaurant with a young boy tossing a rumali roti by an open-air food kiosk. The other half reeked of dank butcher shops with screens of glossy, varnished goat innards. The area was redeemed by a small mosque with a neatly painted green dome.The cinema hall stood next to a gaudily-painted, pedestal mounted statue of Dr Ambedkar. The two halves knew their religion but those living around the Ambedkar statue were not too sure about theirs. They were also too poor to care.
The lobby of the cinema hall had Plaster-of-Paris women in Ajanta postures. They all held empty pots in their stubby hands and looked blankly with their gray-white gaze at the people who streamed in. The seats inside had broken spines and sagging bottoms. ‘The cola is semi-warm, the samosas are hard and the popcorn is damp. It all fits,’ giggled Zoya.
When the movie started, the hall burst into a lusty roar, which got deafening when Shah Rukh Khan began to dance. Like Papu’s Dilip Kumar, he was a Muslim, but times had changed. He could be a star now without adopting a Hindu name. The heroine with him was beautiful. The edges of her hair were singed by light. Her cut-glass cheekbones were aflame. Their love song was not yet over when people in the lower stalls began to talk. First softly.And then loudly. A few men rose and started to move around. We left our seats unwillingly to look down from our balcony. There was chaos in the pit down below. A man shouted at us, ‘Riots outside. Stay where you are.’
Within minutes the lights came on and the screen turned white. A child began to cry behind us. A Sikh family stood up. They didn’t know their status in the middle of what was possibly a Hindu–Muslim riot. A man I had seen at the ticket window strolled in casually. ‘All of you should just sit down and watch the movie. Where will you go? They are pelting stones and bottles outside. Sit still. Nothing will happen. This happens all the time, whenever a fool throws a cow’s tail in a temple or a pig’s head in a mosque, but then nothing really happens. Things are worse now because of what may happen in Ayodhya. But don’t worry. The police station is just across the road. Eat your popcorn.’
Zoya spoke hoarsely to Ravi, ‘I want to go home.’ Her voice cut through the foot-shuffles, the worried whispers and crackling popcorn packets. ‘They’ll come in with kerosene cans and matchboxes and tyres, knives and choppers and hooch bottles and they’ll cut us all in half and then set us on fire. I want to go home. I want to go home. Take me home now.’
Ravi was sweating but he managed to say, ‘Sshh . . .Bangalore is not . . . that place. Don’t frighten everybody. They are all like us here.’ She slumped back in a seat with her face in her hands. The lower stalls were in a heaving frenzy by now. Somebody was shouting. I caught sight of man looking in panic at a burqa-clad woman with a baby. ‘Why do you have to wear so many bangles at night?’ he was screaming. Zoya got to her feet and took Ravi’s hands, ‘Let’s go home. I am not scared now.’ She looked at me, ‘If they’re Muslims, I will say you are with me. If they’re Hindus, you say the same.’ I nodded.
Her eyeballs were dilated as if she were watching a nightmare in her sleep. I felt grateful that she was dressed in jeans and a block-printed kurta. I never wore my mangalsutra. We did not look too different. She could pass off as my elder sister. It was going to be easy.We began to walk towards the exit and others followed too.Slowly we all filed past the cheerfully glowing cola vending machine, the silent popcorn machine, the glass encased movie posters, the stink from the bathrooms. We walked carefully down the sweeping staircase. No one wanted to die in a stampede.
The night air was quiet and gentle and well-intentioned.We broke into a run towards the parking lot.
‘It is safe,’ breathed Ravi. Zoya left my hand and smiled faintly at him. I saw some decapitated bottles lying near the compound wall, and smelled smoke. My head swung in its direction. I saw a bonfire, made of a few tyres. Then I saw them. They were running silently towards us. Like a pack of yelloweyed, black jackals. They had bottles and butcher knives in their hands. They were following the enemy, and it was just too bad that we were in the way. ‘You two run! I will try to get the car . . . go!’ Ravi screamed. A few seconds later, I realised I was running alone towards the police station.
The building was intentionally dark. It did not want to be a refuge. Two men in khaki stood near the gate. ‘Don’t come here . . . don’t come here,’ they screamed in terror. ‘We can’t do anything. We have called for more people. Till they come, nothing can be done. Go home. Don’t come here.’
One of them swung a baton wildly at me. I ducked and ran again towards what looked like a marathon stream of men, women and children running towards lights they could not yet see. A car stopped next to me. When I was pulled inside, I noticed Zoya.
We were silent till we got home.