In the relief camps after the riots, all the people had left were stories.
The thought occurred on a December night onboard a Uttar Pradesh Roadways bus. Once the thought crept in, it gnawed at me. Like the biting wind against my neck, entering through a crack in the bus window. It wasn’t much after sunset, but the fog was already dense. Enough to slow the highway down to an impatient crawl.
Right away, I called a friend who was involved with relief and rehabilitation. His suggestion was simple. Do what you do best. No better way to help.
The following week, I was on the way to Muzaffarnagar. With a camera and notebook.
It was much colder than it was in Delhi, though only a few hours away by road. Maybe it wasn’t and I only imagined it to be. For an eastern UP born and bred, the other end of the state has a harshness to it. Like in its dialect, so in its climate.
It must be colder. How could it not when children were dying of the cold? The mere thought sent shivers that lodged themselves in my bloodstream. Turning blood cold, leaving a numbness behind.
In the camps, all they had left were stories. Remains of everything which made up life as they had known it till the day terror came knocking. The descriptions were vivid with the how of things. Not much about the why of it.
Only those who were the most affected seemed the least affected. Oblivious to the reality around them, they built houses of mud in between chasing each other through the slushy lanes of the camps. There were some who missed school, not understanding why their parents moved from their homes.
A mini-truck filled with blankets arrived at one of the madrasas I had stopped at. The place had opened its doors to people and was providing as much refuge and relief as it could. On the road from Delhi, I had spotted a few trucks moving in the same direction as me. But this one had come from Punjab after an overnight journey. The gentleman responsible, a lank middle-aged Sikh, was speaking in a soft tone with a silver bearded qāri. Conveying greetings he had carried from his community, he was distraught at the failure of governance visible during his visit to the district.
The crowd outside was being sorted into queues. Some faces were familiar to the staff. Hoarding relief material wasn’t uncommon, I was told.
“They will say that they haven’t received anything. But some of them will have five pieces of bedding for each family member. Stacked in their tents, waiting to be sold off at a good price in the local market. Good price? Maybe fifty rupees. How else will someone without a roof on his head and food in his belly survive this calamity?”
It didn’t take long for the truck to be emptied.
Three years have passed since then. The camps and trucks have long disappeared. Those displaced may not need blankets this winter. What they would rather welcome is the cover of justice.