At the end of October 1992, I went to Arvind’s house to return The Discovery of India, which I had borrowed from him. As I entered Arvind’s bedroom unannounced, I found that Shambhu was already there and seemed to be in the middle of a serious discussion with Arvind. A bunch of booklets lay on the bed next to them and out of curiosity, I picked one up.
The president of the Indian Nationalist Party, Lalwani, with his trademark toothbrush moustache and sinister smile, was on the cover. In the background was the proposed temple along with a blurry picture of the four-hundred-year-old mosque. On the top left of the cover was the party symbol of the trident and on the top right the slogan: Kasam Ram ki khate hain / Mandir wahin banayenge (We vow in the name of Lord Rama that we will construct the temple at the same place).
The local newspaper had published Lalwani’s plans to agitate for the construction of the temple in Ayodhya on the front page. A close-up of Lalwani in a pensive mood had accompanied the article. After reading the news item, Abba had commented, ‘This neta will get thousands of Indians killed to become prime minister. Under the pretext of a temple and mosque, he is pursuing a political agenda.’
Shambhu and Arvind had noticed my presence and the booklet in my hand.
‘Aslam, please return the booklet. It is not for you,’ Shambhu said hesitantly, a bit embarrassed.
‘So, now you have started doing this,’ I said bitterly as I returned the booklet to Shambhu.
‘Yes, it is our duty to put right the historical aberrations,’ Shambhu said. ‘And every Indian Muslim should feel ashamed and sorry for what the Muslim invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni, Babar and Aurangzeb did to the Hindus.’
‘Wow! Good argument! As a Muslim, I can be held responsible for the wrong deeds done by Muslim kings, who aren’t even related to me. But you, as a high caste Brahmin, are not responsible for the awful things your grandfather or great-grandfather did to the low caste Hindus.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Shambhu lost his temper. There was an expression of annoyance on Arvind’s face.
Maybe he did not like my comments about the exploitation of low caste Hindus by the Brahmins. After all, he was also a Brahmin. So, I decided to divert the discussion.
‘I mean to say that you should not support this chutiya!’ I pointed to the booklet in Shambhu’s hands.
‘Aslam, mind your words. Lalwani ji is the emperor of Hindu hearts, Hindu hriday samrat. You can’t use such a derogatory word for him,’ he said, his voice betraying his anger. Turning to Arvind, he added, ‘See Arvind, Aslam is insulting a great Hindu leader in front of us.’
‘Yes, Aslam should not call him chutiya, an idiot. That is simply wrong. He should . . .’ Arvind took a long and dramatic pause.
I looked at Arvind and felt disappointed. I had believed Arvind would support my point of view.
‘He should have called him maha-chutiya,’ Arvind sounded exasperated.
My face lit up, and I felt a sudden surge of affection mingled with gratitude for Arvind.
Shambhu’s face blazed with anger.
‘What kind of Brahmin are you? There is not even an iota of Hindutva in you,’ Shambhu almost shouted.
‘Yes, I am not a cadre Hindu. And there is zero Hindutva in me. So what?’ Arvind said. Suddenly, it was between Arvind and Shambhu.
I moved a few steps back and didn’t say anything.
‘What can be expected from a fish-eating pseudo-Brahmin with a Muslim surname like you?’
‘You should get it tattooed on your forehead that you are a pure Kanyakubja Brahmin of Shandilya gotra,’ Arvind taunted.
‘Yes, I belong to the great Shandilya clan of the Brahmin caste and am proud of it. We don’t touch meat or fish. And, unlike you, we believe in our rituals and scriptures,’ Shambhu retorted and stomped out of the room.
Neither Arvind nor I tried to stop him.
I was surprised to learn that Brahmins were divided into various subcastes and tribal clans.
Arvind picked up the booklet on the bed, tore it into two and flung the pieces out of the window.
After that, he turned to me. ‘Aslam, please avoid confrontation with Shambhu. Nowadays, he is reading a lot of propaganda.’
Before I could say anything, Arvind’s mother entered the room with a tray laden with roasted groundnuts, homemade potato chips and three cups of tea. She was of medium height and had short hair, which was rare in our part of the world. Unlike most of the other ladies of the neighbourhood, she did not follow religious rituals. I was sure that Arvind had inherited his liberal values from her.
‘Pranam, Chachi,’ I greeted her.
‘May the Almighty bless you, son,’ she said as she placed the tray on a stool.
‘Where is Shambhu?’ she asked. ‘He has left,’ Arvind said.
* * *
On a cold afternoon in 1992, in the town of Ayodhya, hordes of volunteers from the Indian Nationalist Party and other right-wing Hindu groups clambered up the domes of the Babri mosque in a frenzy. They were armed with pickaxes, hammers, shovels and iron rods, and they razed the structure to the ground.
I was stunned. I had never expected this would happen in a country like India. Initially, Abba didn’t believe it when the news of the mosque’s destruction came in, and he insisted that it was a rumour. Even the solemn baritone of the All India Radio newsreader couldn’t convince him.
I found my father’s behaviour strange.
But, in the afternoon, while listening to the Hindi service of BBC London Radio in his bedroom, Abba suddenly bellowed, ‘The bastards have demolished the mosque,’ and began to sob. Then he started to slap his forehead repeatedly. I was there, right next to him.
‘Ammi,’ I held his hands tightly and screamed. I feared that Abba had lost his mind.
Within a minute, Ammi came running. Holding Abba by his shoulders, she asked me to fetch a glass of water.
When I returned with the water, Abba was lying on his bed, his eyes closed, and Ammi was rubbing a brown-coloured balm on his forehead. She was also reciting some holy verses and blowing on his head. Ammi gestured to me to be silent. I placed the glass on the windowsill without making a sound and settled on the edge of the bed near the footrest.
Looking at my anxious face, Ammi assured me that everything would be all right by the next morning. She told me that Abba had had similar attacks in the past. She could remember this happening at least three times.
The first was when Abba’s mother had suddenly died.
The second was when a surgeon in Motihari had wrongly diagnosed a simple infection in Ammi’s uterus as an advanced stage of cancer.
And the third time was when India lost to Pakistan 7-1 in the Asian Games hockey finals in 1982.
Thankfully, on all three occasions, he had been back to normal within twenty-four hours.
Ammi did not cook that evening.
That night, I had a dream in which I saw the mosque was saved from destruction by a supernatural being with wings.
‘Angel Gabriel,’ I shouted and woke up with a start. After that, I couldn’t go back to sleep.
The next morning, I was relieved to see Abba reading the newspaper in the drawing room. Abba looked sad but normal. I greeted him and went out to the veranda with a toothbrush in my hand.
A few minutes later, I saw Shambhu walking past our house with two other boys. He turned to look at me. There was a smirk on his face.
‘Bastard,’ I muttered and spat toothpaste foam on the ground just in front of my house. I felt like picking up a half-broken brick lying there and hurling it in his direction. I was sure Shambhu was celebrating the demolition of the mosque.
Later in the day, Arvind visited me. He looked upset.
‘I am sorry, brother, for whatever happened in Ayodhya,’ he said. He hugged me and cried noisily.
I was astonished as I didn’t expect such a reaction from any Hindu, not even from Arvind. My heart swelled with immense affection for my friend. I held him in a tight embrace. If there are Shambhus in India, there are Arvinds too.
The anger and bitterness I had felt for Hindus in general since the news of the destruction of the mosque subsided substantially.
‘You are not responsible for the demolition. Why should you say sorry? And why should you feel guilty? There are criminals and bigots among Muslims also, but I don’t hold myself responsible for their misdeeds,’ I said. Arvind stayed with me for the next few hours.
That same afternoon, I overheard Sartaz Ansari and Abba discussing the possible aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition. The chief minister of Bihar had given orders to all district officials to be vigilant to avoid any unpleasant situations. There was some news of Muslim groups forcing shopkeepers to down shutters to protest the demolition and some right-wing Hindu groups distributing sweets to celebrate the day as Victory Day.
‘So far, things are under control, but the situation could worsen at anytime. Hindus might target Muslims as there is news of temples in Pakistan and Bangladesh being vandalised,’ Sartaz Ansari said.
‘We have to be careful as we live in a Hindu-dominated colony,’ Abba said.
‘I am sure our chief minister will not allow anything bad to happen in Bihar. Still, it would be sensible to move temporarily to a Muslim majority area,’ Sartaz Ansari said. ‘Aley Ahmad and Azim Khan have moved their families to Khuda Nagar and Mathia Zirat, respectively.’
‘You are right. I am thinking of taking my family back to Hamidpur till things cool down,’ Abba said and then added, ‘Sartaz bhai, why don’t you come with us?’
‘See, Rashid bhai,’ Sartaz Ansari began to say something, but Abba cut him short.
‘No excuses, you and your family are coming with us to Hamidpur.’
We started for Hamidpur after the evening prayer. Ammi, Sartaz Ansari’s wife and his two daughters were settled in the middle and back seats of Sartaz Ansari’s white Maruti Omni. Mr. Ansari was in the driver’s seat and Abba sat next to him. Farooque, dressed in a blue Pathani suit and brown sweater, drove his Bajaj scooter, and I was riding pillion.
On the way to Hamidpur, I didn’t observe anything unusual except for triangular saffron flags hoisted atop some of the houses in some villages. And in one Muslim village, there was a handwritten paper banner in Urdu that said: Masjid ki shahadat ko mat bhool jana (Don’t ever forget the martyrdom of the mosque).
After dinner, everyone retired to their allocated rooms. Amma and Sartaz Ansari’s wife and daughters were sharing a room. Abba and Sartaz Ansari were in another room.
Wrapped in a woollen chadar and holding a lantern in my right hand, I ushered Farooque into the room across the courtyard, which I generally shared with my brother, Waseem. I placed the lantern on the windowsill and got under the quilt. Farooque unfolded a straw mat and started praying.
Half an hour later, Farooque came to bed and asked me, ‘How far is Mahrukh’s village from here?’
‘Hardly four kilometres,’ I said. ‘We’ll go there to meet her.’
‘I can’t go.’ I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of meeting Mahrukh again. The memories of my misdemeanour disturbed me once again.
‘Abba will scold me if I go there without his permission.’ ‘Okay, will you just tell me how to get there? And where exactly is her house in the village? The rest, I’ll manage!’ ‘But how will you introduce yourself to her in-laws?’ ‘That, I’ll manage.’
* * *
Early the next morning, Farooque and I went out, telling our parents that Farooque wanted to explore Hamidpur. It took almost an hour to reach Mohaddipur on foot. We were at a tea shop on the outskirts of the village, just twenty to thirty yards from the Sikarahana river, when Farooque tried to convince me to accompany him, but I didn’t relent. I instantly invented an excuse.
‘Actually, Abba is fighting a court case against an influential man of Mohaddipur. It is related to a dispute over a piece of land. Abba feels he may harm me if I go to his village. That is why I’ll wait for you here at this tea shop.’
‘Okay. I’ll be back in an hour or two,’ Farooque said.
Farooque left, and I ordered a cup of tea and two aloo samosas.
The crispy hot samosas arrived soon. I dipped one in raw mango chutney and took a bite, and it tickled every pore of my tongue.
‘Where did you find raw mangoes in this season? This chutney is so tangy and delicious.’
‘We use dried mangoes,’ the tea shop owner responded with a smile. He was kneading flour. Another man who looked like his younger brother was frying jalebis. I took my time finishing the samosas.
Strolling along the sandy bank of the river, I waited for Farooque.
When he hadn’t returned after an hour, I began to worry.
I should not have allowed him to go see Mahrukh. He might get into trouble.
I decided to go to Mahrukh’s village. But right then, I heard Farooque calling out to me. He was standing near the tea stall and waving. I almost ran up to him.
‘What happened, Farooque bhai?’ I asked, alarmed. There were bloodstains on his lips.
‘Nothing serious,’ Farooque said.
‘Please tell me,’ I was getting impatient.
‘I had no difficulty in finding Mahrukh’s house, but I had to lie to her in-laws that I was one of her cousins from Sitamarhi. Looking at my long beard and my white kurta pyjama, they thought I was a clergyman and felt reassured. They didn’t ask me any further questions. Her mother-in-law took me to Mahrukh’s room. Mahrukh was shocked to see me. But I gestured to her to be silent. As soon as her mother- in-law went out to arrange for tea and refreshments, I blurted out to Mahrukh that I still loved her and wanted to marry her,’ he said.
‘Before Mahrukh could say anything, her brothers landed up at her house. Mahrukh’s mother-in-law had sent a message to them that their cousin Farooque had come to see Mahrukh. As soon as they saw me, they recognized me. In front of Mahrukh’s in-laws they pretended as if I was their real cousin. Then they accompanied me to the outskirts of the village.’
‘They slapped and kicked me and threatened to kill me if I tried to meet their sister again.’
‘Oh my god,’ I said and added, ‘I think you should forget her.’
‘No, I can’t. Once I get a decent job, I’ll marry her even if her parents or brothers don’t agree.’
‘How was your BPSC examination this year?’ ‘It was good.’
‘Great,’ I said and silently prayed for Farooque’s success. ‘If I clear the civil services exam, then no one can stop me from marrying Mahrukh,’ Farooque said. ‘She has suffered a lot. Poor Mahrukh!’
‘Did you ask Mahrukh how your letter to her ended up in my mother’s hands?’ I asked, tentatively.
‘No. As I told you she did not get a chance to say anything. Lekin ishq aur mushq kahan chhupta. You can’t hide love and perfume. A whiff of air can tell the whole world what you are hiding.’
I was relieved that Mahrukh hadn’t told Farooque what I had done to her in Motihari.
I prayed in silence with all my heart for Farooque’s success in the civil services exam. I wished Farooque could marry Mahrukh.
The ultimate union of these two lovers was the only way I could assuage my guilt.
* * *
Contrary to our apprehensions, nothing happened in Motihari. In fact, the entire state of Bihar remained more or less peaceful. But many parts of India were singed in the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition.
Two days later, both the families returned to Motihari.
The very next morning, I was on the veranda of my house when I saw Shambhu again, walking past our house. I turned my face away. I was not on talking terms with him since the day we had argued about Lalwani at Arvind’s house.
I despaired for a fleeting moment at losing a friend, a good friend, to the politics of hate.
But it was not my fault. If he wants to make it up, he should say sorry to me.
Excerpted with permission from Abdullah Khan’s A Man from Motihari.