New Delhi: It was five days since the four-floor building had been set ablaze by a frenzied mob, but the burning smell still hung heavy in the air. On the ground floor, in the middle of the charred room, dwarfed by blackened walls, sat four boys on a cot – as if perched precariously in a flimsy boat that had been hurled into a violent storm.
To be in a familiar place that had become a totally alien and inhospitable terrain must have been bewildering for the youngsters for they had the same lost, aimless look on their faces. Perhaps it was the first time they had seen their identikit – ‘minority/Muslim, certain kind of clothes, anti-national’ – hewed with such malevolence by the most powerful men in the land and distributed to every foot soldier of hate on the street; even to the police to make their job of policing easier.
Or maybe the youngsters were not used to wave upon wave of journalists solemnly asking them questions and jotting the replies in their notebooks. When asked what he was doing there, one boy, his cap askew, murmured, ‘This is my uncle’s place’.
Until the evening of February 25, it had been a footwear showroom, and a residence on the upper floors; now it was just a shell, looted and burned down in an orgy of communal violence. Yet the mob had managed to execute its task with clinical efficiency, ensuring that the flames obliterated only Haji saheb’s establishment, leaving the adjacent store, belonging to one of ‘its own’, unscathed.
As if overcome by the grim atmosphere which one encounters in a house of death, the boy looked away. True, no lives were lost in that blaze, but a lifetime of work and sustenance had been viscerally reduced to nought.
Strangely, even the few remnants of objects burnt to their skeletal forms were looking human, such was their association with the pulse of a lived life – a broken television flung on the ground; a fragment of cloth which had somehow managed to escape the fate of incineration; the singed dial of a clock on the ground, its needles dead at approximately 5.25; gaping holes in the walls where electrical fittings had been ripped off; a floor of glass shards and broken tiles and, standing out in the detritus, a brand new, as yet unpolished wooden door, testifying to dreams that once were.
The owner, Haji saheb as he was called by the people around him, was in his 40s, with a dignified bearing. He had schooled his features into impassiveness and was answering every question about the sequence of events in a matter of fact tone – the triumphal mob which responded to his entreaties by pointing a pistol at him first and then firing into the building, looting all the merchandise and finally torching the establishment.
He must have narrated this story many times; one could observe him repeat the details again and again to a continuous stream of questioners who picked their way through the rubble.
Words are words, they can’t always mirror the soundless sigh of a broken heart; it is the body which gives one away, revealing a defencelessness that pierces the armour of the beholder. The way Haji saheb was holding himself it was clear he was using every ounce of his willpower to ensure he did not disintegrate before our eyes.
A heroic endeavour in a situation where the fruit of your life’s work, your very existence, is enough for someone to shove you into the frame of the identikit – ‘minority/Muslim, certain kind of clothes, anti-national’ – with the intent that you should not be able to raise your head ever again.
There was the viciousness of the act, visceral almost, which had to be processed in the mind, and a dreaded question that had to be answered – would his life forever be corrupted by the blight of doubt and suspicion.
Simultaneously there was an effort to preserve his dignity at the precise moment when the ruins of his life had become a matter of public record.
While he was responding to some journalists, one of his associates was heard telling another group, “Haji saheb ne maaf kar diya hai (he has forgiven the perpetrators).”
One journalist decided to seek a confirmation of the statement. “Aap ne maaf kar diya? (have you forgiven?),” he asked Haji saheb, drawing an exclamation of outrage from a colleague.
The journalist clarified, “It was his associate who claimed so. I only wanted to know if it was true.”
While this exchange was going on, Haji saheb looked stonily at some invisible spot and struggled to maintain the expressionless look on his face. But it was a losing battle – as a few tears escaped his eyes, his shoulders heaved and his defences crumbled.
Covering his face with his hand he sobbed like a child.