I had finished high school in 1992, waiting to be inducted into an engineering course. Many of my friends were already in some regional engineering college or another. I was left with a few. We kept the tradition of meeting in obscure spots during the evening, discussing everything from love, friendship and religion to politics. We chose obscure places because we thought we discussed exceptional matters seriously and did not want to be disturbed by frivolous people we knew from the various neighbourhoods of our small railway colony town.
Assam in 1992 was calmer compared to the heady days of the Assam Agitation that disrupted life between 1979 and 1985. We could move freely and even think of falling in love with a girl from the local community. I had no such luck, but a couple of my friends did. We spoke about how R, who wasn’t even a Bengali, was roughed up by a gang of local boys when he had taken his Assamese girlfriend for a rendezvous to the zoo. Those were difficult days, when it was a miracle to have escaped hatred – politics was hate, and if you did not hate, you were not politically conscious enough – or fear, for us, the refugee community who found ourselves with the new status of being “foreigners”. But despite the fear we felt in the streets that prevented us from venturing too far away from home on days when the frequent curfews were lifted, we managed the impossible: we did not hate back.
I can only offer conjectures about why we didn’t fall into the hate trap. At least among my friends, we had boys from all communities, and we ridiculed everyone. We ridiculed our communities, our religions, our gods, our fathers, our teachers and not least, ourselves. If someone made a fool of himself in love, he would be asked to read Linda Goodman. Thankfully, Goodman gave way to Milan Kundera once I learnt about him from my mentor in college. I remember S saying after reading Immortality, “I frankly never thought much of literature. I thought its value is exaggerated. But it does make us understand life. Where else can we learn about life after having refuted our father?” Those words he spoke in Hindi still ring in my head. Today S is a successful engineer, and a proponent of Hindutva. But when he speaks to me on the phone he hides it, partly because he is embarrassed and partly because he knows I would deflate the saffron balloon that floats in his head.
It is not the same with A, though. He was senior to us and puffing his cigarettes, he warned us of the wrong ways to impress a woman. A is a successful software businessman, and nothing stops him from airing his divisive world views about nationalists and anti-nationalists. He has not read a single book of history, but in the time of the Internet, you don’t need to take such archaic measures to know history. Any blog that claims to proclaim the real truth behind Nehruvian and left-wing duplicities will find attention. Anyone who hasn’t read a book of history but has enough pride in his Hindu heart can do a 24-hour course online and render all historical claims that do not corroborate the great Hindu past, dubious and bogus.
A is bewildered when I say I don’t want to talk to him when he airs his ungrounded prejudice against Muslims on the phone. He thinks he has a right to his opinions. I tell him, most people like him don’t even know that an opinion can mean a lot in a marketplace where you go to buy fish, but it means nothing when you are talking about history and people. I ask him if he admires Tagore. He says, of course he does. I tell him what Tagore said about nationalism. He hears me with suspicion, as if I am using another blog against his. Then he changes his line, saying I might know more than him but my sentiments are in the wrong place. He offers me the tough heart of the problem. Unlike what T.S. Eliot had once lamented, today in India we have information, knowledge and whatever is meant by wisdom, all thrown into the pyre of sentiments. Nationalism is a sentimental god, extremely touchy, but with the paradox of having the skin of a rhinoceros. Only those bits of information, knowledge and wisdom will be counted as such where we can feel proud of who we are, never mind what even the English proverbs we memorised in school told us. We were different people in school. The nation is a world of adults, and one of the primary tasks of nationalist adulthood is to repudiate the time of childhood, to kill the child and become the father we ridiculed.
It hurts me to remember that it was A who had called me up from Itanagar on December 6, 1992. He sounded anxious on the phone, “Z is on his way home. He was very scared at the bus stop about his safety. Will you tell his father? Or can you go yourself?” I calculated the probable time of the bus reaching the terminus at Paltan Bazar, a market hub in Guwahati, and promised him I would go and receive Z. I was worried too. Z was my closest friend in school and I couldn’t bear to imagine anything happening to him.
It was evening when I met a boy who was studying history in Lucknow University, walking towards me with a box of sweets. “The Babri Masjid has been demolished!” he informed me with joy. What did it mean to him, why did it mean so much to him? When I asked him, he started saying, “We Hindus…” and I immediately lost interest. Somehow I was resistant to the idea of pride, whether in myself, or anyone else. Maybe watching the anti-foreigners movement from close, I understood the terrible things pride can do. I did not want to end up like that, as a human being I detested.
When I returned home that evening, father was excitedly watching the news on television with a few men from the neighbourhood. They seemed jubilantly engrossed. I had received A’s call just before I had left home and was worried all evening. What is a nation worth if my friend is scared of returning home? What is a nation worth if I am supposed to enjoy the misery of a dear friend? What is a religion worth if it rejoices in the humiliation of another religion? These are questions that troubled me all evening on December 6, 1992.
Just after the men left, I created a scene in the house. I brought out a stick and told father that if he doesn’t stop gloating over this nonsense I will break the TV set. He was alarmed, what happened? I told him my friend Z was scared of returning home and it was all because of this mosque being demolished. Father knew I was stubborn about my beliefs, and I could be unruly if angry, so he rather gently tried to make me understand the sentiment behind the event. I asked him if it avenged his status as a refugee in his own country. I asked him if it were Hindus or Muslims who were calling him a foreigner. He did not have any answer to these questions and left the room. I switched off the TV. I often behaved without knowing the truth, maybe my father had a point about something I thought. After all I knew little about history. But I was sure of my actions as well.
So what if I did not know of history? I know what friendship means, and one Muslim friend is enough to teach me about the responsibility of being Hindu. Z invited me to his house every Eid. No one made mutton biriyani and sevai like his mother did on Eid. After lunch we would go to see a film together. His strict father allowed him that luxury on Eid. On other days he would simply not know when Z and I would lie about going to meet the maths teacher to understand algebra or calculus, and go for an Amitabh or Mithun film. That was the hidden algebra and calculus of friendship. It was a friendship of conversations, of breaking rules. Was it any less important than folding your arms or kneeling before any god? No. But we did not suffer in our hearts from any such contradiction between religion and friendship.
I was anyway not a believer. I summoned god till I reached high school, only on occasions when I was called to the principal’s chamber for a beating. Later I must have felt bad about using god for such trifle reasons, and stopped bothering him for anything. The next day, the Times of India had Dileep Padgaonkar’s strongly worded editorial, condemning the vandalism of the Babri Mosque. I realised not all Hindus were like the men in my neighbourhood and the boy who was doing history a disservice at Lucknow University. A neighbourhood uncle I admired otherwise, said, “These editors are shamefully anti-Hindu.” The next year, Padgaonkar would face his own ironic moments when both Nirad C. Chaudhuri and V.S. Naipaul, the two men he had elaborately interviewed in Europe, would support the vandalism on the mosque. Hindus were finally recovering their pride, they said. One mosque for so many temples isn’t such a great crime. As if sentiments were calculable. It sounded like a trade-off between one and many, this and that. All in the name of that bastard, history that reminds me of what Paavo Haavikko wrote more sharply than many others:
“When history lectures, fools still make notes… The big moment is when the oppressed becomes the oppressor. That’s when history takes a deep breath and starts lecturing.”
I reminded A of his concern on December 6, 1992. I could feel him smile discomfortingly, caught between embarrassment and shamelessness. A had arrived on the stage of history and adopted a role he did not want to give away for childhood memories, for that the boy he was earlier. A was willing to repudiate his own history in order to claim the glory of his nation’s past. And not bother about the difference.
When I finally met Z on December 7, 1992, I asked him what he thought of the demolition. “They should make a park there instead,” he said with secular naivety. When I told my neighbourhood uncle what Z said, he replied, “But see, he didn’t say make the temple.” I pitied him for not having a friend.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.