New Delhi: “You must be the trying to find the house of the boy with the bullet?”
We are standing behind the Aqsa Masjid in Mustafabad, one of north-east Delhi’s riot torn neighbourhoods, where the signs of the February violence are still visible in the rubble and the half-burnt exteriors of shops.
An elderly man asks us this question.
It is Eid and I had promised Sameer I would visit. After more than three months in hospital beds, he was returning home.
On February 22, two days before the violence broke out, Sameer, barely 15, had given his math exam.
“I had dreams,” he recalls, “I would become an important man, an engineer, I would work abroad to earn.” On February 24, he was returning home for lunch from an ‘ijtema’ (religious gathering) at the Badi Masjid in Sadar Bazaar when he was hit by a bullet.
Sameer was very close to his house when he saw “huge crowds” descend from the other side. “Before I knew what had happened, my knees buckled, I couldn’t breathe, my body just crumpled and fell.” He does not have to spell out that the ‘other side’ was where the Hindus were in a majority.
He was carried by some bystanders to a small clinic nearby, “There was a lady doctor who tried to stop the blood but each bandage she applied would be soaked.” An odd detail still sticks to his memory, “I think I spoilt the clothes she was wearing.”
Now he is home. “No one thought I would survive, but here I am sitting up,” he says, greeting me with a radiant smile.
Sameer lies on a bed pushed against one side of the wall, in a white kurta, surrounded by his family – parents, two younger brothers and four sisters, all dressed for the festival. Zeba, at five the youngest, will not let go of his hands and wants to be photographed with her brother. His mother is ecstatic, “Eid is always festive but the joy I feel today, only Allah knows its extent.”
And then a thought for a benefactor, “We are so grateful to Dr Mathew for allowing us to go home today.”
Dr Mathew Verghese is the Head of Department of Orthopaedics at St Stephen’s hospital in Old Delhi, where Sameer spent a month.
For the first several days after being shot, Sameer was at the Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, the one closest to his home. He reached there with great difficulty after his father, Mohammad Zakir, was able to arrange an ambulance for him hours after he was shot.
He was rushed into surgery, which took a few hours. The bullet was removed but it had pierced his spine and paralysed him waist down. For thirty-six days he was on a ventilator. “There were tubes in my mouth, nose, throat and neck,” he recalls, “And specially in the early days I felt I could see my Abu’s face and my Ammi with tears in her eyes, but it all felt so hazy.”
Sameer was finally shifted to the general ward, “There was no life in my spine, my legs were numb but everything else hurt. It was only after an injection began being administered daily that the pain eased. Each injection cost Rs 3,000.”
The family had come to Delhi five years ago, from Bijnore in western Uttar Pradesh, in search of work and better education for the children. Living on meagre daily wages, each rupee was carefully tabulated and remembered, but they were determined to do all they could for Sameer.
The parents took turns, spending a week each in hospital to ensure Sameer was not left unattended for a moment. “We don’t have much, just each other,” Sameer’s eldest sister says, as she feeds sewain to her brother.
Lying in bed Sameer says he would often be despondent, “We had never harmed anyone, never complained of the little we had, so why did fate not let me reach home safely that day?” The smile on his face flickers off for a moment but returns as he adds, “I suppose I’m complaining now.”
In those long days of being totally bedridden, Sameer says he felt “angry even at my feet, I would look at them and try to will them to walk. I read the Quran, it gave me strength.”
Health volunteers and a disability rights activist who got to know him at the hospital felt Sameer needed more focused attention, and had him shifted to St Stephen’s hospital in Old Delhi. The physiotherapy there helped him. “Earlier all I could do was lie straight and stare at the ceiling for days on end,” he says, sitting up to show me how that’s changed.
According to Dr Mathew Verghese, an institution unto himself, the road ahead is still a tough one for Sameer. “I’m happy we’ve been able to get him standing, he can even take a few steps but as some groups of muscles still have paralysis, it’s too early to predict how normally he’ll walk,” he says.
What is of greater immediate concern for Dr Mathew is the loss of bladder functions, “Ideally I would not have liked to discharge Sameer with a catheter but ultimately weighing the cost benefits of the treatments this was the best option.”
So far, Dr Mathew had covered the cost of treatment but the expenses for what lies ahead on the road to recovery are still huge. A meagre Rs 20,000 is all the Delhi government has given as compensation. His father Mohammed Zakir, expressing gratitude for all those such as Dr Matthew who had already helped so much, says “First the violence, then the weeks at the hospital, now the lockdown, I haven’t been able to earn.”
In the midst of such concerns, the family has little room to worry about justice. The certificate from doctors at GTB would allow him to pursue a legal case but Irshad says, “I’m a daily wage labourer, my elder daughter and wife earn a little from tailoring, we work hard, the thana, kacheri (police station, court) is not for us.”
When I do bring the conversation around to the violence they have experienced, there’s a long pause before Sameer’s mother answers, “We do not want to get into this Hindu-Muslim issue.”
His eldest sister interrupts her mother to say that the family avoids discussing the violence, “We will never forget it, how can we? I remember it each time I have to help my brother move even a little, the same person who would run up the steps, climbing them two at a time.”
Sameer turns to her and responds, “Don’t worry, give me a few days and I’ll outpace you again.”
The pensive mood is broken and the family returns to their festive cheer as I’m made to eat another bowl of sewain before I am allowed to leave.
Just five kilometres away in Maujpur, the Eid festivities are more subdued at Adnan’s home.
Adnan is 19, and he was the main earning member in the family, working at a small welding unit where Christmas decorations were manufactured. His story echoes what Sameer had related.
On the same day, a few hours after Sameer was hit, Adnan stepped out to fetch some medicines for his sister. He only realised he’d been hit by a bullet after his legs gave way and he fell in a pool of his own blood.
“Most shops near us were closed so I walked to a market further away. There I saw large groups of men with tilaks and saffron gamchas, which is when I realised there was something amiss. I was about to enter a lane adjacent to a mosque when I heard people shouting, bricks flying around and gunshots.”
While every detail is vivid till this point, Adnan still struggles to remember what happened after he was shot. “I thought I’d stumbled and fallen. It was when I tried to get up, I realised I had lost control over my legs, then I saw the blood. A few men from my community picked me up.”
The bullet had pierced his thigh, shattering his femur, leaving a gaping flesh wound where it exited.
His younger brother, Vicky, was at home when a neighbour called to tell him his brother had been shot. “It seemed so far-fetched. I would have dismissed it as a joke but by then the news of the violence had spread.”
He recounts how he took his brother on his scooty, weaving his way through the bloody chaos of that night, pleading with the unrelenting police to let him take his dying brother to the hospital.
“GTB hospital is closest to us so we went there but they turned us away, told us to go to Safdarjung.” It took four hours at Safdarjung before Adnan was taken into surgery. He had lost a lot of blood and was coming in and out of consciousness.
Vicky was alone with his brother through most of that night. Their father, after years of hard labour, was incapacitated by a hernia, their mother and their 18-year-old elder sister, were unable to step out of their homes. It was some hours before some friends and neighbours could arrive to help
“They told us we had to donate blood before any surgery or treatment could be done. We told them our friends and family were stuck in the violence, that we would donate blood later, but they wouldn’t listen,” says Vicky.
After a long surgery Adnan was discharged from Safdarjung but asked to return every three days to get his bandages changed. It was tough and expensive to follow this routine. Adnan, as he points to a large wound on one leg with skin grafted on it, says, “Initially a doctor handled it and he was meticulous but I feel the nurses would just rush through it, maybe that’s what gave me the infection.”
The past two months have been a battle against life-threatening infections, and the strong doses of antibiotics that have their own side-effects. Acute nausea and a total loss of appetite have left Adnan so weak that it’s an effort for him to sit up. He still has an external device holding his leg in place and it’s a constant struggle to fight off bed sores.
At Safdarjung, doctors had told the family Adnan would be well and walking in six months but it seemed he was getting worse. Help came from a medical volunteer who took the family to Al-Shifa, a hospital in South Delhi that’s been treating many victims of the violence. The family had to relocate to an aunt’s house to be closer to the hospital.
In the 25 days, Adnan spent at Al-Shifa he had begun to recover from the infection and was doing well when the hospital discharged him due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adnan needs to recover from the infection before he can have more surgeries but the lockdown has come in the way of his treatment. The thought that he may have trouble walking terrifies Adnan, “If I never walk again people will not know that it’s just sheer hatred and violence that’s done this to me.”
This is a fear all the boys I met share. The thought of a permanent disability is doubly debilitating in a country with little support for the disabled. Prime Minister Modi’s insistence on using the term ‘divyaang’ (divine body) for the disabled translates into little of practical value.
For Adnan, the nights still bring terrifying nightmares, “I keep thinking if I had not taken those extra steps towards the crowds, I would have escaped the bullet, my family would not be suffering on my account.” He is tormented by what has happened, “We’re old enough to understand that relations between Hindus and Muslim have been damaged. Muslims are taunted in this country but we never thought it would come to this. If I thought Hindus would be violent, I would have never gone towards the Hindu mohallas to get the medicines.”
Neither of the brothers has been able to earn in the past three months. The family is yet to receive any compensation, surviving on donations from people. Gufran, a member of the Aman Biradari Trust which has been working in the riot areas, has been helping the family with rations and some monetary relief.
Under the circumstances, like Sameer’s family, they do not want to pursue the legal case, “Mahaul insaaf ka nahee hai (the climate is not right for justice).” All they want is for Adnan to be back on his legs.
Justice is too distant an idea for these families. Hoor Bano, the mother of 16-year-old Saif tells me over the phone, “Ever since Saif was hit by a bullet three months ago I have not been able to breathe properly, now when I see him alive, standing, walking I tell myself nothing else matters.”
In his neighbourhood, Saif is not just known as the boy hit by a bullet but the boy who carried a bullet in his body for two months. “Sometimes my friends seem so fascinated by the bullet,” he tells me, “They ask me questions as if I was some target board. Where did it hit you, what did it break? They forget that the bullet could have killed me.”
On February 25, Saif had accompanied his father Mohammad Irshad to their small tailoring shop in Kabir Nagar, less than a kilometre away from the spot where Adnan was shot. It wasn’t part of his usual routine but as there was no school that day – students were on exam leave – he went along.
When they reached Kabir Nagar, they realised the violence that they’d been hearing about had reached there. Saif, rushing ahead of his father, got swept up by the crowds, “I called out his name, a few minutes later I saw four men carrying a boy whose body was dripping blood at each step.”
Saif had been shot in the stomach by a bullet, which eye-witnesses say came from where a Hindu mob had assembled. In the midst of the violence, Saif’s father and uncle found their way to GTB hospital.
“I could feel intense pain in my stomach and head, but I could not feel my legs. They were numb,” recalls Saif who had to wait from midday till six in the evening before being taken to the operation theatre. The surgery took five hours, the doctors said they’d managed to repair some of the nerve damage, Saif was out of immediate danger, but the bullet had not been taken out.
After 10 days Saif, quite inexplicably, was discharged with the bullet still lodged in his abdomen. The same doctors who said any sudden movement could endanger his life, also asked him to attend the orthopaedic OPD, which required a daily journey in an auto-rickshaw.
Bringing Saif, still in pain, regularly to the hospital was difficult. Gufran, from Aman Biradri Trust who had also helped Adnan’s family, directed them to Al-Shifa hospital.
Saif was admitted there on March 16. A CT scan revealed the bullet had damaged the nerves and it had to be removed. Four days later he underwent a seven-hour surgery. “When Dr Nadeem emerged from the OT he told us the bullet was out. Saif would need to rest but after a while he would walk again. It was as if my own life forces had been restored,” says Hoor Bano.
For Saif, it felt like a new lease of life, “I could not imagine life without walking, without playing cricket and had plunged into deep depression – at least that’s what people called it. It was a feeling I had not known.”
Each of the boys had battled this fear, this depression and in each case the support of the family and the larger community had proved crucial, “I was angry, upset,” says Saif, “I had just given my Math’s board exams three days earlier and it had gone well. Questions rushed to my mind, why did the bullet find me, who was shooting, what was their aim, but my family would ask me not to think on those lines.”
The road to recovery was interrupted once again by the lockdown. On March 27, Saif was discharged from Al-Shifa, the family was told that, except for emergencies, hospitals were sending all other patients home. The regular physiotherapy so critical in his rehabilitation process came to an end.
The family tries to ensure Saif does some daily exercises. “Ammi does oil massage, Abbu makes him use the walker and I make him do some catching so that his cricket skills remain,” says Ashraf, Saif’s older brother. Saif still has a weakness in his leg and is unable to walk properly. But he dreams again, of wanting to become an engineer, of wanting to meet Virat Kohli, his cricketing hero.
His father, though, still battles his memories, “I wake up with a start in the middle of the night, rush to see if Saif is still breathing. Sometimes, I want to hit my head on the wall for taking Saif to the shop that day.”
His anxieties are worsened by what lies ahead. His shop has been shut since the day Saif was injured, “First it was the hadsa, the violence, then I was in hospital with Saif and now the lockdown, there has been simply no earning in three months.”
Apart from the initial Rs 20,000 that came as compensation, the family has been forced to live off donations. “I may not have secured large savings but I was always able to take care of the needs of my family, educate my boys. Now we have to take alms. And I still haven’t paid rent for four months,” says Zakir.
There is an FIR lodged at the Welcome police station but the family does not want to pursue the legal case, “People ask us if we want justice for what has happened to us and I tell them ‘insaaf kee nahee sochtey, karobar ki’ (I don’t dream of justice, I think of my livelihood).”
“Insaaf is a big word,” I remember 14-year-old Faizan telling me when I visited him at his home in Kardampuri, in the immediate aftermath of the violence, at the end of February.
As I had enter the lane his house was on, a young girl, possibly in her early twenties, came to me and says:
“Are you looking for the Faizan who was killed or the Faizan who was shot?”
The Faizan who was killed lived two lanes away. A video shows him and four others being beaten by men in police uniforms. He died two days later. The Faizan I was going to meet was also caught in the same violence.
A steep flight of stairs led to Faizan’s one room house, where he lives with his older brother and his grandmother. Unaware of the violence that had reached his colony, Faizan had stepped out on February 24 to buy some rusks for his grandmother, when he was hit by a bullet fired by a Hindu mob.
Journalists from The Wire found him slumped over on the roadside, bleeding.
Residents here claim ambulances were being blocked from reaching the injured. Faizan was rushed to the only option available that day, Dr Khaliq’s clinic. It was already packed with dozens of injured and seriously wounded people, “When Faizan was brought to my clinic there was blood pouring out of his stomach. I realised the bullet had hit close to his spine. All I could do was pressure bandage the wound to stop the bleeding.”
Six hours later, Faizan made it to GTB hospital and is fortunate to have survived. The bullet was removed but it left Faizan unable to move. Bedridden in his house, Faizan’s deepest fear was of a life-long paralysis. The doctors had given him no information on what the future held for him, “All I pray for is to be able to stand and walk again so I can help my grandmother. My brother won’t be able to manage on his own.”
Faizan’s mother died when he was born. His father abandoned his two sons, remarried and moved to Rampur, leaving them in their widowed grandmother’s care.The two boys, the elder one just 16, help their grandmother in cutting threads from jeans which earned them up to Rs 100 a piece but the work stopped with the outbreak of the violence. And then there was the lockdown.
Almost three months later, when I returned to meet Faizan, he was sitting up. He smiled as he recognised me. He wanted to see the video I had taken of him that day. “Can you see I am better, I can sit up,” and pointed to a walker that a health activist had left for him, indicating he can walk a few steps.
Faizan’s grandmother wasn’t home that day, she’d gone out to try and see if she could avail of her pension. Money has been tight.
Donations from people wanting to help and the Rs 20,000 compensation from the SDM is what they have managed on but there is little work now. The community has pitched in to help, the landlord has waived the rent but Faizan still needs regular physiotherapy, medical monitoring.
The incident has made him quieter, says his brother. Faizan smiles when he hears this but doesn’t say much.
What he does tell me is that his fears have heightened – not just about his own condition but everything around him. He fears the police each time they come around to question him of the incident – the family again, like all the others I met does not want to pursue a legal case.
Some of his other fears are even more constricting, “If I could get shot in the middle of large crowds just by chance, I feel if I step out I could get the coronavirus.”
It’s a fear that’s spread to his grandmother. “Everyone feels Faizan is safer at home.” It is what has made them reluctant to seek medical advice outside their neighbourhood, relying on Dr Khalil, the man who had first attended to Faizan for treatment.
‘My dadi and my brother have attended to my every need. I want to be well to do something for them as well. That’s my only prayer. If I had a larger family, if Ammi was alive, there would be more people maybe to share the burden of looking after me,’ Faizan says, his voice trailing off.
Faizan, Saif, Adnan and Sameer, four boys – young men – who have never met each other but whose lives have been linked by a tragedy they are trying to move beyond.
Each known in their neighbourhood by the same description, ‘the boy with the bullet’.