For Raju, who died alone
This is for you, Raju. You did not know me,
but for a few days in the middle of 1993, you were steadily in my thoughts. You had died -- for the
way you died, euphemisms like 'passed away' seem entirely inadequate -- you
had died some months earlier. To the rest of us, you were just a statistic,
one more number totted up with about a thousand others. To Samiullah the
baker, you were his 14-year-old boy, groping to find your way in the world.
His only son.
Samiullah had just started feeling settled enough in Bombay, in his job at
the bakery in the vast slum of Dharavi, to ask you to join him from your
village in Uttar Pradesh. Until you found a more permanent job, the owner
of the bakery had agreed to let you work there daily, running a few errands
for him. You had been in Bombay only three months when that terrible night
They destroyed the bakery that night. Then, as you were returning home
alone, they murdered you. They surrounded you in the evil darkness that had
descended on Bombay in those weeks. They hacked you into little pieces with
their long swords.
In those last seconds that you were alive, you must have wondered: "Why?"
The truth is, Raju, I don't know. I don't know why you died your brutal,
futile death. Why your 14-year-old promise was snuffed out. Why the light
in your father's eye was switched off so suddenly, so permanently.
Oh yes, there was that old mosque in Ayodhya that they smashed into dust
and debris. That set off the weeks of rioting in Bombay; the rioting in
which you turned from a lively, energetic young boy into a pile of bloody
rags, into no more than one of the thousand who died. But you would
probably ask what that had to do with you. Why did that destruction happen?
Why did it lead to yours?
Fair questions, Raju. There's a whole section of us who were persuaded that
destroying that mosque was our country's most urgent task. I know that
makes no sense to you.
After all, you knew that neither you nor your father had any real job
prospects in your village in Uttar Pradesh. If yours was like thousands of
other villages across India, it had no school, no hospital, no electricity,
no telephones. No drinking water. The bright lights of Bombay, the visions
of work that would bring in even a few rupees, the chance for at least some
of those missing basics -- these had already drawn your father there; now
they had brought you to the city.
When making a life in your home was such an impossibility, what sense could
it possibly have made to you that some people thought the national priority
was to pulverise a mosque? That they said it was a glorious act of
liberation, a redemption of national honour, a revival of Hindu pride? That
you would then be overtaken by the events that followed? That you would
die, almost as if it had been written that day somewhere in the rubble of
Months after you died, Raju, I met your father. He was trying to claim the
compensation the government had announced for families, like yours, who had
lost someone, like you, in the riots. I met him when a set of disgusting
bureaucrats were giving him an extraordinary run-around.
Back in Bombay, the officials scrutinised the certificates and told your
father to return in a few days for his cheque. Six different times they
told him the same thing, each some days apart. Each time, he had to trudge
from Dharavi to the heart of Bombay. Each time, he trudged home without the
Eventually, they did have the cheque, made out to your father, sitting on
the table in front of him. Not two feet from him. But the ordeal did not
end there. The officials told him they would post it to your village in
Uttar Pradesh. After all, they said, it was from there that the proof of
your link to your father had come; naturally the cheque would have to be
sent there. Naturally.
"Take a train tonight," they advised Samiullah. "If they don't bring the
cheque to your house," they continued helpfully, "go to the collector's
office and demand it." For in UP, they observed smugly, unlike here in
Bombay, "Government officers really create a lot of trouble."
I watched all this happen, Raju. Your father had lost his only son to the
beast that was unleashed that day in Ayodhya. Now, to get the token the
government was handing out because it did not want to contain that beast,
because it had failed to save your life, he had to contend with the
grasping inhumanity of our bureaucracy.
Why, I think you're asking again. And what could the compensation possibly
mean anyway? Could it ever bring that light back to your father's eyes?
Questions, Raju. Too many questions. They haunt me, too. That's why, four
years later, I remember your death. I will always remember. You showed me
that the true meaning of all that rubble in Ayodhya is not some reborn
national self-respect, not some righting of an ancient wrong, but your
death. Your violent, bloody, futile death.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier