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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

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 came around.

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 Ayodhya?

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. You.

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 money.

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

Dilip D'Souza

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