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April 6, 2002
When I feel the little bump, it doesn't seem like anything to be concerned about. The guy in the Indica behind has accidentally, but gently, nudged my autorickshaw. My driver, a burly 55-year-old, gestures in mild irritation, in a sort of half-hearted way. Even though it was the Indica man's fault, it clearly could not have caused any damage either to the rickshaw or to the Indica itself. So we drive on.
But only seconds later, the Indica pulls alongside and forces us off the road. When we come to a stop, the man emerges in a flash. Shiny shoes, starched trousers, button-down shirt, about 30 years old, he could be an executive somewhere. He's certainly dressed far more spiffily than I am. Face contorted with rage, he advances on my driver, yells something about having sounded his horn three times. Within seconds, the two are nose-to-nose and abusing each other at the top of their voices.
I try to pacify them, and for a brief moment I think I have calmed the Indica man down. A very brief moment. Because he suddenly turns, runs back to the car, takes out absolutely the last thing I expect. A long, sturdy lathi. Before I can react, he swings and whacks my driver on his forearm, generating one of those cliched but accurate sickening thuds. Whacks him so hard that the lathi breaks in two. Then he jumps into the Indica and is gone.
I am simply speechless.
For two days, I have seen and heard enough about the killings over religion in Gujarat, been sickened and dejected enough by it all. But this incident has nothing to do with any religion. An ego dented -- more than his car -- because his horn was ignored, and that's enough for the Indica man to wield his stout stick so hard that it breaks.
Two more days since this happened on the busy Drive-In Road in Ahmedabad, and I am still unable to quite believe it did. Is it normal to carry a lathi around in your car? Normal to pull it out and assault a stranger over an accident so minor it hasn't left so much as a mark, an accident that is your fault anyway? Normal to feel rage on this scale?
Is it that a month of killing across Gujarat has produced behaviour like this? Or is it the other way around -- has ugliness such as the Indica man displayed made the slaughter possible? Whichever it is, or even if neither, I'm standing on Drive-In Road wanting to throw up.
The first time I felt uneasy in Gujarat was the first time I visited. A skinny college student, I spent a summer as an apprentice at an Ahmedabad textile mill. An even skinnier college buddy and I are on a bus one morning, chatting in our usual lingo, a mixture of English and Hindi. Out of the blue, a number of grown men begin shoving us around, barking in our faces that if we don't know Gujarati, we should not have come to Gujarat and had better leave the state right away.
We get off the bus as soon as we can, shaking and bewildered. It's the first time I have glimpsed mindless chauvinism like that, and it won't be the last. But I still remember wondering what could make large adults threaten and manhandle a pair of college weaklings. Even over language.
On a trip to Ahmedabad a dozen years later, the driver of the car I am in pulls out to overtake a bus. Nothing unusual there, except that the bus is itself already barrelling down the wrong side of the road, itself overtaking a slower car. In that already crazy traffic, we are zooming along two lanes deep into oncoming traffic. My hair stands on end. Then I see a scooter heading straight for us, carrying two women. There's another bus to their left, so they don't have the space to move over and avoid us. There's not enough time for them to slow down and slip behind that bus. The only way to avoid a collision, it seems clear to me, is for us to quickly brake and get out of where we shouldn't have been in the first place. I'm shouting at our driver to do just that.
But no! Apparently this is the old game of who-blinks-first, and he's not about to give in. To a scooter! To two mere women! He leans on his horn and actually breaks into a smile. Next thing I know, the scooter bounces off our fender. I turn to see it wobbling away, the women fighting to keep it from falling on its side and under the bus. They succeed, but it's a close thing.
A dozen years after that first time, I'm shaking again in Ahmedabad. I turn back to our driver. In my spluttering anger, I'm barely able to speak. But his smile widens. He says: "Why should I have moved? These things happen." He has nearly killed those women, but "these things happen". The man in the back seat nods in agreement. "You," he says sagely, "are used to life in the West. Doesn't work that way here."
Life here, I suppose I am to conclude, has no place for ordinary humanity. Not, at any rate, while playing who-blinks-first.
Another decade later, I make a trip to Godhra, then on to Ahmedabad. The carriage -- that carriage -- looks like nothing so much as those rows of closely spaced bunks in Dachau or Auschwitz. As I walk through it, over piles of ash, over charred memories of lives once lived -- a bag of rice here, a child's notebook there -- my knees weaken and I sink on to what used to be a berth. To think I'm inside this box where 60 humans were roasted, to even try to imagine how the demons who did this could have done it, is nearly too much for me.
In the village of Dehlol only hours later, we stop at the remains of a mosque where 40 more humans were slaughtered after Godhra. Then I get into a discussion with an increasingly hostile young man, paunch encased in a grubby vest. "This had to be done", he says. "They torment us so much on our border, then Godhra happened. So we had to hit back." At innocent people? I ask. Indians must be killed here because we have border clashes?
"Yes, so what? The days of that Gandhi are gone," he sneers. "If someone hits me on one cheek, I'm not going to offer him my other one" -- and here he sticks his right cheek at me in a way that I never thought could be as crude as he makes it look. Walking out of the village through staring, hostile crowds whose sniggers I can hear behind my back, I wonder -- have I been talking to one of the killers? Walking among them? Do demons come in grubby vests?
In a relief camp, a ten-year-old tells me how her home was burned, her family assaulted. A horrible tale, but she tells it to me in a soft, even voice. But then she is suddenly sobbing, sobbing, for her best friend. Another young girl. Stood through the carnage in their village, saying over and over again that her father would come to save her. Only, he never did. He was already dead. And as she called to him, as this weeping waif watched, she herself was cut down.
What do you say? I can find nothing.
It's with these Gujarat memories on my mind -- from that inexplicable bullying of two college kids to the wrenching sobs of this wisp of a girl -- that I climb into an autorickshaw to meet a friend for lunch. On Ahmedabad's busy Drive-In Road, an Indica gently bumps us from behind.
Blood flowing from his arm, my driver is doubled up and bellowing in pain. The broken off piece of the lathi lies on the ground. I look at him, at it, at the grinning, curious crowd that has gathered.
It takes all I have not to scream: What is happening in this state?
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