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|October 4, 2002||
Hope in a Time of Death
Taking an overnight train back from Ahmedabad to Mumbai some months ago, I couldn't sleep much. After some terrifying and utterly depressing days in Gujarat, I was going home. Nothing in recent memory had shaken me as badly as this trip had. Image followed memory followed image as I lay on my upper berth, and I brooded over each one; searching, grasping, yearning for some shreds of humanity in the vast, even epic, brutality I had wandered through. Some bits of hope to cling to in the profound desolation I felt.
Months later, after over 30 more are slaughtered in a Gandhinagar temple, and as we pay our perfunctory once-a-year respects to a famous son of Gujarat, I find myself searching again. Where is the hope amid ruins, blood, hatred? Where is the hope that famous son, dead 54 years now, might have found?
When I look at my days in Gujarat that way, I return, over and over, to just two incidents. Small ones, thus tiny bits of hope --- but hope nevertheless.
The first was at a relief camp. I was there as part of a large team of people from every religion, its organisers trying to talk to all we met about reconciliation and peace. While they were doing so through mikes to a large crowd in the quadrangle, I made my way through to a corner room and sat to talk to a woman there. Her sister with six children? Slaughtered as they fled their home. Her seven-year-old son? Slashed across his head, flung on a garbage heap, left for dead. Mother and son held my hands and wept, begging me to do something, anything, to "bring back humanity" --- in translation, exactly what she said --- instead of the killing. Unable to think of any way I could do that, I sat there holding hands, fighting my own tears.
Till someone came into the room to tell me that my group had left the camp some time before. If I wanted to catch them, I needed to hurry.
Walking out alone, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see, first, two stones flying through the air; second, a Buddhist monk robed in saffron, one of our party, also making his way out. The stones were aimed at him. I grabbed him. "Walk with me, let's get out fast," I yelled in his ear --- painfully conscious, and therefore terrified, that my arm around his shoulder now made me a target too. Painfully conscious, too, of how far we still had to go and the restless crowds I could see in front of us.
Young men were beginning to shout, we don't want your peace talk! Tell it to the RSS who started all this! Now get out! And back at the bus some minutes later, more stones thrown at us broke a window before the panicky bus driver started the engine and charged out of there.
But well before we got to the bus, as the monk and I hurried towards it, a woman suddenly appeared beside us on a scooter. I had noticed her passing us, going the other way; evidently she had turned around somewhere behind us and returned. "Get on behind me," she practically ordered him. "I'll take you out to your bus." Leaning on her horn, weaving through the thronging and hostile crowds as fast as she dared, she did just that. And when I reached there, amid the angry shouting and the stones that broke the window, I got her name. To my eternal regret, only her first name. Thirty-year-old Mumtaz. One brave, true human in a city where humanity had suffered a crushing defeat.
The second incident came at Sabarmati Ashram, home for some years to that same famous son. Some college students were also there, and I got into a long argument about the violence with three of them. The girl and one of the guys stayed relatively calm. But the third, a muscular athlete-type called Anand, got progressively angrier. His lip trembled as he voiced a stream of grievances and abuses against Muslims. The other two contributed less and less as the two of us grew acrimonious, heated, and fervent in our exchanges. Eighty per cent of Muslims are terrorists! he said. We never touch their Haj pilgrims, why did they kill our Ayodhya pilgrims in Godhra? he asked. And since they did, and since Muslims are all "anti-India", this reaction was "inevitable". Again, in translation, exactly what he said.
At one point, a Delhi journalist who was listening butted in to ask him, what about the 200 women at the Juhapura camp who were raped? What do you have to say about that? This sent Anand into a near-fit of rage. That's a lie, he shouted, flailing his arms about. You media people --- and here he turned on me, looking ready to strike out any second --- spread these lies about Hindus! I live near there and I would have known if it had happened! It's a lie and in fact they attacked us from Juhapura first!
Practically snorting in scorn and disbelief, the journalist stalked off. Anand, I thought, was going to explode.
Look, I told him, I don't know about 200 rapes. I'm not spreading any such story, because I have not heard it and I don't know. But I do know about one woman, just one dazed woman with a soul-deadening emptiness in her eyes, whom I met at a camp. She was raped. By more than a dozen men. She is now pregnant. Forget about numbers like 200. Let's talk instead about this one woman. Why was she raped?
Anand actually calmed down, thought for a short while. Suddenly the equation had changed from a large number --- 200 --- to one human being. Right there, and even if for just that spell of mere seconds, I got the strangest feeling that I had got through to him, put a troubling question in his mind. We talked some more after that, calmer and more willing to listen to each other than we had been. He seemed to genuinely appreciate that I listened to his views instead of scorning him as he expected me to. And in turn, he got through to me. Got me thinking about some of the things he said.
At the end, he apologised for getting so angry. We exchanged promises to stay in touch. I thought for a long time about those few moments when we had ventured beyond shouting and self-righteous anger, managed to talk and listen, considered each others' views. How much blood have we lost because we will not listen?
So if that famous son of Gujarat taught us anything, perhaps it was about courage. Perhaps it was about the courage to listen. Maybe they are not the most obvious inheritors of his legacy, but on his 133rd birthday, I find hope in people like Anand and Mumtaz.
Or maybe that's because they are not the most obvious inheritors of his legacy.
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