"Take a train tonight," they advised Samiullah, your father. I remember still how they continued so helpfully: "If they don't bring the cheque to your house, go to the Collector's office there and demand it." In UP unlike here in Bombay, they observed so smugly, "Government officers really can make a lot of trouble."
I never met you, Raju, though I spent plenty of time with your father, trekking from one official to another. Time for him to tell me all about you. You would have been 27 now: a young man, not the 14-year-old boy that Samiullah spoke of, searching for his way in the world.
But of course, you never got the chance to know these intervening years. You died, and that's how I met your father. You were part of a dull statistic, and that's why I met your father.
And he talked, how he talked ... Samiullah had just got settled enough in Bombay, in the Dharavi bakery job, to send for you. From your village in UP where prospects were minimal, you came to join your parents here. The bakery owner let you work there, running errands, until you could find your feet and a real job.
You had been in Bombay only three months when night came.
That night, Raju. They had destroyed the bakery. You were returning home alone. In the darkness that had descended on this city, they surrounded you. Swung at you with swords and sticks. Cut you into pieces. And I've always wondered if you wondered, in those last bleeding seconds of your life: "Why?"
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 went out so suddenly, so permanently.
There was that mosque. Smashed into pieces itself, it caused weeks of violence in this city. It was that violence that turned you from a lively, energetic young boy into a heap of blood and flesh. Into no more than a statistic. About a thousand dead, Raju, and you were one. Yet you would probably ask what all that had to do with you, as your father asked me what it had to do with you. Why did it happen? Why did it lead men to carve you up?
Fair questions, Raju. Many of us had decided that destroying that mosque was this country's most urgent task. I know that makes no sense to you or your father. After all, neither of you had any real future in your UP village. It likely had no school, no hospital, no electricity, no telephones, no drinking water: just the usual. So Samiullah, and then you, had come to the big city, drawn by the promise of work. Of life.
So what sense could it possibly have made to you that some of us thought the nation had better rid itself of a mosque? That this was a redemption, even a liberation? But more than that, how could you have guessed that the events that followed would swallow you? That you would die, almost as if it had been written in the rubble of that mosque that you would?
And I met your father, Raju, some months after you died. He was trying to claim the compensation that the Government had announced for families, like yours, who had lost someone, like you, in the riots. I met him because some Government officials were giving him a cruel run-around, and someone asked me to help.
First, Samiullah paid a Rs 200 bribe for a coroner's certificate for your body. When he showed that to the bureaucrats in charge of the compensation, they said there was no proof that you were actually his son. In fact, had you existed at all? (Easy question, when you no longer existed). Broke because the bakery had been destroyed, your father borrowed money and travelled to your UP village. From the tehsildar there, he got a certificate saying he had really had a son.
In Bombay, officials pored over these two certificates. (I saw them at it). Eventually, they told your father he could return for his cheque in a "few days." Six different times over three weeks, he returned, journeying from Dharavi to Fort. Six different times, it needed another "few days", and Samiullah journeyed back to Dharavi.
Eventually, they had the cheque ready. Made out to your father and everything, it sat on the table not six inches from him and me. But the runaround went on. They officials said they would post the cheque to the UP village. Wasn't it there that the proof of your link to your father was established? Well, naturally they would have to send the cheque there!
"Take a train tonight," they said, and I felt ready to kill, myself.
I watched all this, Raju, and these years later it still gnaws at me. Your father lost his only son to a beast unleashed in this city. Government was handing out a token because it looked the other way as the beast killed you. Merely to get that token, your father found himself trapped in the grasping inhumanity of these officials.
Yes, Raju: these years later, I remember your death. I can't forget. You died, but you showed me the true meaning of rubble that once was a mosque. There's no self-respect there, no righting of wrongs. There's only your death. Your sad, bloody, empty death.
I've told your story often, Raju. And it must say something that when I have, the first thing some people say to me is: "You made this up! How can a man called Samiullah have a son called Raju?"
But of course, he doesn't have a son called Raju.