December 07, 2005

Ration shop

Been chewing on memories for two days now. Here's one.


When you walk into Dehlol, a small village near Baroda, the road leads straight to a sort of small square. There, some 25 of us out-of-towners, out-of-staters, stop to gape at the four-storey once-building that dominates the square.

Used to be a mosque. Now it is a shell, a ruin. Its minaret lies on its side. Large holes are punched in its walls. Girders stick out from the smashed masonry. Dark-faced langurs leap about inside, peering incuriously out at us from windows.

Someone at my elbow whispers: "They destroyed this mosque and killed 40 Muslims who had taken shelter inside."

Who's "they", I want to know.

Meanwhile, a crowd of Dehlol residents, over a hundred already, more walking up through the lanes of the village, stand there watching us. Stand there watching us watch the langurs. Stand there watching us in utter silence.

I feel a first shiver of unease.

We walk on. I am acutely conscious of stares from balconies overhead, from all around. I am acutely conscious that all of Dehlol's Muslims have been either killed or driven out.

At a little circle, two of us break off from the rest to speak to a small group of men. A young shopkeeper in dirty vest and shades -- small paunch, running to flab -- does most of the talking. Starts with platitudes: "what happened should not have happened" and the like.

Then he turns to what's really on his mind. "Yeh log", he says, lip curling, "these people, they had to be shown their place. They attack us from Pakistan on the border, then Godhra happened. Now it's time to hit back."

At your neighbours? I ask. What did they have to do with border terrorism? Why not go fight on the border instead of attacking innocent people?

He actually spits in fury.

The group has swelled to about two dozen men, all nodding as Dirty Vest speaks. "Look," he says, "the days of that chutiya Gandhi are gone, understand?" He slaps himself lightly on one cheek and then thrusts the other towards me in a gesture that I never imagined could be so crude and insulting as it is. "If someone hits me," he sneers, "I'm not going to behave like that chutiya did! Understand?"

Another man speaks. "When these people enter our houses and torture us," he says, "we have to hit back." Of course you must, I say. So who entered your houses? I ask. Any of your houses? I ask.

Heavy silence. In my notes from that day, I have described it as "sullen." The men look at the two of us, and my hair prickles with the palpable hostility. They drift away, looking back at us as they go. Dirty Vest returns to his shop on the circle, looks out at us from there.

I realize that we are entirely alone, a long way from our bus, watched by a host of still eyes.

We walk back through the village. Milling crowds of villagers stand in the road, not budging an inch as we pass, watching us in that unnerving silence. Occasional sniggers behind us, but otherwise not a sound. The women -- old, young, in between -- disturb me even more than the men. They half-smile at us, scornful and contemptuous.

I am terrified now, sweating from more than just the fierce sun. It takes everything I have not to break into a run. Finally at the bus, I sink into my seat and it is some hours before my nerves stop twanging.

Though sometimes I feel they never did stop.

A month before we visited, three men raped Sultani, a young mother, here in Dehlol. In a written statement to the District Deputy Superintendent of Police, Sultani named one of her rapists: Jitu Shah, owner of a ration shop in Dehlol.

When I first read this, a thought left me shaking. It has left me shaking several more times, in the years since. Was Dirty Vest's a ration shop?


Anonymous said...

Wow! Dilip you are back to it! great! couldn't hold on for long! humm?

Did you ever try and visit the families of all those burned in that train at Godhra?

You came out of this place alive! try going into the bylanes of Godhra..... and ask them why did you burn those people? you may not come back alive!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Did you ever try and visit the families of all those burned in that train at Godhra?

Yes. Not all, but some. Been in touch on the phone too.

try going into the bylanes of Godhra..... and ask them why did you burn those people? you may not come back alive!

The trip in which I visited Dehlol started in Godhra, where we wandered around many of the bylanes and spoke to many people. I believe I have come back alive.