My trip was as a tag-along part of a too-grandly-named "compassion yatra." We had Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religious leaders and many of us leaders of nothing in particular.
We expected to see our share of the tragedies that Gujarat has suffered, to hear plenty of accounts of trauma and horror. What we did not expect, though in retrospect we should have, was the hostility -- and from both "sides".
In Dehlol village, all Muslims are gone, their homes and shops empty. Most fled, but forty were killed as they cowered in the mosque, now destroyed and occupied by teams of languorous langurs. A crowd gathers as we stand outside, thickens by the minute as we walk through the village. Blank faces, utter silence. Unnerving.
Conversation with a young man in a vest, paan stains on it and his lips. Starts with casual platitudes, but then gets tense. "Look, the days of that chutiya Gandhi are gone, OK?" he says suddenly. "I won't offer my cheek to be hit any more", and here he sticks his right cheek towards me nearly as crudely as if he had grabbed his crotch. "They trouble us so much on the border," he says. "Then Godhra happened. We had to hit back."
At innocent people? Kill Indians here because we have trouble on the border? I ask, he spits in fury. Continues with an increasingly abusive tirade against "them", grows increasingly hostile towards the two of us -- one a blonde from Germany -- now separated from the rest.
It's a long, uneasy, almost frightening walk out of the village: large crowds, the same sullen silent stares, sniggers behind our two backs. I can take those, even angry arguments. But it's the women who disturb me, greatly. They watch us pass with taunting half-smiles. Takes all my resolve not to break into a run.
Reach our bus with a thought to make me vomit: have we been walking among killers? Grubby vest with paan-tinged venom, was that one of them? Deep-green sari, was that one?
At an Ahmedabad relief camp a couple of days later, I bypass the speeches to talk to a woman. Her sister with six children? Slaughtered as they fled their home. Her 7-year-old son? Slashed across his head, flung on a garbage heap, left for dead. Mother and son hold my hands and weep, weep, beg me to do something, anything, to "bring back humanity" instead of the killing.
What do you say? Or do? I hold hands, fight tears myself, sit there with them until someone comes running in to say the others have long left.
Walking out of the camp alone, I hear a commotion behind me. I turn to see, first, two large stones fly through the air; second, a man robed in saffron, one of our party, also making his way out. The stones, aimed at him. I turn back and grab him. "Walk with me, just walk steadily, let's get out fast," I yell in his ear above a sudden bout of angry yelling all around us, acutely conscious that my arm around his shoulder makes me a target. I hear a few stones land behind, but the man in the robe now yells in my ear: "Keep walking!"
Minutes later, a woman appears beside us on a scooter. "Get on behind me", she says to my walking partner, "I'll take you out to your bus." Leaning on her horn, weaving through thronging crowds as fast as she dares, she does just that while I stride behind. At the bus, plenty of angry shouting, more stones flung, a window broken, three youths scream at us: "We don't want your peace talk, tell it to the RSS who did all this, now get out while you can!"
In the bedlam before we leave, I get her name. But only her first name, not even a phone number. Mumtaz, perhaps 30 years old. The best to you, Mumtaz: one brave and true Indian when we found too few.