April 04, 2007

Right cheek

Another short vignette from travelling through Gujarat in March/April, 2002.


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.


Sridhar Vanka said...

I have been following your writings since the days you wrote in rediff.com. I have to say, this is by far the most touching piece on the Gujarat riots.

My comment:
The thing with trust is: it takes a long time to build and once it is broken, it is very very difficult to get it back.

So, what I wonder is this: how do we so readily believe in God, whom we have not seen in all these years, but are not ready to trust our neighbors whom we have grown up with ? How do so readily trust our politicians who rain catastrophes and scams on us by re-electing them again and again, but are not willing to forgive our friends ?

km said...

...hostility - and from both "sides

So both "sides" view themselves as the victims. Does that point to a bigger problem or a more fundamental issue here?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting.

Dilip, how come you always manage to find Hindu criminals (or at least wonder if there are criminals among the Hindu folks you visited) and Muslim victims?

Anonymous said...

what sort of diseased mind would read an account of Muslims throwing stones at a man wearing saffron, also at a bus carrying the people on this compasion yatra, then conclude that the author is finding only "Hindu criminals" and "Muslim victims"?

amitscorpio said...

Very touching article!! Bolsters my opinion that there angels among the devils too!!!

and a very interesting comment before me from acharya!!!

Anonymous said...

1. @ Sridhar:

One of the more disturbing facts that seems to have emerged is that there was more violence in the areas where Hindus & Muslims lived intermixed.

The ref is at countercurrents.org (Jan Mohammed).

Given that, the trust on "neighbours we have grown up with" cant be too high.

2. @km: "... both sides view themselves as victims ..."

was insightful. I have found pretty much the same not just on this issue, even with the reservations debate and others.

3. @ dilip:
You seem to have made it a point to ignore me. Dont know why but its upto you. Ok with that. Hope you will reply to sridhar & km though.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Man's inhumanity to man.
What price evolution?
Not that there seems anything intelligent about the design either.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks, Sridhar. It is indeed all about trust, and I'm glad you mention that. How do you rebuild trust between two communities where it has been shattered and drowned in blood?

Yes, and the question about the politicians too. I mean, I've said this before: I'm hard put to think of ONE politician in this country who I would trust to walk my daughter across the street ... yet when they tell us we should not have sex education because it is immoral, or to distrust our fellow citizens because they are from a different religion, we are all ears.

km: Have you ever totted up how many countries have, at one time or another, claimed to be the "biggest victim of terrorism"?

Seeing yourself as the victim has served plenty of communities for years. One thing I've tried to occasionally suggest in private and quietly is that perhaps it's time to move on from that feeling because it gets noone anywhere.

Jai: You seem to have made it a point to ignore me.

Amazing. Among other things, I recall two bits of email that I've sent in the last few days that have got no response. Though I have to wonder because this is an anonymous comment: I can't tell if you are the "real" Jai, meaning the one to whom I addressed the email.

Anonymous said...

Oops Dilip,

Sorry. had seen a few mails from you 10 days ago in response to mails *I never sent*. Authenticating the other guys comments from my mail ID.

Saw it since you had included the send portion in your response. Wouldnt have known about it if you hadnt responded.

I think that guy now can be safely called a criminal. I dont know what to do abt it though.

Pls do understand its not "2 ppl baiting each other" as you suggested earlier. I really dont have much choice in this engagement.

Will check my mail or change it or something. Would appreciate any tips you have. Thanks for the photo suggestion.


Anonymous said...


Pls tell me, these last 2 mails you mentioned, were you replying to mail sent from my mail ID?