That day in the '90s, when a karsevak visited my home after Babri Masjid fell

Breathing deeply behind the closed door, my mother said more to herself than to me, 'I didn’t want him to know we are Muslim.'

 |  12-minute read |   16-04-2017
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  • And every life became
  • A brilliant breaking of the bank
  • A quite unlosable game
  • — “Annus Mirabilis” by Philip Larkin

By the early ‘90s India had opened its doors to the world, but to me it seemed that our lives were still quite the same.

In those days everything was left to chance, more than us the dome of Babri Masjid, which, we knew, the militantly-Hindu karsevaks had attacked.

Even in my young life, I had seen people vehemently hitting the Babri Masjid with bricks — not fully sure then of what the dome, or the hitting for that matter, signified. (I learned later that the simple dome was symbolic of the rule of the minority Muslim/Mughals over the majority Hindu population). 

india-today-babri-ma_041617032649.jpg Before Babri Masjid fell. Photo: India Today 

The biggest moment of pride in my short life until then was that I had seen the young prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi — he who had unlocked the gates of that disputed temple or mosque (depending on which side you stood) in Ayodhya that would haunt us for future decades — at close quarters, when he attended a garden party in Lutyen’s Delhi where cameras flashed their diamantine lights incessantly. My father had lifted me up on his shoulders so I could see over the milling crowds.

I knew, too, that soon after, this man I had once glimpsed, had been blown up into a million pieces.

In those years I heard adults around me drop words and phrases I didn’t yet understand: Shah Bano, Ayodhya, Babri, Tamil Tigers, Salman Rushdie.

For me, my childhood world was still intact: my mother continued packing Maggi for lunch in my plastic tiffin-box and going to Nirula’s for a hot chocolate fudge remained an enormous treat.

There was little joy greater than buckling on a helmet and going on a scooter ride (the scooter in question was grape-green, the ubiquitous colour of small town UP homes) around India Gate with one of my chachas who stopped by impromptu in our little flat on Curzon Road.

When, as a seven-year old, I determined that I desperately needed colourful Bermuda shorts like those that Poppy — an older girl in my school on 8 Hailey Road — wore, my mother took me to scour the shops in Connaught Place and Janpath for a pair.

In those days, you descended into the dark, cramped shops with a step or two, greeted by an army of salesmen in button-downs tucked into beige or grey pants, sharply creased in the centre. Their black hair would be parted on the left. There was an inevitable wooden counter, peeling at the corner, separating the customer from the salesmen. Behind this loomed floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cheap paper boxes in which the blouses, skirts, and pants were kept, like treasures, folded and wrapped in tissue paper or plastic sleeves.

As you described what you wanted, one of the salesman would swiftly move in the narrow space between counter and shelves. Before we were done speaking, several boxes decorated with technicolor faces of cherubic children who did not resemble my friends or I would be opened with a flourish, for us to inspect.

My claim to fame among my friends in those days was that when my father’s work for the ministry of external affairs took him outside of India he would bring me back clothes from stores with names like Macy’s and brands that seemed so entirely cosmopolitan, like Oshkosh. But the trips were few and far in-between, and kids grow fast.

Although the winds of change were blowing all around and events important to India’s contemporary history had been rapidly unfolding, my childhood world seemed, for the most part, calmly insulated from it.

Of course, like any other Delhi kid I recognised the sheaves of A-4 posters glued along walls and sundry surfaces: a tricolour background with the image of the flat of a palm, proudly lifted as though showing allegiance. I knew it symbolised Congress, and I knew it was the party my mother liked. (It wasn’t my father’s party, though, and I didn’t understand how you could be married and not belong to the same party).

One evening, during those days, my parents and I were walking to dinner at one of their friend’s houses. I was looking carefully at the grass on the lawn we were crossing, focused on avoiding contact with the dry patches which I thought would dirty my new cream, silver-buckled shoes.

I heard my mother incredulously ask my father, “But they support BJP?” My ears pricked up and looking up at him I saw a sardonic smile playing across his lips as he just raised his eyebrows to say “yes”. My mother frowned and nodded.

I knew later, as I grew older, that she was trying to reconcile the ostensible modernity of the couple in question, as well as their friendship with my parents. Because by supporting BJP, in her view they defied the expectations of Nehruvian secularism.

Like our limited clothing and food choices, our ideological choices too had been limited. Up until then Nehruvian secularism had been the dominant choice, at least for my parents’ generation. That people, and people they knew no less, could choose alternative ways of imagining India was unwelcome news to my parents.

My mother was in her late 20s and she would sometimes go along with nani or some of my khalas to campaign for my uncle, a member of the Congress party, in the villages of Uttar Pradesh. One time when she came back from a campaign (instead of just a couple of days she had been gone for several weeks this time), she looked thin and tired.

Later that night, cradling me in her lap, she told me about her trip. How some of the villagers they met didn’t have any tea. Instead, in their generous hospitality they heated up water on earthen stoves and stirred in some of their precious sugar. They gave up their ration for these unknown guests. Looking down into the dented steel glass, she had seen an ant or two, dead, swimming in the warm, cloudy water, and slowly taken a sip of the offering.

It was in this context that I had come home from school one afternoon, as had my mother from the school in Daryaganj where she taught predominantly lower-middle class Muslim children.

The fierce Delhi sun was beating down mercilessly and after a quick lunch of sabzi-roti, my mother shut the windows of the one bedroom in our flat. She drew the thick curtains across to prevent even a chink of sunlight creeping in. The ceiling fan was whirring noisily and she turned on the cooler for just a bit. Relaxed, she reached for a cigarette, and sank onto the carpet next to the bed, her back resting against the bed and her feet extended out on the cool floor. In the dark room, the glowing red tip of her cigarette was the only thing visible.

We were awoken from the drowsiness of our afternoon nap by someone ringing the doorbell. On opening the door, my mother and I were greeted by a tall, spare man, his dark-brown face weather-beaten and his salt and pepper hair cropped close. He was dressed in shades of white and cream: a white dhoti and kurta, and a cream cotton stole draped on his shoulder. He was missing his right leg from the knee down and had steel crutches under his arms.

He reminded me of Pradhanji, the old head of my father’s predominantly Muslim village in western UP who would drop by our house on the rare occasions that he visited his son in Delhi.

Pradhanji dressed similarly but additionally wore the triangular Nehru cap. Pradhanji’s black shoes were of a thick, sturdy leather and gathered the Delhi dust through his journey on DTC buses and on foot until he reached our flat, where he knew he would be welcomed for a meal. He would bring a gift of chikki or gazak wrapped in ghee-stained newspaper, and carried in a polythene bag. I didn’t like it, but I would have to eat it in front of him and pretend to enjoy it, to be polite my mother said.

The man at our door had a look of gravitas, and mincing no words he said to my mother, “Mein Ayodhya se lautke aaya hoon.” He nodded discreetly, gracefully, to where his leg was truncated, as though offering proof. My mother looked at him. She looked down at his leg. And then she shook her head slowly.

He looked at her, his own face placid, scrutinising hers.

He decided she didn’t understand what he had said so he confidently repeated, “Babri...” But before he could continue, my mother nodded in understanding.

They looked at each other, square on.

I could sense a tension in my mother, a slight trembling despite her ramrod straight back and how she equally held his gaze, not dropping her eyes or looking away.

ram_mandir_story_647_041617032930.jpg Perhaps, for my parents, and others, it continues to be inconceivable that this vision of a Hindu India can ever compete with the vision of secular India on which they were raised. Photo: India Today

When my parents tried to one up each other I had heard my mother proudly claim strength because she was a Pathani, while my father countered with “Rajput!” and there the conversation — in fight or jest? (I could never tell) — would end.

Right now, I saw, that she was being a Pathani.

I continued, curiously, peering from behind the door not understanding why my mother was not giving a few rupee notes as she often would to someone knocking on our door. My little body was angled so that from my neck down I was behind the door and only my sleep-filled eyes and curly head of hair popped out.

She looked at him and shook her head again. Her “no” was palpable.

Right before she shut the door, I saw a flicker of understanding dawn on his face. Breathing deeply behind the closed door, she said more to herself than to me, “I didn’t want him to know we are Muslim.”

I’m still unsure about whether she felt this because she was afraid of him, or because she wanted to avoid him the embarrassment of having sought recognition and remuneration from the subject of his hate.

Before the door had closed I saw that he had turned away from us, to the right, in a smooth movement.

His back held erect, he walked laboriously, steadily, unflinchingly, to go knock on the next-door flat.

***

I talked to my father on Facetime recently — I was in California and he was in the Hague, and we were both worlds away from the Delhi of the early '90s. When I asked him, perhaps with the urgent despondency that only youth can have, if he didn’t think things now, politically, were far worse in India than they had been in previous decades, he disagreed, “These things have always happened.”

He seems optimistic that India has strong democratic traditions and institutions which will help tide over this blatant pursuit of a Hindu nation by the current government.

For me, I can’t be sure. I remind myself that when it comes to religion, despite ostensible secularism, aspiring to freedom has not always been India’s strong suit — 1984, Babri Masjid, Graham Staines, Godhra, Muzaffarnagar, Kashmir are all a blot. Of course, in India all these things are complicated with various intersections of caste, region, class, and convoluted social and political histories.

Either way it’s never been a pretty picture.

This fleeting meeting with a Babri Masjid karsevak, minute as it is, stands out amongst my memories of the early '90s. Meeting someone who had such a narrow and hateful vision of what and who belonged in India that they were proud, willing, and entitled enough to destroy buildings and bodies was an aberration then.

Perhaps, for my parents, and others, it continues to be inconceivable that this vision of a Hindu India can ever compete with the vision of secular India on which they were raised.

I’m less sure. And consequently I’m less optimistic than my father was on the phone that day.

There is minimal place in India for its minorities, who, as the Parsi emissary once said, like sugar would dissolve in the milk of India and make it all the sweeter.

Hindu India is now a mainstream view, with some defending it on misguided grounds of vague promises of growth and development, and others on blatantly religious and ethnic grounds.

Those implicated in some of the worst communal atrocities of the past two decades reign in the strongest government posts. The already low bar for politicians seems to be sinking even lower as some defend Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of UP, saying, “You know, he wasn’t actually the one saying to dig up the bodies of dead Muslim women and rape them.”

 No, he was just present, oblivious, and not objecting to these abhorrent statements.

While the prime minister is busy tweeting his condolences all over the world, Muslims in India are murdered on dubious grounds of killing cows don’t merit even these 140 characters from him.

I’m afraid that this flippant game that is being played with India’s democracy is quite a losable one indeed.

Also read: What do we talk about when we talk about Indian Muslims?

Writer

Aliya Rao Aliya Rao @aliyahrao

The author has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a Postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University.

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