It is time
As I looked out of the autorickshaw onto a deserted road, I noticed how thick with smog the air was. Day had not broken yet, and the skies were a winter grey. The white marble of the Jain temple under construction was just peeping from behind the scaffolding. The call of the Azaan was just settling. A few stray bathroom lights were on in the residential quarters in the fire brigade premises. The corner flower vendor was uncovering the blue tarpaulin over sacks of tuberoses and marigolds to make haars of. I was practicing the hymns in a low voice; Christmas was just a few days away and I was on the choir—it was the first year that I had been selected to sing, and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.
The auto approached the crossroads and before I knew it, a white Omni sped past and we could hear what Bollywood had taught us to identify as gunshots. The Omni fled in the blink of an eye. On the road, was a man wearing a white prayer cap and white kurta-pyjama, now stained red, two women in black burqa, shrieking in fear for help. I can’t remember if the auto driver said anything. All I can remember is the auto racing and a steely cold breeze numbing my face. We reached the church, and Father Philip was at the door already; he said he had heard something. They exchanged a few words, the autowala and him, before I was ushered in. The church was warm and dimly lit, the wood work glowing in the soft light. The keyboard boys were already there but none of the singers had arrived yet. I think Father Philip asked me what I had seen and if I was ok. Knowing me, I must have faked composure but I can hear my heart beating wildly with fear even now.
“Bring her a cup of warm milk,” he told one of the nuns.
I didn’t want it. I hated milk and after what I had seen, I wouldn’t stomach it anyway.
Maybe they gave me the milk; maybe I drank it—I don’t remember. I do remember the other singers trickling in a little later and us singing “O come all ye faithful” at the end. I remember going to school after and spending a perfectly normal day. The incident was all over the local newspapers, of course, and my parents asked me some concerned questions and then left me alone because I didn’t show any signs of shock. I don’t know if trauma-related psychological help was available back then, anyway. I went about my routine as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t curious about anything, I wasn’t frightened, I was numb.
For years, I have felt guilty about it. About weaving stories in my head about what it could have been instead of finding out what it was. Gang war? Communal riot? I still don’t know if I want to find out. I stayed silent then.
That was 1996; I was in high school. Just a few years after the blasts and riots that changed Bombay forever.
Decades later, I am in Mumbai. Every Anant Chaturdashi, the local Hindu Jagruti group parades its Ganpati across my part of town, sloganeering against a neighbouring country and a religion they feel threatened by. Every year, I refuse to shell out the “vargani”. Every year, I leave the house on that day, partly because I want to shield the children from this senselessness and partly in the interest of my own blood pressure. On the rare occasion that I am at home to witness the parade, my blood boils, I shout back from the window, I tweet to the police, I go red in the face from anger and finally pop a pill to get some sleep.
In 2020, I fear for my children; what future do they have in a country in which the police stand on the sidelines as state-sponsored mobs beat students in their libraries and classrooms? What education do they have access to anyway, when we can’t be sure of the factual correctness of a history textbook? In a country that does not even let its people eat what they want?
I fear for my closest, oldest friends, who will have to prove that they are citizens of this country despite speaking the local tongue and serving the country for generations and generations. Friends who will always be more respectful of other faiths than these goons can ever hope to understand.
I fear for us. But I’m not in school anymore, and I will not stay silent.
It is time to speak up. It is time for this government to go.
“Sab taj uchhaale jaayenge
Sab taqht giraye jaayenge.”
Down with fascism.