It takes ten minutes to reach Anwar Shah Road from my house in Tollygunj even now. Since 1992 very little has changed on this stretch of road. From Bangur Hospital, behind which I used to stay, I would walk down to the Tipu Sultan Mosque, my 14 year old trusty legs carrying me there in no time. There you could turn right into Anwar Shah Road and walk along till you reached Nabina Cinema. That is where my friend Mahjabeen used to meet me. The Strong One, Mahjabeen stayed in one of the run-down buildings in the colony in that area with her parents.
They were not very well to do, her folks. Her father was a stenographer and her mother used to sew clothes for a living. She had an older brother but he had already passed out of school and had moved to Mumbai, probably with dreams of becoming a film hero, but instead ended up working for a cloth merchant, in a place I’d not heard of at that time. And yet she used to study in the quintessential middle class Bengali medium school with enough respectability in that era. They managed that for her.
The school bus of Kamala Girls would drop her first, since her stop came before min. But my mother was a working woman, and I an only child. So though I could not get down with Mahjabeen because the bus Dada would rat on me- I knew, I would get down at Bangur Hospital, my stop, and run all the way back to her stop where she would be waiting for me. Then, knowing we were breaking a thousand rules, we would giggle all the way to the phuchka stall, cutting through narrow lanes, huffing and puffing as we gobbled those spicy, tangy, watery globes of delight- our day was made.
I would, of course, have less than two hours for such mischief, but I was the school athlete at that age, and had unending energy. I would run all the way back and reach home before 5 pm, well before my mother rang the door-bell and started asking me about school. My parents were hard working, well educated folk. My father was a civil engineer with one of those companies which was doing very well building roads in the city at that time. My mother was a telephone operator with one of the bigger Marwari companies in central Calcutta. My parents were the good moralistic Bengali Brahmin couple, who brought up their daughter to be independent, with the right amount of stress on music and art, like every good Bengali girl. My parents were very religious, and they held Lakshmi Puja and Saraswati Puja in the house, with the mantras chanted by my own father, the local kids and myself sitting in a semi circle as the fragrant smoke from the dhup dhuno made us heady and sleepy at the same time.
My parents did not know about Mahjabeen.
School was a different kind of place though. No one cared what kind of names we had or what community it made one belong to. No one cared what our parents did. We all wore the same uniforms. Purdah among Muslim women and girls was not common in Calcutta in that time. We all looked the same. All brown limbs and white socks and black Cherry Blossom shined shoes. Hair neatly parted at the center with two pony tails or plaits. There is a certain strength in the innocent equality of the school uniform which makes the wearers invincible to the twisted power of the political mind. We truly were the incorruptibles.
December was pretty mild that year. All sunshiny cool. One spends December afternoons sprawled on sunny verandahs, dozing off as the warmth envelopes the body ever so subtly, like a coy lover. Not for Calcutta December the bite of the cold or the pinch of the sun. Our school afternoons didn’t provide us the luxury of a nap, of course, but we would lounge during our tiffin break in the molten sunshine on our school field and talk.
Younger girls play, 14 year old girls talk.
We sat around this particular afternoon, and talked amongst other things- like where to get good scrunchies for our hair in Gariahat and our impending second terminal exams- about Ayodhya. We lazily moved from one topic to another and gently landed on this one, with the easy camaraderie of childhood, without a thought about what religion meant to the adults. That did not matter in our little slice of Utopia. Little did I know then, in the safe warm hands of authority and schoolgirl-hood, that this would be one of the last days of life as we would know it, as I would know it.
Those days, a lot of us were not allowed to watch TV at home, but we had read in the morning newspapers of the Kar Sevaks who had entered that city in thousands, hundreds of thousands. Most of them did not know why they were there. But trouble was brewing, and even we knew that this kind of trouble was like a long line of dominoes lined all across the country, north to south, east to west, poised, ready for that one little push. Mahjabeen never talked much in company, she preferred to stay in the shadows but that day she repeated hearsay from her neighbourhood. People were afraid she said. She said “people” but what she really meant was the Muslims.
Was she starting to get afraid as well? Even while being surrounded by us, her closest friends, was she beginning to feel the strain? Had she started seeing us differently already?
That afternoon, on the way back home, I got down with her at her stop. Bus dada shouted at me but I said I had work and my mom was informed. He shouted ‘I’ll ask her’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘you do that, dada’. Laughter bubbled out of us even as we tried to be serious. Then we ran off giggling into the lane which led to the phuchka stall. Down the road, close to the phuchka stand, was a straggly grass plot which went by the name of “park”. We had time to kill that afternoon. I had saved almost half an hour by getting down at her stop. We sat there and talked. I don’t remember now what we talked about. She had always known how to make me laugh, but that day I laughed so much, I almost rolled over from the bench to the ground. She looked radiant, a glorious smile on her face, the kind of smile of a friend who knows what makes friendship work, and is successful in doing just that.
It was Saturday, the 5th of December, 1992.
Sunday dawned like any other day, but it was a day which would be marked down in the history of a nation. It was the day when a handful of men would start something horrific, something which would spew so much hatred, for so many days, in every corner of the country, that it seemed unbelievable till that moment. From 6 am, madness reigned supreme in the city which was supposedly the birthplace of one of our most revered immortals known for his righteousness. By 5 pm, the dust finally settled on the rubble of what was previously an obscure mosque, to loud cries of “Mandir Yahin Banaenge”. And thus started a cycle of destruction around the country which would take lives, which would break families and friendships and hearts. All for a few piles of bricks and stones.
Lives lost have no religion.
In distant Mumbai, one day later, a young boy of 17 was trying to reach his workplace in Bhendi Bazar when he found himself suddenly surrounded by a large group of people. He got carried by the crowd for some distance and then slowly started to move away. He wanted nothing to do with the mobs. He was there to work and he wanted to just reach the shop and start his day. As he started to get some distance between him and them, he suddenly felt as if his skin had caught on fire. He screamed. He clawed at the left side of his face where something came out in his hands. It took him a few excruciating seconds to realise he was pulling out his own flesh. The fire spread down his neck and on to his left arm and stomach and groin. He had been drenched in acid thrown from some distance- an acid bomb which had gone haywire, which hit him, just as he was about to get into his shop. He collapsed screaming in pain on to the pavement, writhing in agony. People were screaming all around him, running in all directions, he could hear everything, he could feel feet pounding the pavement by his ear, even his acid burnt ear. The sounds seemed to recede slowly, much too slowly, into the horizon of his consciousness. He had passed out.
Later someone had brought him to a hospital. He was alive but severely burnt on one side of the body. Gangrene had set in on his left arm. As the doctors argued whether to amputate, the 17 years of son, brother, collage of dreams, collection of hopes, just ceased to be.
I learnt some new terms in the winter of 1992. “Curfew” was one of them. “Section 144” was another. The latter meant I couldn’t meet friends. The former meant school was closed. It also meant being home bound, an uncalled for holiday, I couldn’t decide whether to dislike it or love it. We didn’t have a phone in the house yet. And even if we had, Mahjabeen would definitely not. So it hardly mattered. How I missed phuchka, I was addicted to the sourbomb in a way only a 14 year old could be. But things were bound to get back to normal sooner or later.
When school restarted in January, I couldn’t wait to go back to our old routine. Curfew had been lifted during the day, life around us was limping to normal. So when I didn’t see Mahjabeen on the bus the first day I thought, perhaps she was ill. Or maybe her parents were the over cautious sort. By the third day I was worried. When curfew lifted completely and still she didn’t come, I knew something had to be very wrong.
What could I do though? I had never been to her house. I didn’t know her address. It never came up, the need to know each other’s houses. We already had our meeting places, our clandestine rendezvous point. I went there after school, waited there many a day. Desperate for some news, I finally ended up at our phuchka stall, asked the man if he knew where my friend lived. He pointed toward a cluster of homes; he had seen her walk that way. With that information I went snooping. Finally someone pointed out her house to me.
The one storied yellow building was nudged between two similar houses. Its tiny front door opened right on to the road, no gardens for the poorer sort. It was green once upon a time, now it was just blistered and brownish with green paint flaking at the edges. There was no doorbell. Instead, a large round iron ring hung on the double doors. I held on to it and tried to shake it so it would make a sound, but it just ended up creating a dull thud which didn’t even match up to the way my heart was beating. But someone was moving inside scuffling towards the door. The door opened and standing there was Mahjabeen.
What can I say about how she looked? She was wearing a salwar kameez, her long hair open but straggly as if she hadn’t found the time to wash it for weeks. She looked grown, her face drawn, like a woman who had had her share of fights with life and it had defeated her. Her eyes had dark circles. Her skin which used to be so flawless and the envy of all her friends was blotchy, and looked so akin to sand paper that I reached my fingers up to touch her cheek. She flinched.
Why are you here, she asked me.
You’re not coming to school, I said.
How did you find the house.
You know how much I like Tintin, I did some detective work- I tried to make a joke. My laughter died on my lips even before it had started. Her dry chapped lips did not move a bit into the smile I had anticipated.
What happened Mahjabeen, are you not well? I asked then.
She came out and closed the door behind her. Let’s walk to the park she said. We sat on the bench, our bench. Or she sat, and asked me to sit. The shy girl, who would be led into everything, was now doing the leading. I could not believe it.
My brother is dead, she flatly said.
The phuchkas stopped. I would make it to her house when I could. The silences between us were unbearable. I would go. She would come out. We would walk to the park and sit. I would try to tell her about school. She did not even feign interest.
I would come home and cry. She was my best friend. She had shut me out completely from her life. It was like I didn’t exist for her anymore. Yes I was selfish in feeling left out of her mind, but I was a child then and what did I know. Now I wish I could have done things differently.
I wish I had listened to her more, spoke a little less. I probably would not have lost a friend then. Or maybe I would have, no matter what I did. Perhaps, by then, she had already removed herself from me.
If ever I could go back and stop to turn a moment into eternity, it would be the day I defied my parents to spend some extra time with her. The day she made me laugh so much that my stomach hurt. I wish I could freeze time right there, me doubling over with laughter, looking up at her, she looking down on me, with that satisfied, angelic smile on her face, knowing she had just given her best friend a memory to cherish her whole life long.
There is no distance on this earth as far away as yesterday.
The last time I met her, I asked her when she would come back to school, she finally told me she would not. And she said she could not meet me anymore.
Why I asked.
I cant do this anymore she said.
Why why why, I shouted at her. I did not kill your brother. Why are you punishing me, I cried.
This whole world killed by brother, Gauri. She said. And you are part of this world.
Then she got up and walked away.