It’s been two weeks since riots broke out in the Northeastern part of the national capital; two weeks which have brought to the fore, yet again, years of hate passed down through generations.
The mainstream media labelled the situation quickly as one “returning to normalcy”. “Calm”, “quiet” and “peaceful” are a few of the adjectives that have been doing the rounds regarding the situation in Northeast Delhi, yet what seems to be lost in the bombardment of information is the capacity to listen.
This is not another article that intends to talk about a list of people who’ve been killed, maimed and left stranded. I write this not to add another set of numbers to the lives that have been lost. Instead, I am writing this to share a story, one that’s wrapped in fear but cradled by hope.
This is the story of my Muslim friend who went incognito for five days from the day the riots broke out.
On February 23, we tried to contact her. However, our calls and texts were met with silence. Finally, on the fourth day, her phone rang only to then inform us that it was switched off. Our fears took hold of us. Having waited long enough, we decided to go to her home to check if everything was all right.
A friend from college and I contacted student services to get a hold of her address – which we were denied because of security reasons. It was only through an appeal to the dean with our teachers backing up our claims and sharing our concerns that made it possible for us to get hold of the same.
Finding a house in the densely-packed and webbed streets of Chawri Bazar was a task in itself. Each street opened to a score of others, further complicating the search.
What kept us from pulling out our hair however were the people who guided us, especially one woman, who, having seen us struggle, came to help us and led us right to Choti Khirki – the landmark we were desperately searching for. This wonderful person, who was wearing a burqa and was possibly in her mid-thirties, also pointed out the route we ought to take to reach the right lane.
In these testing times, these small acts of camaraderie is what keeps hope alive and kicking.
We reached our friend’s place after searching for it on foot for almost an hour. As we knocked, her mother finally let us in. She told us that our friend was performing namaz and would join us soon.
A few minutes later, she entered the room. She looked traumatised and shaken. She explained why she had been unable to receive our calls and messages – her relatives had been stuck in riot-affected areas. She told us that the stories of violence wouldn’t let her sleep at night as WhatsApp messages from her relatives relayed what was going on outside their homes.
Talking about the police and how the volatile environment and constant marginalisation is leading to children being affected, she said, “The kids don’t understand anything, all they believe is that the police are good. Kids grow up hearing that. How can they think that the police is bad or a person is bad or whose sides they should take. They don’t know this… they don’t have the ability to understand it.”
“Beta, yeh toh Muslim ilaka hai, tumhe dar nahi laga?” was the last thing my friend’s mother asked me before we left. I couldn’t help but smile and say, “Nahi, aunty”. I wish I could have explained to her how walking down those winding lanes of Chawri Bazar, with the smell of cattle in the air and salutations of ‘Khuda Hafiz’ wafting around, had reminded me of my maternal grandparents’ home.
They too lived in a space much like Chawri Bazar, a place called Khalsa Mohalla in Uttarakhand’s Kashipur, which was right next to a big Muslim colony. Walking down those lanes reminded me of the numerous times I would nag my mother to take me to the kite maker – whose shop was right in the middle of the neighbouring Muslim mohalla.
The tall houses and small shops brought back fleeting memories of the journey that I used to make with my mother to buy that one kite.
A kite that I would fly standing on the roof of our home, watching it swirl, soar high and often get cut by the kites of kids from other roofs. A kite that, when cut loose and falling to the ground, would make me run to catch it, hoping all the while to maybe find friends like Amir and Hassan (The Kite Runner) in those tightly wound lanes.
The way to my friend’s home was an experience that was eerily similar to novelist and playwright Svetlana Boym’s definition of “nostalgia”. As she wrote:
“Nostalgia is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.”
I had never been through those streets of Chawri Bazar before, never met the people who lived there, and yet it felt like I was not a stranger. I had lost my maternal grandfather years ago and with him, my ties to the streets and the kite shop that I loved. And yet, that day, while going to check up on my friend, I couldn’t help but reminiscence about the times I spent in Kashipur flying kites and running to catch the ones that had been cut.
Perhaps that longing for friends like Amir and Hassan never ebbed. Perhaps it was the reason why I never looked at religious identities while making friends. For me, Amir and Hassan never appeared Muslim in the way ‘Muslimness’ is being vilified by the state in these times. I always knew them as two kids who loved flying kites and whom I would have loved to run with.
Despite the nostalgia, it is of utter importance to recognise the manufactured divide at play – a crack that deepens with every instance of violence. And as the very apparatus designed to hold the guilty accountable begins to give the benefit of the doubt to the State and its machinery time and again, hope hangs by a string.
Shreyas Joshi is completing a Masters in Literary Art, Creative Writing, from the School of Culture Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University Delhi.
Featured image credit: Vivek Doshi/Unsplash