I had turned four in the winter of 1992. My fragmented memories of that winter, 24 winters ago are like a dream. It can’t be put on scrapbooks, cannot be documented and cannot be said much about either. But, they aren’t forgettable either. In retrospect, I am not so sure where my individual recollections of those painful days and curfewed nights end, and that of those whose lives were lived alongside mine, begin. Our complex memories, like our complex lives, have fused. That is how memory works and makes us remember things.
I am told that there was a zamana (time) when the then cable TVs were unhurriedly making their way into upper-middle class, metropolitan homes in Calcutta. In our ancestral home in central Calcutta, it wasn’t till about five years later, that the cable TV (no longer a status symbol) would make its advent and create a new ‘imagined community’ out of us, the cultural exclusions notwithstanding. December 6 was a Sunday morning just like any other, mamujaan tells me. He had been flying kites when the khabar (news) reached him from neighbours living in other parts of the city, whose voices over the telephone kept breaking. “Babri Masjid ko Shaheed kiya jaa raha hai.” (Babri masjid is being martyred.) It was not a rumour after all. BBC, then looked upon as the only reliable informant about happenings not only the world over but in our own country had flashed the news in India. We didn’t get BBC, back then, on our TV set which came with a wooden box which had a beetle antenna. The only channel we did get was the state-owned Doordarshan (DD) and the Narasimha Rao-led government had resorted to censoring every little news associated with the demolition, having failed to prevent it from happening.
Communal violence rocked the country. News and rumour mill travelled – of incidents where people were being butchered by menacing mobs, of bombs being thrown on individual Muslim homes, of the arson of shops owned by Muslims. Such stories had a way of finding us each day and showed no signs of ebbing. It was for the first time, at the age of four, that this cartography of khauf (fear) came to inform my life. Even though it wasn’t the first encounter with fear for those in my family who were survivors and witnesses of the unspeakable horrors of 1964. For them, there were many quieter warnings triggered by memories of past riots.
Our fear, as it were, came to be augmented because we lived in isolation in a place where no other Muslim families lived. It was not a densely populated Muslim ghetto where insularity would mean some semblance of safety, but an old Waqf estate with a grand mosque and imambara in its precincts. Its religious identity, its ‘Muslimness’ was in your face. Any violence against us in the realm of our now ‘unsafe’ home wouldn’t shock anyone!
So, in search of that elusive security of our lives in those volatile days, we fled our homes leaving behind almost all our belongings. But, it wasn’t possible to leave together. Only the women and children would leave and the men would stay behind. It was decided. nannan (maternal grandmother) and khalajaan (maternal aunt) who had brought me up, were to go and stay with a relative living in Muslim quarters of the city who could only accommodate them. My ammi (mother) who hadn’t brought me up, Zahra (my sister) and I, were sentenced to go live in a ghetto indefinitely, with a relative who would take us in.
I remember having trouble falling asleep when it was time to sleep. I remember crying into someone’s else’s pillow while lying on someone else’s bed, for my nannan and khalajaan, in those cold, curfewed nights, when lights were turned out, till the wee hours of the morning. I remember ammi trying, and failing, to comfort me or calm me down. She was also separated from her mother and paralysed with fear. I remember ammi praying and encouraging us to send prayers for the safety of those we had been separated from. When I was inconsolable for days on end, nannan was informed over the phone, “Firdaus bohot zidd kar rahi hai… betahasha ro rahi hai aur ek hi ratt lagaye baithi hai ke Nannan ke paas jana hai, hum ko le chalo. (Firdaus throws tantrums… is not able to control herself and constantly pleads, I want to go to my grandmother, take me there).”
Soon after that, we were reunited. We could finally return home where the men had risked their lives to keep vigil. We had survived 1992.