Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Ode to My Achamma

       It is never too late to write about her, I think. About my grandmother. Achamma. Father's Mother. Paternal Grandmother. But it is. And the Truth stares me in the face. That it has already been 2 years since she passed away. Since she died. And that she will no longer be there, hovering around me, touching my hair, now, then my face, mumbling about evil-eyes being cast, grumbling why I do not grow my hair long, praising my eyes here, my nose, the little admonishments that only a beloved grandchild can receive.
       She was old as far back as I can remember, even then, 25 years ago. Gnarled and wrinkled and slender with a flat stomach and a willowy figure, the last two which, thankfully, I have inherited, or so people tell me. Ancient, with the fragrance of the herbs and aromatic oils wrapped about her. 
       My first memories are of her in the old kitchen, bent over the 'adup', blowing into the flames with a coil. The smoke never seemed to bother her, and I was always amazed at the dishes she would conjure out of those holes in the ground like my mum called them, much later, much much later. 
       Acchamma had studied till the 2nd grade and since then, had looked after her siblings (1 sister and 2 brothers, all younger to her). She had come to Gujarat as a bride, married to my grandfather, but then returned to the large ancestral house when my father was born. My grandfather was a always in a new and foreign place. He fought in the British army during World War II, like my great-grandfather(his Father-In-Law) did during World war-I, went to Rangoon, Singapore, Ceylon and many other places. So Achamma was left alone for the most part. Not alone in the strictest sense, having been with her siblings and their families, while my father studied in Gujarat for some time and then returned to do his engineering in Kerala. But mostly she was away from her husband and it was not a big deal those days. People got married because they had to, because the elders thought they were ready to produce children. She brought up dad amidst a medley of children, women, and old people. The men were all in Ahmedabad, where my grandfather had got them jobs. So she stayed with the women.
       I do not know why I'm writing this. I guess it is because talking about the riots helped to take off a load from my mind. And I hope this will too. Because of what we did to her in her old age. Because of what we did not give her, even though, day and night, she pined for us and we refused to give her company. The guilt sits on me, my family like a suffocating cloud of some deadly, poisonous gas. A heavy cloud that chokes me whenever I remember her. She grew old and bent and her feet turned inwards and at night she had her knees giving her trouble. So much that in the last 3-4 years, she could barely walk. Grandfather and she lived all alone in that huge ancestral house, and we were away in Ahmedabad. First because of our studies, we couldnt go to Kerala every year. Then I moved to Bangalore and my brother to North India, my parents still working in Ahmedabad - things were so hectic. So we went to visit them in turns. And each time she would lament when she would see all four of us together I wished I was selfless enough to spend more time with her than the 20 days in a year, that too divided between my mother's house and father's house. The last time she had seen us all together was almost 8 years ago. 
       Hoping that she would have something to do in her spare time, we brought her a T.V which she never learnt how to operate, and so would wait for grandfather to switch it on after dinner. I tried to teach her, but she was so self-conscious and she believed that she could never learn it, because of which she never did learn it. Grandfather sold his house, the one where he had brought her as a bride to, because she inherited her father's house. So grandfather held that grudge, that he had to leave his own house and stay in his wife's house. It was all a pretence. He actually hated her brother, who would keep asking her for money and which she would pass on stealthily. This was a habit, people loved her for and often took advantage of.  
       In those days, as even now, albeit less, Nairs being the second most important caste after the Namboothris, had their own set of rules and customs. My grandmother was born into one of the most important Nair families in the village, and therefore she was brought up in that way. When she would step outside, the servants ran ahead, shouting out to warn the others that 'Thambraati' was on her way to this place or that place, and so the low-caste people would hide away, to let her pass, keeping a distance as even their shadow was not supposed to fall on her retinue of servants and maids. She would hold the wooden parasol to cover her face from the men. She told me all this in detail, on many a star-spangled night when it was too hot to lie inside the small wooden recess that was her bedroom. She told me how, the women then, were locked inside a room while they were menstruating, and how her first blood was sprinkled on the fields to bring prosperity. All this she told me. How women were supposed to always be one step behind their husbands and listen and behave as the 'maryada' of the house was in their hands. How until about the 90s, the low-caste women and men in the village still maintained a distance from her, and never looked at her while addressing her, always with hands bowed and gaze lowered. And yet, never once, did she force my mum or me to give up our western clothes. In fact she had never asked us to change anything, savouring the fact, instead, that we were both, my mum and I, independent women. Like the time, when, a relative asked her, 'My daughter had 2 kids at the age of 25, why is Shilpa still unmarried?' and she had answered, haughtily, in her Nair way, 'Because at the age of 25, Shilpa was busy buying her own car bought with her own money, doing a job, instead of producing children and sitting at home!'...She was uneducated, yet fiercely independent, ignorant, yet modern. 
       And yet, we had no time to call her up everyday. 5 minutes every Sunday was what we allotted her. That was it. Through all this, we withheld what was rightfully hers. The right to spend time with us. The right to comb her fingers through my hair, the right to teach me how to manage a household, or why it was important to pray to God. She was deeply religious, yet she accepted my being an agnostic, without any questions. If she could not make me go to the temple, she would send money with the passersby, to have them take 'Pushpanjali' in our names. Once I wore a 'pattu-pavadai' for her and put jasmine in my hair and a bindi, and she was so delighted, she clapped her hands and said I looked like a goddess. 
       I wish, I had been selfless enough to stop thinking my job was my life, and instead spend more time with her. But God had thought otherwise. 2 years ago, while I woke up all excited that it was my birthday, she died. Quite suddenly. She had had a heart-attack, we suspected, and she had simply fallen on her way to the bathroom at 5 in the morning. Grandfather had rushed to her side, but she was lifeless by then. No suffering, no agony, no pain. I hope for the last two atleast. And just like that, on the day of my birth, she passed away. What use were my tears then? I heard the news on my way to office, and I still went to work for strangers. I could have taken the flight to Kerala, but no like the true Dharamraj, I went to office, and then took the evening train, by the time I reached there the next morning, I could only see the urn containing her ashes. I was too late. This time too. 
       And now Grandfather stays alone, guarding that 100 year old, ancient, huge mansion for a house, looking forward to our weekly calls, or the occasional visitor. Atleast, I hope, he will enjoy his rights with his family. Us.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 22; the twenty-second edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.
       The first sensation Junaid felt was pain. Intense, throbbing, scalding. The pain travelled through his veins, all the way to his spine, n then up to the back of his head. He tried to open his eyes, but they were glued shut. Bile coursed through his throat. He tried to force his left eye open first, since that one did not throb like the right one. Voices floated around. Consciousness jolted him to the reality that he was hanging upside down. Khaki clad policemen lounged around a table, interrogating another man. 'P....Paani....Please give me some water'......Junaid painfully formed the words. One of the men in Khaki  cocked his head at Junaid. 
Ah-a, look who has woken up. Apna hero.’ – the inspector came upto him. 
       He pulled Junaid’s hair and jerked his head upright. Noxious fumes emanated from his mouth, as he leered – ‘Saale, kya re biwi ka nanga naach dekh raha tha sapne mein? Arrey Patel, chal isko leja interrogation room mein. Muh nahi khola toh encounter karva de. Waise bhi yeh Momeddian* paida karne mein peeche nahi hote. 4-5 aaj mar jaayenge toh bhi kisiko fark nahi padta.’ 
       The paunchy constable sneered, and dragged him, half-stumbling, half-crawling to the chair that had just been vacated by the other man. Someone threw a cup of salt water on his face. He cried out with the stinging pain. The nightmare started all over again as he recalled the events that led upto this moment.
       February 27th 2002 was just like any other day. There was a wedding in the small non-descript town of Godhra and all the Muslims had gathered at the community centre. Colorful Shamianas, kohl-lined women, huge mounds of biryani  in the makeshift kitchen, little boys scaring little girls with their palms colored by goat blood, the little girls screaming, admonishing mothers, advising grandmothers, blushing nubile women, smoking men, hookahs, chillums, henna……….it was a mela of colors, smells, fragrances, sounds. Junaid was one of the many men sitting around the gulmohar trees smoking and passing the time in idle chatter. Dressed in a blue sherwani, he was the Best Man at his brother’s wedding.  He glanced over at the women’s tents and caught his wife scowling at him for smoking non-stop. He winked at her. Shabnam smiled and hid behind her veil. They were expecting their first child and she was glowing with happiness. He whispered his gratitude to Allah and rejoined the men’s conversation.

       It was the sight of the running boys that set his heart aflutter. Something was wrong. The group of boys were running in their direction, horror writ large on their faces. 
       ‘Aapa, Aapa’, BhaiJan, Umma’ they shouted all together at once, making it hard for the men to comprehend anything. 
       ‘What happened?’ The men rose as one, as did the women. 
       Hearts thumped and trembling hands muffled terrified open mouths. One of the boys, sat down, and, in between gulping huge mouthfuls of air, blurted out 
       ‘They burnt a train compartment. The Rashtra-Sevaks were travelling in the train. They have burnt the compartment they were travelling in. They bolted the compartments from outside.  They have burnt a whole train bogie.’….
       Junaid shook the boy. ‘Who burnt whom? Who was in the bogie? Who burnt the bogie? Did u see them? Who, tell me…!’…
       Another boy shouted. ‘I saw them. We saw the men who did it. They were dressed like one of us, but they are not from our village.** They had neither hennaed hair, nor the marks on their foreheads. They were dressed like us, BhaiJan, but they were not Muslims. We saw them so close. There were so many children and women. They were all burnt alive. They were pushed back inside when they tried to escape.’ 
       A collective shout of ‘Ya Allah’ went up.


       Inspector Solanki and Sub-Inspector Patel scanned the crowd apprehensively, exchanging glances everytime the crowd shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’. This was the part they hated most about their jobs. All this meddling with Politics. It was always better and simpler to belong to an age where all that the policemen had to do was arrest criminals and extract baksheesh. But they knew if  they did not toe the politicians’ lines, they would not have a job anymore. It came as a package deal with the Khaki uniforms, hidden deep inside the pockets. The Rashtra-Sevaks were hardcore Hindu fanatics. Bharat’s lost glory must be brought back at all costs. And the only way was to  drive all the Muslims away and stop Western culture from influencing the minds of Hindu children. 

       Saheb Mackeray’s tongue was working overtime to ‘awaken’ the Bharatiyas in the crowd. Saffron was the color of the day as people, mostly unemployed youth, gathered in large numbers with knives, swords and what-nots. ‘Show these Muslims that this is our country. How dare they touch our Sevak-Bhais and Behens? How dare they roast alive 50 sevaks, without fear, like this? Have we worn bangles? Do they think we are wearing cholis? Answer me,  will you remain quiet when someone does this to your country? Show them that we are tigers and not hyenas like them. Rise and come with me to teach them a lesson’. The crowd roared ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and lunged forward. A tsunami of angry men and women would cause serious trouble. Solanki and others of his rank were called in from Ahmedabad for a meeting, in which Saheb Mackeray had strictly ordered them to take leave and go on holidays with their families, preferably out of the city. The sequel to the 1992 riots was in the making.

       They gheraoed the village, baying for blood.  Swords, Sickles, Knives, Saffron bandannas, Trishuls, Rudraksh malas drenched in sweat. Engineers, Teachers, Students, Boys, Men, Teens, Blacksmiths, Officials, Shopkeepers, Masons, Plumbers, Slum-Dwellers, Builders - all bound in their frenzied rage of Hinduism. Systematically, so systematically one would shudder at the meticulous planning that must have gone into it, they went to each house, hacking up the men, raping the women, cutting down children. The babies were held by the feet and bashed against the nearest standing structure. Little girls were stripped naked and their buttocks split open in glee. The women howled like banshees, and ran. Many jumped into the tubewells, but who could hear their howls. The emergency numbers were dialled. But the phones kept ringing. Many set their own children on fire, to save them from this army of 'Rakshaks-turned-Rakshasas'. Junaid’s wife had a sword up her uterus. They brandished the foetus atop the sword, for all to see.*** Within hours, Godhra became famous. By the time the media descended on the village, by the time, the rest of this 'Vibrant' state, came to know of the horrors perpetrated by a handful of men, the raiders had vanished. There were no eye-witnesses. None whatsoever. They had left four men behind. Badly beaten and flayed, but alive. For the records. So that the world would know what happened. Junaid was one of them. After the marauding army had erased its coming, the police came. After they digested their 'samosas' and 'bataka-vadas' and 'cha-naashto', they came. The heroes. The policemen. Solanki picked up the four men. They were not even allowed to have a last glimpse. The nightmare had started for Junaid. And for everyone in Gujarat.  
       After 15 days in police custody, Junaid was released. ‘Upar se enquiry kar rahe hain. CM bola jail mein ek bhi Muslim nahi dikhna chaiye. Dilli se log aave toh lagna chahiye na ki protection sabka ho raha hain? Jaa aish kar.’ – a havildar informed him.
       Revenge. Revenge. Revenge. Revenge. 
       The word went round and round in Junaid’s head. The village where he had returned to, was long gone. In its place was a mound of dead bodies, that pariah dogs, vultures and other scavengers had chewed on. It was difficult to identify anyone from the burnt, mutilated and charred pieces that were once living human beings. The tears refused to flow. The four men now had stones for hearts. ‘We will avenge this. But not now. To strike terror in their hearts, we need to plan. We need to plan and then show them. We will avenge this.’ – they swore on the mud caked with dried blood. 
Junaid stood up. ‘Until I have my revenge, I will not rest.’ 
       The four men looked strangely calm as they locked eyes and nodded. Slowly. Seriously. 
"We are with you, BhaiJan. But we must plan before we do something rash." - Salim said. "We must properly plan first. I know some people in Indian Mujaheedin in Mumbai. They will help us. They are experienced. And But first, we will go to Ahmedabad. Our brothers there are in peril.
       Junaid saw reason where there was none. Yes, he would wait. And then he would have his Revenge. 
       Ahmedabad station was deserted. Never before had they seen it so empty. The paan-stained corridors spoke of the violent lashings that had taken place here too. On guard, they crept out and into the Muslim-dominated area of the old city. They stayed with Salim's brother. For four days, the men sat and planned. Righ in the middle of this Muslim-'infested' area, as the Sevaks had called it, was a Hindu pol****They took an oath to wipe out every Hindu in that walled enclave. 
       Less than a month later, the community had geared up to have their revenge. The fajr that day concluded with a cryptic note 'Doodh ma jeher chhe' - This was the signal to start the attacks on the Hindus. Junaid, Salim and the others came out and surrounded the Hindu pol from all sides. Inside while the families huddled to escape the clutches of their neighbours,
       Junaid clambered onto the walls, and poured kerosene over each house. House after house, compound wall after compound wall was conquered with shouts of 'Allah, Allah' over-riding the  terrified screams of children, women, men piercing the air. Suddenly it was all over. In a matter of minutes. The police jeeps came blaring. This time, they arrived on time. CRPF jawans sprang out, lobbied teargas shells. Junaid and his companions scampered back to the relative safety of their pols
       It was while he was springing over the last wall, that he saw her. 
       A little girl of about four or five years of age. 
       Naked except for the torn away remnants of a soft-toy's hand clutched in her fist. Beside the mutilated body of her mother, she sat, crying in the pitiful way that only a child can.
       Junaid wanted to throw his head back and laugh. 
       His first laughter after 28th February. 
       But somehow he could not muster the, what was it, guts? manliness? courage?...
       No no, isn't this what he wanted? Revenge? To feel satiated? To have his wife's death avenged? To have his village's rape avenged? Suddenly, the little girl looked at him, no not at him but straight through him, as if he did not exist. She continued crying. 

       Junaid wondered, why, if Revenge was indeed sweet, his mouth was all Bitter inside. All Bitter. 

- This is the first time I have spoken openly about the riots. On 26th February 2002, I passed the Sabarmati Express stationed at Godhra, on my way back to Ahmedabad from Mumbai, where I had gone for the NIFT entrance exams. I had not even heard of this place until it was in the news the next day. We had barely started to recover from the trauma of the 2001 Earthquake when the 2002 Riots were thrust upon us. 
*Mommedian - Used to describe Muslims in Ahmedabad. For eg. Autorickshaw driver to passenger – ‘Arrey madam, woh to Momeddian ka area hain, 20 rs extra dena padega.’
**'they were not muslims' -  Disputed. There were claims that the doors were bolted from inside and that the Sevaks themselves had burnt their own members. 
*** 'foetus atop a sword' - As per the testimony by the Doctor in the Mumbai retrials – he claimed that the foetus was found inside the uterus of the women and not ‘flung aside’ as the media reported. However so strong was the belief that this had been done, that I remember crying on hearing it.
**** 'pol' - A gated cluster of houses demarcated according to caste, clan etc. 

Oh n btw, if I was allowed to submit my older posts for B-A-T, I would have submitted the one I think would do perfect justice to the title Revenge.
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