Reviews and Synopsis

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 by Broken Shackles Press






IMPORTANT NOTE: The e-book version (pdf, mobi, or epub) is available free of cost. Unfortunately Createspace (Amazon’s POD service) won’t allow me to provide the e-book free, so I’m happy to send it if you can send me an email to The paperback is available at the lowest price that, again, Amazon will allow me to price it at, which is at their POD print price. For subsequent books with Broken Shackles Press, I’m planning on figuring out another POD publisher that will allow me to have them available free of cost.

(Also, don’t be fooled by the generous reviews below, to be honest, the book is a piece of crap…but not to worry, I’m getting better and subsequent books will have nowhere to go but up. Plus I hope to have them be of a similar pricing structure, so there’s little to complain about.)

Also, don’t forget to check out my blog:


“[A] riveting account of how human souls can reach lowly depths of inhumanity…In the depths of darkness, it also shines a light on the compassion and resilience of many– Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and others who worked to rebuild, restore peace and bring comfort to the suffering and the scarred.”

IDRISA PANDIT, Religious Studies scholar, University of Waterloo


“[T]he book unfolds with compelling and daring self-reflection, unpacking his experiences in the aftermath of a recent grisly history that is both important and largely unknown outside the author’s native India…a stunning portrayal of a particular period of time of street-level fascism in India.”

DAVID BOEHNKE in The Industrial Worker


“A powerful and compelling personal narrative…The story is told with remarkable candour, honesty and humour, and asks important questions that are salient for anyone who has considered the nature of aid work, community violence and of humanity itself.”

SWATHI SEKHAR, Member, Immigration Legal Committee and Prisoner Correspondence Project, Toronto


“[A] gripping journey that exposes India’s communal violence, and enables us to understand the roots of the hatred that breeds such grotesque episodes of carnage. Courageously honest and daringly self-reflective, perhaps the greatest contribution of Across the Sabarmati is the unforgiving mirror it holds up to its readers, encouraging us to come to terms with our own privilege and compelling us to act.”

YOGI ACHARYA, Community Organizer, No One Is Illegal – Toronto



It is March 2002 and the north Indian state of Gujarat has just seen the worst episode of bloodletting in independent India. Hindu fascist groups in the state have gone on a rampage, slaughtering over two thousand Muslims, and brutally marginalizing tens of thousands more. Jayram Krishnan has led a privileged life as an upper-caste Hindu from the south Indian city of Bangalore. He impulsively decides to travel up north to Gujarat, to volunteer in a human rights movement that has emerged to combat the violence. His ego and bravado prevail over his cautious family. But underneath the bluster he realizes that he’s never done anything that has challenged the rationale of his safe existence.

Treading unknown territory, he makes his way to Gujarat. In Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, he encounters a beleaguered human rights movement desperately trying to combat overwhelming odds in an environment of political virulence. He has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. Apparently, neither do they. His only option is to hit the ground running and ask questions later. As he bungles his way through the initial few steps, he discovers the Sabarmati – a river running through the city, ghettoizing it, acting as more than just a physical divide. Carnage and sterile affluence have but a river separating them. Two amazing activists on one side and two more on the other, each pair worlds apart, enter his life and rapidly constitute his new family. Jayram starts leading a dual life on both sides of the river. He crosses it every day to work in devastating conditions on one side, and crosses back to make merry on the other. He finds painful love and learning on both sides. The Sabarmati soon runs through Jayram too, and he discovers more about himself than he might be able to endure.

Across the Sabarmati, he slowly starts finding answers that he’s still discovering questions for. In confronting his painful rebirth, he realizes he is lesser than what he thought he was but seeing a truth he had never seen before. It was the liberation he needed but never sought out.

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Full Reviews:


“A chronicle of crimes perpetrated against the Muslims of Gujarat by fascist Hindu groups in the 2002 Gujarat riots, this novel documents the horror and pain of the victims, trauma of the survivors, as well as vicarious trauma of those delivering help and aid. This book is a riveting account of how human souls can reach lowly depths of inhumanity and take pride in subjugating, shaming, dishonouring and destroying the essence of what makes us human. While classified as fiction, this book is more a memoir, a tale of growing up, an accidental rite of passage for a young man in search of life’s meaning who in questioning his own privilege, both inherited, as an upper class Hindu Brahmin, and acquired, as a member of an educated upper middle class society, searches for answers in a dark world of death and destruction. Jayram, the protagonist, encounters pain, suffering and slow death of the people on one side of the Sabarmati river and love, friendship and self-discovery on the other. The river is a symbol of the division of the community as much as a divide that speaks to personal inner struggles of Jayram.

This story raises a number of critical questions and urges all humans to reflect on them at a global level; questions that probe the depths of hatred that breed in our modern day societies in the name of nationalism, tribalism and communalism. In the depths of darkness, it also shines a light on the compassion and resilience of many– Hindus, Muslims, Dalits and others who worked to rebuild, restore peace and bring comfort to the suffering and the scarred. This account highlights the short lived interest of yellow journalism in a horror story while giving us a glimpse of storytellers, such as Maria, invested in documenting such horrors with real hope of history not repeating itself. It gives us a sense that while murder and killing ends the suffering of the victim at once, the long term trauma of witnesses to the horrors, as well as victims of the powerful weapon of rape, will die a slow death and alter the individuals and society forever.

Across the Sabarmati is a very difficult book to read, certainly not a book that you will finish in a sitting. If the plot was merely a figment of the author’s imagination, it may just be another sad tale. However, the events in this book are palpable and the characters real people in a real part of the world who lived through and survived these horrific acts. The most shocking aspects of the Gujarat tragedy are the real life events in Indian politics, the impunity given to the perpetrators of the crimes at the highest political levels to the police forces, all of whom became bystanders condoning the crimes they were duty bound to prevent. It is a commentary on the nature of deep rooted communal tensions in the world’s largest democracy; tensions that raise their ugly head, too often leaving millions of Indian citizens form the minority communities, vulnerable and fearful. Sriram Ananth succeeds in drawing his readers in by relating a personal and a moving record as a witness to genocide. He leaves his readers to ponder the transformation of Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi, the father of Indian non-violent movement, to a place with a very violent and gory recent history.”

– Idrisa Pandit, Religious Studies scholar, University of Waterloo


“The Importance Of Self-Reflection In Achieving Revolutionary Change:

How do people change? What are the steps that it takes for someone from a privileged class, gender and ideological position to become a revolutionary? What failures might we suffer along the way? What lines do our movements still need to overcome? What does this mean in real life? In my life? To me, these are the questions asked and unpacked in the insightful “Across the Sabarmati”—a new and first novel by one-time Fellow Worker Sriram Ananth. And despite the author’s insistence that the “quality of writing hovers between mediocre and average,” the book unfolds with compelling and daring self-reflection, unpacking his experiences in the aftermath of a recent grisly history that is both important and largely unknown outside the author’s native India – the Hindu fascist riots in Gujarat that killed thousands of innocent working class Muslims and others in the winter of 2002. It is also a stunning portrayal of a particular period of time of street-level fascism in India, one that is perhaps gone, but perhaps not. Fascist upsurges are an inevitable consequence of the racist capitalism that defines our lives, and can only be stopped by eliminating its roots in the system itself, an important insight well beyond India. This warning and lesson transformed the author into adulthood, birthed him a new life, and burdened him too with the question of revolution and solidarity across class lines and now, across oceans as well. As part of an internationalist workers’ movement and as an organization of new, experienced, and growing organizers who are increasingly facing the need to diversify who we organize with, honest books like this are an invaluable contribution to our collective coming of age. I can only hope that more workers take the time to write the important realities of their lives, stresses, mistakes, repetitions and all. After all it is in our lives – not in a fantasy – that we have a world to win.”

– David Boehnke in The Industrial Worker


“A powerful and compelling personal narrative, Across the Sabarmati offers an unflinching glimpse into a world that is rarely seen and exposed- communities and lives after the storm has hit, forgotten people who must continue to live every day with the impact of horrific violence and trauma long after the world has turned away. The author carries the reader with him on his complex, turbulent personal journey of trying to do direct support work for people in crisis, while grappling with difficult personal issues around his own identity and privilege. The story is told with remarkable candour, honesty and humour, and asks important questions that are salient for anyone who has considered the nature of aid work, community violence and of humanity itself.”

– Swathi Sekhar, Member, Immigration Legal Committee and Prisoner Correspondence Project, Toronto


“Sriram Ananth’s debut novel Across the Sabarmati transports us to the streets of Ahmedabad shortly after the city has been marred by bloody riots that have seen thousands of muslims killed, and many more forced into refugee camps. Drawing from his personal experiences doing relief work under these circumstances, the author takes us on a gripping journey that exposes India’s communal violence, and enables us to understand the roots of the hatred that breeds such grotesque episodes of carnage. Courageously honest and daringly self-reflective, perhaps the greatest contribution of Across the Sabarmati is the unforgiving mirror it holds up to its readers, encouraging us to come to terms with our own privilege and compelling us to act.”

– Yogi Acharya, Community Organizer, No One Is Illegal – Toronto




Sample Chapters – Prologue

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 by Broken Shackles Press

When it first began, the media started calling it another religious riot, one of many in India’s history. Everyone in India knew how it started. Most believed it was in retaliation for the burning down of those ill-fated train compartments on the Sabarmati Express. Fifty-eight Hindus were killed that day when the S-6 coach went up in flames in the wee hours of the morning on February 27, 2002 as it trundled into Godhra Junction. No one had heard about Godhra before that infamous day; the town was now on the headlines of every national daily. The rioting started the very next day in the bigger cities of Ahmedabad and Baroda. The “Godhra Riots” as they were being called mostly occurred in the rest of Gujarat, and were the first riots in India to be telecast live on a slew of 24 hour news channels. It looked like your typical back-and-forth religious rioting – “they killed some of our people, we’re going to kill some of theirs” kind of thing. The kind that occurred in some Indian town or the other every few years. They usually lasted a few days at the most before order was brought in. Some poor folk would get killed or injured in those few days, a few reports would come in the newspapers, and life would soon limp back to normal. In any case, nothing much really affected well-off folk like us, barring the odd curfew or Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code.

We lived a fair distance from what was happening in Gujarat, over a thousand miles away in fact, down south in the city of Bangalore. But the news channels brought the riots into our living room like it was happening right in front of us; a gory blow-by-blow account of the mayhem presented by attractive reporters in sleek studios, ad breaks and all.

Mind you, religious rioting wasn’t something we were unaccustomed to hearing about.

When I was much younger and not old enough to internalise religious violence, I remember the adults speaking about some stray incidents of rioting in Bangalore when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 in Ayodhya. I was twelve years old at the time. My friends and I were happy that schools closed down that day because of a curfew. Pictures were flashed in all the major newspapers of Hindu mobs breaking down the dome of that historic mosque, one of the oldest in India. But even then, the real bloodshed happened in Mumbai. Three years later, I remember watching Mani Rathnam’s film, Bombay. It was made before the spree of jingoistic name-changing for large Indian cities. The film showed the violence as equal on both sides, with the same number of Hindus and Muslims killed. In the synthetic quasi-secular tradition of Bollywood, the film depicted the rioting instigated rather equitably by leaders of both religions. The caricature of the rabidly fascist Bal Thakeray, was played by a buck-toothed, normally-comedic, Bollywood actor, clad in a saffron shirt. The generic Muslim leader was a stereotypical angry mullah with a long beard and green robe. As far as I could tell, it was a film about poor Hindus and Muslims killing each other in the slums of Mumbai. It registered as information, but didn’t really hit me as something that I needed to be concerned about.

I did remember an argument at home, after coming back from the theatre, between my father and his brother.

“We have to realize that even if equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims died, Muslims are barely 15% of the population, so they’re definitely much more marginalized in many ways.” Appa said, trying to reason with his brother.

My uncle retorted, “That may be true…but we all know that the violence is always started by the Muslims. What goes around comes around.”

My father, in characteristically commanding fashion, admonished his younger brother, “You know that’s not true. Leaders on both sides are the problem. I think you ought to understand that we’re a secular country…we cannot afford to have religious fundamentalism of any kind, or anything that causes these divisions.”

My uncle refrained from saying anything, sullenly ceding ground to his elder sibling.

It wasn’t just religion that instigated rioting in India. In Bangalore the closest I had come to witnessing a riot was actually due to water. The Kaveri water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu flared up with protesters in both states demanding the bulk of the water from that beautiful river. I remember my parents getting a little worried about the potential for the protests to get more violent, especially since we were a Tamil family living in the biggest city in Karnataka. So we decided to play it safe and remain indoors for the weekend.

There was another time when a riot was almost instigated by the irrationally loyal fan-base of a local cinematic idol. I remember riding my motorbike with my friend back from college that day and seeing a bunch of guys walking around with sign boards and flaming torches. They were demanding the release of Kannada film star Rajkumar, who had been kidnapped by the legendary Tamil nationalist brigand, Veerappan. One of the protestors hit the bike as he ran away from the baton-waving policemen dispersing the mob. We nearly crashed, but I managed to control the vehicle and ride safely home, following which I had to calm my friend down from his manic hysteria.

Those were the two times I came closest to experiencing political violence during my youth. But they were stray incidents and, all things considered, fairly harmless ones at that. They could barely be classified as experiences really.

Truth be told, most of what I knew about political violence came vicariously from books. Our house in Bangalore was a veritable library. We had two floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves in our spacious living room just for books. I loved the ones on world history. They told me things I felt like I needed to know. I devoured these books growing up. I loved reading about how things came to be, voyeuristically studying specific moments in history, especially the many times when society boiled over. Some of these books detailed violent events which couldn’t be classified as mere violence. They told me what to watch out for. As a teenager I had read about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, the Stalinist gulags in the Soviet Union, the Armenian genocide carried out by the Turkish state, the bloodbath orchestrated by the United States upon the Vietnamese, the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947, the massacre of Bangladeshis by the Pakistani government in 1971, the Khmer Rouge purges in Cambodia, the madness that was Rwanda, and scores of other episodes of insanity in our recent past. Episodes where people were brutalized, women raped before being killed, infants butchered before being burnt; episodes where carnage became human nature.

I also read about the efforts of brave humanitarians, people who struggled against tremendous odds to end the violence, to deliver hope, to bring justice; regular folk who fought the good fight. The everyday Albert Schweitzers and Mahatma Gandhis of the world. They were inspiring portrayals of inspiring people. Those stories were the primary reason I studied the various brutal moments in humanity’s short history. Those stories provided the all-important silver lining when coming to terms with our violent past. Those stories, of great heroism and courage, were stories I wanted to be a part of. It was moving to read about them, particularly because I always imagined myself as one of those people.

I wanted that experience and realized that there was a chance I could get it in Gujarat.

Sample Chapters – Chapter 8

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 by Broken Shackles Press

As I crossed the Sabarmati and made my way to the BSC campus, I was starting to feel a small, but gnawing numbness in me. I could feel my mind getting a little colder to the violence after being there for a mere couple of days. All that concerned me now was getting the shelters up and ready before the monsoon. It was easier. It was actually something achievable in comparison to engaging with the behemoth of oppression that blanketed this place. I felt helpless and scared, and then immediately guilty for feeling like that.

I trudged to the BSC dorm. There were a few young men playing football in the field nearby. They seemed to be part of the college team as they had similar jerseys on. Normally I might have stood and watched. Now, all I could think was: How many of those kids supported those who conducted the violence? How many participated in it? Were there killers among the footballers? They looked no different than the guys I used to train with at my sports club in Bangalore – lean, fit, enthusiastic. The thought was difficult to stomach.

I entered the dorm, dropping my backpack on the floor. No one was there, and I started feeling lonely. I washed up in one of the adjacent bathrooms and puttered around the dorm, not knowing what to do. Did some push-ups and sit-ups to blow off some steam, but didn’t have the energy for a full workout. The loneliness was starting to wash over me and I started missing Bangalore immensely. Yet, the thought of returning to Bangalore didn’t seem to make me feel better. It was weird. For a moment it felt like that longing for my hometown was completely fake. Like it was a façade, a residual longing that I ought to have felt.

I started getting a little hungry and wondered what I might do about dinner when Maria walked in. I had met her briefly during my first night at the dorm, which now felt like it was a lifetime away. I knew that she was a journalist or film-maker or both. I saw her interacting with Abhay the night before, and was mesmerized by her way of being. She had a luminous look. A gorgeous, dusky face with wavy hair, and an infectious laugh. She didn’t wear any makeup, save for a hint of eyeliner, and seemed to always be in kurta and jeans. Within a day I was headlong into my first crush in Ahmedabad.

I smiled as she walked in. She smiled back and, trying to remember my name, cheerily asked, “Um…Jay…you just got here right? How have you been so far?”

I replied, “Not bad. It’s a bit of a shock. Have been hearing some crazy stories, and I’ve only been here two days. It’s like being punched in the stomach.”

“Ya, I know man.” she said, as she put her backpack down on the floor. “It’s tough to think about what happened here. The blood boils, but then we have to find a way to come through it to get the work done.”

Maria had a soothing voice. It had a therapeutic effect on me. I immediately felt more alive in her presence, and couldn’t look away from her kaajal-lined eyes. She wrinkled her nose when she smiled, almost mischievously. I was smitten, but tried my best not to make a complete ass of myself. I was also quite thrilled that she was from Kerala, surreptitiously finding that out from Abhay the previous night. I was one of those semi-Keralites, those who spoke Tamil rather than Malayalam, and only on my mother’s side. Yet, I would claim a Kerala identity quite glibly, even though I didn’t speak a wisp of the language.

“You’re from Kerala right?” I asked. “My family is from there too.”

She replied, “Oh really? Where are they from?”

“From Palakkad, but most of them live in Trivandrum.”

As soon as I said Pallakad, I knew she would have identified me as a fake Keralite.

“Aaaah, so you’re a Tam Bram? You don’t look like one…plus, aren’t you a Bangalore boy? That’s what Abhay told me.” she retorted with a chuckle.

I laughed at her usage of the pejorative for my privileged roots, secretly thrilled that they had talked about me.

I replied, using myself as comedic bait, “Why, because I don’t have the sacred thread on? Bloody stereotypes…do you know that I eat meat and drink too? How’s that for being a Tam Bram?”

She laughed again.

“Oh God! Someone is getting very touchy about their roots eh? Such chauvinism you can find only in a Tam Bram from Bangalore.” she said with a twinkle. “I bet you sang in some silly college rock band. Probably listened only to Led Zeppelin or Nirvana thinking you were way cooler than the rest of the crowd. Did you also wear your cap backwards thinking you were stylish?”

I burst out laughing at her accurate assessment. She was cheeky and adorable. It further drew me to her. We hit it off immediately, and I noticed that we were standing a little closer to each other as we spoke. Her hand even touched mine a couple of times as she teased me. It was scintillating.

We talked a little more, squatting next to each other on the mattresses. Turned out that she had worked on quite a few documentaries of note.

“I edited a film on Hindu fascism for this film-maker a couple of years back,” she explained, “and that was when I realized what was going on with these groups. So, when I heard about the violence, I decided to come and volunteer with the movement here.”

I knew that she and Abhay worked together in the camp in Vatwa, way up in the northern outskirts of the city. I asked her if she was planning on making a film about it.

She replied intently, “No boss. I didn’t come here to do any of that. Just came here to volunteer. I’m not interested in that sort of work right now. Also I’ve just finished two tiring film projects.”

“What are they about?” I enquired.

“One is on the plight of villagers along the Indo-Pak border for this peace movement I’ve been working with in Mumbai, and the other looks at the Dalit liberation movement in Maharashtra. But I’m quite tired of social reform documentaries…they’re so draining.”

She paused to put her notebook into her backpack.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I was in between projects when the carnage took place here, so packed my bags and came. I just want to work here in the camps for as long as I can before I take my next step.”

I was starting to feel really small in the company of people like Abhay and Maria, with my lack of accomplishment. Them being older than me didn’t help my ego any more.

As I had that fleeting thought of under-achievement, Abhay walked in, and without acknowledging us, put his bag down and pulled out a bottle of whisky from it.

He held up the bottle high and, smiling widely, exclaimed, “Time to drink comrades!”

Maria asked incredulously, “Wow…how did you get it? I’ve been dying for a drink all week man!”

I asked, perplexed that it was such a big deal, “Why are you so surprised that he’s got a bottle of whisky? There must be a booze shop in every corner of this town.”

“You fool…Gujarat has prohibition laws in place”, Maria replied teasingly again, “The sale of alcohol is banned here. You didn’t know that? You should get out of Bangalore more often and open your eyes once in a while.”

I laughed some more, happy to be made fun of by her, as Abhay opened the bottle and proceeded to pour it neat into three small plastic cups that he had brought with him.

Sample Chapters – Chapter 13

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 by Broken Shackles Press

The organisations that made up the Shanthi Samudaya coalition were all engaged in different sectors of work, but institutionally they could be bifurcated into two types. There were a couple of very large international NGOs that had branches all over India and the world. Their branches in Gujarat were part of the coalition, and wielded disproportionately large influence over the direction the coalition took. They provided most of the relief funds in addition to providing administrative leadership and oversight but weren’t very entrenched with the local population that those funds were meant to serve.

Apart from them were numerous, much smaller, community organisations including charities, civil liberties groups, Muslim community organisations and small NGOs who all had strong local networks. They were the ones who implemented most of the relief, legal, and human rights efforts that were planned by the coalition.

Mani acted as one of the de facto organizational heads of the coalition, even though it wasn’t supposed to have a leader, per se. There were a couple of others who also had leadership roles, but since Mani was the person I had interacted with first, it was natural to work with him as the primary coordinator. It seemed quite ad hoc, but I soon also realized that Mani did indeed handle a large part of the coordination for the camps in Gomtipur. Abhay and Maria dealt with a different coordinator, who was quasi-in-charge of the camps in Vatwa.

The relationship between Mani and I had grown into a friendly one between experienced warhorse and avid greenhorn. He saw that I was hard-working and willing to learn. Granted, those traits qualified me to be little more than a well-trained sheep dog. But when he realized that I was one of the few volunteers, like Abhay and Maria, who planned on staying for more than just a couple of weeks, he seemed to respect that perseverance despite my blundering first steps. He even hugged me when he saw me come back from the camps a couple of times; patting my cheek with paternalistic affection, the way many elders in India do to young whippersnappers. He seemed to regard the organic team that had developed between Vijay, Nasir and I, quite highly. He mentioned us to newer volunteers a couple of times as people to watch and learn from. I felt proud each time he did that. It was also useful to be on Mani’s good graces. He was crucial to ensuring that we got materials ready and work done on time without too many questions or bureaucratic oversight that hampered progress.

We soon learnt how to play the game efficiently.

I found out that in order to get funds for any of the activities we undertook in the camps, we needed to requisition for them directly, either from Mani or one of the financial coordinators of Shanthi Samudaya. All of them worked for one of the large NGOs. However, in order to get the work done, we always coordinated it with one or more of the community groups depending on their strengths and the kind of work that was required. This was the most crucial link that folks like Vijay, Nasir and I played – get the materials and funding from the big NGOs, and funnel them to the smaller community organizations that had the best local grassroots networks. One such small organization that I found myself immensely inspired by was a tiny workers’ rights group based in the heart of the old city.

Maria had recommended that I contact them for the work in Gomtipur. It was founded and headed by a Muslim woman named Nasreen. It’s rather generic name was the Community Development Trust. Vijay, Nasir, and I went to meet her to start a livelihood-generation program that we were trying to coordinate in Gomtipur as part of a larger project of Shanthi Samudaya.

We met her at her office. Her beautiful, weathered face radiated strength from behind a worn out desk in a sparse office. She pointed the potential pitfalls with accuracy, and highlighted the issues we needed to be wary of as we conducted the project.

“The main issue is to ensure that those with the highest need get the first instalment of livelihood materials.” Nasreen said with poise. “Also, we will need to do some dividing up by trade. So we should cull this information from the surveys that you have already been conducting. Let’s ensure that we have a plan for those who will not get livelihood materials immediately because they will justifiably be angry…so make sure you hold a community meeting in all the camps and be very honest about the livelihood scheme, how we’re going about it, and answer all questions in a calm manner. It can get quite raucous, so we have to be prepared.”

She was intelligent and grounded in a refreshingly forthright manner. I was quite enchanted by her strength. The three of us nodded along as she spoke, while I took some detailed notes. Vijay and Nasir only understood bits and pieces of what she was saying, since she started speaking in English and none of us stopped her to request that she speak in Hindi.

She continued, “Before we do all this of course, we should make sure that we get clear numbers on what materials we need, and the quantity, from Shanthi Samudaya. That way we’ll be in the best position to bring everything to the community in a forthright manner. Whatever we do, we should be absolutely honest about how much there is, and how long it will take to get the rest of the livelihood materials for residents who don’t get anything in the first instalment. This is why we need to also ensure that a proper needs assessment is done.”

I asked a few questions on the logistics of the whole project, and we worked on the next steps that needed to be taken. It felt good to know that the project would be in partnership with a person of such ability and honesty. As the meeting wound down, the discussion eventually veered towards, of course, the carnage that had taken place.

The conversation quickly shifted to Hindi. Nasreen spoke about the hell that transpired. Her tone became darker.

“We would get phone calls every minute about this person who got killed or that family that got burnt. It was madness.” she recalled, eyes looking elsewhere as she went back to that time.

“My sister and I were so scared, but we still had to do our work. We tried to save as many families as we could, but it was not much.” she said with resignation.

Nasir asked, “Nasreenbehen what was the kind of work your group did during the dhamaal? Is there anything that could be done now after the carnage?”

“What could be done Nasirbhai?” she replied. “It was an emergency. The only thing we were concerned with was saving as many lives as we could. Since the dhamaal none of our regular projects have re-started. Now all we do is relief work, and also trying to help with the human rights campaign.”

Vijay nodded his head in acknowledgment, “That’s so true Nasreenbehen, all the NGOs in the area are only thinking about relief, relief, relief. I hope that once this relief work gets over, we can also do other forms of work.”

Nasreen nodded.

Inshallah that will happen.” she added, looking up to the sky. “But even then, whatever work we do will move towards rehabilitation. So even if some NGO is working on health issues, their work will now have to cater to the survivors. And with this legal campaign? All of us know how slow the justice system can move here, and that too in Gujarat, these bastards are there even in the courts. God alone knows how long it will take and what sort of struggles will be needed.”

I asked, “How do you think your organization will cope with all of this now Nasreenbehen? It seems like so much for the smaller NGOs to take on.”

She replied in English, nodding in agreement, “Very true Jayram. There are multiple spaces that we have to negotiate. For instance, we still have to continue applying for government grants. You see…not all of the state has been taken over by the Hindu fascists, so we have to try to use those avenues to support the work. Also larger NGOs, with massive budgets, need us. Without us, what work can they do? They don’t have any field experience, no community networks, nothing.”

She looked down at her desk, shaking her head with a cynical half-smile.

“When doing this kind of work, all the romanticism of this work goes away.” she continued. “We have to do what we have to do in order to get the work done. The larger institutions have the funds, and they want to show that work is getting done, so need to work with us. We are able to do that kind of work, but cannot access the kinds of international funding that they can and so need to work with them. It might be social work, but it’s also a bit like a business deal. If our heads are in the clouds, we won’t get anything done, we’ll just be talking.”

I had seen this resigned rationality in other activists, and it helped ground me. Nasreen was wise and experienced. Like Maria, she had a way of being commandingly intelligent in word and deed without being authoritarian – a quality I’d found almost solely in women anywhere in the world, probably because they hadn’t been socialized into domineering masculinity. But unlike Maria, it didn’t seem like Nasreen was the kind of person one could joke around with much; she had a hardened edge to her being. She looked like a workaholic, and someone who had seen too much, one of those unsung heroes who did amazing work but buried the trauma of their experiences deep inside them. It was hard not to be drawn to her seething beauty.

The conversation was drawing to an end. We made plans to meet again and reiterated the next steps that needed to be taken. We got up and said our goodbyes to Nasreen with deep respect. We were in the presence of someone who deserved at least that much. As we got ready to leave, I asked her one last question in English, hoping to end our meeting on a positive note.

“Nasreenbehen…if you don’t mind my asking,” I ventured, “you had said that you and your sister were so scared when the violence was happening, and yet you continued to work in the community. May I ask where you found that strength?”

Nasreen replied, with the same composure she displayed throughout the conversation, “My sister and I each carried a small vial of poison with us every day. We decided that if the mobs came to get us, all they would get would be our dead bodies and not us.”

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