Sample Chapters – Prologue

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.

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