Sample Chapters – Chapter 8

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.

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