On that fateful day – Pawan Kumar, Delhi

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Aarif did not choose his religion; he got it by birth, from his family, because of the family he was born into. Is it possible for anyone to choose his parents, his peers, the kind of society one wants to live in, and the ambiance in which he/she would be able to live freely and happily? This was a question that always revolved in Aarif’s mind, largely because he was an eyewitness of communal riots that took place in his hometown Tezapur a few years back. Everything flashed in front of his eyes—the horrors of those times, the bloodbath, people screaming in pain and crying for help, the ruthless dragging of people on the roads, pregnant women being raped. . . A drop of tear rolled down his cheeks, suggesting that the wounds never really healed, but started bleeding again.

On that fateful day, his father had gone to pay the electricity bill and his mother to fetch some milk, and neither of them returned. Aarif, with his younger sister, was at home that day. In the afternoon, suddenly, he heard some people shouting slogans, and when he looked out of the window, he saw a mob with swords, knives, daggers, and various weapons streaming down the streets. He got cold feet at this dreadful sight. Till the evening, he waited for his parents, like a broken leaf floating in the air, with hope acting as the buoyant force keeping it afloat.

In the evening, when the wind blew, it had a different smell about it; the whole environment seemed to be filled with fear and sorrow. Aarif was entrapped in a difficult situation: he was neither in a position to leave his sister at home and go outside in search of his parents, nor could he sit idly at home with his hope of his parents’ return gradually dying down.

Suddenly, he heard a knock at the door. In an admixture of fear and suspicion on one hand, and courage and hope on the other, he moved ahead to open the door, but something struck his mind and Aarif turned towards the window instead. He saw people carrying torch lights and armed with sharp weapons. He could see a young girl standing at the door. He could not see her face, because her face was covered with a dupatta[1], and she was continuously looking around, as if in fear.

Aarif immediately ran towards the door and opened the ladge. To his surprise, it was Sonali standing in front of him. She almost fainted in front of him. Aarif was taken aback. He took her inside the house. After sometime, when Sonali recovered, Aarif asked, “What happenedSonali? Are you alright?” Sonali broke into tears and told him how a mob tried to molest her and how she ran to protect herself and landed in his house. Even after narrating what happened with her, and finding herself safe at Aarif’s, she could not stop sobbing; the trauma of what she had had to face, and the dread of the very thought of molestation sent her shivering.

Aarif and Sonali had studied in the same college and were very good friends. Eventually, their friendship took on the colour of love. Both of them want to marry and lead their lives together, but because of family boundations and the divide of religion that came in their way, they decided to part ways. As it was destined to happen, Sonali lost her parents in the communal strife in Tezapur some years ago, and was living with her uncle. Aarif always insisted on marriage, and tried to pursue tha matter even more seriously after the death of Sonali’s parents, but Sonali did not want to make matters worse by going for a marriage which her relatives and the society would not give sanction to.

The Sun was about to set and Aarif’s parents had not come yet. Finally, Aarif asked Sonali to look after his younger sister and went outside in order to look for them. With suspicion, and a heavy heart, he stepped outside the threshold of his house. The whole world appeared as if it was collapsing in his heart, and he moved like a dove which flies out of its nest in order to survive, in order to look for its bare necessities. Different memories started coming to his mind, he started musing over the lesson that he had learned in his school, the moral of which was that parents are like a polar star in our lives, and he shivered at the thought of losing contact with the polar stars of his life. But he tried hard to bring such thoughts to a rest, gathered himself up, and moved ahead in search of his parents.

After crossing GaffarChowk, the street nearest to his house, which then led to the main market, he saw several injured people lying here and there, everywhere, blood oozing out of their limbs, helpless children stranded on the streets, crying for help. Aarif, who had already worked as a volunteer for a rehabilitation programme run by the government of his district after the Tezapur riots a few years back, for a moment forgetting the reason for having come out of his home, ran towards them and started helping them in whatever way he could. Some of these people were severely injured and were in need of an emergency medical attention. Everyone in the locality had shut their doors and windows to the people wreathing in pain outside, as if trying not to witness this, lending deaf ears to the cries of their fellow humans.

Suddenly, a young boy came near Aarif and started helping him in providing first aid to the injured ones. When Aarif asked him why he came outside and had his parents not stopped him from coming, he replied, “I live in Phoolbagh, the red light area nearby, and there is no body to stop anyone from doing anything there.” He must have been around fifteen years old, thought Aarif, but in the generosity and majesty of his thoughts, he seemed better, perhaps older in age than anyone in that locality, who chose to act as dumb observers in a situation that demanded them to prove their humanity. Aarif patted him on his back, and continued with the relief work that he had taken upon himself, with only that young boy to lend his helping hands to him.

The young boy appeared like a small ray of sunshine, of humanity amidst the gory darkness that had engulfed the place. In this mayhem, Aarif’s eyes started looking for his parents, but there was no trace of them anywhere. He moved from one street to another, looking in every nook and corner, but to his dismay, what he could see all around himself was the same unnerving scenario. In one corner he saw a small child hiding behind the government’s banner highlighting various developmental works done so far and those still in progress. Whether these programmes or schemes were implemented or not is not known, but certainly, the banner displaying the list of the same saved a precious life. Aarif rescued the child, handed him over to a hospital nearby, and went towards the mosque. On his way to the mosque, he ran into Rohit, who was one of his best friends. Aarif told him about his parents, and asked Rohit if he had any clue about their whereabouts. Rohit answered in the negative, and informed Aarif that he was also looking for his younger brother.

Both Rohit and Aarif moved towards the main market, and meanwhile noticed that they have not seen a single police man on the road coming to the rescue of the people, in a situation when they should have been the first people to intervene in this tense state of affairs. Every police check post was deserted, no man/ woman clad in khakhi[2], no police van was to be seen anywhere. After all, the police personnel were certainly too brave to witness or intercede in this gory incident!

Aarif and Rohit were college friends, and had worked together in the government’s rehabilitation programmes started by the district administration after the Tezapur riot. They had seen the aftermath of such riots, and worked in close contact with the victims of similar riots some years ago. They knew what the experiences of such a communal strife could do to the survivors, the personality disorders that such people could come to acquire, the nightmares that could keep coming back to them for the rest of their lives. Although coming from different communities, they never hesitated to support or help anyone, irrespective of their religion or caste. For them, violence was a blood sucking creature, which did not have any face, or religion, or caste.

Aarif also told Rohit about Sonali, and about what had happened with her that afternoon, since all of them were college friends and they knew everything about each other. Rohit insisted on going towards the stadium, but Aarif insisted on searching in the market. After talking for a few minutes, they decided to search for their respective family members in the market and all important local places before heading towards the stadium.

Night was growing darker and Aarif’s sister and Sonali were alone at home. Rohit and Aarif started a desperate search, but in vain. Tired and exhausted, both of them were leaning against the wall of a shop when suddenly someone asked for water. It was a familiar voice for Aarif, and thanks heavens, it was his father! He was hiding behind the wall, and Rohit helped him come out of the corner. His body was shaking and had some minor injuries. Aarif heaved a sigh of relief and asked about his mother. His father could barely say a word, and murmering “Your mother. . . Your mother. . .” he fainted on the ground. Rohit suggested that he should take him to his relative’s house close by. With Rohit’s help, Aarif took him to Rohit’s uncle place, and leaving his father to the care of Rohit’s uncle, they came out on the road after sometime to resume their hunt, a hunt which was killing them every moment, a hunt, which, in spite of that, they could not leave midway.

Across the next street, Suraj, an old friend of Rohit, bumped into them. He wanted to put his arms around Rohit, which Rohit tried to avoid, since he could smell that Suraj was high on alcohol. But meanwhile, Aarif patted on his shoulder and said good bye. At this, Suraj said, ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t you know who I am? Stay away from me; I don’t like you and your community.” At this juncture, Rohit interrupted, ‘Go away, you moron!  You talk about community, you, who has betrayed humanity by killing people and looting shops!’ Rohit pushed him aside and moved forward, when suddenly, from behind, Suraj shouted, “I know about your brother’s whereabouts!” Aarif and Rohit rushed back and managed to persuade him to give the information he had about Rohit’s brother. Suraj told them that he saw his brother near Ramlila ground. Aarif, without any further delay, ran towards the ground and Rohit followed him.

When Aarif and Rohit reached near the ground, they saw hooligans shouting slogans and trying to gather people in the name of revenge. It appeared that the whole village had been transformed into Jerusalem, a holy palace, but with a blood-stained history. “I don’t understand why they fight and die for something which cannot be possessed individually, and especially with violence!” said Rohit. He asked Aarif to stay away because the mob comprised of Hindus, and could therefore turn violent at the sight of Aarif, and so, it would not be safe for him to go there. Aarif insisted on going, but Rohit did not want to take any chance with the life of his friend.

Rohit moved towards the crowd and saw his brother sitting on the pavement, with a knife in his hand and blood dripping out of it. He took him by his hand, but some people resisted and said, “He is a brave boy! Leave him here with us. He will take avenge the death of his brothers!” Rohit started slapping his brother in anger, and without caring to reply to those people, he took him along. When he narrated everything to Aarif later, he tried to convince Rohit that his brother was immature and gullible, and the violent mob might have instigated him to commit such an act.

Rohit was still in tension and so was Aarif, because Aarif’s mother was still missing. All of a sudden, Aarif broke down, and Rohit tried to console him by saying, “Please don’t cry Aarif! We have to find her out as soon as possible, because we don’t know what condition she is in! Don’t lose heart! You have to be brave!”

They might never have dreamt of such a day, but who knew that they would have to face it someday. And lo! Today was that day! Both of them searched every possible place where they could find Aarif’s mother, but returned empty-handed from every spot. They were totally exhausted and were losing hope.

It was already morning now. Aarif and Rohit were thinking of going back home to look for Aarif’s mother when suddenly, an old man, who happened to be his father’s colleague, told Aarif that he had seen his mother going towards the house at dawn. Aarif asked Rohit to go home with his brother because it was not safe to remain outside for long.

Aarif moved towards his house with a heavy heart. He was thinking about the sheer horror and inhumanity of violence, when again, the same question started haunting him, “Is it possible to own Jerusalem, Amarnath, or Mecca through these hysterical and inhuman acts? When will people realize that these holy places exist within their hearts?”

[1] a long, multi-purpose scarf that is essential to many South Asian women’s suits and matches the woman’s garments, which is generally seen as a symbol of modesty

[2] a yellowish-brown sturdy cotton cloth that is generally used in the uniform of police personnel in India

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