[The Photograph – Moral Short Story]
Rizwan Bhaijan unhesitatingly shows me his family photograph. His enthusiasm overpowers the fact that nothing much can actually be made of it. It is partially burnt, torn and yellowing with age. His tired eyes illumine like diyas when he tells me, ‘That is my Begum Raheena; the one kneeling beside her is Ismail…that boy was always kneeling, and that small one there is Rahman. He was only two. He had been named after my grandfather. He even looked like him, you know’. His words end with an irrevocable sadness. A prolonged silence follows. He keeps staring at the tattered piece of cardboard. He is, perhaps, recreating their laughter in his mind; in a remote corner of which the penetrating grey is replaced by lush colour. There the hues of their faces, memories and everlasting smiles thrive. His lips begin to curve into a soft smile of reminiscence. ‘Whatever….whatever happened…’ his voice cracks in between. He gasps for a bit of air and finally says, self-assuredly, ‘Whatever happened is Allah’s will. What can go against it? We are all at his mercy’. I expect him to break down and let go of his composed self and the tears he has been restraining. Contrary to my expectations, he holds on like a rock. And he has become this steady rock over the past ten years.
Even a storm has its precedent indications, but the barbaric killing of innocent thousands had none. I can see tension build up on his face as this interview continues. The creases across his forehead have deepened, accompanied with narrow rivulets of sweat. His hands tremble; they are probably cold. ‘The smoke…it blackened my senses…I could see nothing for a few minutes. They were coming in so quickly. There was this deafening commotion and’…. he pauses, closing his eyes. The image he painfully visualizes is terrifyingly real. He continues, nonetheless, ‘Ismail was playing with the neighbour downstairs…I ran down looking for him, but he was already gone. His neck was slashed…blood…full of blood, his bloodied body was the last thing I saw before they hit me’. The blow to Rizwan Bhaijan’s head was not lethal, luckily or otherwise. They didn’t wait to see him dead. Buildings were completely destroyed. Every brick, tile and slab was brought to dust. The ravaged colony resembled a burning inferno. No one was spared in the sparks of fury, which spewed dark clouds of revenge. The hunters entered like a hungry pack of wolves, with knives and swords and gas cylinders. Did they kill only Muslims? I don’t think so. Neither does Rizwan Bhaijan. ‘In that gruesome blood-bath, he asks, who could tell humans from beasts?’
He takes a moment to resort back to self-accustomed silence. I understand this is his way of dealing with the clutches of the dark melancholy which grips his soul from time to time. He has lost too much. His benign existence is not more than one of God’s small puzzles. Ten years ago, on a February doomsday, Gujarat had embarked on a fateful journey escorted with death. It had a bloody beginning and infinite tragic ends. The state was fragmented into two. The bigger, meatier portion went to perpetrators of the worst communal violence in Indian history. The low-lying part went to their victims. What remains now is a brand of human beings like Rizwan Bhaijan, who find themselves caught in a dirty middle-position. For them life is not better than death. They are static, living remnants of a ghastly holocaust; nothing more, nothing less.
My thoughts travel back in the past. February 27, 2002: The Initiation Day, the preface to a politically maneuvered game of cat and mouse. The deadliest undertaking ever. The typical Indian Railways platform synopsis-an advancing train packed with passengers; people who are made up of flesh and blood; people like you, me and Rizwan Bhaijan.
But then, the image starts to falter. A blazing compartment, high rising flames feeding on it like a flaring immortal python….The saffron motif against the brass backdrop…the Hindus…were they targeted? What is happening? Clutter and clout reigns. Commotion, confusion and chaos fog the scene. Total catastrophe. The picture is slowly dying with the boisterous burning. The sight of thick, black smoke is blinding me. What remains in my fresh memory is the grotesque disposition of fire-eaten bodies. The stench of toasted human flesh, of life charred into death clogs my sanity. The news finds its way to the ears of the multitude. “Innocent karsevaks returning from Ayodhya killed”. “Hindus brutally burnt to death”. Soon, a sporadic “How could they?” sows a seed in angry devotees of Lord Sri Ram. Their blood starts to boil….They unite. They conspire. They execute. They eliminate. ‘You don’t deserve to live, you sister-f**kers…!’ Slash. Hit. Slash. ‘You Mus**m sons of bi**hes! You bast**ds’! Slash.Cut.Stab.Slash. ‘Sri Ram Ji Ki’! Hack. Kill. Behead.
The women, what about them? Let us say somebody is hell bent on eliminating their neighbour’s green garden. They pull out the weeds, the climbers, the shrubs and uproot the trees. Can they do so without harming the beautiful soft flowers? In fact, the flowers are what they would want to tear apart first. That is when the bull’s eye is hit; when the weakest members are slayed. The pleasure of watching helplessness surrender to terror is a battle half won. The question of innocence is not at stake here. Revenge may have many dialects, but it exists, emotes, speaks and acts in only one language. My own story is proof positive that it is so.
In Kerala, love stories were not unheard of in the 80s; they were just fairly uncommon. Did that stop my parents, Simon Varghese Jr. and Radhamani kutty from getting married? Never. They were drowning in love, so much in love that the small-time painter’s Christian son and the village headmaster’s Brahmin daughter did not foresee the dire consequences of their romance. So, when people tell me that love is blind, the cynic in me does not completely disagree. The period of illusion which the two forsaken souls mistake for forever is blind. When they finally care to open their eyes, the situation they mostly find themselves in is pretty blinding too. That is the only marked difference. Coming back to the tale, Simon and Radar were like chalk and cheese. He was suave; suave in an outspoken, oily-haired, pencil-moustache kind of way. She was naive; naive in a suppressed- emotions, shy kohl-lined eyes kind of way. He was not a painter, but she was a dancer. And when love bit, it bit very hard. As expected they eloped, leaving the dear town and disappointed relatives, to Madras.
My father found himself a decent job at a textile factory while my mother chose to stay at home. Well, she didn’t exactly “choose”, but it was the only option that was put forward to her. I think that marked the beginning of it all. Very soon, I was born and they named me Parvathy; Parvathy Simon. No, the unusual christening was not the result of any emotional bearing or to honour any kind of sentimental promise made to an old friend. It was just one of my mother’s many whims that I was named so. Everything happens for a reason. My birth had a motive. It was a revelation, an eye-opener for the couple who gave birth to me; who once were so hopelessly in love. That was a lost ideal now. It bothers me so much that instead of being the bonding factor, the adhesive that glues the fine threads of family ties, I ended up symbolizing the closure of their relationship. The harmony between them was wrecked, to say the least. My mother’s alter-ego, the independent, arrogant, insolent woman hidden inside her for ages had started resurfacing again. She was miserably wrong when she thought that fraction of her had vanished for once and for all a long time ago. But evidently, it was omnipresent. It was inside her and outside her. It was as much a part of her as she was a part of it; an omen that couldn’t be subdued. I remember they had fought continuously for days and weeks altogether for no specific reason until one day she geared up the guts to tell him that her life was a complete mess, that she didn’t want to stay at home and be his wife or my mother, that dancing was her true calling in life. The same day she told me that I was nothing but a terrible mistake. The words “chauvinist”, “pig” and “ba***rd” had become an integral part of my early vocabulary. It wasn’t until a little later that my father discovered the true reason behind her newly formed aggressive demeanour. A dalliance of sorts was the true villain that had sprouted somewhere in the middle of all this. The North-Indian charmer next door, Ravi Malhotra was more than a singer. He was a lusty womaniser.It was entirely my father’s fault. He should have identified her quest for greener pastures on the other side of the fence. He should have known the first time she told him, ‘Ravi has a golden voice, only a God can sing like that’. Nonetheless, my father had his own tools of resumption; he couldn’t be completely failed.
Nobody loses their childhood. They get to make it alive through it, the only distinction being the “how”. My dad was a gem of a person. He was a caring husband and a loving father. He is the first and last man I will ever love, despite the fact that he couldn’t be a big part of my life and despite the fact that he killed my mother. He had sawed her; severing all ties with her soul as with her body. I watched, he didn’t mean to have an audience in me, but I watched her die. I was eight. Yet, I was old enough to know that love was better off blind. Enough and more to make a fiery bull-headed journalist, a journalist who is openly gay and secretly sensitive? As I prepare to visit other neighbourhoods in the ghost town of Naroda, I watch Rizwan Bhaijan slide the old photograph into his Kurta. He presumes they are safe there, close to the heart that will always beat for them. There is a strange twinkle in his eye. He gives me a familiar smile; one of understanding and hope. He may never know my story or the old photograph I carry around in my purse, but somewhere inside me, I believe that he has unveiled my pain, too. I am leaving but a lot of questions remain unanswered. I am sure some of them may have solid answers, but what I am not sure of is whether I am ready to dig that deep.