Alina Gufran

When the violence first breaks out, I see it in the videos. Blood-curdling screams, tweets about charred bodies floating up with the muck in naalas or sewage channels, women hiding behind doorframes in balconies while they attempt to film the carnage, quietly whispering “la ilaha illallah” (there is no God but God) under their breath.

I seek my flatmate out – maybe if I externalized the horror, I wouldn’t have to play it on loop in my head. She tells me they’re running a feature on a business conglomerate on a mainstream news channel, while another private channel interviews the head of an economic research institute about some new law. Not a word about the violence. I click on trending hashtags often populated by the ruling party’s IT cell paid to troll on social media and scan doctored videos and smears of saffron across profile pictures—a digital collage of hatred. Social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram only echo my thoughts back to me; yet I cannot look away.

So, it’s happened. No, that’s a misnomer—it’s been happening. It’s been slowly and steadily building up and then with a resounding force, it has shaken the constructs of what I, as a privileged, upper class Indian know to be safe, familiar, and real. Despite my education, access and partial NRI (non-resident Indian) privileges, even my half-Hindu lineage, I have been reduced to what my last name denotes—a Muslim, nothing else.

I think of my father’s loss of rootedness, his inability to call any place his own; his migration from India and his reluctance to return. The colony he grew up roaming with abandon is now marked with saffron flags and routine morchas (organized marches) by men frothing at the mouth with chants of “Hindu khatray mein hai!” (The Hindus are in Danger) “Jai Shri Ram!” (Long Live Ram) and “Mandir yahin banega!” (The Temple Will Only be Built Here)—war cries of a lost generation.

“The words “love jihad” echo in my brain. Today, their story would have been impossible, even illegal.”

I’ve always had a confusing history – an Arya Samaji Hindu mother and a Sunni Muslim father. They met at his older brother’s wedding to her best friend in Lucknow, and Abba immediately fell in love. They both stayed in Kanpur in the 1980s – Ma lived in Gulistan Colony, a largely upper-middle class Hindu/Muslim settlement. Abba, the second of seven siblings, held a menial job as a warehouse manager – the only employment his generic bachelor’s degree from Kanpur University would allow. They both defied societal norms to move to Delhi, where they got a home together in South Extension—an upcoming part of Delhi not yet besieged by jewelers and roadside vendors. A Muslim man and Hindu woman living together before they got married – practically unheard of. The words “love jihad” echo in my brain. Today, their story would have been impossible, even illegal.

A march against ‘love jihad’ in 2018. In 2020, Uttar Pradesh passed the anti-conversion law, legally criminalizing inter-faith marriages. Image: BBC India

Nana-ji was a judge with the Lucknow High Court and Dada-jaan worked in the railways. Ma has a younger sister and they were both, true to their Hindu baniya roots, educated at AMU & IIMs and expected to hold down corporate jobs that would ensure a steady climb up the ladder. My Nani was a Sanskrit PhD scholar whereas my Dadi was married at fourteen. After her death, hidden neatly in the folds of her crisp-cotton saris were seventy thousand rupees—the only material remnants of her legacy. Our legacies as women: hidden, preserved, undocumented as little rebellions against the structures we exist in.

Ma’s English was slick, she was educated, they had a television at home; she was taught how to play basketball even if she wasn’t allowed to wear jeans outside her home. Abba had to start working at eighteen and did considerably well for himself—a mix of charm, way with people and street hustle helped him rise through the ranks. At my parents’ wedding, nobody from Abba’s side showed up except his parents, while the men in Ma’s family offered him money to not marry her. The grandmothers were the first to establish any real bond, extending what they know best – empathy – perhaps because they’ve had to exercise so much of it over the years.

“…chants of “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maron salon ko!” (Shoot the Traitors of the Nation!) reverberating off bolted windows and padlocked doors”

Nasreen calls me and says she is heading to Shiv Vihar, as amateur videos of manic mobs marching down barely lit back-alleys surface on Twitter, their chants of “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maron salon ko!” (Shoot the Traitors of the Nation!) reverberating off bolted windows and padlocked doors. Another friend in Delhi, Zayd, calls me up and breaks down—this country hates me. My flatmate tells me about a protest at Marine Drive. We decide to take a taxi there. Part of me is relieved that I am in Bombay, another part feels that I’ve betrayed the place where I should be, where the violence is happening.

Ever since the protests against the bills began, I’ve turned up at Gateway of India and joined people in the chorus of Bella Ciao and Hum Dekhenge by Faiz; uncertain but spurred by the electricity of the moment. I’ve held my boyfriend’s hands and watched women in hijabs take the mic and challenge policemen attempting to dismantle the protest sites. I’ve craned to catch a glimpse of student leaders and been taken with their poise and courage in the face of humiliation and distress. Students, activists, leaders from local Muslim parties and other members of the community pass biscuits and juice around. Some stand with a look of confusion, of disbelief, that things have finally come to this; others lead, show the way, distribute protest anthems and put their truth across with conviction and a lack of fear.

The framing of ‘us versus them’ is a convenient matter, a political tool, strategically employed and intensified by the powers that be, until it seeps into the subconscious of the country. That’s one argument. Another is that bigotry always existed and lurked in nooks and corners, and was now not only rearing its ugly head, but being worn as a badge of honour. There are clear camps and we must pick a side. I’m not a practicing Muslim. But I’m immediately consigned to a community, handed the generational trauma I may have had some luck escaping due to my privilege. At the protest site, the idea of ‘us versus them’ seems to dissolve.

At Marine Drive, my phone dies. Dozens of policemen have surrounded and barricaded the growing gathering. As detention vans line the road, the crowd builds, everybody glued to their screens for news from Delhi. Police begin to announce that people should disperse. Some of us sit in a quiet huddle with burning candles. A woman begins to film a policeman’s heavy-handedness so his colleague flips his phone out and films her back. I’m speechless. I stare at him, hoping, daring him to meet my eye but I’m only one face amongst the hundreds.

Eventually I witness several young students dragged into detention vans to be shepherded to the nearest police station. Phones are snatched midway through filming by police dragging boys by their collars and roughing women up. I’m quick to get up—I’m scared I could be harmed or dragged into a police-station or have a record, maybe a lawsuit, against me. My head teems with all that could possibly go wrong—I am scared and I am ashamed. At the sidelines, a policeman catches up with me and asks me to vacate the premises. I yell at him incoherently about the violence. My head buzzes with a strange kind of adrenaline; if this is happening in Bombay, what is it like in Delhi?

Growing up, the religious divide was a distant rhetoric for me, emanating faintly as if from a badly tuned radio, but it permeated my psyche nonetheless. I knew I had to fold my palms and do my namasteys to Ma’s side of the family, and cup my hand and offer salaams to Abba’s side. Little rituals put in place to appease two sides that had bristled initially at the union. As a child, it was hard to pick up the accusations in certain words or the connotations of my dark skin and my Arabic name. Family albums from my first birthday have the words laid out in frosting—Happy Birthday Mehak. I don’t remember being called Mehak. All I remember is answering to Ayesha by Abba and ‘Gudiya’ by Ma and her family. I didn’t understand the duality I was expected to carry within me, but children do have a way of subconsciously imbibing the moods, intonations and expectations of their elders. And so I adapted, partly to survive and partly to gain validation and acceptance, the absence of which had haunted my parents.

On visits to the local tailor, Qureshi uncle, I would bow my hand in a perfect salaam and refer to Ma as Zeba—the name given to her by Abba’s family to signify the birth of an identity they’d find acceptable. But everywhere else—in the posh confines of art and theatre institutes, of elite private schools, of South Delhi parties—Ma went by her maiden name, Rima. There, we could bask in the glow of being inter-faith, of having a pluralistic identity. Sequestered in the safe havens of my nuclear family and class privilege, I didn’t quite register the conspicuous lack of Muslims in my class or peer group, or even the books or the films I consumed. But since religion was considered a private affair in my household, I didn’t pay it much attention.

“…people who’ve been largely silent on the issue, saying “I can’t believe it. This is not what I voted for”. ”

The walls of our homes weren’t adorned with ayatul kursis or idols of Ganesha. Ma would chant the occasional gayatri mantra and Abba would offer the occasional namaaz but each festival, Eid or Diwali, was celebrated with equal pomp and grandeur. Slight fissures would appear on occasion, like when my Nana would call me ‘Gudiya’ publicly in a bid to establish rapport with his Hindu colleagues or some of his lackeys dismissed a plumber’s shoddy work as “rehne do, Muhammadan hai” (Leave it be, they’re Muslim). But judging what has transpired in the last few months, these seemingly insignificant details take on a new meaning.

I don’t follow a belief system, nor do I believe in a singular God, so I’m not sure who to turn to. I use a friend’s phone to turn to the boy I’ve been dating and he comes through to pick me up. I immediately check his phone, and see that although a huge group of people have assembled outside the Delhi Chief Minister’s home, there is no sign of the newly elected, apparently secular CM. The violence seems to be continuing in the neighbourhoods of Northeast Delhi. I see tweets from the kinds of people I’ve humoured in the past, people who’ve been largely silent on the issue, saying “I can’t believe it. This is not what I voted for”. But this is precisely what they voted for. When I get similar texts over the next few days, I’m not sure how exactly to argue with them.

As a child, I’d only heard of the horrors of the Sikh riots of 1984, of Bombay in 1992, or Godhra in 2002. I didn’t think I would live through another such occurrence but here I am, trying to estimate the loss of life, the families torn apart, the magnitude of information and data suppressed. I remember lounging on carpets at family gatherings in Noida with the incidents of 2002 playing out in conversations between the adults. I was only ten years old but I do remember the casual way in which Abba dropped the words ‘civil war.’ At that point, the idea seemed absurd—I felt we had a perfectly normal life.

For a man who didn’t come from money or a fancy education, Abba did what he could to the best of his abilities. He had me attend one of the best schools in Delhi, accompanied me to 6 AM badminton classes in the biting Delhi winter, helped me with biology diagrams and geography maps. I also remember Ma’s impatience with my inability at fractions with a pencil poked right into my hand, or her insistence that I master ‘Wren & Martin’s High School Grammar’. For her, perfect English was the key to cracking the Indian middle class.

But I didn’t register the subtle mockery of Abba’s rusty, distinctly UP English at family friends’ homes. And it’s only now that I notice how my parents’ ostensible secularism was much appreciated in certain upper-crust circles, while Azhar chachu—Ma’s AMU batchmate with a well-groomed beard and Urdu colloquialisms—wasn’t extended the same glow of approval. Nor were his wife who wore a hijab and three kids who attended the local madrassa for after-school Quran classes. I loved visiting them and felt the closeness between our families between plates of mutton biryani and haleem.

The drawing room chatter at Pramita Aunty’s house appeared just as normal—adults drinking beer and cussing the government’s rising military budgets, incompetent flood management in Rajasthan, and the release of Bal Thackeray hours after his arrest. Meanwhile, their son and I co-wrote rap songs in his bedroom about defiance or children standing up to their parents and recited them with fervour over dessert to a smattering of applause. From our modest two-bedroom apartment in an upcoming part of New Delhi, with our education, privilege and aspirations to social mobility, I was cushioned from the possibility of things going wrong.

Don’t go to the police station if you don’t hear from me in about six hours. Don’t tell Ammi and Abbu. Just ring my editor. Here’s the number…Love you. I don’t see Nasreen’s message till 6 AM when my phone is charged. I frantically dial her number, only to have her mother answer that she is back home safe and asleep. She tells me how Nasreen had lost her colleagues and cameraman, how a local resident helped her get back home as goons surrounded the area and barricaded it from the press. The cameraman suffered a head injury and Nasreen was in shock. I stay silent. Words feel entirely trite and hollow. The worst I’d experienced was tonight. Am I really allowed an opinion when I trickle into a bar near Gateway after protests with similarly liberal friends for a bottle of wine the waiter insists is too expensive for me, while Nasreen was on the ground, doing the work? What meaning did my despair really have?

“If I have to live as a second-class citizen, I’d rather do that in my own country,”

 In 2001, Abba moved to London for work. He’d never had much of a ‘service industry bone’ in him and after navigating through several small-scale businesses in New Delhi wanted to try his luck overseas, at his older brother’s civil engineering firm. Abba hated London—it reminded him of his broken English, how misplaced was the colour of his skin, the fact his name that could stir shit up if he was found in the wrong neighbourhood. “If I have to live as a second-class citizen, I’d rather do that in my own country,” he would often say wistfully.

Ma was a strict disciplinarian and my childhood away from Abba was marked with an opaque yearning for him and resentment towards Ma’s long hours at work and a cycle of governesses. I soon found myself revelling in small rebellions like bunking the double math period or barricading roads with rocks for an empty stretch to cycle on. I developed mysterious fevers that left the family doctor stumped until he pinned it down to Abba’s absence. In 2003, Ma decided that the family should be together, and we moved to Dubai. I experienced growing up in a country where being Muslim wasn’t something that needed to be hidden or downplayed. My class was mostly populated with Muslim kids, from Syria, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq. Boundaries were beginning to be blurred.

I sleep fitfully and wake up to ten missed calls from Ma. I call her back groggy, one eye back on Twitter. With the break of dawn, the mob of men armed with home-made pistols, petrol bombs, wooden sticks and knives have retreated, leaving a trail of unbelievable destruction behind. There are rumours that the violence will recur at sunset tonight. I’m not sure I can do anything except be glued to social media. Ma is livid with my online activity. “Why can’t you post anything positive? What’s the point of further inciting hatred?”

How could she sit so comfortably when a community into which she was married was being assaulted in broad daylight? “Well, I mean, they’ve had the chakka jam on for so long…Why disrupt the daily life of civilians?” The entire community was reduced to “inconveniencing” people simply going to work, picking up their coffees, with their Audis unable to navigate throngs of women who were demanding their right to exist. Ma proclaimed she watches ‘all the news channels’ because that’s the only way she can have an objective point of view, that she isn’t partisan. I am unsure of what to say, not just because I’m angry but because I’m perplexed. Surely, my smart, educated, empathetic mother cannot believe this?

“Nothing about dying bodies, missing children and men, women cowering in fear of assault and rape.”

I tune into mainstream news channels—there is no coverage of the riots; only of inconvenience from the chakka jam, of 83-year-old women purportedly paid by the opposition to protest, about food stalls organized with impeccable efficiency attacked in the dead of night. Nothing about dying bodies, missing children and men, women cowering in fear of assault and rape. Even channels believed to be more ‘objective’, reported the incidents as ‘riots’, not pogroms. The language of loss barely distilled into catchy headlines.

I don’t remember facing any particular religious slurs as a child. Had I blanked them out, or had something changed? I do remember my parents’ often relentless fights, and being caught in the ugly cross-hairs. I remember their slow and nasty descent into calling out each other’s families, the prejudice of others and the lack of validation becoming sharp swords. I remember being dragged out of my room at eight or nine to witness a yelling match, their rage fueled by errant remarks hurled habitually by either side of the family. “Baniye hote hi kanjoos hai,” (Baniyas are inherently miserly); “Muslims are intrinsically an unhygienic people.”

As a young child, the only child, it was confusing and deeply upsetting. I wondered who equips them with the language to so surely and deeply hurt? To cast their partner’s identity aside by way of a slur, by ‘otherising them to preserve one’s sense of self. Is it behaviour learnt from the news blaring on our television channels? Is it picked up in school when boys rip your pants down to check whether you’re circumcised? Or at home where your grandmother keeps a separate set of utensils for people from any other community, religion, or caste different from yours? It’s easy to reflect on these questions today, as a twenty-something with privilege, access and education but as a child, I simply mimicked these behaviours and carried them to classrooms, workplaces and close relationships.

Later that morning, I receive a call from Abba, who had so far been supporting my attendance in the protests, assuaging Ma’s worry with diplomacy—“Let the young do what they need to.” He now gives me a ten-month window to leave the country. “Come to Dubai,” he says. He cannot live in constant fear that something might happen to his daughter on account of her name. I can sense the stress and worry beneath his decisive tone. He forbids me from protests or posting anything online. I nod along, buying time but unsure if I’ll abide by his requests.

Leave the country and go where? I came back to India to build a life, to connect to an illusionary idea of ‘roots’ only to be reminded that I don’t belong here. It’s cowardly to leave. But it’s also probably the only sensible course of action. It felt good in Dubai to not stick out like a sore thumb, to not flinch inwardly, to see a woman in a hijab on the road and not look at her twice, to collect in small throngs, drink suleymani tea and tune in and out of snatches of polite Arabic.

However, it’s only as an adult that I realized how Dubai’s divides are sharp and unforgiving. Segregated into ‘white’ and ‘brown’ Dubai, separated by an architectural marvel that cost 230 Million USD—the world’s largest photo frame for one settlement to look into the other. Vast desert land hastily converted into dusty parking lots, low-rise buildings with first-generation immigrants running one-dirham shops, service centres for Android phones, shawarma stalls, Keralite waxing ladies, Indonesian street vendors, Balochistani cabbies. Dubai maintains a veneer of friendly dictatorship, but you don’t want to stray from the norms. Pay scales are determined by one’s passport, abortions are banned, two men or two women can’t be seen in love. The media is entirely government-sponsored. The dress code is part of criminal law; apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Dubai’s underground culture is outdone by its materialism and shiny exterior. The contours of life have taken on truly excessive and absurd proportions—like the muzzled cheetah in the bathroom of the Sheikh’s wildlife controller. But if I could just close my eyes, align with my Muslim side and play by all the rules, Dubai would open up to me like a pearl in an oyster…

On coming back to India after my Masters four years ago, I took a train from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh for an assignment. Production had me travelling alone in the first AC compartment, a coup with two berths. On my way in, I spotted a slew of men in orange kurtas and red tikas; I immediately tried to make myself shrink, become almost invisible. Passing through smaller towns and villages, I noticed an increase in saffron flags marking some homes. The berth across mine was soon occupied by a genteel-looking man with shrewd eyes, a rotund belly bursting at the seams of his tight khaadi kurta, and donning a red tika. A beefy security guard stood outside in the doorway. The man took the seat in front of me and smiled ominously with nicotine-stained teeth. I buried my nose deeper in my book and tried to ignore the nameless fear in my belly. In a style true to prying Indian uncles, he asked about the book, where I was going, who I was meeting, what I did for a living… I answered with a mix of sincerity and desperation, one eye on the bell taped to the wall which could summon an attendant in seconds. Was I being too paranoid?

“I hesitated before telling him—Ayesha. I saw the light shift in the pupils of his eyes. His curiosity had turned into cold, hard detachment.”

Soon, he revealed he was a Member of Parliament from Jabalpur. He seemed to take an inordinate interest in my journalistic duties and wanted to know my affiliations. I tried dodging his questions by confirming I worked with an international channel and reported only on cultural affairs. He registered my evasion with distaste and asked my name. I hesitated before telling him—Ayesha. I saw the light shift in the pupils of his eyes. His curiosity had turned into cold, hard detachment. He asked if he could see any identification. I dug into my bag, making mental calculations about the different ways this could play out, and finally handed him my press ID. He studied it for a moment before returning it with a wry smile. I realised I’d begun to tremble a bit so I excused myself for the washroom.

In the cold steel bathroom with the plastic curtain and the open pit to the gurgling ground underneath, I splashed water on my face and tried to assess the possibilities. My phone barely had any signal reception. I returned to the cabin to find the MP had moved on to a different berth, replaced by a mother and child. I was too relieved to question what had transpired and settled back into my seat.

“It’s only now, after almost two decades, that I look back and can feel Abba’s humiliation. ”

Being cocooned in the nicer parts of Delhi and Mumbai offered me an illusion of security, of comfort in hobnobbing with the well-heeled, a kind of secure anonymity amidst millions. I had only once or twice been refused as a tenant in because of my surname, or food delivery drivers had refused service when I was visiting a relative on the other side of the Yamuna. I had only once been taken aside by an immigration officer at Delhi airport for a longer interrogation before being allowed to re-enter my country after an assignment in Beirut. It was only one ex-boyfriend whose mother had jokingly asked him not to take our relationship too seriously, since Muslims were fundamentally different. As a child, I didn’t catch on to the subtle display of power my Nanaji would indulge in by politely showing Abba his economic place or what his education could afford him. It’s only now, after almost two decades, that I look back and can feel Abba’s humiliation.

I finally get a FaceTime call from Nasreen. I tell her how, for the first time ever, I bolted my door last night. She tells me about the crazy three days she’s had, about visiting shelters for the victims of violence, about journalists being shut out, about her fear, about the police being in on everything, about the power tussles between the Chief Minister and the Centre, about failing democracy and social media and right-wing power. She looks exhausted. I’m unsure of what to say. We’re separated by a screen, yet somehow connected.

The protests carry on but my flatmate convinces me to attend a small gathering at a friend’s house. Over dinner, we are joined by my friend’s father. He refills our wine glasses, whiskey for himself, as he talks about how life has been difficult since the protest, and how his colleague’s son is throwing a lavish wedding in Srinagar. His wife clarifies that he won’t be attending for security reasons. Considerably drunk, he recounts his youthful days when he dated Parveen Babi briefly and what a sad fate she had suffered. Somebody plays some insipid ghazals. I can feel myself withdrawing and reflecting on the impossibility of happiness amidst so much suffering.

Alina Gufran’s writing spans the genres of screenwriting, non-fiction and fiction. She is an alumna of the 2019 Dum Pukht Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared in Anti Heroin Chic Mag, Out Of Print Magazine, Himal Southasian, The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, Helter Skelter, The Swaddle and Livemint amongst others. This story is an excerpt from her debut novel.
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