Bombay, January 1993
Dear Mr Advani,
How’s life treating you? I don’t expect a reply, but one asks these things.
Over here, it’s been a little grim. But you know that. At least I hope you do.
I have this theory that it has something to do with the full moon.
In December, in the city that never sleeps, a perfectly round, silver disc illuminated deserted city streets. It didn’t discriminate. It lit Mohammed Ali Road as brightly as it did Shivaji Park. Indoors, people peeked out of their windows and watched the BBC. Those with phones stayed near them. Those who didn’t even have homes just shrank further into the shadows.
And all of us, wherever we lived, when we talked, we whispered.
As the moon waned, calm returned to the surface. But just beneath, something dark and ugly lurked. Unseen, nameless, but tangible. A tension, a fear, a something in the air. So thick it could be cut with a knife. Or a bullet.
Then someone lit a match.
And the melting pot boiled over. Once more the full moon bore unbiased witness. It was one of the very few impartial things that happened to Bombay that week.
Scientists have linked some facets of animal behaviour to the phases of the moon. Some human behaviour too, or so I remember reading. Me, I’m going to tread very warily come the next full moon.
When I take a local train home late at night and I’m feeling brave enough to keep the metal shutters up, things are very different. For one, the trains are empty. And the city is much brighter these days. First flames pushed back the darkness. They’ve died down now, though the embers still glow in our minds. And the huts that lined the tracks, they’re different too. Where just a few stray beams struggled to escape the squalor, there are 100 watt bulbs, even halogen lamps, like the ones that light the stage in a political rally. They push back the shadows of fear, and like spotlights, they pick out in high relief the faces of frightened men, young and old. Men who are taking it in turns to sleep. As their shifts end, they pass on the sticks with which they guard their meagre possessions and their lives, like batons in some macabre relay.
Some places are still dark though. Homes stood there once. Made of plastic sheets, flattened tin cans, pieces of thermacol, packing crates, but people lived in them, worked in them, procreated and died in them. Now there’s just rubble and ash. And some illusions someone left behind.
I may have misled you earlier. Not all trains are empty. Some are very full indeed. The one going out of town. For what must be the first time in centuries, more people are leaving this island city than are coming in. Most don’t ever want to return. More Bombay’s loss than theirs. The city of dreams has become a nightmare.
There are these signs out, sanctified by the likeness of a deity at the top, warning people not to buy things from traders with other religious affiliations. And some quasi-criminals, in a glorious display of impartiality, are demanding - and getting - protection money from every community.
This is just an aside: once bearded chins are now bare. Just to avoid any cases of mistaken identity.
Besides these little things, we’re back to a semblance of normalcy. You see, in this city, no matter what god we worship or placate, we all have another one in common. The Rupee.
So we bustle and we hustle, turning paving stones to gold. But there’s a difference.
We jump at loud sounds. We scan what we can see of the sky for smoke. We peer at other people’s newspapers to confirm the things we see in ours. We watch what we’re saying, and to whom. And you know, what’s most unusual of all is that I haven’t heard a single joke about all this. We used to laugh at everything once.
We’re not free anymore.
Except for about about 700 of us (the official figure).
So happy new year, Mr Advani. Sorry that this is a little late, but you see we’ve been having a few problems here. I’m sure you’ll understand.
We wish you a peaceful new year. Sleep well each night. If you can.