Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Happy New Year Mr Advani

In 1990, Mr Advani did his famous Yatra. A few years later, an old masjid was brought down, riots convulsed Bombay twice, and the city survived a series of bomb blasts. Some things about this city changed then. And it's never been quite the same. We wrote a letter at that time, intending to send it to a newspaper. Which we never did – various people who we respected very much advised against it. And there were no blogs then. But hey, we have them now, and Mr A is setting off on another Yatra (is it a coincidence that there are assembly election around the corner? naaah..). So, as proof that though we're older, we're not wiser, we thought we'd inflict this on you. This was written post the riots, but before the blasts.

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.



Dilip D'Souza said...

You're an eloquent man, Zig. Pity Mr A has no ears, no soul, that he's just another run-of-the-mill politician.

uma said...

Post the riots, before the blasts.

What a scary time.

Those who forget history...

Thanks for this post.

Abi said...

Thank you so much for posting this brilliant piece here.

neomatrix said...

I just saw Crash. Still recovering..


zigzackly said...

Thank you. And yes. Alas.

It was grim wasn't it? I read about the the Yatra, and the first image that came to my mind was the train I was in going over a road, and below, men running, flaming torches in hand..



Anonymous said...

I saw the 1993 riots right below my house; I saw the Bombay serial blasts outside my office. Innocents died. Pseudo-intellectuals like Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi and gang got loads of publicity. Bal Thackeray is free, Sanjay Dutt is a big film star.
On the recent Mohammed cartoon issue, not a single blogger or journalist has come forward to defend free speech. Whilst in the case of the M F Husain paintings, the same publicity seeking crowd went to town arguing the case for free speech.
It is very easy to trash fanatics like Advani, Togadia and others, but no one dare speak against radical Muslims. Why? There will be a fatwa issued in no time at all.
Whne you write about the Danish cartoon issue, take on the right wing elemnts of other religions.


Wonderfully written Peter. Brings back riots of 1993 to mind which made me feel that we should all forget about religion for a while.

Please post it on caferati. It deserves to reach more people.

Anonymous said...

well said. unfortunately, still current. pls try and read today's edit piece in HT by Vir. Also Vir's Sunday edit piece.
not sure if they charge for accessing archives though.

zigzackly said...

Anony 2,
So you saw riots. So did I. Er. You saw all the serial blasts outside your office? Where did you work? Sorry. Cheap shot. But what was your point? All of Bombay lived through that. It's not exactly a qualification of some kind.
I agree with you: there isn't enough said condemning radical behaviour and terrorism in the name of Islam. But it's not factual to say that nothing has been said. You should look around more.
By the way, I think there's not enough being said about Togadia et al either. And way too much trotting out of the "Modi-Togadi-Advani are sitting ducks, why isn't anyone creating hell about Islamist extremism" argument every time someone does bring up the topic of those loonies.
Oh, and why aren't you saying anything, by the way? Start a blog. You can even do so anonymously, you know.
And by the way, you're wrong about on the recent Mohammed cartoon issue, not a single blogger or journalist has come forward to defend free speech. Many have. Once more, look around.

Thanks. Yes, p'raps I shall slip it to an unsuspecting Caferati.

Anony 3,
Alas, yes, as Uma said... Couldn't find the Sanghvi piece though. Shall ask a pal to send. And thank you.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece Zigzackly!
But I tend to agree with Anonymous in that mostly the Hindu fanatics get bashed more than their Muslim counterparts, especially in the media, print or AV. I am not saying that they dont deserve to be bashed, but there needs to be an equality of sorts in the bashing as well. Because God knows that they are both equally bad.
But what is ironic is that Hindu fanatics get bashed by Hindus as much as they do by Muslims (which again is a healthy sign of a thinking, progressive society, free speech et al or maybe there are other hidden agenda involved which may not be apparent to the common man's eye).But it makes one wonder why the Muslim fanatics do not get criticized as much by the Muslim community. We don't see too many moderate Muslims speaking out against them except for a Shabana Azmi or a couple of others.

As for me, I denounce extremism/fanaticism of all kinds be it Hindu or Muslim. I like people in he middle. The more the people get into the middle, the safer and stronger we will be as a society and as a nation.

Max Babi said...

Very eloquent, Peter, indeed. The sad part of the whole rigmarole is that rabble-rousing has come to stay in our coalition-ridden politics. When nothing succeeds, spilling blood does succeed and how...Religion seems to be losing all meaning, if theology wears political robes. Time for us to wake up... thanks for clanging the bell.

scribe said...

It's a pretty impacting piece. Very contained in its language and structure which is what I think gives it the strength of content. The sometimes rhetorical and repitative (sp?) strains work well. The tone was perfect - sometimes the seemingly understated tragedy is so eloquently hard-hitting. I wish more of us would speak out / write out ... but more than anything I keep wondering how to get this into the ears of Mr. A and the like, for isn't that who it is really intended for, or what good will it be? 7 years after the riots in Mumbai, I was counselling senior school kids in a mid-level economic strata, mixed-faith school in central Bombay. I expected all sorts of issues to come up - the first one? they wanted me to explain the riots - and they had been 7 years younger, just babies, but were still totally confused with answers or signals they received from parents/teachers/ authority. That's when I first started feeling like we had abdicated our responsibility to the next generation.
Thanks for the post. Cheers - Anita

The Wizard of Odd said...

there's a reason I believe in you, no matter the number of chins. Or any other discreet set of anything.

I wish more people could read this.

And maybe thats the biggest thing I can say to you.

Asmita said...

Very hard hitting. It doesn't feel dated. The anger and the desire to make Advani aware of the consequences of his handiwork comes forth very clearly. I wish more such passionate articles are visible highligting the need to take action to counter the selfish deeds of people in power.

Can I put a link on my blog to this entry?

Pushpendra Pandya said...

Brilliant - Thanks Man

Unknown said...

Well written Zig. Wonder what this rath-yatra is all about. Is it about the inflation? Is it about petrol prices? Is it about terrorism? One wonders.