Reflections of a Refugee from Modi’s Gujarat: Reza Noorani
Guest post by REZA NOORANI
When the riots broke out in 2002 in Ahmedabad, after the burning of the Godhra coach, I was in the tenth standard. I remember listening to the news in the morning, just after which my best friend Ketan had called me and asked “Why did you guys do this?” I didn’t know how to respond to that. I think I just laughed it out and we began discussing what was happening in the city. My father took the phone away from me. I was preparing for my board exams and was just about to leave for one of the last days of school, after which we would go on a study leave. My father, who had experience with riots, told my two elder sisters and me to not go to school and stay at home that day.
That was when we stayed in the top floor of a four-story building called Kashana Flats. It was occupied by the Momin community. They had all invested in flats in the building and migrated to the US, so our whole building was empty except for four families; three on the top floor including ours, and one on the second floor. And before it was noon that day, everyone’s doors were open in the building and we were going in and out of each other’s homes talking about what would happen now and how we would prepare for it. All the women were coming to meet my mother; even the ones on the second floor who had had a mixed marriage and who rarely spoke to others in the building, were now talking to all of us. Our fathers were all talking to each other and were constantly on phone, getting all the information they could from friends and relatives around the city. And then the phone lines went off, and so did cable television, and they all became even more tense. We tried to know from Doordarshan what was happening, but it was of little use.
I remember being tensely excited too, as I had never witnessed riots, only heard about them. With everybody talking about preparing for the riots, shifting to another place, no school and the possibility of cancellation of board exams (they were postponed), there was palpable excitement that I felt with the adults just walking around all tense and sombre.
By noon, we went to our building’s terrace. The sun was high up in the sky and we squinted from atop at the dark smoke plumes rising from all sides. My friend Zain Ali and I, we counted more than fifty of them and then we just lost interest as there were newer ones going up every few minutes. There were no skyscrapers around so we could see the dim smoke plumes rising from areas as far as Juhapura and they were all shapes and sizes; big ones, thin ones, grey and dark black ones. That was the first physical image that I saw of the riots.
We stayed opposite the river Sabarmati, in an area called Paldi which was very close to Gulbarg Society, where Ehsan Jafri, a former Member of Parliament, was killed. Ours was a thin spit-like patch of an area where all Muslims lived close together near a kabrastan (a graveyard, which is perhaps why so many Muslims lived around it). Since we were also close to the river, there was also a shamshan ghat (Hindu cremation ground) very close to our home, as was the VS Government Hospital. At noon the sirens began blaring on and off through the day, of ambulances perhaps, carrying the wounded and the dying. The sirens continued until late at night.
On the other side of the river was Jamalpur, another Muslim-dominated area. At night, as all of us four families slept on the terrace and the men kept a constant look out, none of us could fall asleep for hours. More than the sirens, it was the blasts that we kept hearing, one followed by another. We couldn’t tell if these blasts were gunshots or cylinder blasts. And then there were faint noises of shouting mobs from the other side of the river.
The blasts in Jamalpur didn’t stop until the next morning, and now we could actually see groups of people running like ants as they were chased by people who looked like cops; the blue-uniformed Rapid Action Force didn’t come until much later. The mob spilled all over on the dry riverbank and was running helter-skelter. I still remember those tiny shapes running around the dusty brown riverbed.
By the next morning we were prepared. One of our neighbours, Afzal Uncle, was a very brave man. He was the kind of a person who would come out and help you in the stickiest of situations at any given time. He had a loud booming voice and an Irrfan Khan-type of a gruff personality. He was also rich by Ahmedabad’s standards, and very close to our building lived his numerous relatives. He had a very interesting family history and there were rumours of even an underworld connection somewhere. I heard that he had arranged for guns for safety. Also on the terrace, covered with tarpaulin were more than a dozen Molotov cocktails that someone had arranged; bottles filled with fuel and kerosene-soaked wicks. We would light them and throw from the terrace if a mob were to attack our building.
We, the four families that is, stayed on for another day in the building. We cooked together on the terrace and heard all sorts of rumours from all directions: pregnant women were being raped and mauled, men were being set afire alive with rubber tyres around their necks, the mob strength was at least ten thousand, the police were helping the rioters, shops were being looted and wealthy Hindu folks were making away with micro-waves, TV sets and video-games.
I remember thinking of venturing out to VS Sales and getting a video-game for myself.
We heard of Ehsan Jafri and his colony being looted and burnt and that mainly Muslim businesses were being targeted around Ahmedabad. A lot of my father’s friends, from all over the city, who had shops and businesses in Jamalpur and Kalupur and other riot-affected areas almost cried on the phone with him. He was quite tense after that.
Then in the evening, the third I think, just as we were settling in in the atmosphere of horror, the lights went out in our area. It was very quiet and within minutes we heard a mob roaring somewhere outside. It was the scariest moment for me during the riots – perhaps the scariest in my life. We felt our time had come. A huge and a very noisy wave was growing louder in our direction, but we couldn’t tell where it was coming from. We were all in our homes and the men stayed on the terrace. We were all very quiet too. We put of all the candles and torches. The noise passed soon. It was not our area that was targeted but an area just few minutes away. Our house-help lived there and we have never heard from her.
The very next morning we moved to Juhapura in the western outskirts of Ahmedabad, quite some distance away, where my grandparents stayed. My mother had had enough of living scared, and so did the other three families. They too went to places which they felt were Muslim strongholds where they could be safe. Juhapura was one such place; an impenetrable Muslim ghetto where water was scarce and smelly and sand was all around, and the flush too always ran dry.
There was Kalupur where my friend Zain Ali’s family moved, and Jamalpur where the second floor family moved. Afzal Uncle and his family stayed put with their extended brood.
I studied for my board exams at my grandfather’s home in Juhapura. Now, board exams are a really big deal in Ahemdabad. It’s tough to explain why, but students start studying tenth board-level math and science from as early as eighth standard! That’s how big a deal it is. And the exams are not held like how normal exams are, in one’s own school. Instead, centres are allocated to students which are usually at random and away from school. Mine was in a municipal school in an area called Hanumanpura which was, as its name suggests, bang opposite a Hanuman temple in a hard-core Hindu ghetto; total opposite of Juhapura which was a Muslim ghetto. My sisters often called me a white monkey, and they found it only apt that I got a centre close to the monkey god’s temple. But my parents were not amused. Because of the ruthless way that Muslims were being targeted, my father who is almost a veteran of riots (he’s seen ’69, ’83, ’85 and ’93), was dead sure they would kill me as I sat writing my exam in Hanumanpura. They talked about me taking the exams the next year instead. That was until my best friend Ketan’s dad, a Hindu, convinced them otherwise. He was a kind man, a little too short-tempered and, now that I look back, resembled Albert Einstien. He spoke to my mother on the phone and even came home and convinced her to let me appear for the boards. He told her it was a crucial time in a young boy’s life and since the riots were a few months behind us, it was okay.
Ketan’s dad would pick me up in the morning at Juhapura, which was a completely circuitous way for him, and drop me at my centre, after which he would drop his own son. The very first day after the paper and on our way back home, he started talking about Babri Masjid and asked me what should be constructed there, a temple or a mosque? I had no clue. I remember it so well, sitting on the pillion. We were at a signal and he turned back and shouted, “A public latrine!” as spit dangled from his thick salt and pepper moustache. “They should make a bloody urinal there!” he repeated, saying no place was worthy of worship when so many people were killed in its name. I thought those were the truest words ever said about it all.
After my boards, we shifted to Mumbai. Thane, to be precise. My father opted for a transfer. He was working with the trade union at Bata India Ltd. He shifted to the management side and sought a transfer and made enemies of all his trade union friends whom he knew from before I was even born. He didn’t get a position for three months and was jobless for that time as we struggled in Mumbai securing admissions and a place to live. At first we lived with an uncle at Yari Road in Andheri. Then, me and my middle sister lived with an aunt in Bandra while my eldest sister along with my parents lived for three weeks in a chawl in Thane. We finally got a flat on rent in a “future” township along Ghodbunder road, a place where leopard sightings were so common that the area’s square, or the signal where the main shops are located, was called ‘Waghbil’ meaning tiger’s den!
We fared decently in studies given our good luck, convent education and the pity that people eyed us with, being refugees from Modi’s Gujarat. My middle sister got admitted to St. Xavier’s College and Mumbai suited her well. I got admitted in R.A. Podar College which didn’t suit me too much and I became sort of a juvenile delinquent. We had a few tough initial years in Mumbai since the cost of living was so high and we were still studying, but things got stable in our third year after my elder sister completed her graduation and started working in a domestic call centre. Then my middle sister became a stewardess in an airline and things got better for us.
I have returned to Ahmedabad just twice and all my friends have been way too good. These friends are Hindus, Muslims and Christians. I’m in touch with them, and when they visit Mumbai we try and catch up, drink and talk about school and all. We’ve never discussed the riots. I missed my school reunion, my friend’s wedding and all my cousins’ weddings too. When my father goes to Ahmedabad, usually to attend weddings in the extended family, he brings with him the yellow-coloured Telephone brand bidi bundle, which isn’t available in Mumbai. I bum a few and smoke them. In Ahmedabad my father and uncles all used to smoke them. They remind me of those days, when Gujarat was home, a place where I grew up. Ditto with the Kapas brand matchboxes; I refill them with matchsticks and preserve them.
I harbour no bitterness. I know that there are people there, like Ketan’s dad, who will go out of their way to help save a child’s future. But I still haven’t managed to go back too often. It is not about the riots, or maybe it is.
(The writer is a journalist based in Mumbai.)
More on Gujarat from Kafila archives:
- A conversation that didn’t take place in Juhapura
- The urban-rural divide in Modi’s Gujarat
- Nivedita Menon: We remember Gujarat 2002.And we know you’re lying about development
- Rahul Verma: Gujarat vs. Himachal Pradesh
- Ayesha Khan: Of Shared Spaces and Experiences in Gujarat
- Reza Noorani: Reflections of a Refugee from Modi’s Gujarat
- RB Sreekumar: On the low morale of the Gujarat Police
- Urvish Kothari: We, the People of Gujarat
- Ayesha Khan: Three stories of resilience from Gujarat
- RB Sreekumar: Gujarat genocide – the state, law and subversion
- Zahir Janmohamed: When an April Fool’s Day joke is not funny
- Zahir Janmohamed: On Narendra Modi’s strange bedfellows in Washington DC
- Zahir Janmohamed: Sanjay and me