Shehnaz banged violently on the door. She was nineteen year old pretty young girl of slim built. Her childish face framed by black curly hair and her youthful bosom made her look innocent and lascivious at the same time. But now all she looked was afraid. Her clothes were torn at places and her face was covered with grime through which sweat and tears had drawn streaks. She desperately banged the door again and hoped it opened soon. Her pursuers could be there any moment.
Only a week ago she was a simple teenager living a normal middle class life with her parents and two siblings in the low income Muslim neighborhood of Nagpada in Mumbai. Her father Afzal worked in a grocery store and her mother Rubina took up odd tailoring jobs. The tik-tik-tik of the sewing machine was one of her favorite sounds while growing up and she used to spend hours sitting on the floor watching her mother guide the fabric under the needle, sewing, altering, patching. Then one day everything changed. On 6th December 1992 Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, and a thousand miles away Mumbai was thrown into a hell storm of riots. The Hindus and Muslims burned homes, killed people and rioted on the streets. The badmashes (vagabonds) and gundas (ruffians) from the city took the opportunity to loot the shops and rape innocent girls. Everyone lived in constant fear. Then one day in early January rioters came to her locality.
Her brother had wanted to be a cricketer and play for the national team. She had once seen him play when her father had taken all of them to his school match; she thought he played pretty well. When India was playing, the three siblings used to go to uncle Ibrahim’s place to watch the match. Uncle Ibrahim’s flat was the only one with a TV set in the entire Rashid Ali Building. All the kids in the building gathered in his flat whenever there was a cricket match. Though he allowed kids from the building sit in his flat for hours watching cricket, he was far from a jolly old man whom all the kids would adore. He was a bitter man, grumbling about almost everything in life. After seeing good days as a bank clerk he had retired to emptiness, lost his wife years ago to cancer and his only son had got into bad company and left home to pursue a criminal career. Life had really been harsh on him. Maybe he had not been like this always, Shehnaz had wondered. He kept bickering about old age, about kids ruining his Sundays for cricket matches, about non-functioning Government and about how Muslims were ill treated in the country.
“These Hindu bureaucrats would never let you play for the national side.” he had told Shehnaz’s brother Rahim.
Shehnaz and her siblings had been brought up in a very tolerant environment by their parents. Her father had insisted on sending them to a cosmopolitan school in Byculla though it was costlier than the Muslim school in Nagpada and caused a considerable strain on their feeble family budget. All the siblings had Hindu and Christian friends. And Rahim or Shehnaz were not going to fall prey to divisive rantings. Once her father had even asked uncle Ibrahim to refrain from saying such instiguous things in front of young children of the building, especially in front of his children. The request actually had looked like a warning. But Shehnaz had hoped that this would not make uncle Ibrahim change his mind about allowing children to watch TV in his flat.
“The atmosphere is not good I tell you,” uncle Ibrahim had warned her father, “I have heard that the Hindus are stocking up kerosene and petrol and also hiding talwars (swords) in their homes.”
“Ibrahim bhai you can’t live with such mistrust.” Her father had reasoned, “ The Hindus are nice people. Many Hindus come regularly to the grocery shop and are very amicable to me. Even Rubina gets a lot of tailoring work from the Hindus.”
“See you have sold yourself to these Hindus. The day you turn your back to them they will stab you in your back.” Uncle Ibrahim was unconvinced.
Her father had let it be as he thought it worthless to argue any further. But now it seemed uncle Ibrahim had been right. The mob that entered her locality set buildings on fire and smoked the occupants out to be butchered on the streets in broad daylight.
“If the mob comes up the stairs and breaks into our house we will be cornered and have nowhere to escape. Then Allah knows what our fate will be.” Shehnaz’s father had declared. “We have to make an attempt to escape.”
“ There is lot of confusion in the streets,” he said, “if we can escape unnoticed to the side alley and make it to the main road we can escape this mob and make our way to Byculla railway station. Maybe we can go to aunt Bano’s place in Kurla. I heard its safer there.”
“I had told you,” her mother reciprocated; face contorted with fear and anger, “we should have moved to Kurla last week itself but you won’t listen. Ya Allah how do we escape now with a young daughter in the tow. Our honor is at stake with our lives.”
They sneaked out of their house into the street holding each others hands and trod unnoticed for a while till Lakhan saw them. Lakhan was a loafer who loitered in the streets of their neighborhood. He always had a bad eye on Shehnaz. He whistled whenever she passed him on her way to college or back and made lewd remarks. Once he had held her by elbow and with a sneer whispered in her ear that soon he would make love to her on the street while everyone watched from their balconies. She had run home in tears.
“Hey look that Muslim family is escaping.” Lakhan cried out to his looting peers, “and that’s my prey. Come on lads get her for me and I will share her with you all after I am done.”
There was a loud cheer in the group and they all ran after her family. Suddenly her brother Rahim let go her hand and ran towards the pursuers. He was determined to protect his sister, his family’s honor. She watched in horror as he was run through with a sword and fell writhing to the ground. Her father went to help him but before he could reach Rahim he was hit in the head with an iron rod. The pursuers continued towards them and her mother realizing the danger dragged her further along with her sister. While running Shehnaz realized the pursuers were after her and that her mother and sister would be in danger as long as she was with them. She felt guilty that her brother and father had died trying to protect her honor. She devised a plan. She told her mother that they all should run into the small alley a little ahead to their right and head for the main road, but the moment her mother and sister dived into the alley she jerked her hand free and ran straight and left to the road that led towards the mosque. As expected her pursuers ignored her mother and her sister and ran after her. Now she had to run with all the strength she had if she did not want to fall prey to those hungry wolves and be torn to pieces. She navigated through narrow lanes and in between the houses and managed to put some distance between herself and her hunters. But she now felt her strength giving away, and she realized that she had to find a place for hiding soon or she would collapse on the road and would be carried away by the goons to her doom. That was when she saw a green painted house with an Arabic inscription on the doorway. She ran up to it and started banging hysterically.
For long there was no response then a curtain rustled in one window to the left of the door and again everything went silent. Then suddenly the door opened, a hand grabbed her and pulled her inside. Before she turned around the door was shut and bolted. She saw scantily built Muslim lad of about 11-12 standing in front of her wearing an oversized kurta (vest) and his prayer cap. He was panting and his eyes showed alarm. She looked around in the house. It was a spartan house with one big room used as living room and bedroom and a small side room in which a kerosene stove was kept for cooking and a few utensils. A khaat (a cot made of wood and jute rope) was leaning against the far wall. As far as she could see she did not see anyone else in the house.
“Who are you?” The boy asked shaking.
“I am Shehnaz. I was being pursued by a few rascals.”
“Then why have you come here? They will come here after you and they will kill me too.” He said and started crying in whimpers.
Suddenly Shehnaz found a new strength in herself, maybe because of the roof on her head and bolted door that gave her a sense of protection or maybe by seeing this feeble lad break down helplessly.
“Shhh…” She said holding him and drawing him close to her. She held his head to her bossom and patted him. “Shh…. Don’t cry. They will all be gone soon. Allah would rescue us. What is your name?”
“Jamal.” The boy replied as he moved away from her. He went to the khaat and placed it on the floor beckoning her to sit on it.
“Where are your family members Jamaal?” She asked in a very motherly tone. Somehow Jamaal evoked the image of her late brother Rahim in her mind. Though this feeble, feminine Jamal was nothing like athletic and short tempered Rahim. Her eyes moistened again at the thought of her brother but she fought back the tears.
“My abba and ammi had gone to the grocery shop in the back lane when there was an explosion there.” Jamal said in trembling voice, “someone had hurled a grenade. Then suddenly they came. Forty or fifty of them, with talwars and daggers and sticks in their hands.”
Jamal’s eyes were animated with fear as he relived his moments of horror. “I was playing with my friends nearby. I saw my abbu and ammi shredded to pieces by that explosion. I was rooted to the ground unable to move. The cries of ‘maaro’ (kill) and ‘kaato’ (cut down) of the rioters brought me to senses. Ashfaq was nearest to them. I saw on rioter hit him in the head with a stout laathi (staff). As he was falling down another rioter caught him and cut his head off. We all ran for our lives. I was lucky I to have made it home. I have been hiding here since.”
With this he resumed his sobbing. Shehnaz moved towards him again and held him in embrace. The events of past few hours passing before her eyes. Her brother, her father killed in front of her eyes. Her thoughts drifted to her mother and sister. Where were they? Had they reached safety? Or Had they fallen into hands of those inhuman predators? She looked at Jamal. He looked tired due constant sobbing. She felt tired too. Here they were, two strangers comforting each other.
Suddenly there was a loud banging on the door. They both jumped in fright. Jamal was right. She had brought those scoundrels to his doorstep. She would be responsible for one more death.
“Jamal. Jamal open the door. Suleiman.” Someone called from outside.
Jamal got up and ran to the door. The moment he opened the door a group of 5-6 Muslim youths came in led by a man in his late forties.
“Hamid chacha.” Jamal exclaimed.
“Jamal. Where are your parents?”
“They…they were in the grocery shop when the grenade exploded.” Jamal barely finished his sentence amidst tears and burst crying.
Hamid chacha held him close and said “Ya Allah. Don’t worry Jamal we are here. You are safe inside. Don’t come out. We will be keeping watch ou….” suddenly Hamid chacha’s glance fell on Shehnaz. He looked at Jamal inquisitively. Jamal did not reply.
“Chachajaan I am Shehnaz.” She introduced herself. “I stay in the back lane, in Rashid Ali Building. We were escaping the mob when my father and brother were killed. I got separated from my mother and sister. The mob was after me. I came here seeking refuge. Jamal took me in.
“Very good my son. Very good. I am proud of you.” He said to Jamal, “in your own adversity and such great misfortune you have shown courage to help a stranger. Allah is great.”
“Come here my child,” Hamid chacha beckoned Shenaz. As she went near him he took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead and said, “I am sorry for your loss. Don’t be afraid. You two are safe here. We have volunteers outside who will patrol the neighborhood. I had spoken to Sub-Inspector Waghmare from Byculla police station. He said he will be sending a police patrol very soon. All this would be over soon. In two three days you can go home, and find your mother and sister.”
Hamid chacha went away with his followers advising Jamal to lock the door properly. Shehnaz and Jamal sat huddled inside. Listening intently. Each of them immersed in their own worlds, nurturing their own grief, yet aware of the slightest noise from outside. Many time there came a loud yelling noise which made their heart leap. Sometimes there were shattering screams. Once Shehnaz thought she heard shots being fired. For two days they sat there on the floor. Sometimes dozing off to be woken up by loud noise outside or horrifying nightmares caused by their traumatic experiences. Jamal often woke up screaming and Shehnaz held his head tightly to her bosom and calmed him down. They were too afraid to even look outside the window. Once Shehnaz dreamed of her brother Rahim. He was wearing his cricket dress, all with pads and gloves. He waved at her, then suddenly came running to her, held her by hand and dragged her on the cricket ground. The stadium was empty. He smiled again mischievously and then ran away towards the pavilion disappearing when he had gone halfway. She found herself standing alone in an empty stadium. She woke up sweating to find that Jamal was not beside her. She looked around but could not see him. She got up frantically and cried out “Jamal.” She ran to the makeshift kitchen in the side room to find him standing there.
“What are you doing here? I was so scared.” She said panting.
“I was hungry. There are no fruits either.” He said guiltily. Tears streaming from his eyes. He walked out to the main room and towards the door. He made gesture to open it but changed his mind. As Jamal turned from the door he saw Shehnaz by the stove. He went to the makeshift kitchen and sat on the floor watching her silently as she sifted through the provisions and fetched some flour. She started making rotis (flatbreads) on the rusty iron pan. Everything was silent. The roaring noise of the stove echoed in Jamal’s head. His eyes wandered from the blue flame of the stove to Shenaz’s face. A single tear rolled out of her eye onto her cheek and glinted in the light from the stove.