Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
RIOTS AND DUETS
I enter my dead grandfather’s garden from the back gate, burdened with my school bag and the rumor that the “other” community has poisoned the city’s water reservoirs. Tonight they will strike my neighborhood, invoke Allah’s name and hack us with machetes, maim us with acid bulbs and soda bottles and kill us with country-made weapons.
I drop my school bag at the base of my favorite guava tree, but find it harder to shrug off the implications of the information I carry in my head as I shimmy up its smooth, beige-barked limbs to sit on the upper branches to think. I need a plan.
It is September 1982 and Hindu-Muslim riots have flared in Meerut, the sleepy, fat-cat satellite city of New Delhi, in India’s rural sugarcane-growing, sugar-producing belt. But Meerut is known more for its wildfire communal riots, than anything else. It has been the breeding ground for countless protests, killings, riots and deaths beginning from 1857, when a young, fierce-eyed soldier in the British Army named Mangal Pandey famously rebelled, right here, triggering what the British called The Sepoy Mutiny and our history books now call The First War of Indian Independence. Mutiny, war, I think it really depends on which side you are looking at it from, and whose perspective, the British, or the Indian.
I told Sister Aloysia so in class last month, and I thought that it was very clever of me to work that out on my own, given that I’m the youngest in my class. I had hoped to begin a thought-provoking discussion to enliven her history lesson. But I don’t think she appreciated my viewpoint at all - she just pursed her lips together and looked at me with those lash-less eyes, her moustache quivering with unspoken criticism. For the rest of that lesson, I could feel her coal-black eyes smouldering at me from behind her thick, black-rimmed glasses that always magnify her pupils so enormously.
We’ve just finished studying that period known as the British Raj in our Indian History unit this past monsoon quarter, and it was easy to imagine soldiers in red coats with gold tassels, running amok through heavy sheets of rain. But now, my thoughts keep coming back to what will happen tonight, when there are no uniforms and no soldiers, when it is neighbors running amok in narrow alleyways – people who have lived peacefully across from each other for years, but will find enough hatred in their hearts to turn against one another with acid bulbs and rocks. I wonder what that will be like. How is one supposed to behave during a riot?
And how will my family respond to the rioting, will we throw soda bottles back? Will my wise and circumspect father, god-fearing and passionate about justice and equality stoop to that level to protect his own? The thought of my raga-humming, fun-loving mother being hit on the head by a rock or a soda bottle, or worse, lobbing stones back, trying to protect me is horrifying, and I shift uneasily on my guava tree perch.
I know Sister Aloysia has been watching me reprovingly for days now. I know it was she who asked Sister Mercedes, who fancies herself as the local psychologist, to sit with me one afternoon, rub my hands between her papery palms and ask me sighingly if there was anything I wanted to talk about.
Yeah, right. Her wimple would just about fall off if I really told her what I feel like so every so often these days. Full of something I can’t name, or even define, a tight feeling of anger that just burns against my ribs, my chest, but won’t come out, like the lime-green phlegm that rotted to grey in my grandmother’s chest, and eventually killed her. I could shock that sorrowful look off her button-black eyes, if I told her that I hate God, mine, hers, anyone’s, that I can’t bear her wistful recriminations or Sister Aloysia’s pursed lips, that I can feel Sister Therese’s puzzled, questioning gaze between my shoulder blades as I walk past her, avoiding her eyes. Where is our old Mira, their unsaid words dance around me as I try to sidestep them, to avoid knocking into their unspoken reproach.
So what if I used to top every subject, and now I can barely finish my class work - I really don’t care. I should say that out aloud. That would certainly shock them all.
I try not to think about it, but what is the point of working so hard, learning and knowing more than yesterday, if tomorrow I am going to be beheaded by that nice neighbor across the street, whose house I have gone to for every Id festival for the tastiest sevian. His daughter and I play every day under the shade of the mango trees on our street, and two summers ago, we married our dolls to each other, without checking caste or religion. Now that she is older, she has to wear a veil, and we don’t get to meet that often. Sometimes I can walk right past her without even recognizing her.
I don’t want to think about tonight, but everywhere I go, the rumors follow me. It has been this way for days now, everyday a new, ugly rumor. The riots have reached city outskirts, but so far, the violence has been sporadic and curbed quickly, I’ve heard Papa tell our relatives and friends who have been calling from other cities and countries to check if we’re fine. Yes, we’re fine, just grappling with fresh rumors that seep through every new morning, putrefying the day, before it has even begun. Most end up being completely false, and now I’ve learnt to sift through them. But this one, I know is true. I read it in Amanullah’s eyes when he picked us up from school. Amanullah. My daily rickshaw-puller, straight-backed and soft-spoken, who is contracted to pick me up and drop me back from school every weekday, and who hasn’t missed a single day in the past two years.
I don’t know what the fresh trigger for this planned attack is, but I know that if my mom hears about the water reservoir poisoning and tonight, she won’t let me go for the meeting this evening at the teenage music club that has taken me months to get her to allow me to join, and I won’t get to meet that boy with the soulful brown eyes and the chocolate-fudge voice and sing the latest Abba songs in duets with him. He has the straightest nose I have ever seen and the intimate look in his eyes makes my 14-year old heart throb uncertainly. I don’t care if his face has acne scars, or that my best friend finds him too thin or greasy-looking - his honey-warm voice can take me places that I didn’t know existed, and to me, he is beautiful. I don’t know his name yet, but I plan to find out this evening. And so, I still need a plan to keep all these latest rumors from getting to my mother.
The guavas are not ripe yet, but I munch on a tart, green one anyway as I think. A brown-striped squirrel chatters angrily at me, but there are enough for both of us, so I turn my back at its offended outrage and begin to hum “Chiquitita,” which I have practiced this whole month to sing with his butter-smooth voice. “Chiquitita tell me whats wrong…You’re enchained by your own sorrow…in your eyes, there is no hope for tomorrow,” I croon to myself and the squirrel finally quietens, I hope, in appreciation.
I think of his magical voice as I sing softly.. But when I close my eyes and try to picture his almond-eyes smiling warmly at me as we sing together, all I can see instead are the fear-filled eyes of Amanullah. I forget the words of the song in mid-lyric, and remember instead the guarded look today in Sister Aloysia’s eyes at morning Assembly, and how Sister Therese locked the school gate very carefully in the afternoon when the last child clambered on to the rickshaw that would take her home.
I was that last child, one of eight children of ages varying from nine to thirteen who sat, hung, perched, straddled or stood in various precarious positions on the wood-and-metal three-seater rickshaw push-pedalled by the sinewy muscles and toil of Amanullah. I think it was then that I started believing the rumors – why, if even the nuns in their sequestered cloister of my convent school knew, this time they must be true.
Amanullah had pedaled faster than usual today, his ragged shirt fluttering in the breeze like a white dove all the way home, even as his eyes flickered nervously over his shoulders at every traffic light. When he told me outside my gate to inform my mother that he wouldn’t be coming for the next couple of days, I knew he knew what I’d heard.
I try not to imagine how a riot would feel. Will we all die horrible deaths? Or will it just destroy a few houses and the trust among our neighbors, Muslims and Hindus whose parents had known each other for decades and whose grandparents, freedom fighters, idealists, probably fought alongside each other to gain independence from British colonizers in 1947?
For my family, it is a little different. In some sense we are outsiders – here temporarily only because of my dad’s posting, a random event that occurs every few years and catapults us into any state in the entire country as part of his government job as an administrator. This time, two years ago, when the dice rolled for Meerut, my father looked worried – the city’s reputation preceded it - but my mother’s face lit up – Meerut had been her childhood home before she left as a bride, married to the serious-faced young boy she barely knew, chosen by her parents. This was her unexpected chance to live amongst her childhood memories and the real people who populated them, in the city she grew up in. She could refresh those memories, meet old neighbors and friends…and soon, the happiness she radiated at these possibilities washed away any doubts my dad had on the wisdom of such a move.
This time, instead of a modern official bungalow, we moved into my grandfather’s house in a narrow-veined, old-fashioned street of traditional homes built in the pre-independence style in the heart of the city.
The twists and flourishes in the facades of these homes always fascinated me; the curlicue concrete and stone mesh balconies, ancient spiral staircases and carved stone window screens full of mysterious shadows, so different from the contemporary government bungalows I have been used to living in. The neighborhood is equally eclectic, with faded film stars sharing walls with retired schoolteachers, Sanskrit scholars of arcane texts and Urdu shayars who write obscure, mournful verse on the meaning of life. Compared to the straight lines of the official bungalow allotted to us in a sanitized government colony populated by other decorous, deconstructed, non-religious bureaucrats, this was going to be true adventure.
For the last two years, the muezzin’s early call at dawn has been waking me every morning, clashing with the jangle of temple bells and my mother’s voice practicing Raaga Yaman or Bhairav. Her melodious voice throws those sounds the background, soothing me back into a half-sleep as she steals her daily hour of practice of Hindustani classical music before her family awakes.
I lie in bed, half-awake, and listen to all these sounds, joined together by the melodic drone of her accompanying taanpura strings and in a fragmented, vague sort of way, I remember them from brief visits over summer holidays of long ago, until we stopped coming after my grandmother’s lungs failed her and she died, alone in the house her husband had built for her.
I have never met my grandfather, but I feel his presence in the symmetry of the house, its well-ordered front and back lawns, the oval shape of drawing room in which he died years before my grandmother did, the central brick-lined courtyard where most of the nine bedrooms opened into and in the fruit trees he planted for his children to enjoy. This communal square is shaded by a few larger trees that grow close to the inner periphery of the house, and is the hub and heart of the house in the day. In the hot summer months, we lay our string cots in this same courtyard in two or three lines, depending on how many relatives are visiting, and the night air cools us to sleep, heavy with the scent of the jasmine that climbs the inner walls. Grandfather would have shuddered at the pedestal fans that my pragmatic father has added to the covered verandahs encircling the courtyard, but they are necessary to ward off the summer mosquitoes that are our only discomfort at night. By the end of October, the string cots are put away as the night air gets cooler, and we move back to our domed bedrooms. Another month now, and I will leave the cots standing up forlorn and sentinel-like against the far wall, awaiting next summer.
I’ve eaten my fourth guava, when I hear my mother call out to me and I go inside, thinking about how I’m going to get to the club meeting that evening. I still don’t have a plan, but for the rest of that afternoon, I hover close to my mother as I try every trick in the book to keep all viral information of tonight’s attack away from her. I run for each ring of the phone and doorbell and inform callers politely and untruthfully that she is “otherwise engaged,” and will return their call later.
But the thing I’ve forgotten is that as one of the senior-most bureaucrats posted in the district, my father is very likely to be among those in charge of operations to control any further rioting. For all I know, the chief of the specially-mobilized, midnight-blue uniformed riot police probably reports to him. By evening, my worst fears are confirmed, a curfew has been declared in the city, shoot-at-sight orders are in the offing.
That night I am shaken awake by my mother, whose dark, luminous eyes have an unusual sort of brittle glitter to them in the tapestry of her face. Her features are floating flat as she bends over my sleep-encrusted eyes, the gibbeous moon behind sliding into the pocket of a lone, smoky cloud. I catch a glimpse of the glimmer of pinprick starts before her night-black, jasmine-scented hair comes undone and tumbles over my face like a protective blanket, momentarily blotting out the world.
She leads me silently up higher and higher to the terrace under the navy sky and briefly, I am charmed by the night. I have never felt the quiet of a 3 am, the very texture of the night air feels different, crisper, and the sweet fragrance of the frangipani, wafting up from the garden below, sharper.
I yawn as I begin to look around, but when the shifting shadows on the terrace turn into people carrying stones, pipes, kerosene, glass bottles, shovels, sticks and other home-made weapons that the enormity of the moment expels all vestiges of sleep. I am terrified.
Everyone is talking about restless crowds forming aggressively and mutating noiselessly in quiet corners of “other” neighborhoods, arming themselves in preparation for the endless night ahead. I don’t want to hear more. I scoot away into a far corner.
A sharp tug of the wind pulls in the peculiar alcohol-sweet smell of sugarcane being processed in factories surrounding the city, but within that swirl, there is an alarmingly putrid smell of smoke, someone says, from half-burned bodies and smouldering thatched mud huts, and now it is choking me. The breeze carries the smell of smoke, kerosene of burning bodies, until I can no longer smell the frangipani from below. I hear militant cries of “Allah-o-akbar;” then, “Har-har Mahadev!”
I stick my fingers in my ears and start singing softly to myself. “Chiquitita… You’re enchained by your own sorrow…in your eyes, there is no hope for tomorrow…”
A shadow detaches itself from the group of older children standing huddled nearby and approaches me, and my heart almost stops beating. I unplug my ears the same instance his voice touches mine. That voice!
We sing duets softly in the moonlight, while all around us, the city burns.
The words of this story provide us with a magic carpet that whisks us back to India in 1982. The quotidian life of a schoolchild is contrasted with the passions of Hindu-Moslem strife in a story both affecting and realistic.