A news channel’s brightly lit studio is ready for an in-depth show on a breaking story. Primetime anchors Anand and Brajesh are seated about eight feet apart from each other. In the backdrop is a display panel identifying the channel – Insight Today TV. In front of them are laptops, mics and other paraphernalia typically seen in a TV studio. When the scene opens, the anchors are processing the news inputs popping up on their laptop screens. A journalist on the news desk, young and lanky, rushes in with the latest. He somehow manages to look distraught, excited and confounded all at once.

JOURNALIST [panting]: Oh my god! They’re gone?! And th-...they...they’ve taken it with them. It has disappeared. This is HUGE! The biggest news of our lives!

ANAND [sharply]: Breathe, man! [After a pause] Who’s gone?

JOURNALIST: The reporters are saying there’s not even one left in the city. Not one. All gone. Every single one...[he trails off, as if contemplating the gravity of the situation].

ANAND: Arrey! But tell us who? Where did they go? Don’t speak in riddles. There is nothing about anyone or anything disappearing on the wires.

JOURNALIST: Sir, believe me, they’re just gone, each one of them. God only knows where. It must be magic, sir, black magic!

ANAND [exasperated]: You first said “it” has gone. Now you are saying “they” have gone. A goat could have disappeared. A bride could have disappeared. Birds could have disappeared. [Raising his voice] What is gone? Who is gone? Don’t confuse us.

JOURNALIST [tongue-tied]: I don’t know how to explain...It’s just...so unbelievable. Sir, there is no one left! I mean the Muslims. Muslims have gone. Some say they have taken the Qutub Minar with them.

A second journalist, bespectacled and stout, and possibly the first one’s senior, makes an entry and joins the discussion.

SECOND JOURNALIST: Did you get any feedback on where the Muslims have gone?

FIRST JOURNALIST: No one knows. Actually, I have not been told. There is no official information.

ANAND [looks at his laptop screen]: There is some mention of it on the wires now – PTI has one take. But no details.

SECOND JOURNALIST [to the first journalist]: How do you know they are all gone? What’s your source?

FIRST JOURNALIST: One of our reporters has reliably learnt that Khalil Darzi’s shop is shut, and so are Salaru Saloon, Asghar Ali Perfumery, Mohammad Siddiq Tobacconists. All Muslim houses in Nakhas and Aminabad in Lucknow are empty. I don’t know what is happening. The Muslims and everything Muslim seem to have disappeared.

SECOND JOURNALIST [keying in a number on his mobile phone and speaking into it]: Ask our legal correspondent, Sumir Lal, to check on the courts. He must find out if the terrorism case against the Rehmani brothers is still being heard.

FIRST JOURNALIST: I have already asked Sumir...[his mobile phone beeps] Ah! He has sent a text message...[looks at his mobile] The hearing has been on since this morning.

ANAND: But you said just now that all the Muslims are gone. Then how have the courts managed to hold the brothers back? How are they still around when the others have vanished? Is your big news authentic? Or is it some nonsense picked up from WhatsApp!

BRAJESH [leaning in and finally entering the animated discussion]: See, we can’t just jump to conclusions. Perhaps all Muslims are not gone. If we generalise like this, we’d be guilty of playing up what seems to be very patchy information. We have to wait for some kind of official confirmation. Meanwhile, we can break the story on our news bulletin. I suppose we cannot ignore it completely since other channels are running it. Someone go tell Archana – she’s presenting in Studio Two I think – to slip in that rumours are gaining ground that many Muslims have gone missing from Delhi.

FIRST JOURNALIST [butting in]: Sir, look, I am not going by WhatsApp forwards, as Anandji alleges. I am going by inputs from our reporters. There is news flashing on my cell that incoming trains have no Muslim passengers. The Intelligence Bureau has also confirmed this, although I know we cannot always take their word. But this is too sensational, too fantastic. How can anyone cook up a story like this?!

ANAND: Check the courts. Get in touch with someone covering the hearings. Have Muslims with charges framed against them been prevented from er...er...disappearing? Have they been presented in court?

FIRST JOURNALIST [thinking aloud in a lighter vein]: Perhaps those who disappeared have conveniently left behind all the murderers, pickpockets, rapists, thieves – someone did some cherry-picking!

SECOND JOURNALIST [interrupting him abruptly]: This is no time for your jokes. If this is true, it’s serious, with major political implications. Call your contacts in Tihar Jail. Find out if the Muslim criminals are still in their cells.

FIRST JOURNALIST [calls Tihar Jail and puts his phone on speaker]: I am calling from Insight Today. Is that the warden?

WARDEN [on speaker phone]: Yes, sir, I recognise your voice. I’ve been flooded by calls all morning. Before I share anything, let me make it clear, this is strictly off the record. I’m telling you only because I know I can trust you, and your editor is an old friend.

FIRST JOURNALIST: Yes, sir, I understand.

WARDEN: The truth is...they’re all gone – all the Muslim convicts. Simply disappeared. They have even dug up...[ pauses] – please don’t quote me on this – the terrorist Guru’s grave. They just scooped out the earth and took away the skeleton. It’s missing.

SECOND JOURNALIST [speaking into the phone]: Warden Sahib, this is Arjun here. How can they disappear with a grave?

WARDEN: Not the grave but the skeleton. They...

The line gets cut.

ANAND: This is getting serious. Let me alert all bureaus. I have a hunch that we are going to be extremely busy for the next few days. [He keys in messages on his laptop.] Oh, before I forget, the Qutub. Is it true that it has vanished? Was it a bomb?

BRAJESH: No, I believe there was no explosion.

ANAND: Then how did such a tall monument fall?

BRAJESH: It didn’t fall...Rumours say it disappeared.

All 238 feet of it.

ANAND: What do you mean?

BRAJESH: It is simply not there.

ANAND [incredulous]: Where is it then?

BRAJESH: I don’t know. Nobody seems to know.

Rumours are flying thick and fast that the Qutub just disappeared. Apparently, one moment it was there and then it wasn’t. Some are saying that it was the work of god, others, the devil. Or was it some crazy illusionist at work? Perhaps some reporters from one of those crazy channels may have seen things while tripping on LSD!

SECOND JOURNALIST: Fine, the Qutub may come back, and its disappearance is perhaps an illusion. But how did all the Muslims vanish? Did they all go to paradise, behesht, jannat?

FIRST JOURNALIST: Some people in Intelligence suspect they may have gone to Kashmir.

SECOND JOURNALIST: But the reports say that all Muslims have left India.

FIRST JOURNALIST: But not from Kashmir.

SECOND JOURNALIST: What does that mean? Haven’t we scrapped Article 370 and withdrawn the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir? Didn’t we carve out two union territories from a Muslim-majority province? Kashmir is in India, isn’t it? [Pauses.] No, no, no. This is too much, how can an entire population just disappear? This is a dream.

FIRST JOURNALIST [raising his voice]: This is no dream. This is a nightmare! How can 200 million people just leave? And how can they even fit into Kashmir? This is surely fake news.

ANAND [interjecting]: Look, we can’t waste time debating conspiracy theories. I think the two of you must get back to the desk and ensure that we are not behind the news. But we must be careful not to jump the gun. Brajesh and I will wrap up the news and discuss the various angles after a while. It is too early for any meaningful discussion or debate.

The two journalists exit the stage.

ANAND: Brajeshji, what do you think? Is it true? Why would all the Muslims just pack up and leave?

BRAJESH [condescendingly]: Isn’t that the most obvious part of this mystery? You beat them with shoes and humiliate them; you kill them in broad daylight; you rape their mothers, daughters and sisters; you lynch them on cooked-up allegations of having killed a cow. And all this happens next door to Delhi, in Haryana. Then, the videos are played on the news all day, and you are forced to relive it over and over again. Come to think of it, the disappearance of the Muslims may prove to be a major landmark in the case for a Hindu Rashtra.

ANAND [puzzled]: The Muslims have nothing to do with this. We have never forced our beliefs on them. It is the Hindus who have suffered under foreign rule.

BRAJESH: Times have changed. This is the age of Hindu assertion. I am a liberal but believe in the values of staying true to ancient Hindu traditions.

ANAND: Are you suggesting that this was not possible while the Muslims were here?

BRAJESH: They do not know our ancient culture. How could they? It predates their arrival. Although Muslim rulers, from Akbar to the later Mughals, adored our culture. But why go into that? It is irrelevant now that the entire community has disappeared [shrugs].

Their conversation is interrupted by an office assistant, a diminutive man in his thirties, who rushes into the studio.

OFFICE ASSISTANT: I am sorry to barge in, but I was asked by the news desk to share my news with you.

ANAND: When news rains, it literally pours! [Turns to the office assistant.] What do you have for us?

OFFICE ASSISTANT: Sir, this has got to do with Rashid’s tabela, the buffalo shed, which is near my house. This morning I found it deserted. Rashid and his family have disappeared.

ANAND: Are the buffaloes still there?

OFFICE ASSISTANT: Yes, sir. The buffaloes are very much there.

ANAND: So why are you worried? Are you interested in the buffaloes or in Rashid?

OFFICE ASSISTANT: We are all worried about Rashid. Why wouldn’t we be? After all, he is a neighbour, and all our milk comes from his buffaloes. Very creamy milk, sir, pure...straight from the udder. And now he is gone.

ANAND: There is no cause for worry. You will still get the same milk. Perhaps you may even get a share of the profits made by selling the milk. The dividends from the buffaloes will now be shared by all of us.

BRAJESH [his eyes lighting up]: Anita has for a long time been dreaming of owning a farm – cows, buffaloes, poultry.

ANAND: Which Anita is this?

BRAJESH: My wife, of course. You know her.

ANAND: Oh, yes. But she can’t run a farm from a tabela!

BRAJESH: Let me call her. [Goes to one corner, calls a number on his mobile and speaks in a hushed voice. He completes the call and returns.]

ANAND [turning to Brajesh]: You sure are smart. But have you considered that down the road from Rashid’s there is a large bungalow spread over a few acres that belongs to Altaf Bhai? If these buffaloes can be transferred to that bungalow, then you will have the beginnings of a proper farm.

BRAJESH: But how do you know Altaf will no longer claim the bungalow as his?

ANAND: Well, if all Muslims are gone, then we can safely assume that Altaf’s gone too.

OFFICE ASSISTANT: Has he also disappeared, sir?

ANAND: Yes, since all Muslims have disappeared, one can safely assume Altaf has also gone. [He looks skywards with both hands raised towards the heavens, as if seeking divine intervention.] In fact, we are utter fools, if you ask me. Here we are discussing Rashid and Altaf when all Muslims, 200 million of them, are gone.

OFFICE ASSISTANT: As you said, they have disappeared, sir.

ANAND: Stop interrupting me. Yes, disappeared. Now, what about the businesses and factories they owned?

BRAJESH: Did they own that many businesses?

ANAND: Think of it: 200 million have left behind their homes, farms, land, businesses, cow sheds, buffalo sheds, all of which will be worth zillions of rupees. All of this wealth will be the dividend from a Muslim-mukt Bharat, a Muslim-free India. This is the dividend that we must divide among ourselves. It remains to be seen who gets what.

The stage light dims and fades out.

The Muslim Vanishes

Excerpted with permission from The Muslim Vanishes, Saeed Naqvi, Vintage.