BOOK EXCERPT

How Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever

In this moving extract from her book, Samrat, the author describes the emotional toll that the nativist party's violence takes on both the perpetrators and their victims.

I met Manoj Surve (name changed) in the mid-1990s soon after the Shiv Sena–BJP government came to power and he began to frequent the Mantralaya in search of rewards for having participated in the riots of 1992-93. He had been part of a lynch mob that murdered an elderly Muslim during the conflagration.

Surve hailed from Goregaon, a suburb close to Jogeshwari, where the worst kind of killings had taken place at the Radhabai chawl during the second spell of violence in January 1993. He belonged to a family that had grown up worshipping Bal Thackeray: the Sena chief’s every word was treated as gospel truth, his every wish a command.

Saamna was the staple read in the family though they never had the good fortune to meet Thackeray in person. When they read the paper each morning and digested Thackeray’s incendiary articles, they were convinced that Muslims in the city had grown too arrogant by far and deserved all that was coming to them.

In his younger days, Surve used to be sent by his mother to the baker’s stall down the street every morning for pau (bread) and eggs. Some evenings, when families in the building had substantial orders, the man Surve called ‘chacha’ would come around, riding his bicycle with his box of kharas (fluffy crackers), buns, biscuits and other goodies to deliver at their doorsteps.

Chacha, who was a permanent fixture in Surve’s life, felt so safe among his regular customers that he decided to deliver supplies to their homes even during the riots, knowing that shops were shut and his regular customers might have to go without bread or milk for days on end. It is a testimony to the level of indoctrination among children belonging to Maharashtrian families supporting the Shiv Sena at the time that Surve soon found himself in a gang of youngsters actively rioting on the streets.

When Chacha, whom they had all known since their childhood, came around to deliver eggs and pau to their homes, they knocked him off his bicycle and set him on fire. Surve was on the fringes of that crowd but he did little to save the harmless old man, who had done nothing but good to them over the years.

Five years later, Surve was still unable to get over the fact that he had never seen a human being burn before that incident. He had not been able to sleep ever since, he said. But when the Shiv Sena came to power in alliance with the BJP three years later in 1995, hope rose in Surve’s heart along with that of other boys. They believed it was they who had brought about the Sena’s ascension to power by frightening Muslims into not voting for the Congress and they were sure their party, now in power, would duly recognise their contribution to that victory.

But though Surve and his friends had been doing the rounds of Mantralaya for weeks, they did not get even a look-in at Chief Minister Manohar Joshi’s office. Every time they tried to approach the chief minister, he would pack them off to Matoshree for a letter from Bal Thackeray. "I will not act upon any request until I have sanction from my leader to do so," he would say.

Matoshree, however, was almost like a fortress and more out of reach than even Mantralaya. No one there recognised Surve or his friends; they were sent to the local shakha pramukh, or branch head, for a recommendation, but the local leader neither knew them nor had the time for any of the boys who thought they had made a major contribution to the Sena’s fortunes by acting on Thackeray’s directives.

Surve noticed that I was frequenting Matoshree those days for a series of interviews with the Sena leader and got into a conversation with me. After a little prodding and probing, he spilled out his story and then said: "Madam, you seem to have pretty easy access to Balasaheb. Next time you are at Matoshree, will you do me a favour?" I was startled.

"What can I possibly do?" I asked. "The next time you see him, will you please give him my name and tell him that I asked if it was all worth it." "What do you mean?" I asked, even more flummoxed by now. "Will you please ask him if it was worth killing all those innocent people? What had the pauwala chacha done to me or my family except supply us with bread and eggs ever since I was a child? He was trying to make it easy for us even during the riots. Did he have to be killed only because he was a Muslim? I do not sleep easy at nights. Does Balasaheb?"

I could never have put that question to Bal Thackeray and said as much. "You come along with me the next time I have been given time for an interview. Ask him yourself." Surve was not amused. As far as I know, he never met Thackeray and stopped haunting the corridors of Mantralaya soon after that request. I lost touch with him over the years but before that, he did tell me that he had worked out his own means of assuaging his conscience and redeeming his soul.

Full of regret at not even having had the courage to testify against those he saw physically attacking the unfortunate baker and burning him alive, he launched a personal hunt for the man’s family who had vanished for a time from the vicinity. When they did return after the riots to salvage whatever they could from their home, which had been thoroughly looted and destroyed, Surve approached the local shakha pramukh for help in starting a roadside grocery stall of his own.

He then set up the teenage son of the man he had seen killed by fellow Shiv Sainiks in that stall and planted a huge flagstaff beside the stall with a Sena standard flying from the top. A blackboard was put up just outside, listing the ‘swastha’ (fair or cheap) prices of goods available at the stall and the blackboard carried his own name as owner and proprietor.

"But this business is all yours. You can sell your bread and eggs, milk and biscuits from here. You do not need to pay me any rent. If anyone asks, tell him you are just an employee. But the shop and the profits from it belong to you. I do not want a single paisa from it." It was his way of making peace with God – and humanity.

Mansoor Ali Khan, though, was not as lucky as the family of Surve’s victim. Or perhaps he and his family were luckier, for they escaped with their lives even if they lost all their property to loot and arson indulged in by their own friends in the comparatively upmarket area of Tardeo, where they were living at the time of the riots.

Mansoor’s family ran a hardware store a few yards from their home and Mansoor was at the time a student at a prestigious college in Churchgate. He was also the captain of his cricket team – the only Muslim in the team – many of whom were ardent fans of Bal Thackeray. They played against other clubs – the Shiv Sena, in fact, had a large following among the youth of Bombay through its sponsorship of these clubs.

Before these boys began to miss cricket practice for the maha-aartis at nearby temples (the Sena had evolved this ritual between the two spells of riots as a means of countering the Friday namaz by Muslims), Mansoor, whose family had been living in a mixed society for years without any trouble, had no idea what a slender thread his friendships with the other boys hung from.

Not all the boys were wholly brainwashed by the maha-aartis and one member of his cricket team warned Mansoor that his family had been identified and would soon be targeted. "You must leave. Tonight. I’ll hold the attackers back for a few hours. But if you are still there tomorrow morning, I won’t be able to do anything. They will kill me if they ever suspect I was trying to save your lives," his saviour told Mansoor.

"We left past midnight, leaving most of our possessions behind," says Mansoor, sitting in his living room in his new home off Duncan Road, which is exclusively a Muslim residential area, where he and his family now feel safe and protected. His mother, Nanni Begum, though, still remembers all that they lost during the riots: "I had collected the trousseaus of my daughters stitch by stitch over the years. They were all stored in boxes which we could not carry without being noticed. Each one of my daughters was of marriageable age at the time. Only I know how I put those trousseaus back together again. They looted everything before burning down the house. I was never able to recover anything – not even a pillow. We have not been compensated for anything as yet."

Mansoor is still in a state of shock at the betrayal by his friends. "We had grown up together; we went to the same schools and college. We played cricket together. But when it came to 1993, all boiled down to religion. They were Hindus and I was Muslim. Friendship was of no consequence."

He has never seen those friends-turned-foes again and has not even dared seek a meeting with the sole friend who tipped him off about the planned attack, lest he be identified as a traitor. But Mansoor thanks him at least five times a day for saving his and his family’s lives with that timely warning.

Like many other victims of the riots, he, too, appeared before the Srikrishna Commission with his story, but the family has received little for what they lost during the riots. "I grew up almost overnight. I was just a regular college guy with the usual dreams in 1992, when they brought down the mosque in Ayodhya. I had to give up everything, including my education. I had wanted to be a pilot in the Indian Air Force. I am not even a graduate today. My sisters have been settled. My brothers went to the Gulf to find work. But life has never been the same for me again."

Mansoor’s friendships are now among only those of his kind. Trust will not be easy to regain but his home is warm and welcoming so long as people come bearing goodwill and friendship. The family both thanks their luck and curses their bad fortune every day.

(This is an excerpt from chapter 16, 'Reaping the Whirlwind', from Samrat, by Sujata Anandan, published by HarperCollins India and released earlier this month.)

 

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.