“Dada, do something, please,” begged his sister, Maya.
“Something terrible might happen if we wait too long.” Suronjon knew that “doing something” was finding a place to hide. Like frightened rats that hide in a hole and then creep out when there’s nothing to fear, they too were expected to hide till things quietened down, look left and right and then crawl out when the coast was clear. Did he have to leave his home just because he was called Suronjon Datta? His father was called Sudhamoy Datta, his mother was Kironmoyee Datta, and his sister’s name was Neelanjona Datta and so, would they too be expected to leave? Would they have to take refuge in either Kemal’s home or Belal’s or Hyder’s, as they had done two years ago? Sensing danger, Kemal had come running from his home in Iskaton that morning of 30 October. “Hurry,” he had said, shaking Suronjon awake, “pack a few clothes as fast as possible. Lock your home and all of you come along, please. Don’t waste time. Let’s go, please.” They did not want for anything while they stayed at Kemal’s. In fact, they had had a wonderful time - there were bread and eggs in the morning, fish and rice in the afternoon, and in the evening there would be great times in the garden as they sat around, talking. They slept soundly at night on thick mattresses. But why did he need to seek refuge in Kemal’s house? Kemal and he were old friends and it was perfectly fine for him to spend a few days at Kemal’s with his family. But why should he be compelled to stay? Why did he need to flee his own home while Kemal did not? This country was his as much as it was Kemal’s and they should have the same rights as citizens. But why was he unable to stand proud like Kemal? Why could he not claim that he was a child of this land and that no harm should come to him?
Suronjon lay in bed and did not make any effort to get up. Maya went restlessly from room to room. She tried to explain that it would not make sense to grieve after something awful had happened. CNN was broadcasting images of the Babri Masjid being broken. Sudhamoy and Kironmoyee sat stunned before the TV. They believed that this time too, like in October 1990, Suronjon would take them to some Muslim home to hide. But Suronjon did not feel like going anywhere. He meant to stay in bed all day.
“I won’t leave my house, come what may,” Suronjon meant to tell Kemal or anyone else who came to fetch them.
It was 7 December. The day before, in the afternoon, a deep darkness had descended on the banks of the Sarayu River at Ayodhya. Kar sevaks had brought down a 400-year-old mosque. This destruction happened twenty-five minutes before the kar seva - that is, selfless service - announced by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was expected to begin. The kar sevaks worked for nearly five hours to pound the entire structure, complete with its three minarets, to dust. The top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the VHP, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal were all there when the events took place. Central security personnel, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and the Uttar Pradesh police did nothing; they stood there watching the brutal acts of the kar sevaks. The first minaret was broken in the afternoon at two forty-five, the second at four o”clock, and at four forty-five the kar sevaks brought down the third minaret too. Four kar sevaks were buried under the debris and killed as they tried to bring the structure down. More than a hundred kar sevaks were injured.
Suronjon lay in bed and looked at the morning’s papers. The banner headlines of the paper said “BABRI MASJID DESTROYED, DEVASTATED”. He had never been to Ayodhya. He had not seen the Babri Masjid. How could he have possibly seen it? He had never travelled outside his country. In his view, matters like the birthplace of Ram, and a mosque sprouting in that soil, did not bear much thinking about. He believed that the destruction of the sixteenth-century structure was not only hurtful to the Muslims of India, but that it also affected all Hindus. It had destroyed the general sense of well-being, and hurt the collective consciousness. The matter of the Babri Masjid would cause mayhem in Bangladesh too. Temples would be ground to dust, Hindu homes burnt, shops ravaged. Instigated by the BJP, the kar sevaks had broken the Babri Masjid and fattened the fundamentalists in his country. Did the BJP and the VHP and their collaborators believe that the consequences of their frenzy would be limited to their geographical boundaries? Riots between Hindus and Muslims had broken out in India. Five hundred . . . six hundred . . . a thousand people were dead. The number of dead was increasing every hour. Did the protectors of Hindu interests know that there were between 20 and 25 million Hindus in Bangladesh? Also, there were Hindus living in almost every country in West Asia. Had the Hindu fundamentalists bothered to think about the awful consequences for these people? As a political party, the BJP ought to be aware that India is not an isolated, prehistoric island. A poisonous boil generated in India will torment not only that country but spread agony all over the world - and most certainly to its neighbours.
Suronjon lay with his eyes shut.
“Will you get up or not?” asked Maya, shaking him. “Baba and Ma are depending on you.”
“You leave, if you wish,” said Suronjon, stretching himself. “I”m not taking even a step out of this house.”
“I don’t know.”
“And if something were to happen?”
“If the house is ransacked? If they burn it down?”
“And you’ll sit here, doing nothing?”
“I won’t sit, I’ll lie down.”
Suronjon lit a cigarette. He longed for a cup of tea.
Kironmoyee usually made him a cup of tea every morning but she hadn”t done so that day. He wished that someone would bring him a hot cup of tea with steam curling from it. No point in asking Maya. She was focused on escaping, and was not thinking of anything else. Her voice would surely rise a few decibels if he asked her to make some tea. Of course, he could always do it himself but he was finding it hard to shake off his lethargy. The television was on in the other room. He didn”t feeling like sitting there goggle-eyed, watching CNN.
“Dada is in bed reading the papers. He doesn’t care,” Maya shouted from the next room.
It was not as if Suronjon did not care. He was well aware that a mass of people could break down the door and rush into their home at any time, some of them familiar faces, some unknown; they would break things and steal and finally burn the house when they left. If Suronjon took his family to Kemal or Hyder”s house, he would not be turned away. However, he found the idea embarrassing.
“I’m going away alone if you don’t come along,” screamed Maya. “I’ll go to Parul’s. It doesn’t look like Dada will take us anywhere. He may not need to carry on living but I do.”
Maya had decided that for some reason Suronjon was not going to take them to hide in other people’s houses. So, she had to think of her own safety. Suronjon felt hounded by the word “safety”.
There was nothing safe about the October of 1990. A group of men had set the Dhakeshwari temple on fire. The police stood by and did nothing to stop them. The main temple burnt down, they destroyed the naatmandir - that is, the temple for the entertainment of the gods, the temple of Shiva, the guest house, and the family home of Sridam Ghosh, right next to the guest house. They destroyed the Gaudiya Math, its naatmandir, and the guest house of the math. The temple was plundered. The main temple of the Madhwa Gaudiya Math was destroyed. The Joykali temple on the other side was smashed. A room within the boundary walls of the Brahmo Samaj was bombed out of existence. The decorated throne of the gods in the Ram Sita temple was destroyed. The main chamber was destroyed as well. The math at Naya Bazar was broken. The temple at Bonogram was shattered with shovels. The seven shops at the mouth of Shakhari Bazar that belonged to Hindus were robbed, ravaged and finally burnt. Shila Bitan, Soma Traders, barbershops, shops selling tyres, laundries, Mita Marble, Saha Cabin, restaurants - nothing was left. There was devastation at the crossing of Shakhari Bazar and as far as the eye could see there were only signs of destruction. In Demra, the temple of the Shoni Akhara was robbed. Twenty-five houses were burgled by two or three hundred communal terrorists. They broke the wall of the temple of Birbhadra in Lokkhi Bazar and damaged everything inside. They set fire to the shops selling umbrellas, and the gold jewellery shops on Islampur Road. They destroyed the Moronchand sweetmeats shop on Nobabpur Road. The Moronchand at Purano Polton was damaged too. The idol in the Kali temple at Rayer Bazar was broken after it was flung to the ground. In Sutrapur, they robbed the shops that belonged to Hindus, ransacked them and then changed the Hindu shop names to Muslim names. They robbed and ravaged Ghosh and Sons, the sweet shop on Nobabpur Road, and then strung a banner of the Nobabpur Youth Union across the shopfront. The Battali temple at Thathari Bazar was broken into and ransacked. An old shop in Nobabpur called Ramdhon Poshari was looted. The sweet shop called Shuklal Mistanno Bhandar was smashed to smithereens only a few yards away from the Babu Bazar police station. They destroyed the shop and the factory of Jatin & Co., and burnt everything inside. A large portion of the historical snake temple was ground to dust and the Ratan Sarkar Market at the crossing of Sodorghat Road was burgled. Every one of these terrible broken and burnt images floated before Suronjon’s eyes. So were these riots? Could the events of 1990 be called riots? Riots mean fights - a conflict between one community and another is called a riot. But we could not call these riots - these were attacks by one community on another. Torture. Persecution.
The sun slipped through the windows and fell on Suronjon’s forehead. This was the winter sun that did not burn your skin. Suronjon lay in bed and longed for a cup of tea.
Excerpted with permission from Lajja, Taslima, Nasrin, translated from the Bengali by Anchita Ghatak, Penguin Books India
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