A scream to make the dead stand on their toes... The sound came from somewhere close by. In these times…I sprang up in my bed. The sky was still studded with stars…it was, perhaps, three past midnight. Abbajan had gotten up too. The scream came again. Saifu was lying on his coarse string cot and screaming. Beds had been laid out in the courtyard from one end to the other.

Laahoulvillaquwwat…’ Abbajan muttered.

‘God knows why this boy screams in his sleep,’ Amma said.

‘Amma, the other boys rag him mercilessly all night…’ I tried to explain.

‘Don’t those fellows have anything better to do… here we are cowering for our lives, and they can only think of their fun and games,’ she said.

Safiya poked her head out from beneath the sheet and said, ‘Tell him to sleep on the roof.’

Saifu had still not woken. I went up to his bed and peered to look closely at him. His face was bathed in sweat. His breath was coming fast and shallow and his body was trembling. His hair was dripping wet and some strands were plastered across his face. As I looked at poor Saifu, a terrible anger gathered inside me against those wretched boys who terrified him so.

Those days, the riots were not like they are now. There has been a sea change in the politics, pace, perspective and policy of riots. Till about twenty-five to thirty years ago, people were not burnt alive during riots, neither were entire neighbourhoods laid to waste. Nor did rioters have the blessings of Prime ministers, Home Ministers and Chief Ministers. Riots were usually orchestrated by small-time, local leaders with short-term, immediate greeds and concerns. Business rivalries, land grabbing, garnering the Hindu or Muslim vote in the municipality elections – these were the usual compulsions behind most riots. Now, communal riots have become a means of staking the claim to the throne in Delhi.  Only those who can cause rivers of blood to run in the name of communal violence and hatred can bell the cat of the world’s largest democracy.

Saifu was woken up. He looked all around like a lamb searching for its lost mother. The youngest child of Abba’s stepbrother, Saifuddin, aka Saifu, saw himself surrounded by all the other family members and jumped to his feet in abject consternation.

I still remember the postcard with its bitten-off corner that came with news of Saifu’s father’s, Uncle Kausar’s, death. People from his village had given not just news of his death but had also informed us that Uncle Kausar’s youngest child, Saifu, was now all alone in the world. His elder brothers had refused to take him with them to Bombay. They had made it abundantly clear that they could do nothing for him. And now, save for Abbajan, there was no one for him in the whole world. Abbajan had sat silently for a long time, holding the postcard with the bitten-off corner. After many bitter quarrels with Amma, he had left for his ancestral village, Dhanvakheda, sold off the pitifully few acres of land left and returned with Saifu in tow.

How we had laughed at our first sight of Saifu! But then, how else would you expect a boy studying at the Aligarh Muslim University school and a girl like Safiya from the Abdullah Girl’s College school to react? It was clear on the first day itself that Saifu was not just an uncouth village lad; he was simple to the point of being a half-wit, almost a moron. We would tease him and pull his leg in a hundred different ways each day. This had one unexpected fallout: he made a place for himself in Amma’s and Abba’s heart. The boy was a veritable model of hard work. He would never tire of hard, physical labour. It especially endeared him to Amma. So what if he ate an extra roti or two; he worked like a slave all day long.

As the years went past, Saifu became a part of our lives. Gradually, we softened towards him. If some boy from the mohulla called him mad, I would be ready to claw his face. ‘He’s my brother;’ I would say, ‘how dare you call him mad?’ But inside the house, it was another matter; we alone knew what Saifu’s standing was in our family.

~ ~ ~

The riot had started in our city as it usually does in most small cities, that is, a parcel of meat had been found inside a mosque and without so much as inspecting the meat, it had been decided that just because the parcel was flung inside the mosque it must necessarily contain pork. In direct retaliation, a cow was slaughtered in Mughal Tola and a full-fledged riot was stoked. A few shops were burnt; most were simply looted. Seven, maybe eight, people were knifed to death in scattered incidents but a sensitive administration had immediately clamped a curfew. It wasn’t like today when even after thousands of people have died the Chief Minister goes around smirking and saying whatever happened was right and just.

Since the riots had spread to the neighbouring villages, it was considered best to extend the curfew. Mughalpura was the biggest Muslim ghetto and so the curfew was at its strictest best here as was the jihad-like fervour among its youth. The mohulla was crisscrossed by a labyrinth of narrow, snake-like gullies but the experience of many recent riots had decreed the need for interconnecting passageways through the houses. Emergency exits, as they were called. And so, routes were planned over rooftops, inside homes, across walls that could take you safely from one end of the mohulla to the other. The mohulla was prepared for battle. It had been decided that even if the curfew extended for as long as a month, the necessities of daily life could be found inside the besieged neighbourhood.

Riots were a time for the neighbourhood boys to display a peculiar sort of excitement and valour. ‘Arre, we will make the Hindus bite the dust; what do those dhoti-wearers think of themselves?’ … Cowards, that’s what they are!’ … ‘One Musalman can outdo ten Hindus’ … ‘Winning Pakistan was a Laugh/ Now we will fight to win India.’ All this was inside the mohulla; once outside they became timid as lambs. The PAC picket was posted at both ends of the mohulla. At some point or the other, most had known the taste of the PAC’s boots and rifle butts, so idle talk inside the safety of the mohulla was one thing; anything else was quite another matter…

Crisis teaches unity, unity creates discipline and discipline leads to practicality. Every household was instructed to give one boy for night patrol. I could no longer qualify as a boy, since I had already crossed the age of twenty-five, and so Saifu was the only one eligible for night duty. The nightly vigil was maintained on the rooftops. Since Mughalpura was on a relatively elevated spot, you could see the entire city from our roofs.

Saifu started going for these nightly vigils, which was actually quite good for us, for Abbajan, Amma, Safiya and me. If Saifu hadn’t been a part of our household, perhaps I would have had to volunteer for those wretched patrols. Because of his nightly duty, Saifu was granted certain ‘concessions’, for instance, he was allowed to sleep till eight o’clock. He was exempted from the sweeping and swabbing jobs; these fell to Safiya’s lot who hated them.

Sometimes, I too would join the gang on the rooftops. The boys from the mohulla ruled the roost on this sprawling kingdom. Bamboo poles, sticks, staves and bricks were kept in neat piles. A few boys could even boast of country-made firearms; most had knives. The majority of the boys were small-time daily wagers. Several worked in the lock factories nearby; the rest were apprentices with tailors or carpenters. Since the bazaar was closed these days, they were -- almost every single one of them -- without work. For most, the home fires were burning on loans from petty loansharks. But they were happy.

Perched on the safe haven of the roofs, they would either pass ‘expert comments’ on the riots or hurl abuses at the Hindus. The choicest invectives were saved for the PAC. They would listen to Radio Lahore at low volume and could reel off entire programmes aired by Pakistan Radio from memory. A few who had travelled to Pakistan were treated with the reverence that is usually reserved for those who have made the Haj pilgrimage. Going by their stories about Pakistan’s super-fast train ‘Tezgaam” and the ‘Gulshan-e-Iqbal Colony’, one would be forgiven for thinking that if ever there is heaven on earth, surely it is in Pakistan! When they had had their fill of singing paeans in praise of Pakistan, they would turn to teasing poor Saifu. One day, Saifu who had been listening ad nauseum to the glories of Pakistan, finally plucked the courage to ask: ‘Where is Pakistan?’ Gleefully, they pounced on him and teased him mercilessly for this innocent query. Saifu still wasn’t sure were Pakistan was.

The patrolling boys would take turns pulling Saifu’s leg and scaring the wits out of him: ‘Look here, Saifu, do you know what will happen to you if the Hindus catch you? First, they will strip you naked.’ The boys knew that despite being a half-wit, Saifu considered nakedness as something awful and ‘bad’. ‘Then, they will rub oil all over you.’

‘Why? Why will they rub oil over me?’

‘So that when they beat you with canes, your skin will come off. Then they will scorch you with burning rods…’

‘Noooo,’ Saifu couldn’t believe this.

The nightly stories of violence and terror preyed on his mind. Sometimes, he would come to me with his garbled stories. I would snap with irritation and tell him to shut up but his questions didn’t go away. One day he asked me, ‘Do they have dirt in Pakistan?’

‘Why? Why wouldn’t they have dirt in Pakistan?’

‘Because roads aren’t like roads… you can get terylene there…everything is so inexpensive…’

‘Look here, some one has been feeding you a lot of rubbish. Don’t listen to everything that Altaf and the others tell you,’ I tried to explain.

‘Do the Hindus pluck our eyes out?’

‘What rubbish! Who told you this?’

‘Bachchan did.’

‘He’s wrong.’

‘You mean, they don’t even skin us alive?’

‘Ufffff…what is this…go away…’

He fell silent but a hundred questions swarmed in his eyes. I went out and he went to badger Safiya with his questions.

The curfew was extended. The nightly vigils continued. Saifu continued to represent our household. And, then, a few days later, Saifu began to scream in his sleep. The first time it happened, we had been startled and worried, though it didn’t take us long to figure out that the nightly terror spiels were behind all this. Abbajan was furious. He had even spoken to a few of the mohulla elders, but nothing came of it. Boys -- that too, mohulla boys, starved of fun -- were not likely to let go of easy game such as Saifu.

I hadn’t realised that things had gone so far till the day Saifu asked me with complete earnestness, ‘Shall I become a Hindu?’

The question left me stunned, but I quickly gathered that it had been caused by the nightly terror sessions. My first reaction was anger, then I rationalised that little purpose will be served by getting angry with my dull-witted cousin. I tried to make him understand. I asked, ‘Why do you want to become a Hindu?’

‘I will be saved,” he said.

‘That means, I won’t be saved?’ I asked.

‘You too become one,’ he answered.

‘What about your Uncle,’ I asked, referring to Abbajan.

‘No, he, he…’ He stopped; perhaps he got tangled in Abbajan’s flowing white beard.

‘Look here, the boys have been telling you a lot of tall tales. They want to mislead you. They have been telling you nothing but lies. You know Mahesh, don’t you?’

‘Yes, he comes on a scooter…’ he cheered up a little.

‘Yes, yes, the same.”

‘Is he a Hindu?’

‘Yes, he is,’ I said and watched a frisson of disappointment flicker across his face as he became quiet.

‘All this is the handiwork of hoodlums… it is not Hindus or Muslims who fight with each other in these riots… the hoodlums do the looting and the killing. Do you understand?’


The riots stretched on and on like the devil’s entrails and people began to tire – Yaar, if you count the Hindu and Muslim thugs in the city, how many would there be? A thousand, all right, two thousand at the most. And these two thousand people have managed to make the lives of thousands upon thousands of god-fearing law-abiding citizens a living hell. And what are we doing about it? Nothing. We are sitting in our homes like scared mice. Doesn’t it remind you of the time when ten thousand Englishmen ruled over millions of Indians? And who is the beneficiary in these riots? Beneficiary? Why, who else but Haji Abdul Karim who is fighting the municipality election and will bag all the Muslim votes. And Pandit Jogeshwar who will mop up all the Hindu votes. But what about us? What are we? You are a voter – a Hindu voter, Muslim voter, Harijan voter, Kayasth voter, Sunni voter, Shia voter. Will it always be like this in this country? Yes, why not? Where people are illiterate, where you can get guns on hire, where politicians orchestrate riots to keep their seats of power, what else do you expect? Yaar, can’t we educate the people …  bring about greater awareness? Ha-ha-ha-ha. Who are you to educate the people? The Government will do it -- if it wants to. You mean, if the Government doesn’t want to, nothing will ever get done in this country? Yes…that is what the English have taught us…That is what we are used to…All right, let it be…So, the riots will go on happening for ever…Yes, they will…Suppose, all the Muslims in this country became Hindus? … Lahoulvillaquwwat! What are you saying! …All right, then, suppose all the Hindus in this country became Muslims? … Subhanallah! … Wah! Wah! What a thought! … Will that stop the riots? ... It’s worth a thought! …Look at Pakistan – the Shias and Sunnis are forever at each other’s throats! …And in Bihar, the Brahmin shrinks away from the Harijan’s shadow. …Maybe Man as a species is destined to fight with its own kind… Look at Maiku and Jumman – they are such close friends. Shall we also become Maikus and Jummans? …I mean…I mean…


I was twisting the radio’s ears early one morning and Safiya was sweeping the courtyard when Raja’s younger brother, Akram, came running. Half out of breath, he blurted, ‘The PAC-wallahs are beating Saifu.’

‘What? What are you saying?’

‘The PAC-wallahs are beating Saifu,’ this time he spoke clearly.

‘Why? What has happened?’

‘I don’t know…There…at the corner…’

‘At the corner picket post?’


‘But why…’ I knew that the curfew was relaxed between eight and ten in the mornings and Amma had sent Saifu at eight to fetch the milk. Even a halfwit like Saifu knew that he had to return as soon as possible, but it was almost ten by now.

‘Come, let’s go and see…’ I left the house without bothering to fix the crackling radio. Why are the PAC-wallahs beating a halfwit? What could he have done? What can he possibly do? He is so scared himself that he can’t hurt a fly. Why beat him? For what possible reason? Money? Amma had given him two rupees. Would the PAC-wallahs beat him for two rupees?

At the corner, beside the police picket on the main road, people were clustered on their rooftops, watching the spectacle below. Saifu was standing before a clutch of PAC-wallahs. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Why did you hit me? I am a Hindu… a Hindu…’

I stepped forward. Saifu saw me but didn’t stop shouting, ‘Yes, yes…I am a Hindu…’ He was trembling and wavering on his feet. A drop of blood had oozed from his mouth and come to rest on his chin.

‘Why did you hit me? … I am a Hindu…’

‘Saifu, what are you saying… Come on, let’s go home…’

‘I…I am a Hindu…’

I was stunned…Was this the same Saifu? What had come over him?

I could feel the people gathered on the rooftops tittering among themselves. It made me angry. Didn’t they know he was mad?

‘How is he related to you?’ one of the PAC-wallahs asked me.

‘He is my brother … he is a little off… a mental problem…’

‘Then take him home,’ a soldier said.

‘He has been driving us crazy,’ another spoke up.

‘Come on, Saifu, let’s go home… The curfew has begun…’

‘I won’t go…I won’t…I am a Hindu…a Hindu…’

Suddenly, he began to cry like a baby, ‘They hit me…beat me…I am a Hindu…a Hindu…’ Then he slumped to the ground. Perhaps, he had fainted.

Now it was easier for me to lift him and carry him home.

Translated from the Hindi by Rakhshanda Jalil.

First published in Hans, August 2002

Asghar Wajahat is a Hindi scholar, fiction writer, novelist, playwright, an independent documentary filmmaker and a television scriptwriter. His best-known works include Saat Aasmaan,  Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, and O Jamyai Nai, Kaisee Lagi Lagaee.

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, literary critic and translator. Her most recent work is Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers' Movement in Urdu.