“Hamidbhai, our house Imam Manzil at the Gandhi Ashram has been attacked.”
“What...!” Madhavsinhbhai is shocked.
Mohanbhai continues, “Yes, the crowd turned up twice. They pelted stones and broke the roof tiles. Then they brought down the fence in the front yard with axes. This was around 4.30 pm. Everyone at the Ashram rushed to the spot. They challenged the attacking mob. They tried to reason with them. The mob has dispersed for now, but threatened to return. Sultanaben sent me. I just drove down directly. I have not even bothered to tell Kureshibhai. All of you come with me to my bungalow in Panchsheel.”
Madhavsinhbhai is lost in thought. Then he says, “Let’s go to my house.”
I am thinking if the Imam Manzil in Gandhi Ashram is not safe, then where can I possibly seek shelter? I am bewildered. I shut my eyes.
Madhavsinhbhai tries to telephone but is not able to. “Looks like the phone has also been tampered with,” he says and rushes across to HM Desai’s house to make a call.
The attack on Imam Manzil has thrown him off kilter. I too am deeply shaken and restless.
I grew up at the Ashram. Dandi March; arrests at the Ashram, Imam Saheb’s sad departure; Ameenama and Kureshibhai’s arrests; the Satyagraha; the 1942 Quit India movement and my own participation in it at the age of sixteen; the imprisonment that followed in Yerwada prison – all these unfold before my eyes like a film reel. Madhavsinhbhai has also been staying at the Ashram since 1945. In the formation of Gujarat as a linguistic state in 1960, it was the Ashram that served as the auspices for the swearing in ceremony of the first Cabinet of Ministers.
I say to Mohanbhai, “From my birth to adulthood, I have been at the Gandhi Ashram. Our parents married each other at the Ashram. That wedding invitation, kankotri, had been sent out on behalf of Gandhiji, with his signature.”
Narayanbhai returns. His men ask my permission to organise themselves and guard our bungalow. I express my gratitude and tell them not to undertake any such hardship.
Time goes by. Madhavsinhbhai returns from the bungalow across. “I phoned to request Hitubhai (Hitendra Desai, Chief Minister of Gujarat) to arrange for armed policemen at the Gandhi Ashram. There is a cabinet meeting going on. So I could not talk to Hitubhai. So I tried to contact his personal assistant Mr Brahmabhatt, but didn’t succeed. Finally I made Brahmabhatt’s daughter write down this urgent message for Hitubhai and asked her to convey it. I have also requested the Governor’s Deputy Mr Rathod to urgently send a police force to the Ashram. And also to this house in Swastik Society. It needs to be under police protection, I told them.”
“All of you just come to my place. Consider the Panchsheel as entirely your own. It is well-equipped,” Mohanbhai urges again. “You will like it at my place, and it is safe as well,” he adds.
I am overwhelmed by such generosity and affection. I compose myself and say, “Gandhiji’s Ashram has been attacked. No place is safe now. Wherever we go, we risk the safety of others. Whatever will be will be. Just as long as all of us are together. I don’t expect this house to be safe anymore. It may even explode.”
A black fiat pulls in outside the bungalow. Jhinabhai gets down, looking grave. He quietly walks into the living room and sits down. I tell him about the attack on Imam Manzil. Jhinabhai is speechless with shock. “I have come to pick you up. Let us go over to my house.” He is extremely insistent and emotional. I see him wipe tears rolling down behind his spectacles with a trembling finger. A poet is wounded.
I so want to express my gratitude to him, but my voice is choked. I try to talk about the overall situation and find my voice. Jhinabhai seems to understand. He is keen to take us to his house, but he understands when I explain. He is pacified when I tell him that Pratima, Laila and the children will go to the Ashram.
We make preparations to send everyone to the Ashram. I want to move the legal papers and briefs. I tell Munna, “Go climb into the loft. Get gunny sacks from there. I want to put all my legal papers in them.” Munna attaches a ladder to the loft and climbs up.
Madhavsinhbhai says to me, “There is no need to get this anxious. I have faith that none of the things you are imagining will happen. I understand that wickedness is worrying, but goodness is also reassuring, right?”
I don’t argue with him but simply say, “Madhavsinhbhai, while trusting human goodness is necessary, so is being cautious against evil, don’t you think? I am worried about the briefs.’
“I will take them to my house. Don’t worry,” he says.
I can see the omens now. Hazy and indistinct, flames of fire seem to surround my house.
First Pratima, the children, then the legal papers, then the house – god knows how such clarity of purpose and ordering of priorities came to me! Adverse circumstances do make the mind sharp! I look at the children, at Pratima and Laila. Such complete trust on their faces! Innocent faces hiding their fears, fears they have never before experienced. How much has happened in such a short time. We are all left speechless. My mind struggles to measure the gravity of the situation. Mind, heart, memory, sanskar – all work overtime, propelling light and action. The next moment all go numb, only to revive once again. Such strange experiences these are, like darkness and light alternating each other. Somewhat like a thousand-volt bulb going out of action. Someone turns off the switch, and all objects associated with light go into a passive mode. The very next moment the lights are back on, and everything works overtime! e burden on the mind has certainly increased manifold!
The door dividing the living room and dining room is open. So are the windows in the living room and kitchen. I see Bako going into the kitchen; he has empty ink bottles in his hand. He is fidgeting with something at the window sill, lost in his own world. What goes on in his little mind? What stories lie in his heart? I neither have the time to ask him, nor the courage to know.
Munna (Muneer) who is older than Bako, Aabid (my eldest son, whom we call Baabo), my daughter Kali (Yasmin), and her cousin Naseem (Waheedbhai’s daughter) – all of them seem to be wandering about restlessly from one room to another.
Pratima and Laila are sitting quietly across each other at the dining table. They are not voicing their thoughts and fears, not making each other sit up anxiously. They are quiet.
Mohanbhai, Madhavsinhbhai, Jhinabhai and I are in the living room. We look at each other occasionally, and turn our gaze away. Finally, we come to a decision. The women and the children would be sent to Gandhi Ashram. No place seems safe. It is good to keep the flock together in times of adversity.
I am not able to think any further. Although we have decided to send everyone to the Ashram, we hesitate to act upon it. “Chalo, Madhavsinhbhai, let’s go to the Ashram,” I say. “Mohanbhai, you stay here.” With this, we take leave of Jhinabhai and Mohanbhai and drive out.
“We will make arrangements for the legal briefs to be sent away once we come back,” Madhavsinhbhai says.
My car is heading towards the Ashram. It is now 7 pm. Despite the imposition of curfew, there are more people on the streets than usual. Why does the atmosphere look so tense?
We reach the Ashram and meet Kureshibhai. He looks calm and composed. His eyes look especially bright.
“Hello beta, how are things?” Abba asks me.
Madhavsinhbhai and I ask him about updates of the Ashram. Abba tells us:
“A large mob turned up. They pelted stones. We had shut the doors. Only your sister Sultana and Shamim were home. The mob wanted to set the house on fire. I got the news while I was at the office close by. I immediately reached home. Men, women, children, young and old, everyone turned up to rescue Imam Manzil. They pushed the mob back. Despite a shower of stones, people stood unmoving, including Chhaganbhai Joshi, Mansinghbhai and many other men and women. Seeing me come, the girls wouldn’t let me go anywhere near the mob. ‘Baapa, you don’t go!’ they said. The Ashram people saved us and the house. The mob dispersed after 4 pm. But it turned up again in another thirty minutes or so. By that time almost every Ashramite was here. They faced the mob, begged them and made them turn away. Before leaving, the troublemakers said, ‘We will set Imam Manzil ablaze at night, just you wait.’ We must be thankful to Merciful Allah, such was the courage of the Ashramites…”
Excerpted with permission from Agnipariksha: An Ordeal Remembered, Hamid Kureshi, translated from the Gujarati by Rita Kothari.