Worst fears come true sometimes

I’ve always been told that I imagine the worst and worry needlessly. Like, if we are going on a long trip, I worry that I am going to get a stomach upset. Sometimes I worry so much about it that I actually do. Or, if there are tests coming, I worry about blanking out. I worry harder than I study and sometimes end up blanking out. But most times, I realise, later, that I’ve worried for nothing. I feel like telling my father that. But before I can, the worst starts happening. It is a lot worse than a stomach upset and blanking out in an exam. Much worse.

We see it on television first. The attacks have started. Sikhs are being pulled out of their cars, out of buses, out of their homes, even. I try to see some of it, but my mother wraps her arms around me and turns me around. She buries her face in my hair and I can feel the dampness of her tears. Dad’s worst fears are coming true. And a new fear is being born inside me. I feel helpless. I feel that my own parents are on the brink of their own disasters. Suppose something happens to them? What would I do? My grandparents are feeling equally bad, my grandma is almost hysterical. I feel as though I am the only sane one left.

I also feel as though I am growing up every second. Ageing. Like my own life is on fast forward and my teen years are zooming towards adulthood.

The television volume is turned down finally. But the fire cannot be controlled with the tap of a button. The embers are catching and the flames are fast going out of control.

It is then that the shouting seems to come closer. We all turn to the TV to see if someone has turned the volume up again. But no, no one has. The sounds are not out of a box. They are outside our door. At first the shouts are confusing.

But pretty soon the words separate enough for us to make out what the crowd in our corridor wants. Blood. The crowd is baying for blood.

My own blood runs cold. I freeze. Were they coming for us? We all stand in a frozen tableau of terror. My mother moves first. She runs to make sure the doors are bolted. She gestures to my father to move a sofa to secure the door further. He doesn’t move. He shakes his head.

“It’s not for us,” is all he says.

And like in a jigsaw, everything falls in place in that moment. I can see it as if I can see through the door.

They have not come for us. The mob has followed the stranger who had come to Uncle Sarab’s house. And now they want him.

Mum is trying to pull the sofa all by herself. And I can see that she is crying.

I move closer to help her.

“Mum, what’ll they do to him?”

But mum’s sobs come tumbling out, making sounds like a small wounded animal.

“Mum, what about Kiran and Sharan, are they going to be okay? Can we go get them, at least?”

Mum stops trying to pull at the sofa and looks at me, bereft. There is despair in her eyes that I never want to see again.

But in that moment, I know what that despair means. It means that she doesn’t know. Doesn’t know if the children in the next house are going to be safe. If there is anything that we can do.

I have to do something. I leap towards the door, furiously trying to pull back the rusty latch which is always stuck.

“Stop. Just stop,” Dad roars.

“Dad, no, we have to try and stop them. We have to.”

“I cannot let you go,” mum holds me tight. “It’s not safe, beta.”

“But then it’s not safe for them either.” I struggle to escape. “Don’t you see? If we try to help them, then we are in trouble as well.”

“And if we don’t do anything...”

There is no answer to that. But there has to be. Shouldn’t there?

The sounds from across the corridor burst in upon us, wounding us, cutting at us. No, I am not saying it was as bad for us. Our plates and glasses were not smashed. Our furniture was not burnt. Our skin was not cut.

Our bones are whole.

But our lives are not.

And I know that we are not the same. And may never be again.

With every cry for help knocking at our door, we lose a little bit of ourselves. I know now how easy it is to say the right things. To believe the best of oneself and give advice.

I always believed that we were the kind of people who would always step up and help those in need. We had been good neighbours. We were helpful and kind and came to people’s aid. We stopped if there was an accident, we gave money to the little children doing acrobatics in the streets at traffic signals. We were the good guys.

But are we? Are we really?

I know that as the sounds go mute. As the crowds leave, their blood-lust satisfied, we can’t look each other in the eye. I know now that the prime minister’s violent death did have something to do with me.

The world goes completely quiet. Too shocked to move, to turn on the axis it had known all these years. I don’t know what we did. I don’t know if anyone said anything. There is a silence so thick that it deafens me. Defeats me.

I go to bed, exhausted although I have not moved a muscle. I have not moved. I have not stepped forward when I should have, could have stepped forward. Guilt bitters my tongue.

As I lie there, I try to conjure up my next meeting with my friends across the hall. What would I say? Can I tell them that I wasn’t home when the mob came? That my family and I had gone away somewhere? That would be the easiest. But no, that wouldn’t work. Uncle Sarab had seen us standing there when he pulled the visitor in. He knew we were there. And he knew that we didn’t do anything. Had he told his children, my friends? That we hadn’t been good neighbours, that we had not helped?

My thinking is stupid. Of course, they aren’t thinking about us right now. But I can’t stop thinking about them, wondering if they are hurt. They must be frightened. But I hope it isn’t worse than that. It wouldn’t be. Couldn’t be. Mustn’t be. Maybe this time, I can be the one to make Sharan and Kiran laugh. I’m sure they need a laugh right about now.

I want to hear them laugh. Please, let us laugh together again.


Being Gandhi

Excerpted with permission from Being Gandhi, Paro Anand, HarperCollins India.