By Sameer Khan
[This story, ‘Belonging’ is excerpted from the author’s collection of short stories, ‘Spinning Top and Other Stories’.]
Farhan and Rubina studied in an elitist school in the city of Bombay. Their parents could afford to send them to the best convents. They studied in the CBSE Board among the affluent students and most of their classmates belonged to families of army officers, industrialists, and bureaucrats.
Farhan’s best friend, Rahul, was the son of a stockbroker. Rubina’s best pal, Asha, was the daughter of a naval officer. Though there were very few Muslim children in their school, it was never an issue. They were like any other children growing up.
After passing out of high School, Farhan joined one of the leading colleges of the city as most other friends did. Rubina, who otherwise was fondly known as Ruby, joined one of the leading Fashion Schools of the city.
Farhan passed his MBA with decent grades and worked in a leading advertising agency. Ruby, too, worked with one of the best Fashion Houses. They grew up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood with Parsis, Marwaris, Gujaratis, and a few Bohra Muslims.
This was the only way of life they knew. Their maternal uncle or mamu, as they called him, lived in the Muslim ghetto of Madanpura in Mumbai. It was an infamous place, well known for its notorious criminal activities, mafia, and riots. The non–Muslims would seldom venture into that area.
Every time Farhan and Ruby visited their uncle, they wanted to get out of that place as soon as possible.
The moment they entered Madanpura, they could see Muslim migrants from other parts of India squatter on half of the footpath. The people in the slums would eat, cook, bathe, and even hold their weddings on the pavements, oblivious to traffic congestions or the inconvenience it caused to the public.
The BEST bus drivers would drive on the roads grudgingly, often abusing and blaming the migrants for their traffic woes. The bus conductors, too, were not very cordial to the burkha–clad women.
The streets of Madanpura were dotted with police vans and chowkies. Farhan and Rubina found the police patrolling the streets intimidating. They were never comfortable among the bearded Muslims of the area and the local residents too would give them a bemused look, assuming that they were non–Muslims because of their attire. The road leading to their mamu’s building was a complete chaos; garbage and litter covered the roads.
The taxis parked at the no–parking zones; hawkers sold faluda, masala aloo, and bhajiya on the roads. There was road–side hotels called, bhatyarkhan, which sold food on the road for migrant laborers.
Farhan and Ruby would only breathe easy once they reached their mamu’s flat, which was in an old 1915 colonial building. Here the azan would blast through loudspeakers and one azan would follow another repeatedly because there were a cluster of mosques in the area.
Their cousins, Suleiman and Farida, grew up in a complete Muslim environment. Farida would always wear a burkha whenever she stepped out of the house. It was common local perception in the locality that any girl without a burkha did not have a good upbringing. For Ruby, burkha was alien because in her south Bombay home she had never known anything called a burkha.
Suleiman, too, would sport a Muslim prayer cap and would go to the nearest mosque every time there was a call to prayer.
Once standing in their balcony, their cousins pointed towards a tall, burly man in Pathani dress, wearing a Muslim skull cup. He was known as Rashid Bhai, a well–known local gangster. Ruby and Farhan did not like him. However, for the locals, he was a Robin Hood, a hero who helped them in their every need.
Suleiman and Farida could not imagine living away from the ghetto. It gave them a sense of belonging and a security which they missed elsewhere. And, of course, they liked most the holy month of Ramadan, which was a time of festivities, something which could not be replicated anywhere else. On the contrary, Ruby and Farhan could spare only a few hours in a month in their mamu’s home and they never enjoyed being there.
Farhan’s advertising career was going great. He had all it took to be a top ad guru and his good looks played a perfect foil. Ruby, too, was seen among the well–known faces of the fashion industry.
One evening when Farhan was on his i-phone, he saw news on the internet about communal violence in parts of the city. A bandh (shutdown) was declared the next day. Such things were common. They usually affected the lowly impoverished parts of the city and the ghettos. Life in the up–market affluent places remained normal. In the evening while returning home, the taxi driver started a conversation with Farhan. He said, “Tomorrow is a general strike.”
Farhan asked him the reason. He answered, “Oh sir, these Muslims need to be shown their place.” The taxi driver spoke oblivious of the fact that he was speaking to a Muslim.
On the way, Farhan saw the mobs smashing some of the traffic signal lights. When he reached home, Ruby was not there. He phoned on her mobile and asked her to return home soon.
After a while, she reached home. The entire family remained glued to the TV. There was disturbance in the city. The right–wing vigilantes were roaming freely in the city and smashing Muslim–owned properties. Farhan and Ruby were concerned because violence mostly affected the ghettos where their mamu lived. Their mother called up mamu and he told her about the large presence of police in their area.
Farhan got ready to leave for office. His mother urged him not to venture out but Farhan shrugged her off as there was no trouble in their area. Ruby stayed at home. The moment Farhan stepped out of the housing–complex, he saw a large mob passing by shouting communal slogans. He watched in horror as one of the shops, owned by a Bohra Muslim, was attacked and the shop owner thrashed by the mob. Farhan could not imagine such a thing would ever occur in their locality. He hurriedly returned home.
There were all sorts of stories going around about Muslim taxi drivers being lynched.
Mr. Chatterjee, one of their neighbors, told Farhan not to go out as it was too dangerous. A terrible fear gripped their house. They had never imagined such a thing would ever happen in their life.
Strange thoughts crossed Farhan’s mind – what if the mob entered their building? There were just a few Muslim families in the complex and it would not be a difficult task for the mob to find them. Once he had a verbal spat with Rajiv, the ground floor resident, over car park. What if he tipped those vigilantes about him?
They suddenly got paranoid about everything under the sun; every passing glance seemed suspicious and hostile to them.
Their mother suggested that they should shift to their mamu’s house for few days, till the things returned back to normal. For Farhan, it was unimaginable to live there. Yet at the moment, he saw it as a reasonable suggestion.
He phoned his friend Rahul and asked him to drop them to Madanpura. Rahul arrived in the evening in his car. The entire family boarded the car as they were watched with amusement by their neighbors from their balconies.
On the way, they could see scars of violence everywhere. When they reached Madanpura, they saw a heavy police presence. There were checkpoints everywhere. One of the checkpoints was manned by inspector Shrish, who was a friend of Rahul. He advised him against going further as it could be dangerous for him. Hence Rahul had to turn back.
They had to walk some distance to reach mamu’s house. Walking in the midst of heavy police presence, they encountered petrified slum-dwellers, who had nowhere to hide. The moment they reached mamu’s home, their aunt broke into tears. But they were glad that they had reached safely the place, which they had once despised.
There was a tense atmosphere in the city, which prevailed for few more days. The curfew remained in place. The only vehicles that were seen on the road were the police ones. They could hear bullets shots being fired at a distance. It terrified Ruby.
Their ordeal continued for next few days. After a while, the curfew was relaxed and only the women were allowed to go to the shops on the streets to buy essential goods like milk and medicine. It was the first time ever that Ruby had worn a burkha when she stepped out of the house. Farhan heard stories how Rashid and his men had beaten back mobs and saved the people of the neighborhood.
Farhan had never been a practicing Muslim. He visited a masjid only to offer namaz for Eid or an occasional Friday namaz. But now he joined Suleiman often at the local masjid for prayers.
After some days, the violence subsided and things began to get back to normal. Farhan and Ruby returned to their south Bombay home, where they had grown up wearing jeans. He met his friend, Piyush, outside the gate.
“Hi dear, where have you been?” asked Piyush. Farhan remained silent and quietly made his way. His neighbor, Mr. Chadda, saw him opening the door and greeted him, “Beta Farhan, where have you been? Things were so bad that I could not open my shop for so many days since it was located in a Muslim area. I am glad things are getting back to normal.”
Farhan and Ruby felt numb. They were glad that their home was safe and their property was intact; yet they found something missing. In the evening, when Farhan went down to buy some bread, he met Raghu who sarcastically asked him if he intended to sell his flat. He had a Marwari buyer ready to buy it. Farhan did not know what to answer and moved on.
Later that evening, his mother told Farhan, “Mamu says there is a flat available for sale in their building. Should we buy it and move in there?” Farhan and Ruby were in a dilemma. They had hated their mamu’s locality and they never felt they belonged there. They had grown up, thinking and behaving like other people in south Bombay. But today they stood at the cross-roads. Should they continue to live where they felt they belonged? Or should they move out to the ghetto where they were not comfortable, yet safe?
“Where did they belong?”
Sameer Khan is an Independent writer, author and blogger. He tweets at:@samkhan999
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Masculinities in Urban India’, edited by Madhura Lohokare, Shiv Nadar University, India.