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Maximum City

December 21, 2013

I was once walking back, filled with a strange weightlessness and delight. My exams were over. On my way, I see the exam-over-gifts casually lying in neat piles on the street, hesitantly eyeing me, luring me. (or so I thought. Perhaps it was me who was eyeing the gifts). There were piles and piles of words and sentences and paragraphs written by people all around the world. Yes, they were books – the black market ones. Usually, I don’t buy all the books I read, and never from the road side vendors. I am a member at a library. But some instinct or desire told me to buy – and so I did. I picked up books with random names and I spotted one which, I remember being suggested to me by a friend. I do not even recollect the friend’s name – so lets call him a good old fellow. Also the book was well received by the readers in general. So I bought the book – It was Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. It is a book about Bombay Mumbai. I have finished reading almost 75% of the book. It often happens to me that when I read a book the whole day, I am in that world and not in the present. Just like a pensive. Each word paints a picture for me and I then see the movie play and I am an observer standing right there through the plot. As I shifted through the pages of the book, I was transporter back in 1992 for a while. I realized that I knew the facts, but not the emotions, about my city.(I know the fact that the name of my city had been changed but not the emotion behind the act.) It talks about a Mumbai before I was born – A Mumbai in 1990s. The gang wars, the blasts, Dawood and Chotta Shakeel and the Hindu-Muslim riots. As it is, residing in the southern part of the city i.e being a “townie” or SoBo (South Bombay), as my non-SoBo friends nickname us, most of our city is a stranger to us. I have never visited the suburbs beyond Borivali – ever. But I know the history, the politics of the city I live in. One of the most important events is the Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai. I have heard a lot about it from my parents as they were on their honeymoon, and how they had to deal with an emergency curfew in Bangalore and how they couldn’t find a place to stay and my mom was suffering from a winter stroke. That was a trying time for them and I think it made them love each other even more. As they narrate the facts, I listen to them, take them in, but without any emotion for the riots. All I ever noticed was how they dealt with it. I always thought that the riots were petty stunts by political parties and senseless bloodshed ensued because people in India over-react when it comes to religion. You can tell them your dressing sense is pathetic and they’ll laugh but if you tell them, I don’t think Gita/Quran is the ultimate literature of knowledge, chances are that the person may never speak to you. Even today, some old relatives use the word “Muslims” as an alternative to a thug, hit-man, terrorist etc and I am offended. I am a Hindu and I know people who are Muslims and are anything but those things. I always discounted these old relatives as irrational and illiterate. I never wanted to get into the details of why they felt that way. But while reading the book, I understood why. I am not saying their opinion is correct. I still consider the opinion baseless. But, I now have a better glimpses into why they hold such an opinion i.e why even today, in Mumbai, or rather India – the older generations of Muslims consider Hindus as autocrats and vice versa. The reason is simple – they witnessed the riots live and I didn’t. I know the number of people killed but didn’t see the killings or corpses. I know there were alleged claims that the Hindu police sided with the Hindus, but didn’t see a policeman who is supposed to protect, kill. I know that there were claims that a Hindu girl was raped by a mob of Muslims,but I was not born then, to hear or see the news. These memories – of killing, or rumors are etched in these people’s minds. I use to laugh when my grandfather used communal language and admonish him saying – “Unity is strength”. But can someone who has seen his father being burnt alive by a Hindu, easily forget and start liking a Hindu. How can one expect a father whose daughter has been raped in front of him by a Muslim be expected not to treat them differently. Violence scars people – be it a bomb blast or a riot or a war. One’s who have seen it, cannot forget it and it is irrational of someone to expect them to forget. I could feel the intensity in the book – though only statements were recited, they were a bloody descriptive picture. I wonder how men and women who operate in violence, see it everyday, survive. In my opinion – there was no Hindu Muslim riot. It was an assault by the Hindu criminals on Muslims and the Muslim criminals on Hindus. The non-criminals suffered – both Hindu and Muslim. Today, the present generation, does not consider religion a criteria in making friends, business partners or at times choosing a life partner. But the aversion of the other religion still lingers – it’s palpable in the city. I still see Gujarati ladies cringing at the sight of a group of Muslim men for no apparent reason. But India is changing and people are changing. The scars of violence eventually fades and people consider it futile to hold on to grudges. Eventually, people will see the individual they know and distinguish him/her on his/her individuality and not on the basis of religion, nationality, college, company,locality, relationship status etc. During the riots – my parents couldn’t find a vehicle to get to the hotel – the cabbie deserted them, as he ran for protecting his own life. They traveled for an hour to reach their hotel in a car, whose owner offered a generous lift. The owner was a Muslim. Somewhere, humanity eventually wins. Human beings have a biological and social desire to belong to something and this desire cannot go. Belong to a group, religion, nation, cult, company etc. Even if boundaries and religion in the world were to miraculously disappear, we would form some group and belong there and fight with the other. But after all the grouping and fighting,  time will move on, heal the scars of violence, lift the dark black cloak of bloodshed and clarity will manifest. When that time arrives, and if someone says “They burnt us alive in 1992”, the response will be “May be. But, now they share coffee with me and have not burnt anyone in their life. I think it’s okay.”

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