Mohammad Yasin, 14, always found “best friend” Junaid’s choice of biryani odd. “While the rest of us ate mutton or chicken, he always wanted soyabean biryani. So every time he came home for Ramzan, his mother would cook him that,” says Yasin, before his voice dips to a whisper. “And those people taunted him and called him a beef eater.” On June 22, with Rs 1,500 in his pocket, Junaid Khan, the fifth of Saira and Jalaluddin’s seven children, left home in Khandawali village of Haryana’s Ballabhgarh district with elder brother Hashim, 19, and friends Moin and Mohsin. Eid was days away and they had to buy new clothes, shoes and ittar. Some gifts for sister Rabiya too, and her three children.
On their way back in a Mathura-bound train, Junaid was stabbed to death by a group of men after an argument over seats turned ugly. The men allegedly mocked the boys, tugged at their beards and accused them of being beef eaters. This was before they threw the boys out of the train at Asaoti station, where the 15-year-old bled to death on his brother Hashim’s lap. Four days after the incident, a group of boys — including Junaid’s brothers, cousins and friends — sit outside Aslam’s shop, 50 metres from the house, and piece together “Junaid ki kahaani (his story)”.
Like many of them, Junaid had his dreams, big and small. He was a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart) and was studying to become an imam at a madrasa in Nuh, Mewat. But during his annual visits home for Ramzan, he was simply Junaid — playing marbles with younger brother Faisal, 12, and cricket with friends on the cobbled lane outside his house. “He was fond of flying kites, would cut other people’s kites too. Ek baar toh udaate-udaate khud hi gir gaye neeche (Once, while flying kites, he fell down himself),” says Junaid’s cousin Rizwan Khan, 19, laughing at the thought of how Junaid fell flat on his face and later got a scolding at home.
“He loved cricket. He was an all-rounder — best in batting, best in bowling and best in fielding,” says 24-year-old Mujahid Khan, who is studying for his MA in Political Science at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. As 19-year-old Mufeed Khan talks about afternoons spent with Junaid, bathing in the village pond, he remembers his friend’s love for bikes. “I taught him how to ride it,” he says, beaming.
The mention of bikes takes Junaid’s elder brother Qasim back to a conversation they had six months ago. “Junaid called me one day and said we should buy a Pulsar motorcycle, at least a second-hand one. He said we should start saving 50 per cent of the pocket money (Rs 300-500) our father sometimes gave us, and, when we save about Rs 10,000, we can buy a second-hand bike,” says the 18-year-old as he wonders what to do with the little money he has saved since the chat.
The boys go on — about how Junaid would shy away from confrontations (woh shor se, ladai se ghabrata tha), and how, unlike them, never laced his conversations with profanities. “His language was not like ours. He would come home every year and teach us a few duas he had learnt at the madrasa. And to think that his last few moments were so violent… I can’t imagine. It’s not an end he deserved,” says Mujahid.
“He made everyone laugh. He could simply stand anywhere on the street and hold a mehfil (gathering),” says 15-year-old Musharraf Khan. The conversation moves from Junaid to the fear the incident has left behind. “I will never take that train,” says Mujahid, referring to the Delhi-Mathura train on which Junaid and the others were stabbed. The 24-year-old takes the train every day to his college in Delhi and back. “Now I have to figure out how else I can travel. I may have to take a longer route, it may even cost me more, but I cannot take that train,” he says.
They all talk about how it could have been any one of them. “We usually wear shirt-pants, so they can’t identify us… But what if they ask my name and what if I am wearing a skull cap?” says cousin Rizwan. As the friends sit in uncomfortable silence for a while, Yasin says, “With Junaid gone, this group will disintegrate. He was our glue… he kept us all together.”
A steady stream of visitors — local politicians, relatives, media — walk in and out of the squat single-storeyed house where Junaid lived with his grandfather, parents, brothers, their wives and children. In one of the two rooms, his mother Saira and sister Rabiya lie in an unlit corner, surrounded by women who attempt to console them. Junaid’s white kurta hangs from a peg on the wall behind them.
“May God bless everyone with a son like Junaid. He would take care of me and massage my forehead when I fell sick,” says Saira, delirious with the pain of having lost her son “who was born 15 years ago, during the monsoons”. “Junaid, Junaid…,” she chants before passing out for a few minutes. On the terrace, where charpoys are stretched out in the sun, Faisal, 12, the youngest of Saira’s children, walks around in Junaid’s old kurta that has several missing buttons. “He was very particular about his clothes — didn’t wear them if they weren’t ironed. He gave this to me because the buttons broke,” says Faisal. It was for a new kurta-pyjama that Junaid was in Delhi. No one knows where that new set of clothes, along with the other things he bought, is.
“My child loved good clothes, shoes and perfumes,” says father Jalaluddin, stopping to greet one of the visitors. Jalaluddin owns a car, which he uses as a taxi, ferrying people to places around Ballabhgarh. His sons Ismail and Shaqir work as drivers too, while his other sons, Hashim, Qasim, Adil, Faisal, study in madrasas in Gujarat. His daughter Rabiya, the eldest of his children, is married and lives in Nuh. When he was seven or eight, Junaid left home for Surat to study at a madrasa there, and, a year ago, shifted to the Mewat madrasa.
Junaid’s books on Islam, Urdu and Arabic are neatly stacked in an adjacent room. A thin film of dust has gathered on them. “He would visit me in Nuh every Friday and play with my children,” says Junaid’s sister Rabiya, 23, leafing through one of his books. “I would cook for him and we’d stay up late, talking about our family, relatives and the village. He was fond of studying and would tell me he wanted to become a big imam.”
It was at a madrasa in Ferozepur Namak, a village in Mewat, that Junaid worked towards that dream of becoming a “big imam”. With days to go for the students to return after the Ramzan break — “they will be back 10 days after Eid” — principal Zafaruddin Qasmi says he wishes Junaid was among them. “He wanted to do the alim course (a comprehensive study of the Islamic Sciences) and become an imam. It’s not an easy course… would have taken him at least eight years to complete it, but I am sure he would have done that quite easily. He did very well in his hafiz exam,” says Qasmi.
The madrasa has a gruelling schedule, says Qasmi, but Junaid worked hard because he was “very ambitious”. Junaid and his classmates would wake up at 5 am every day and read the namaaz, which was followed by breakfast at 6 am. The next four hours were dedicated to their books. At 11 am, they would break for lunch, rest until 2 pm, after which they would go back to their books. It was only between 5 and 7 pm that Junaid took time out to play, usually a game of cricket.
The last 24 hours of Junaid’s life began with a feast. On June 21, around 11 pm, the village masjid had organised a community feast to celebrate Junaid’s reading of the Quran — during the holy month of Ramzan, Junaid had led the prayers as hafiz and had recited the full Quran within 26 days. “After he finished reading the Quran, relatives and neighbours gifted him money and it was with that money that he went Eid shopping to Delhi the next day,” says his brother Qasim. After that feast in the masjid, with sehri only a few hours away, Junaid went home to sleep.
“The sehri began at 3.10 am and ended by 3.48 am. He was with me until 4.30 am, when we offered the namaaz. After that, I went off to sleep and woke up at 8 am. By then, Junaid and Hashim had left for Delhi,” says Jalaluddin, his voice drifting as he remembers his last conversation with Junaid. “I asked him not to go. I told him I would take him with me in the car. Aaj kal mahaul achha nahin hai – log Musalmaano ko maar rahe hai, hamaari daadhi aur topi dekh kar…(The mood these days isn’t good. Muslims are being targeted because of our beards and caps),” he says.
But by then, Junaid’s adventure had begun. The boys got off at Sadar Bazaar station in Delhi. “We first headed to a madrasa in Azad Market, where I used to study, and met my teachers. We left the place around 2 pm,” says Hashim, his eyes welling up. The four then headed to Jama Masjid and bought the clothes they wanted to wear on Eid. It was there that the boys took photos and selfies of a trip they would never forget. In one of the photos, Junaid, dressed in a pair of jeans, a white shirt, and canvas shoes, poses in front of the Jama Masjid.
“He always wore kurta-pyjama because he was a hafiz, but that day, he wore jeans and took a different route from his house to avoid being seen by the villagers,” says Junaid’s friend Yasin. The previous night, he had tried to convince Yasin to come along. “I told him I have no money. He offered to pay for me but I said no,” says Yasin.
At 5 pm, Junaid and the others boarded the train. At 7.20 pm — five minutes before iftar that day — Jalaluddin got a call about his sons being in trouble at Ballabhgarh station. “I rushed to the station but the train had left by then. So I went home and broke my roza with a glass of water and a banana. By then I began getting calls from neighbours and my son Ismail, asking me to reach the hospital in Palwal. I saw my sons Shaqir and Hashim lying on beds, covered in blood, but I couldn’t find Junaid. I thought he was in the ICU,” says Jalaluddin, his voice steady as he relived that night of horror one more time.
“It was at 5 am that I realised Junaid was no more because I overheard my father talk about kafan ka kapda (shroud). I collapsed… my child was dead,” says Jalaluddin, fighting back tears. The day they buried Junaid, “thousands showed up, from near and faraway villages” to bid farewell to a boy who had touched many lives. “Itne log thay ki mitti kam pad gayi thi (There were so many people that there wasn’t enough mud to put on his body),” says Junaid’s friend Mujahid. “He meant so much to all of us, but now, everyone only knows him as the boy who died on the train,” says “best friend” Yasin.