Written by Sameena Dalwai
Ours was a mixed household — Hindu mother, Muslim father. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992, my parents had to leave our home in Bandra East, situated on the LoC between Behrampada and the Shiv Sena-dominated chawls. Just across the highway was the Thackeray residence. We were not just a Muslim or mixed family, we were political activists. Shiv Sena rallies would stop in front of our building; the dhol would get louder while they would look up to the fifth floor where we lived.
But Madhukar Sarpotdar, a Shiv Sena leader, was going to be arrested and trouble was brewing. Journalist friends advised us to move out of Bandra. A friend came with his vehicle and my parents and 12-year-old brother rode in it, passing through the lane filled with agitated Shiv Sainiks. That affected them deeply, fleeing from their home in order to protect their child, bowing their heads to save their lives.
In Dharavi, the jeep was surrounded by young men looking for trouble. They asked the man sitting in front his name — it was Shinde. “Who is at the back? That bearded guy?” He could not answer, he broke into a cold sweat. Baba said calmly, “Husain Dalwai. Should I get down?” They looked at each other and said, “jau dya re gadi” (let the car pass). Baba narrated this to us and said, “those were Dalit boys. All my life I have worked with Dalit comrades. If they don’t recognise my name, what’s the point? Better to die.”
Gandhi was fasting during the Partition riots. People would come and beg him to break the fast. He would say, go stop the riots. They would sob and say, how can we? Goons are roaming the streets with swords. What power do we have over them? Gandhi would say, “goons get power because you close the doors on the violence — it justifies the violence. Go home, say I will not let anything happen in my gali. In here, violence will happen only upon my dead body. If each person decided that, no goon will dare to kill and loot.”
Gandhi knew the power of discourse.
The violence was shattering. More and more stories were heard and with the accompanying fear, a sense of helplessness. The long-lasting impact was the change in the discourse, the justification of the violence and humiliation. Everywhere you went, the middle-class Mumbaikar rejoiced in the “lesson taught” to “those Musalmans” (lande was the more frequently used word — it means “shortened” in Marathi — for the circumcised penis of Muslim men).
Yet, what penetrated most was the disappointment when the veneer of leftism was wiped from many people in our own circle, revealing the callous Hindu majoritarian streak beneath.
Some incidents: My cousin, then a young journalist, wrote a piece titled, “How I became a Muslim”. He meant to convey how a young man from a dedicated Socialist family was cornered into feeling like a Muslim through the rapid communalisation of his surroundings. In response, a young Brahmin boy wrote, “Still I did not become a Hindutva-vadi”, as if becoming Muslim and becoming a right-wing Hindu could be analogous. The boy belonged to the Bombay Goregaon Socialist circle, where he became a hero for writing this.
A popular women’s magazine from the Pune left circle published, “Muslims should strive to be part of mainstream” — a clear case of victim-blaming for the violence perpetrated against them. Some critical responses came. But the magazine was unapologetic, publishing another piece justifying the first by the same author — who was also on their editorial board.
Suddenly, there was little difference between the right and left, comrades and strangers. The left camp became the fence on which many people were sitting.
This added to the festering cultural negation. We were told we don’t really “look Muslim”. As if that was a compliment. As if being or looking Muslim was a bad thing. On Eid, people would ask, “Oh, do you celebrate Eid?” We celebrated Diwali too. But no one thought that was problematic or even religious. I never went back to that circle, never forgave those moments.
My school was Balmohan Vidyamandir, next to Shivaji Park. Just opposite Sena Bhawan. Kids were very excited. They used to picket at night, walking up and down their lanes “protecting” their chawls. They were expecting an attack by sea — ships full of Muslims (Arabs?) were going to come via the Arabian Sea and anchor at Dadar Chowpatty. From there, they would come straight for Sena Bhawan and the residences around it. Of course, the school was also not safe, being in the same locality. Nothing was safe from Muslims.
In the dark of the night, the ring of the phone was more shrill. Baba would fumble and pick it up. “They have set our houses on fire,” desperate voices would state from the other side. “They have blocked the road so the fire brigade cannot enter the gali,” they would sometimes add. Especially in areas close to us — Behrampada, Naupada, Golibar — Muslim slums were on fire. Baba would call police stations, government officers, the home minister. Rant, threaten, beg. Someone’s house is burning, their children are on the streets, milk bottles are inside. Nights were worse when the fires burnt brighter.
During the day, we could see the fire and smoke rising from Behrampada. People standing on top of the huts in a line and passing buckets, pots, pitchers full of water to burning houses, trying to contain the fire. Sometimes successfully. Sometimes not. The police would be hiding on the terraces of the “Hindu chawls” across, with their guns pointed towards the hutments. They would take aim, fire and crouch down again. It was a battlefield for them. They were not the impartial state apparatus of a secular nation, they were the soldiers in a holy war. When they were not pointing their guns at Muslims, they would spend their time reading Saamana (the mouthpiece of Shiv Sena that called upon “real Hindus” to do their duty).
The Eid after the riots, I passed through the lane where big biryani pots were being brought out. For the policemen on duty. Mumbai was returning to normal. What did they give in return, I wondered? What kind of friendship is this? This is a marriage, with domestic violence. The husband breaks the wife’s arm, she ends up in a hospital. He does not apologise, though older relatives scold him — this time he has gone too far. He is mollified enough to take her back. Big-heartedly. After all, the house belongs to him.
Then the wife comes home and starts puttering in the kitchen with her arm in a sling. Cooking his favourite dishes to placate him. Muslims are cooking biryani in big pots. This is our reconciliation. No one apologised. But the marriage is on. The spirit of Bombay — the unconquered spirit of Bombay that we hail — is back.