One evening when he called me, I was still angry. “People in cities are like that,” he corrected me.
It was not much. Just a conversation. We did conversations. He had called to wish me on Eid. I joked that I got no sweets. He promised to send a family recipe. Malegaon was too far for him to send me anything else. He always kept dates. Every event was a phone call between us. Festivals, his and mine. Dates, his court hearings and blast anniversaries. Shabbir Masiullah was a stickler for dates and his phone calls were always a memory jog.
Today morning though, no one called me. No one told me it’s the anniversary again. Nine years can be long. On September 8, 2006, a blast killed 31 persons in Malegaon, a textile town in Maharashtra. The story played in newspapers and on television channels. Everything was perfect news anchor material. Shabbir always thought blasts were made for media. “Friday prayers, mosque, Muslims, holy day Shab- e- Baraat. Who thinks like this?” he once asked me sipping tea outside Sessions Court, where he once lugged a heavy bag and a charge-sheet.
On one of the anniversaries (it was another blast), he just called and went silent. Then he asked me if I had seen or read anything new. A movie, a book or even seen a new photograph. “Kuch naya,” he repeated. I scratched my brain and said I am busy with work. Nothing much. Just stories and deadlines.
He wasn’t pleased. Everyone needed to respect freedom, he would say. Years in jail, often at times standing in one corner, he narrated anecdotes of over-crowded jail rooms, he told me of the colours he associated freedom with. Sometimes he even thought of it as a bike ride. In Malegaon, he was always the “dashing guy who drove a bike”. Once inside jail, he says he was happy to find a newspaper, which had a total of five photographs. “Imagine, I saw a new place. Five new places,” he had laughed.
But then jails are never kind. He says there were also days, when it was difficult, when the pain would reach his “eyes”.
A sort of swelling, sometimes it would be from an infection — “jail saaf nahi hote”, or of having slept with the eyes open for fear of being beaten by co-inmates – “bas, ab isse zyaada nahi bol paoonga, aap ladies hai”, and sometimes of having kept watch for hours waiting to see a perfect time to use the common bathroom and loo. Freedom then, he said, was always colourful and full of “bade bulb wali light”. The only time I met him at his house he had just returned from Namaaz. His father was waiting for him. Everyone was happy. This was November 2011 and he had just been released on bail. From 2006 to November 2011, the family had purchased new carpets every six months, as the father always hoped for his son’s return. The house was always made to look celebratory.
Sitting outside his house on a “Malegaon palang”, he narrated his story, a media briefing. Later in the evening, we went to a shop where he had restarted his business. He was “batterywala”, selling inverters to a dark Malegaon before his arrest. “Raat Malegaon mai kuch aur hi hai,” he once told me. “You should visit a small town after sunset. You will see the aspirations and struggles through the day, but just switch those big bulbs during festivals and the very same place becomes a happy place,” he told me once, on another visit to Malegaon as we stood on a street waiting to see if a sweet shop was open.
The Malegaon blast 2006 chargesheet has him as the man who stocked RDX and made bombs. While I wrote on all the accused, I could never write on Shabbir. Someone else always did. In the years later, he became a local vet, a masseuse who helped people heal after he learnt the art of Ayurvedic healing from two co-inmate. For hours, he could tell you the muscles and the bones and the way they should bend.
“I think you writers sit a lot. That is your problem,” he once told me. He always wanted me to travel, meet new people, look for more stories.
Jails, he said, always made him think of the stories as a narrator. He said he would try to narrate the lives of people he met inside as a story teller. Since that November of 2011, we continued to meet in the big city. Calls became frequent between us when he neared a court date or when he reminded me of an important event. It could be the 7/11 blast, sometimes the Malegaon blast, sometimes the attack at Ajmer Dargah.
Life was always a phone call between Shabbir and me. His phone calls always started with greetings, and he always inquired if I am happy. He never asked anything personal. Our phone calls would involve matters involving Malegaon, of amusing cattle stories, the latest lungi prints, news from city life and often his amusing narratives of returning to normalcy. He had also begun making a list of words he wanted to understand. He once even asked me the origin of the word terrorist. He thought ‘jihadi’ too had a complicated meaning.
It was in one such call he spoke of getting his father remarried. “Old age can be lonely. He needs someone. I need to only convince him now,” he said. I asked him how will the family, community and the town take the news. He just laughed. “What worse can anyone say now?”
Another phone call announced that he was coming to meet me in Mumbai last year. Again a court date. We sat at Kayanis cafe and spoke for hours. The tea and the biscuits kept coming. He was keeping his fast and making sure that I drink my tea and eat my biscuits. The bill was always paid by him. His son had stopped going to school, after other students ridiculed him calling “son of a terrorist”.
This had been a concern with him soon after he returned to Malegaon. He wanted me to talk to the boy and tell him his father is innocent. I promised I will do so the next time I visit this boy. Early this March, I received a call. A friend called to first check on me. I was in a happy space. I was in Manipur, with a friend at a local woman’s ancestral house. The locals drank in their kitchen, from labels like ‘After Dark”. It’s through broken words I heard him say that Shabbir Masiullah is no more. A wall collapse got him in the end.
I drank that night. I even went to sleep hours later. I think it takes a new town full of strangers to drown you sometimes. Except the drinking, he would have approved everything of that night.
If Shabbir was alive today — I would have got a phone call in the morning. We would have spoken of mundane things, of cattle jokes, of the state of weavers in Malegaon, of the new words he had learnt, of his son, of the many new people he has met, or the places he wants to see. We would have then spoken of the blast. Of the delay in justice. We would have then moved to other subjects. He promising to meet again with a fresh story in one of the “Bambai” cafes “yaha log chai kadak peethe hai. Shayad issliye jab dekho bagthe rehte hain (people here drink strong tea. Maybe they are always running hence).
The last time he met me, he trekked a huge charge-sheet for me all the way from Malegaon. We met again in one of the small cafes drinking tea from stained cups. When the time for his train neared, we paid and left our separate ways. I always promised him that I will meet him again in Malegaon. He responded with a simple, “dua mai yaad rakna”.
If he were alive today, we would have spoken of light bulbs and freedom, and the idea of being declared innocent.Though he knew the meaning, Shabbir first heard this word used for him, in a court room when a defence lawyer pleaded he was one.
It’s nine years since the blast took place and nine men including Shabbir were booked for the conspiracy and execution.
When will you write my story, he always joked. I think today is a good day.