Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

John Brown & a dog called Chum

Prologue: I do hereby solemnly affirm that I shall never twist the Prime Minister’s words. Never never never. For, when he first became...

Prologue: I do hereby solemnly affirm that I shall never twist the Prime Minister’s words. Never never never. For, when he first became a Member of Parliament, when he climbed Mount Everest, when he landed on the Moon, I didn’t exist, not even as the tail in my father’s sperm. That’s why, Mr Prime Minister, the next time you throw your 50-years-in-public-life open book at me, I shall kiss every page every line every word every letter until my lips fall off.

I’m a secular (check the page, has this word burnt a hole?) didn’t-cry-over-Godhra stoneheart. So last week, when I went to Ahmedabad, I wanted to bring home, as souvenirs, a charred body. Or a slit uterus. I wanted to pick Mr Modi’s pocket for his handkerchief. And smell, in the warm dankness of his Hindu sweat, the Muslim tears he’s wiped. I wanted to dismantle a mobile toilet at the Shah Alam relief camp, set it up on Race Course Road, equidistant from the houses of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, ask 85,000 frightened children, women and men to use it every morning.

Trust me, it isn’t as terrible as it sounds—trauma causes constipation. For Hindus and Muslims alike.

But my Gujarat trip was a bummer.

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The bodies had been buried; the uterus had grown two little feet, a tiny mouth, and had marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan in the footsteps of Sahmat activists. From there, perhaps, to George’s to tell him it wasn’t as old as 1984. At the camp, I saw a long line of people waiting outside the toilet. And because I pamper the minority community, I gave them the special privilege of defecating, I didn’t take the toilet away.

Instead, I went on a riot tour of the city and picked up some silly little souvenirs—books. Books don’t burn so easily, it’s high-school physics, the pages are stacked so close they don’t trap enough air to let a fire burn. Unlike a human body.

So here’s a little show and tell:

A child’s English workbook: Learning to Communicate, by S K Ram and J A Mason (Oxford University Press, 124 pages).

This book was on the balcony of an empty house in Gulbarg Society (38 burnt alive, 12 missing), for over 60 days, first touched by the fire, then by the 45-degree sun. The stain of a damp patch in the top left-hand corner has seeped into every page. The Fire Brigade came here to wash the dead, it must have been water from their hoses.


From the child’s handwriting in the book, I can’t make out if it’s a boy or a girl. There’s no name on the book, just a phone number on the inside cover, again in the child’s handwriting. I call.

‘‘Hello,’’ says a woman.

I wanted a slit uterus as a souvenir but it had grown two little feet, marched to the Rashtrapati with Sahmat activists. From there, perhaps, to George’s to tell him it wasn’t as old as 1984. So all I got were some books in the ashes. Unlike humans, books don’t burn so easily

‘‘I’m looking for a student,’’ I take a shot in the dark.

‘‘No, this is The School Post,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a monthly newspaper for schoolchildren that we bring out.’’


Maybe the child sent in a poem, a sketch, so I ask if she has heard of any contributors missing?

‘‘This is the summer vacation,’’ she says, ‘‘I’m sorry, all schools are closed.’’

The child’s writing ends on Page 84. After that, the book is unread, the blanks unfilled.

On Page 43, there’s a lesson called Fire In a Hotel about a blind man called John Brown and his dog Chum who are trapped in a hotel fire. ‘‘I smelt smoke! A fire! I felt the door of my room. It was hot so I didn’t open it. I wet some towels and put them along the bottom of the door. (The child has underlined this sentence). I felt my way to the window and opened it. But because I can’t see, I could not climb out.’’

I can see, so I look up at the child’s window, there’s nothing there, just a black rectangle.

The child has marked a poem: There is smoke everywhere I go. There is only one thing that I love, and that is the sky far above. There is plenty of room in the blue, for castles of clouds and me, too. Maybe the Poet-PM could weave this in his next musings from Manali or wherever

Another chapter the child has marked, sentence by sentence, even drawn sketches in its margins is a poem called The Town Child: I live in the town in a street, it is crowded with traffic and feet. The houses all wait in a row, there is smoke everywhere I go. There is only one thing that I love, and that is the sky far above. There is plenty of room in the blue, for castles of clouds and me, too.

Maybe when the Prime Minister takes his summer break, he’d like to weave this poem in his musings from Manali or wherever. By the way, no one knows how many children died in Gulbarg because the bodies were “too mangled to be identified.” The only one, an adult, we know of is Ehsan Jafri.


An IIT Delhi research paper: The use of dimethylformamide in the printing of cotton and polyster/cotton blends with rapidogen colours, by R B Chavan and D K Sinha, Department of Textile Technology, IIT Delhi.

This paper is on the ground, in front of the child’s balcony. A hot breeze makes the paper clap against a shard of metal. And shreds of clothes, one that looks like a bit of a blue sari, and other books: Java 2: Complete Referencer, Oracle Volume-1, Orientation Course: Basic Reference Material for English Usage, Competition Success Review: G K, June 2000.


All these books are intact except for charred edges in the shape of half-moons. The IIT paper is the least damaged: only a couple of strips torn at the top and smudges of what look like footprints.

For no reason, I call up its author Professor Chavan.

‘‘I wrote that paper several years ago,’’ he says, ‘‘maybe eight or ten. My co-author Sinha was an M Tech student then, he’s now teaching at the jute institute in Calcutta.’’

‘‘I found your paper outside a house in Ahmedabad where people were killed.’’ There’s a pause.

‘‘What can I say,’’ he says, ‘‘the student must have been into textile research. We conducted our experiment in Ahmedabad when we wrote that paper. It’s about an environment-friendly method to colour fabric.’’

“Did you update the paper?” I ask, a stupid, irrelevant question. But the good professor has a lot of patience. ‘‘I have gone on to other things now,’’ he says. Then asks: ‘‘Have they found out who this student was?’’

I say no.

Class XII Composition, Navneet Publications: This one is different, here the book has been ripped apart, pages and pages are strewn on the floors and the stairs of Best Bakery, Vadodara (12 burnt alive, two in the oven).

The right-hand edge of each page is burnt, as if the fire took a ruler and a flame and drew a straight line. It’s a Hindi-Gujarati-English book. In the chapter on letter-writing, on page 267, there’s a lesson: Write the following letter: Salim Sheikh, a resident of 21, Saraswati Sadan, Dariyapur, Ahmedabad, to his Surat friend Mahendra Patel on‘‘communal harmony.’’

The souvenir I couldn’t bring back: This belongs to four Muslim boys, all between four and seven years old, at the Shah Alam relief camp. They follow me as I enter, laugh at the way I walk, on my toes, since I have to take off my shoes and the stones are burning. I smile, they look back at me with a gaze so empty I almost fall into it.

These books and pages lie in a plastic folder, safe, in a cool, dark place, airconditioned at night, my study in a Hindu-dominated neighbourhood. At times, when no one’s looking, I take it out and smell them. Not just because I’m a secular pervert but because I love the smell of books, the bookstore aisle smell, the college-hostel smell, the bookshelf-newly-varnished smell, the second-hand smell. And now the first-owner-may-have-been-burnt-alive smell.

If I breathe real hard, I catch it: a whiff like that from an ashtray unused for a while mixed with the smell you get from a floor-mop dried in the sun. It’s very faint; come June, July, even this will go away, leaving behind odourless paper, brown and brittle.

That’s why I wanted the mobile toilet on Race Course Road.

Epilogue: What about Godhra? Yes, there must surely have been a tiffin box on the train, perhaps, a piece of bedding lying in the burnt coach. A child looking through the window, her face pressed against its bars as the platform came into view, the mother packing her bag, telling her it’s time to get off. And then the murderous mob. To those who ask why don’t you cry over that, I have only answer: Go to hell, I won’t even dignify your question.

But I shall say one thing. When Muslims form 87% of our population, when they take over Gujarat and the Centre, when 98% of IPS and IAS officers are Muslim, when they all sit back and watch us die, when mullahs walk in and out of the Prime Minister’s house discussing ways to build a mosque over a temple they demolished, when they don’t rent me a house because my name is Hindu, I shall go looking for that child who saw the Muslim mob, her face pressed to the bars of the train window.

Until then, I seek comfort in the Prime Minister’s speech at Shah Alam: ‘‘My heart breaks,’’ he said. ‘‘With what face shall I go abroad? My own people, refugees in their own country… how did all this happen?’’ Unless, of course, this wasn’t what he said. And his words were twisted by some hack sold out to the human cause. These days, you can never be sure.

First published on: 13-05-2002 at 12:00:00 am
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