The stories the children of Muzaffarnagar are being told this Diwali have a twist. Ram and Ravan,good and evil,are there just that the elders of the family are telling them that evil is closer than they think.
And the police have made an appearance in the Diwali narrative Eight-year-old Sagar was told that he could have no crackers this year and,if he disobeyed,he might be hauled off to jail.
Even without the stories,Sagar realises this Diwali is different. About two months ago,he saw his village,Lakh,burning like he had heard Hanuman burnt Lanka. The erstwhile Muslim locality in Lakh is now deserted and burnt out,and all its residents have fled.
Sagar knows something changed in September. Because of which the Diwali lights are dimmer this year. The celebrations are muted. His elders are silent. And his friend,Mushtaq,missing.
I saw Mushtaqs house on fire. He ran up to me and said that I was allowed to stay on in the village,but he had to leave, Sagar said,recalling his last conversation with his best friend. Three people died in Lakh,all of one family,Sagar said a man called Wahid,and his son and daughter-in-law.
The boy remembers last Diwali very well. Mushtaq and he had thrown a rocket and a chakri at their Wasim chachas home and hid. Bahaut daanta Wasim chacha ne. Lekin baad mein pede khilaye mujhe aur Mushtaq ko, Sagar said,his eyes lighting up with joyful memories.
But this Diwali is different. My father told me that the police would take us away if we celebrated Diwali. So I will only play inside the house today, he said. Not far away,in Kambaliyon wali Gali,32 houses belonging to Muslims were set ablaze.
Sagar pointed to Mushtaqs house,now reduced to merely a door dangling from a broken hinge and a few broken pots. The local masjid,surrounded by eight temples in the vicinity,is deserted. The strains of jagran blare through loudspeakers.
Mehak Singh sits on a charpoy,surrounded by his family,a hookah by his side. The mahapanchayat held on Thursday clearly said that this years Diwali would be a black Diwali. We are observing the rules. How can we celebrate when the atmosphere is so tense? he said.
A few kilometres from Lakh,at Lisarh,village elder Ram Singh Chauhan said,What is the point of celebrating this festival? Everything has been destroyed. We tried asking our Muslim brothers to come back. But they refused. Till last year,we were celebrating with them. Our neighbour,Mansoor Ahmad and his wife,would come over for lunch and we would send them halwa and mithai. But look,theres nothing left now.
At Mohammadpura Raisingh,a group of village elders sat discussing what they would do next. We dont want lights or celebrations. Everything was destroyed when the violence began, one of the men said.