They say Sageer Ahmad loved his red bicycle. They say he either pedalled it on the terrace of his one-room house shared by 15 or, like that day, when no one was looking, slipped out into the street. They say the streets were very narrow but, in his Bajardiha locality of Varanasi, children had few places to play. They say it were the narrow streets that killed him, when a mob returning from Friday prayers and protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, ran amok, and over him, following a police lathicharge. They say he remained unidentified for eight hours, covered in mud, his slippers missing. They say that of 20-odd to die in the CAA protests, he was the youngest.
He was eight.
Half-a-century ago, in lanes not far away from where Sageer lived and died, Rahi Masoom Raza wrote about a boy like him who grew there, Iffan, and his friend called “Topi Shukla”. Their names, as Raza wrote, suggested one part of their story. He wrote about the other part, of ties that survived post-Partition bitterness, an Urdu vs Khadiboli divide, Hindu norms against eating at Muslim homes, and a society that couldn’t understand what they shared. Topi Shukla got love that he couldn’t find at his own home with Iffan, Iffan’s grandmother who felt as lonely in her ultra-religious sasural, and later Iffan’s wife, who loved him like a brother (a relationship as little understood), and Iffan’s daughter. There was another thing that tied them together: Iffan’s cycle. Unable to get his family to give him one, Topi Shukla, once asked whether he wants a sister or brother from his pregnant mother, shoots back: “Why, can’t she deliver a cycle?”
Surely, even as seemingly yawning divides and hopelessness surround us, it’s this that we must hold onto: That, a Sageer could have a Topi Shukla. That, when a mob, holding colour of whatever flag, comes down a street, a door would open to take them in. That, those who shelter would always outnumber those who attack. That, it’s hard to imagine a single day without simple acts of kindness, even a smile. That, a Rahi Masoom Raza could give us two friends like Topi Shukla and Iffan, as well as render for a generation the epic battle of Mahabharata. That, our cities of narrow lanes continue to not be defined by children dying in stampedes within them but kids sailing down and over them.
So that, when the storm passes, as storms must, Sageer and Topi Shukla would emerge holding hands to look for their bicycle. They would dust it back as new, and take turns pedalling it.
It wouldn’t take them far, but far enough.
To the Faateman Dargah, where Iffan’s beloved grandmother was buried, as was another “poorbi” like her, Bismillah Khan, who couldn’t consider a life beyond Banaras, before or after Partition, and to the Ghats along which life has continued for hundreds of years — unfazed by the rise and fall of empires, unimpressed by emperors and prime ministers, and unstopped by death.
Sageer and Topi Shukla would perhaps not linger. As Sageer’s father, a cook, told newspersons, people like him don’t have the luxury to mourn. Bajardiha was once known for its Banarasi saris, spun with motifs that had travelled with the Mughals from Persia and mingled seamlessly with local ones. Like other weavers though, Sageer’s father had seen work dry up. Life would press Sageer and Topi Shukla to grow up fast too. And the cycle would move on — to two more friends, in yet another narrow lane, weaving yet another story. Every time Sageer and Topi Shukla would see some such cycle though, they would remember how, one Friday, a bend they took changed a little chapter in history.
In all the reports on the death of Sageer Ahmad of Bajardiha, there was no mention of his bicycle. The family lamented that they had not found even his slippers, while a government-promised compensation was awaited; no, they could not afford to turn it down, they said.
After his body was found, Sageer was hastily buried, for the sake of “harmony”. Days later, in poll-bound Delhi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated a project to build a Rs 550-crore cycle track.
What do eight zeroes in a cheque mean to an eight-year-old? Perhaps this: That, if and when that 200-km track to make life in the Capital “easier” gets built, people standing on it might, if only for a moment, recall Iffan, Sageer and Topi Shukla, and the other children pedalling uphill, in forsaken corners of the country. If they closed their eyes, they might just spot a red bicycle on it, with two boys, racing against the wind, their heads thrown back, laughing.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 27, 2020 under the title “Two bicycles, a broken dream”. firstname.lastname@example.org
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