I stepped out into the streets of Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India), melting under the blazing sun. Five minutes after a fresh bath, the cotton top I was wearing was already stuck to my skin with the sweat streaming down my back. But the same cotton fabric, draped over bamboo poles, was all the protection that the residents of the riot shelters in Ahmedabad had against the 1200 F blistering heat outside.
As I entered the temporary shelters built for the hundreds of families whose homes have been burnt in the recent riots, the scene inside the tents transfixed me. There was a buzz of activity around me. Expecting to witness anger, outrage, angst, tears and sadness, I was stunned by the apparent normalcy!! Inside the tent were idyllic scenes of life as usual. For a moment it seemed as though everyone was having a party. Women were making rotis (flat wheat bread) and vegetable curries on makeshift stoves, combing each other’s hair, oiling it and massaging the scalp, knitting, sowing and talking. The men were huddled in a group talking and smoking, while children were running around playing with each other. A few of the older children were getting their school lessons from volunteer teachers. These were supposed to be the victims of the worst Hindu / Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat in India. As I walked through the camp, I was convinced that the newspaper stories of the atrocities suffered by these families were, if not fiction, then highly exaggerated!
I spent the day visiting a number of camps, walking the streets, and talking to people to really understand the emotions that may be simmering just beneath the normal demeanor. To understand the nature of the violence that broke out in Gujarat, one probably needs some sense of the history of the region. But, where do we begin? Was it always a history of hatred that dominated? When exactly did the Hindus and Muslims of India begin to hate each other, after living off the same soil in peace and friendship for centuries? When did the Palestinians and Israelis begin hating one another? In what specific period did man decide he would unleash his wrath on the woman by raping her? Many intellectuals have postulated the answers in their articles, books, and opinion columns. I am not a good chronicler of history but a painter of the present. I cannot only attempt to put into words the results of the hatred unleashed in Gujarat since February 27th 2001.
Gujarat is the land that gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence. He spent many years in Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad in Gujarat. It is ironic that the riots started with the passengers of the Sabarmati express. As the train pulled into the station of Godhra, little did the passengers realize that they had entered not just a train station but their death sentence. Hindu / Muslim wars have been raging ever since I can remember, and the town of Godhra was a microcosm of the differences between the two cultures. On Feb 27th the train was carrying some Hindus coming back from their trip to Ayodhya, the stage of many recent tensions between the two communities. Usually police increase security at the station on days that the Hindus either leave or arrive at the station. That day, the police apparently had no prior information that the Hindus were arriving by that train.
To this day, I cannot quite picture how an entire carriage was set on fire burning alive 57 men, women and children. I try to imagine the fear that must have gripped those who were trapped in the steel carriage, once their shield of protection turning into their pyre. The smell of burnt skins, the sight of charred bodies of all sizes formed the ingredients of a hatred stew, spiced with anger, resentment, politics and, most importantly, sadness. As the stew made its way to the angry mob, it seemed to be the only way to quench their hunger for revenge. And so, the charred Hindu bodies were buried deep underneath the 600 plus Muslim bodies that were beaten, battered or burnt. Just as the Hindus at the Godhra station were subject to the wrath of the Muslim members of the same town, the Muslim members across the state were attacked by their Hindu neighbors
Was the fire stoked by political powers? Was all the violence reported for real or not? I needed to see for myself, so I journeyed to the camps of Ahmedabad where hundreds of Muslims and Hindus were given shelter in the camps. I was taken to the camp by a social worker, Jacintha. As we entered, she was surrounded by men and women asking her to clear their issue – food, medicine, and allocation of money given by government to rebuild their homes. It was a cacophony of voices each trying harder than the other to be heard doing what they do best – survive. Jacintha made her way through the crowd and entered a medical tent. Close to a dozen doctors and administrators were managing those who needed medical attention. Saline bottles were hanging from a clothesline. Under each bottle, there was a folding cot, each containing an ailing body. Saline drips were being injected into the bodies of men, women and children suffering from heat stroke, jaundice, high blood pressure and a gamut of other complaints that I could not quite tabulate. The doctors were running around with sweat pouring down their bodies attending their patients. Again, there was this sense of routine and rigor. It was not like the set of “ER” where the doctors are embodiments of concern, empathy and efficiency, especially in the face of a national calamity. In this emergency relief camp, the doctors and patients were going around as though this was an everyday routine.
Jacintha introduced me to two young men, who were supposed to be my guides around the camps, I told them that I would like to talk to some women, which meant that I had to go to another camp. As we were walking out, one of the families caught my eye and I decided I wanted to talk to them. In a way, I was hesitant to ask intruding questions. What right did I, as a foreigner who arrived in an air conditioned car for a brief visit have the right to ask them to relive the moments of terror? But, my need to feel the texture of the blanket of misery was so deep that I halted hesitantly. As I squatted down hesitantly next to this old woman, she started telling me her story even before I could ask. She told me of the mob that attacked their neighborhood, of their confused run across the street, of the bullet that pierced the body of her youngest son, of their desperate calls for an ambulance, of the final arrival at the hospital, of the bulleted body that lay in the corridor for three hours before finally giving up. She spoke of the anger and the frustration of watching her son die. As she told the story, her remaining family of two sons, daughters-in-law and grand children surrounded me chiming in with their own comments. One of the sons brought her cotton pouch and asked her to show me the doctor’s certificate. She showed me the death certificate and said that it merely states the cause of death as an injury and not the real reason of neglect. She is the matriarch surrounded by her brood, demanding justice. There were no tears, no raised tones – just a recounting of events as though this had been repeated the umpteenth time. All I could do was give her a goodbye embrace and be on my way.
We drove half a kilometer to the Muslim residential neighborhood, stopping at the entrance of a narrow lane where 8-10 men were gathered talking, smoking or simply staring into space. The arrival of the car attracted some attention and my two guides explained to them that I came to see the burnt neighborhoods. We walked through lanes so narrow that if a bicyclist rides by, the pedestrians have to plaster themselves to the sidewalks to make way. We wandered deep into the neighborhood witnessing burnt homes on either side. I could see the burnt remains of televisions, antennae, utensils, cots, and clothes – the remains of a lifestyle that once occupied a few sq. ft of space. I found it tragically amusing that the house had collapsed but the front doors were closed and carefully locked!! It was as though the occupants were making a statement that this still belonged to them, walls or no walls. One of my guides took me to his home. When I was at Intel, I used to complain that my office of 8x8 was so small that if I stood up and extended my arms, I could touch both walls. In a space that was at best twice the size of my office at Intel, my guide and his family made a home and business of sowing clothes for a garment company. In the dim light, I saw the floor was strewn with burnt utensils, an iron, sowing machine, and many objects beyond identification. There was no space to step foot into the home. As we closed the door, I asked him as to how he managed to get electricity to his burnt home. He said that he brought in a line from his neighbor (whose house has not been burnt) and hung a bulb from it so that visitors can clearly witness the damage. There are no windows in the house, so he had to do something to make sure that the loss was visible. “If I am asking the government to reimburse me to build my home, I have to make sure that the inspectors can see the damage, right Madam!” he asked me. I was awed by his practicality and presence of mind, in the face of total loss.
We continued wandering through the lanes giving way to wandering buffaloes, bicycles and babies. They showed me the wall that divided the Muslim neighborhood from the Hindus. They described how all of them ran for their lives in those narrow streets as the mobs descended on them with a variety of weapons and fuel to burn the neighborhood. There was an eerie silence all around us in which their description of the mayhem, hue and cry seemed somehow louder and unreal. We finally made our way back to the car and went to the camp where I was to meet some women.
As we entered the camp, we went to the camp manager and received permission to speak to some women. I was escorted by a group of men leading the way to the women’s camps. They all entered the tent where a group of women were sitting. One of the men pointed to a young girl and said in Hindi “Tumhare saath kya hua madam ko phata phat bataado” (Hey you! Just hurry up and tell this madam all the stuff that happened to you). That was the last straw for me. Asking a woman to recount the brutality that she suffered – in a hurry?! I asked all the men to leave the tent taking with them the chair that they brought for me to occupy. I could not imagine any woman talking about anything in front of a few dozen men.
I squatted on the floor amidst the women and told them about myself. I let the conversation unfold as women young and old around me opened up their lives. We did not talk about any specific brutality suffered by any individual woman. I finally said to them that I have been reading about physical brutality towards women, was it all true? Did they know anyone who had been subject to abuse? Barely had I finished my question, and a torrent of comments came tumbling down. They talked about the humiliation they felt as the attackers ran their hands on the beautiful faces of their daughters making obscene suggestions, they talked about their feelings of fear watching their men die, they talked about women who were stripped naked in the middle of the street and ravaged by the wrath of man, they talked of muted struggles behind closed doors, of bruises to their souls of seeing their life long neighbor drag their daughter into physical submission, of loss of life. As long as they could recount the experience as what they saw happening to someone else, they could portray the gory details. I was in the midst of my fellow women describing their wounds as though they were all watching a movie. In that moment, I could see that the garb of normalcy was the only way they could cope with the betrayal of their own neighbors. It was the only way they could survive and move on. Tears, depression and drowning in sorrow are for the privileged; feeding the family, finding a shelter, fighting the lines in the medical tent and hospitals to heal the physical wounds are the lifeline of these displaced lives.
The beauty of the women that surrounded me was overwhelming. Two women – Tabu and Saira Banu – particularly touched me. Tabu is the quiet beauty. Her fair skin glowed despite the heat and dust. Her large oval eyes brimmed with words as she quickly averted her glances, her slim body sat unmoving as she heard other women tell stories, her pink, thin lips parted to reveal a pleasant smile only when I started talking about education. Her eyes sparkled and she became a child as she told me about how she used to come first in her class all the way though 7th grade. Then, she had to stop going to school as it was not appropriate for a young girl to be attending school at that grown age. At 18, she lost her father, is now living with her uncle and his family and is already married and divorced. The only thing that she wanted in her life was to study. She wanted to read books, learn computers, and learn about the world out there. All I could do was listen. As I was saying that I must be going, she is the one who tugged at my arm and said “Aur thodi der beitho na didi!” (please stay a while sister!). I laughed and sat back, and asked her what she wanted me to talk about. She wanted to know about me, what I studied, where I studied and how I became what I am today. She sat on the floor with her legs pulled up to her chin, swinging slightly with her arms encircling her legs listening attentively about my school, colleges in Hyderabad, Mumbai and America. I could see the hunger in her eyes to study, the itching in her hand to hold her favorite book and the vision in her mind to enter the world of computers.
Ever since I left my job of being a venture capitalist and completely entered the world of non-profit, engaging in activities of basic and digital education in India, I have had fleeting moments of doubt when I wonder if I made the right financial decision. I wonder if all our efforts to educate people in India are just a drop in the bucket and if my time is better spent directly contributing to building companies. But, it is moments like this, when I am sitting on the dusty floor under a makeshift tent, drenched in sweat, looking into the eyes of a beautiful 18 year old whose hunger for learning has not been fed when I realize the importance of my work. In that moment, the charter to provide education to thousands of such Tabus, giving them the opportunity to speak their minds and pave their futures becomes my calling beyond any doubt. In the silent holding of my hand, Tabu reiterated my purpose in life more loudly than any inspiring speech I had ever heard.
Saira-Banu was another source of inspiration for me. She is the tough one! She was not going to let anyone tell her what to do or how to do it. She said that she had five younger sisters and it was her job to make sure they were all taken care of. She lived in a neighborhood where her family was the only Muslim family. As the riots broke, her home was demolished and a temple was erected in its place. She is waging a war to get her home back. I asked her why she wanted to live in the midst of people who hate them so much. Her answer was very simple “because it is our home and we should not be forced out of our home”. She said that she knew that I may not be able to do anything but she was going to talk about her problem to anybody and everybody she comes in contact with – just in case that person may be able to help. She told her mother that she was not interested in getting married, that she wanted to study and become independent. She was preparing for her first year B.A exams as these riots broke and they lost their home. As soon as she had resolved some of the issues at home, she planned to move to her uncle’s place in Mumbai to study. She was not going to let some man run her life!
As she was speaking, I could see the tough exterior cracking up to show the burden of being the loud one and the smart one. I have experienced, in my life, that in any society, be it Eastern or Western, women can get a lot more done by being demure, batting their eyelids than they can by speaking their minds out. At times, it could take inordinate strength to simply speak one’s mind out. I knew how difficult it must be for her to continuously speak her mind out, strategically succumbing to societal pressure but also staying true to her inner beliefs. Her determination to get her home back, to study, to become independent moved me beyond words. I gave her my Mumbai address and told her that if she put in the effort to move in with her uncle’s family and get herself admitted in a college, I would take care of the rest. I promised her that if she put in her effort, I would put in mine … to make sure that she studied. I am confident that sooner or later, I will get that letter and that I will see her graduate into life as a successful woman. It is her spirit, her independence and her intelligence that can offend a man – that part of society, which wants to keep such women in their place. I am doing everything I can to promote that spirit and display it in the museum of self-preservation.
As I dropped off my guides at their camp and drove back home, I understood that the very normalcy that initially confused me is the face of strength that makes India move on despite its poverty and prejudice. When I decided to visit the camps, I was prepared to see crying babies, battered women, and bruised men .. all telling me their sorrowful tales, filling me with sadness and despair. I expected to shout their plight to the world using my mighty pen and feel good that I made a contribution to open the eyes of a far away society to the plight of my fellow citizens. What I came back with is a renewed understanding of strength and reality. In real life, people don’t wander around moping their plight. They light up their burnt homes with borrowed electricity so that they can make sure everyone else can see the damage. They make sure they show you every piece of paper that supports their accusations, they make silent pleas by looking into your eyes – pleas that you can miss if you are in a hurry. They want to hear about good times, learn about the world outside their four walls, and speak out loud and clear till they get justice. They have not lost their focus to get back the roof over their head, clothing on their back and a chance to get education.
During my visit, I read angry outbursts by influential individuals, demands of accountability from the government, call for peacemaking talks between prominent Hindu / Muslim leaders, statements of Hindus blaming the Muslims and vice versa and I believe that all these are important actions following the carnage. As I heard of the horrific incidents, I felt as though I was being dragged through the dark alleys of cruelty that seem to lurk dangerously close to human decency. None of what I heard or felt prepared me for the determination of the people in the camps to return to normalcy. When those who have suffered so much are not letting the events defocus them from their duties and future, I too am inspired to keep my focus on my goal – to help educate every Tabu, to provide the financial freedom to every Saira-Bano and to connect every man, woman and child to the rest of the world so that they can see for themselves that we are all equal and open their eyes to their own potential.
Needless to say, I am still upset at the meaningless killings, I am sad about betrayal by neighbors, I am shocked by the physical destruction, I am heart broken by the Hindus and Muslims who are unable to see that by killing each other, they are only ruining their own lives. But after this visit, I am also hopeful of the healing of the indomitable human spirit and am convinced that education is a necessary foundation for a truly secular India. Now, my writing is not a way to tell the world of the suffering of my people but a story of their strength and desire for purposeful survival.