From the novel Rohzin
Will I find a way to return or not? If I want to.
The kholi of the jamaat was on the ground floor of an old-fashioned three-storey building. The residents had lived there through the pagadi system of rent, for the past five decades. The owner of the building, Salahuddin Memon, belonged to a family involved in business; he was a religious person. The building was decaying, but its residents wouldn’t agree to have it refurbished. When Asrar came out of the dark alleys of the building with his friends, the May summer sun blinded his eyes.
There were two other boys with Asrar; they had come to Mumbai for the first time. As soon as they came out of the kholi, they seemed to have turned into statues. It was an unforgettable moment in their lives. They gazed at the tall buildings, the curtained windows, the roads, the passers-by and the clothes they were wearing. Along the road and on the footpath, as far as their eyes could see, there were hawkers and vendors. A kiosk before them sold children’s clothes, caps, miswak, rosary, zamzam, various Islamic prayer books, rehals and Qurans in different sizes. A black dog slept comfortably under the stall. Asrar looked at the dog. Half its body was submerged in the dirty water that made a puddle by the footpath. The dog’s eyes were shut; a big fat fly sitting on a sweet gaped at its nose like a lazy donkey. The nose was like a tunnel for the petty fly. To newcomers, Mumbai itself seems a tunnel. Asrar spotted three or four holes dug into the footpath. The dog suddenly wagged its tail; a mouse that had been nibbling at the trash stuck to it was disturbed and it ran into the nearest hole. The same moment, two mice emerged from a second hole, fighting with each other, and used the dog as a bridge to enter the drain. On hearing the commotion the fly flew, but the lazy dog, drowning in his existence, lay there unperturbed. Maybe this was his routine. In a life spent on the footpath he had risen above avenging the small, daily infringements of lowly mice. When Asrar’s eyes were accustomed to the brightness, he spotted a few perfume shops nearby. These shops had boards written in Arabic calligraphy. One shop was named “Khalis Atariyat-e-Jameel-ul Assam”. It was open, and he could see how it was adorned with small and beautiful glass bottles of varied shapes and sizes filled with atr. “Where did you lose yourself?” said Mohammad Ali, putting his hand on Asrar’s shoulders. “There is so much more to see!”
They couldn’t have walked more than a few feet when they found themselves drawn to the Minara mosque. Saleem said a few lines in its praise and remarked how the area always lit up in the month of Ramzan, overflowing with people so that there was no place to take a step forward.
Qasim playfully said, “If there’s no place to put your foot, where do people put their feet?” They laughed. Saleem was silent, then relented with a quick smile. Mohammad Ali bought three paans from the shop round the corner. Asrar could only gape at the minarets. Their beauty, the inscriptions and expert engravings — everything amazed him. He was unaware that just as he stared at them, they had, for so long, stared at both the days of spring and the dark nights of this city. The minarets had seen huge gatherings and long processions. They had witnessed chaos and political strife. They had watched the competition between religions and sects. The minarets also knew the uniformed policemen who had, like barbarians, killed so many in the Umar Ali Usman Lungi Cut Bakery during the communal riots, still unpunished by the court. They had also seen Imam Mehjur al Bukhari al Maaruf al Hijr Ghilman in the dark nights, helping place RDX boxes on the silent roads after some months of rioting in Mumbai. No one ever knew at whose behest Imam Mehjur al Bukhari al Maaruf al Hijr Ghilman had done it. The enigma of the RDX boxes surfaced for a few days, and became a debate, when the Imam was mercilessly murdered in broad daylight a few kilometres away from the mosque.
Asrar was intrigued by the minarets of the Minara mosque. He was sure they were home to a number of djinns. Asrar was oblivious to the doom the surrounding areas had repeatedly witnessed — events that had made the minarets sombre and ashamed. These minarets had seen the day when thousands of Muslims had gathered to protest against Salman vald Mansoor al Hallaj, a.k.a. Kitab-ut-Tawaseen, and the police had blindly opened fire on them. It was here that dozens of young men were pushed down death’s dark tunnel. The drain running below the Minara mosque had overflowed with the blood of the victims of this and other such incidents. Blood that falls into dirty waters loses its smell; but demons and djinns can scent fresh blood. Whenever innocent blood is shed in the vicinity of Mohammad Ali Road, and the blood flows through underground drains and mixes with dirty water, then runs through the drains of the temple of Mumba Devi nearby before heading towards the sea — at such times demons dance the tandav in the temple courtyard. This is what is said. It’s quite possible that these belong to the same lineage of blood-drinking demons who were defeated by Mumba Devi. They perform the dance of destruction to add to her sorrows and grief. After the dance, they enter the drains which carry blood. They enter the tunnels underground and separate the blood from the water, drinking the blood of innocents that comes from Mohammad Ali Road. These demons can remove what they don’t need from the water. Then they come back and dance again in front of Mumba Devi. This aggravates her fury; but since she promised Brahma that she would not attack the demons till the seven islands of Mumbai returned to their original state, she swallows her anger. Brahma had told Mumba that a time would come when it would rain for forty nights and forty days in Mumbai. The torrential rain would inundate and destroy everything. History would end. The islands would be submerged in water, to reappear as one big island after forty years. Then a demon named Gujratam Desham Kaldam would rule the island. When all limits of barbarism, cruelty and injustice reach their pinnacle, the walls of Mumba Devi temple, which stayed intact even after being submerged, will break; and Mumba Devi will rise to defeat the demon. Brahma foretold the battle between the Devi and the demon but not its outcome. Which is exactly why there is anger and fierceness on her face, along with deep thought and wonder.
Mohammad Ali presented Saleem with the paan and he put it in his mouth. The chuna that came free with it he put on his tongue.
They moved ahead.
Cars, taxis and buses crawled down Mohammad Ali Road. People crossed the road running in the path of vehicles. Horns honked relentlessly; some people spoke loudly at the turn of the road. Below the JJ Flyover, two rickshaw pullers sat on their vehicles, smoking bidis. A taxi driver argued with a Bohri woman. A crippled man stood across from her, wearing a green cap, as if waiting for alms, as if in anticipation of his wish being granted once the argument had ended. In Mumbai even the beggars seem very hopeful. Asrar really liked the red, green and blue beads around the beggar’s neck. The argument had not ended when a young girl joined the beggar, spreading her hands in hope of alms. The lame beggar did not like her being there; he hit her on the hip with his crutches. She ran, but before she crossed the road, she abused him. The abuses faded into the traffic’s din. No one noticed. Asrar still stared at the flyover, a sleeping anaconda in the sunlight.
On Mohammad Ali Road, a delicious smell from the Umar Ali Usman Sweet Shop dissolved in the air. They looked at the nannkhatai. A boy in a lungi entered the shop carrying a tray of sweets on his head. The smell of fresh sweets overpowered Qasim. “Which mithai is this?” he asked.
“Aflatoon!” the boy replied.
Mohammad Ali asked Qasim, “Do you want to eat some?”
Without waiting for an answer, Mohammad Ali bought half a kilo of aflatoon and offered it to the newcomers. Spitting out some betel juice, he showed off his knowledge of the various kinds of sweets in Mumbai. Saleem added that the sweets of Dum Dum were also delicious. They were enjoying the mithai when some children rushed toward them, palms spread, asking for a share. One was wearing only trousers. The oldest wore a torn cap. Saleem also spat some betel juice onto the footpath and said irritably, “Kya re, kami dvandva nail hair? Chal hat.” When he heard this the older boy pointed towards the younger one’s mouth, probably to show he was hungry. “Abe saale, you live right here on the footpath behind this lane!” Mohammad Ali shouted.
The boy stared at Mohammad Ali.
Ali told the newcomers these kids were actually drug addicts. They begged and ate and were usually in a drugged stupor.
On hearing this, the boys ran away.
There was routine traffic on the roads. Two buses bound for Churchgate arrived. The friends were still enjoying the aflatoon when Saleem said, “The buses are empty, we should catch one!”
They boarded a bus which had empty seats on the upper storey and sat down. Asrar sat next to Mohammad Ali in the front row. They were both from the same village but were meeting for the first time. Mohammad Ali told Asrar that he worked for a diamond businessman, and if Asrar wanted Ali could put in a word for him. Asrar said he would discuss it with Qasim before making a decision. The bus reached the Hajj House. The engraved Quranic verses made Asrar happy, and he looked in wonder. He asked Mohammad Ali, “Such a tall mosque?”
“It’s the Hajj House,” Mohammad Ali smiled.
“What do you mean by Hajj House? Don’t you know that for Hajj people go to Saudi Arabia?” Qasim enquired.
“You idiot, the entire world knows the pilgrimage happens in Saudi. This place makes all the arrangements,” Mohammad Ali told him.
Asrar continued to look quietly at the grand building. He had never seen a more beautiful building. Mohammad Ali also showed him Churchgate Station, the Anjuman-e-Islam School and the Times of India building, giving him the little information he had acquired. Asrar was impressed with Mohammad Ali’s knowledge. The Mumbai he could see after crossing the Churchgate signal was very different from the Mumbai which lay before Mohammad Ali Road and the Umar Ali Usman Sweet Shop. He did not ask any questions. His eyes widened as he gaped at the Mumbai that can take your heart away.
They got out of the bus a short distance from the Taj Hotel. The newcomers looked at the hotel from the Gateway of India with such intensity as though they were carving it into their memories and saving it forever. The magnificent building stirred a feeling of inferiority in their hearts, and this made the building more grand and intimidating. They were standing at the same place from where, five years later, the world media would report on a terrorist attack on the hotel. The friends would remember this memorable journey, the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel for a long time. Seven years later, in the last days of July, on a Sunday afternoon, Mohammad Ali dreamt of Asrar. They had a long conversation about life. In the dream, Asrar had found himself in some other country. Mohammad Ali began to talk about the terrorist attack in detail. Asrar replied, “I am no longer there, where the terrorists live, what would I do with all this information?” This saddened Mohammad Ali. In that dream state, he realised which world Asrar now lived in. Heartbroken, Mohammad Ali opened his eyes, feeling the wetness gathering in them. He missed Asrar terribly. He got up and called for a taxi to the Haji Ali Dargah. There, in the dargah’s courtyard, he sat in a corner with his memories of Asrar. He cried for hours.