That scream would have woken the dead. It seemed to pierce ones ears. I was terrified…I sat up on my cot with a start…There were still stars in the sky…It must have been around three in the morning. Abbajan had also woken up. Saiffu was lying in his bed and screaming. The courtyard was lined with cots from one end to the other.
‘Lahaulwillaquwatt,’ Abbajan mumbled.
‘Allah knows why he screams in his sleep?’ Amma said.
‘Ammi, the boys tease him every night…’ I replied.
‘Those idiots have nothing better to do…People are scared for their lives and all they can think of is mischief,’ Ammi said.
Sofiya removed the bed-sheet from her face and said, ‘Maybe, he should sleep on the terrace.’
Saiffu was still not awake. I went near his bed and saw that his face was covered with sweat. He was breathing heavily and his body was trembling. His hair was wet and a few strands had stuck to his forehead. As I looked at his face, I felt growing anger at the boys who frightened him every day.
The communal riots in those days were not as vicious as they now are. There has been a considerable change in the reasons, politics, rioters and intensity of the violence. Twenty-five years ago, people were not burnt alive and villages were not left desolate. Nor did the rioters have the blessings of the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Chief Minister. Riots were instigated by small-time politicians for their petty gains in their own localities. Their aim was to trouble small businesses, grab a piece of land and force Hindus or Muslims to vote for their candidates in local elections. But now, the aim of communal violence is to capture the durbar in Delhi. In fact, the world over, only the one who spreads hate and fills rivers with blood can establish his own authority.
We shook Saiffu awake. He looked around like an innocent lamb searching for his mother. Saiffuddin or Saiffu was the son of my father’s step-brother. When Saiffu saw the entire family around his bed, he got up with a start.
I still remember the post-card with a snipped corner announcing the death of Saiffu’s father, Kaussar Chacha. The villagers had not only informed us about Kaussar Chacha’s death, but had also mentioned that his youngest son, Saiffu, was now completely alone in the world. Saiffu’s elder brother had refused to take him to Mumbai. He simply declared that he could do nothing for Saiffu. There was no one other than Abbajan who could look after him. Abba sat quietly for a long time holding the post-card with a torn corner. After many arguments with Amma, he went to his ancestral village, sold his remaining land and retuned with Saiffu. We all laughed when we met Saiffu who looked like a village boor. What else could we, who were studying in the school attached to the Aligarh Muslim University or Sofiya who was a student in the school attached to the Abdullah Girls College, have done? It was evident from the very first day that Saiffu was not only a boor, he was also either an idiot or a simpleton. We used to tease him or make fun of him. One consequence of all the teasing was that Saiffu won the hearts of Abbajan and Amma. Saiffu could put in a hard day’s labour without ever getting tired. Amma liked him very much for his devotion to work. ‘So what if he eats two roties extra? He also works till his back breaks.’ Years and years passed; Saiffu became part of our lives. We began to treat him more gently. Now, I beat up anyone in the neighbourhood who called him a fool. ‘He is our brother, how you dare you call him a fool!’ Only the family knew what his real condition was.
The cause of the riot in the town? It was the usual one. A bundle of meat was found in the mosque and it was assumed, without even opening it, that it contained pork because it had been found in a mosque. In retaliation a cow was slaughtered in Mughal Tola resulting in communal violence. A few shops were burnt and many were looted. Seven-eight people were knifed to death. But, unlike the old days, the present government did not immediately impose a curfew. Nor did the Chief Minister, twirl his moustache and boast, that the slaughter of a few thousand people was somehow justified.
The curfew had been extended because the violence had spread to the villages surrounding the town. We lived in Mughalpura, a Muslim dominated area, where the atmosphere was especially tense because of the curfew and the calls for ‘Jihad’. The streets in the neighbourhood were narrow and labyrinthine. Past riots had taught the people how to make their way from one end to the next by passing through a neighbour’s door, across a terrace and over a wall. The locality was always prepared for war. The people who lived there believed that even if the curfew lasted for a month everything required for their survival was available.
The riots were always an occasion for the young to show their enthusiasm and courage. ‘Arrey, what do the Hindus think of themselves, we shall make them eat dirt…what can the dhotiwalas do…arrey, they are cowards…one Muslim is equal to ten Hindus…We laughed and won Pakistan; we’ll fight and conquer Hindustan…’ They boasted to each other, but were terrified of stepping outside the locality because there was a police cordon all around. Since many still recalled being beaten with rifle butts by the police, their verbal boasts were fine, but they didn’t dare…
Danger unites people. Unity organises them and organisation produces disciple. It was decided that one boy from each home shall stand on guard. In our house, I was no longer considered a boy since I was above twenty-five years of age. Therefore, Saiffu, who was younger, had to stand on night-duty on the terraces. Since Mughalpura was built on a high ground, one could see the entire city from there. Saiffu used to keep watch with the other boys at night. My father, mother and Sofiya were happy with the arrangement; otherwise, I would have had to endure staying up all night. In return, Saiffu was allowed some relief from doing the daily house work; he could sleep till eight in the morning and was not required to sweep the house. That work was entrusted to Sofiya who disliked doing it intensely.
There were nights when I too went up to the terraces. The boys on duty ruled the terraces. They had collected a large number of lathis, spears and mounds of stones to defend themselves. A few boys had locally made swords and nearly all of them carried knives. Many of the boys worked in small workshops which manufactured locks. A few were tailors or carpenters. At present, they were all unemployed because the markets were closed. Most of their families were burdened with debts and had little to eat. But they were happy. They sat on the terraces and either analysed the latest news about the riots or cursed the Hindus…but abused the police more. They played Radio Lahore softly and could recite its programmes by heart. The reputation of a few of the boys who had been to Pakistan was higher than many Hajis. They narrated stories of the Pakistani train, ‘Tejgam’, and praised the colony, ‘Gulshan-e-Iqbal’, with such enthusiasm that it seemed as if Pakistan was paradise on earth. When the boys needed a diversion from these stories, they mocked Saiffu. One day, after listening to stories about the glories of Pakistan again and again, Saiffu asked, ‘Where is Pakistan?’ After that the boys teased and taunted him mercilessly. Saiffu, however, was bewildered. He didn’t understand anything and never found out where Pakistan was.
Out of a sense of fun, the boys began to quietly tease Saiffu, ‘Listen Saiffu, if the Hindus catch you, do you know what they will do? They will first strip you naked.’ They boys knew that Saiffu thought it was a sin to be naked. ‘Then the Hindus will rub oil on your body.’
‘Why will they rub oil on my body?’
‘So that your skin peels easily when they beat you with lathis. After that they will burn you with hot iron rods…’
‘No!’ Saiffu screamed in disbelief.
Every night, the boys frightened Saiffu by telling him gory stories of murder and violence. They also filled his head with strange and stupid information about Pakistan. I would get irritated and calm Saiffu, but could never satisfy his curiosity about Pakistan.
One day he asked me, ‘Bade Bhai, is there soil in Pakistan?’
‘Why, why shouldn’t there be soil in Pakistan?’
‘Is it not paved with roads and roads?…You can buy terylene over there…everything is very cheap over there…’
‘Listen, don’t pay attention to all the fantastic tales Altaf and others tell you,’
‘Bade Bhai, do the Hindus pluck out your eyes…’
‘Rubbish…who told you that?’
‘It’s not true.’
‘They don’t skin you alive too…?’
‘Uff…why are you carrying on…?’
He was silent for a while, but I could see a thousand questions in his eyes. After I left, he continued to talk to Sofiya.
The curfew was extended. The boys, along with Saiffu, continued to keep watch on the terraces. After a few days, Saiffu began to scream in his sleep. We were worried, but understood that he had been very frightened by the boys. Abbajan was annoyed and did talk to a few of the elders around, but failed to persuade the boys, especially the boys of our locality, to leave Saiffu alone.
I did not realise how serious the matter was till one day Saiffu asked me all earnestness, ‘Bade Bhai, should I become a Hindu?’
I replied, ‘Why do you want to become a Hindu?’
‘I’ll be safe,’ Saiffu answered.
‘That means I’ll not be safe?’ I asked.
‘Then why don’t you also become a Hindu?’ He asked.
‘What about your Taya Abba?’ I asked about my father.
‘No…let him…’ he was puzzled. He was perhaps confused by my father’s long white beard.
‘Listen, the boys talk a lot of nonsense to tease you. They tell you lies. Do you remember Mahesh?’
‘The one who comes on his scooter…?’ He asked with a smile.
‘Yes, yes, the same one.’
‘Is he a Hindu?’
‘Yes, he’s a Hindu,’ I replied. Shades of sadness spread across his face and he fell silent.
‘These riots are the work of hooligans…Hindus and Muslims do not fight each other…only the goondas do…Do you understand?’
The riots continued like an evil story that has no end. The people were fed up. ‘Yaar, what would be the total number of Hindu and Muslim goondas in the town? No more than a thousand…maybe two thousand…Two thousand people have made the lives of lakhs of us miserable and we hide in our homes like cowards…It’s like the days when ten thousand British soldiers ruled over crores of people and all the kings used to grovel before them…Who benefits from these riots…Benefit…Arrey, these riots help Haji Abdul Karim win all the Muslim votes and Pundit Yogeshwar to win all the Hindu votes for a seat in the tax department…Then, who the hell are we…You are the voters…Hindu voters, Muslim voters, Dalit voters, Kayasth voters, Sunni voters, Shia voters…And will this always be the case in our country…Yes. Why not?…The people are vile…they hire killers…when politicians instigate riots to get votes, what else can you expect?…Do you think they can’t educate us?…Make us understand?…Ha!…Who are you to educate the people?…The government will educate us, if it wants to…And shall we remain uneducated, if the government doesn’t want to?…Yes…That’s what the British taught us…We are used to that…Okay, suppose all the Muslims of India become Hindus…Lahulvillakuvat, how can you say that?…Alright, let’s assume that all the Muslims of the country become Hindus?…Subhan Allah…what a wonderful idea…Wah, wah!… Will there be no more riots then?…Let’s think about that…In Pakistan, Shias and Sunnis are bitter enemies of each other…So, human beings are bloody fools who only want to fight each other…But, see, Jumman and Mayku are the best of friends…Why shouldn’t we become Jumman and Mayku?…Wow!…What an idea…Meaning…meaning…meaning…’
I was turning the knobs of the radio early in the morning and Sofiya was sweeping the house when Raja’s younger brother, Akram, came running. He was panting badly. He stuttered and said, ‘The police are beating Saiffu.’
‘What? What are you saying?’
‘The police are beating Saiffu.’ He repeated after he regained his breath.
‘Why are they beating him? What has happened?’
‘I don’t know…at the street corner…’
‘You mean where the police station is?’
‘But why…?’ I knew that since the curfew had been relaxed between eight and ten in the morning, Amma had sent Saiffu to buy milk. Even an idiot like Saiffu knew that he had to come back as quickly as possible. It was now after ten.
‘Let’s go.’ Without turning off the radio, I went to look for Saiffu. Why was the police beating a mad man like Saiffu? What grievous crime could he have committed? He couldn’t have? He is always so frightened, why beat him?…What could he have done?…Money?…Arrey, Amma had given him only two rupees. Why would the police beat him for two rupees?
A small crowd had gathered at the corner of the main road. Saiffu was standing before the policemen and screaming loudly, ‘Why did you beat me…I am a Hindu…Hindu…I am a Hindu…’
I walked up to talk to him. Even after seeing me, Saiffu continued to scream, ‘Yes…yes…I am a Hindu…’ He was staggering. A drop of blood had trickled down from the corner of his mouth to his chin.
‘Why did you beat me…I am a Hindu…’
‘Saiffu, what is all this…let’s go home…’
“I…I am a Hindu…’
I was astonished…I didn’t recognise Saiffu…He had changed completely…What’s wrong with him…
‘Saiffu, calm down; control yourself,’ I scolded him.
The people of the neighbourhood were sniggering. Damn them. Don’t they know he is mad?
‘How is he related to you?’ A policeman asked me.
‘He is my brother. He has a mental problem.’
‘Take him home,’ the second policeman said.
‘Come Saiffu…let’s go home. The curfew has been re-imposed…curfew…’
‘No, I won’t go. I am a Hindu…Hindu…They…they…’
He began to weep bitterly, ‘They…they beat me…I am a Hindu…I am…’ He fell to the ground and fainted.
Now it was easier to carry him back home.