I normally carry a strip of bindis in my toilet kit when I travel-but this time it so happened I forgot to take any. I had only the one I wore on my forehead.
That bindi proved to be more precious than silver and gold to me. It was to contribute to my sense of safety during those few days I spent stuck in a room in a hotel in Vadodhra.
It was 27 February, 2002. I had traveled to Vadodra for a break from work, and to spend a week with my husband who was on official duty there.
I do not know if that date means anything to you at the first glance, but I flinch at the very mention of that date. A type of fear surges through me. I distract myself instantly by forcibly pegging my thoughts on some nearby object that my eyes fall on. With a fair amount of success, I push away the date and its reaction from my thoughts, and stay them from hovering around in my conscious mind; but banish them from my subconscious or the unconscious – no. That’s impossible. Unfortunately, fear and its cause cannot be uprooted and cast away that easily from those inaccessible regions of the mind.
Why do I remember it now? Yesterday, The Rosebowl Channel screened Mr. & Mrs. Iyer. The intended main focus of the film may be human relationships, but for me it is the background - the post-Godhra riot- that appealed to me.
‘It’s so easy to kill a man”, says Meenakshi after she sees, through the camera zoom lens, blood gushing out from the slit throat of a Muslim.
In the course of this conversation Jehangir Choudhary (a Muslim) says, “I’m alive today because you gave me a name – MR. Iyer”
What’s in a name, asked Shakespeare. Everything, I say. When Mr. Jehangir Choudhary was temporarily bestowed the name ‘Mr. Iyer’, his life was spared.
Six decades back, a group of people known as “the Jews” were gas chambered en masse; another known as Pundits were threatened, killed and driven out of their homeland in Kashmir. Charles Darney, though a good man, was condemned to be guillotined, simply because he carried the burden of the name ‘Everemonde’ (A tale of two cities).
In 2002 March, thousands were killed in Gujarat, because they belonged to the category named Muslims.
In this world of ours, nomenclature is all. It can decide whether you have a right to existence or not.
The idea is so powerfully brought out in Mr. & Mrs Iyer. Meenakshi, a South Indian Brahmin, is the very epitome of extreme conservatism. But another dimension of her personality - that of an instinctive humanitarian – emerges when, in a moment of crisis, she temporarily lends the object most revered by a woman of her breeding, namely, the name of her husband, to a man whose religion and cultural habits are so diametrically and irreconcilably opposite hers.
The movie is the surest statement that caste and creed are but cultural truths which a human should be willing to give a secondary position to in the face of a humanitarian crisis. Meenakshi becomes a true Brahmin when she decides to save a life – even at the cost of subversion of cultural values.
It’s not birth which makes one a Brahmin – but deeds.
Now back to the post-Godhra riots. The burning of the train carrying pilgrims to Ayodhya was a terrible, condemnable tragedy. The culprits should have been brought before the law of the land and severely punished by the state machinery. But the state decided to do something else before the culprits were apprehended. It decided to organize a systematic decimation of the tribe of the culprits –men, women, children. And the modus operandi? Kill, burn, loot and rape. All with silent official sanction.
Terrorism is bad. But state engineered terrorism strikes terror in the hearts of the citizens, as it did in mine when we were stranded in Vadodra, waiting for things to normalize.
I thanked God I had at least one bindi. I stuck it on the mirror everyday and took it out and wore it every time I came out of the room. I became anxious when the gum became weak from over use – kept on feeling my forehead to see if the bindi was there in place. I belonged to the minority and was in a state which had officially/unofficially let loose a reign of terror on the non- majority. The centre too played along – it took more than three days for army’s flag march to begin.
Will I become a victim?
At the bottom of my commitment to secularism, there is, I guess, this constant fear of being unsafe in my country to which I belong, and which belongs to me.
So I treasured the bindi - it was my passport and visa to survival. Given the choice, I’d forget those terrible days when we sat in the lobby of the hotel while people like me were killed, assaulted and raped out there; when the smoke of arson clouded the distant skies day and night; when the conversation in the lobby revealed truths best left unsaid.
And there is a picture that continues to haunt me after so many years, a picture which makes me indulge in Modi bashing whenever I can, a picture which made my heart sink into unknown depths of depression when Modi won twice after that. A picture that prevents me from applauding Modi’s huge success with the development agenda.
After the army arrived, my husband and I used to venture out into the roads after sunset, and after the curfew was lifted. I made sure I had my bindi on my forehead. We saw the army trucks plying, with soldiers holding guns and looking grim. That was a pleasant, welcome sight.
But there was another that I cannot get over – not even after so many years.
Groups of Muslims – sometimes a large joint family(once I saw a four generation group), sometimes several families moving in clusters, walking silently through the streets of Vadodra, with cloth bundles in their hands. Apparently, they were fleeing to safer areas unaffected by the riots.
They had death in their eyes.