|The spirits of Shah Alam Camp|
The days pass somehow in Shah Alam Camp, but the nights are an endless nightmare. God alone can save us from this hellish torment. And what a terrible, terrible cacophony! You can barely hear your own voice. Such shouting and screaming, raving and ranting, moaning and groaning, sighing and sobbing…
After midnight, the spirits come to meet their children. They caress their orphans, stroke their heads and gaze into their lifeless eyes with their own wasted and vacant eyes, as though trying to convey something. Then they clasp their children to their breasts and the air is rent by the same gut-wrenching screams that had escaped them when they were being burned alive like so much kindling.
When the rest of the camp is asleep, the children stay wide awake. They are waiting to see their mothers, to have dinner with their fathers.
"How are you, Siraj," the mother’s spirit asks, fondling his hair and caressing him.
"How are you, Amma?"
The mother looks visibly happy. She says, "I am a spirit now, Siraj… no one can burn me alive any more."
"Amma, can I become like you?"
One night, a woman’s nervous, agitated spirit reaches Shah Alam Camp well past midnight. She is looking for her son, who is not to be found — neither in the other world, not here. The mother’s heart is close to breaking with grief and terror. Other women help her look for her son. They look all over the camp, then they go to the mother’s old neighbourhood. The whole street is up in flames, houses burning like stacks of firewood. Since they are spirits now and able to come and go at will, they enter these raging infernos with complete ease. They search every nook and smoke-filled cranny, but they cannot find the mother’s little boy.
In despair, the spirits go to the homes of the rioters. There, the lumpen are making petrol bombs, cleaning their guns and polishing their weapons. When the mother asks about her missing son, they laugh and say, "You madwoman, when scores upon scores of people are being burned alive, who can keep track of one little boy? He must be lying buried under a mound of ash and rubble somewhere."
The mother says, "No, no, I’ve looked all over… I can’t find him anywhere!"
Then one of the rioters remembers: "Hey, is she the mother of that boy we left dangling from the trishul?"
The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. They bring food, water, clothes and medicines from Heaven. That is why you won’t find any sick, naked, hungry or thirsty children in Shah Alam Camp. And that is also why Shah Alam Camp has become so famous. Its fame has spread far and wide among the dead. A certain dignitary from New Delhi who had come to inspect the camp was so pleased at what he saw that he announced: "This is a very fine place… all the Muslim children from all over India should be brought here."
The spirits come to visit Shah Alam Camp after midnight. All night long they stay with their children, gazing at them with love and longing, worrying about them, fretting over their future, talking to them…
"Siraj, you should go home now," a mother’s spirit says to her son.
"Home?" Siraj whispers, and his eyes glaze over with terror.
"Yes, home. After all, how long can you stay here? I promise I shall come and see you every night."
"I won’t go home, never, never, never." Smoke. Fire. Screams. Noise.
"Amma, I want to live with you and Abba."
"Darling Sikku, how can you live with us…"
"But Bhaijaan and Aapa live with you."
"That’s because they were also burned alive, along with us."
"Then I shall return home, Amma."
A child’s spirit comes to Shah Alam Camp in the wee hours, like a firefly burning brightly in a dark night. He flits and flies all over the camp, scampers and gambols, plays little mischievous tricks on everyone. But he does not lisp; he speaks clearly. He runs and hides in the folds of his mother’s clothes. He holds his father’s finger and traipses along.
Unlike all the other children in Shah Alam Camp, this child looks amazingly happy.
Someone asks, "Why are you so happy?"
"Don’t you know… I thought everyone knew."
"That I am the Evidence."
"Evidence? Evidence of what?"
"I am the Evidence of Bravery."
"Whose bravery are you the evidence of?"
"Of those who ripped open my mother’s womb, tore me out and hacked me in two."
The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. A mother’s spirit comes to meet her son. The son is amazed at the sight of his mother.
"Ma, why do you look so happy today?"
"Siraj, I met your grandfather in heaven today. He introduced me to his father, who took me to meet his father, even his grandfather and great-grandfather. Imagine, Siraj, I met your great-great-great-grandfather!" The mother says, her voice lilting with happiness. "Siraj, your great-great-great grandfather was a Hindu… a Hindu, do you understand? Siraj, be sure to tell everyone about this."
The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. A sister’s spirit comes one night, looking for her brother. She looks everywhere and finally spots him sitting on the step of a staircase. The sister is delighted and runs to meet him. "Bhaiya," she cries out. The brother hears her, but pretends as if he doesn’t. He just sits there, mute and unmoving like a stone statue.
The sister speaks again, "Bhaiya, listen to me."
Again, the brother gives no sign of having heard her, nor does he look at her.
"Why won’t you listen to me, Bhaiya?" the sister says loudly. This time the brother’s face flames like fire. His eyes shoot sparks. He rises in a fury and begins to beat his sister mercilessly. A crowd gathers and someone asks the girl what she has said to enrage her brother so.
The sister says, "I only called out to him, ‘Bhaiya’."
An old man speaks up, "No, Salima, that was very wrong of you. Why did you say that? That was absolutely the wrong thing to say." And the old man starts crying like a baby. The brother starts beating his head against a wall.
The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. One night an old man’s spirit comes along with all the other spirits. The old man’s body is naked save for a skimpy loincloth. He wears sandals on his feet and holds a wooden staff in his hand. An old-fashioned fob watch peeps from between the folds of his loincloth.
Someone asks the old man, "Are you looking for a relative in this camp as well?"
The old man replies, "Yes, and no."
The others leave him alone, thinking he is senile. The old man walks all over the camp.
Someone again asks the old man, "Baba, whom are you looking for?"
The old man says, "I am looking for someone who can kill me."
"I was killed fifty years ago by a bullet. Now, I want the rioters to burn me alive."
"But why do you want that, Baba?"
"To tell the world that I was not killed by their bullet, and nor will I die if they burn me alive."
A political leader asks a spirit who has come to visit Shah Alam Camp: "Do you have a father and mother?"
"No, they were both killed."
"What about brothers and sisters?"
"Any other relatives alive?’
"No, they’re all dead."
"Are you comfortable here?"
"Yes, I am."
"Do you get enough to eat?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you have clothes on your back?"
"Do you need anything else?"
The leader is pleased. He says to himself, "The lad is bright. Not like other Muslims."
The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. One night the Devil’s spirit comes along with all the others. He looks around and is consumed by acute embarrassment, even shame, at what he sees. He can barely hold his head up and look the others in the eye. Sheepishly, he averts his gaze, ducks his head, and furtively looks for an escape route, one where he is least likely to meet another soul. Intrigued by this strange creature, people catch hold of him by the scruff of his neck and shake him.
Wilting with shame, he bleats, "I have no hand in all this… all this that has happened. Truly, I don’t… I swear by Allah, I have nothing to do with any of this."
People say, "Yes, yes, we know. You couldn’t have done this. You have your own standards to think of."
The Devil sighs with relief and says, "You don’t know what a weight has been lifted from my heart! So, you good people know the truth."
They say, "Allah Miyan had come a few days ago, and He was saying the very same thing."
Translated from the Hindi by Rakhshanda Jalil with TLM
An acclaimed playwright and fiction writer, Asghar Wajahat is Professor of Hindi at
Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi. This story was written in June 2002,
as a response to the sectarian violence in Gujarat