I… Qutubuddin Ansari, 29, tailor. I live with my mother, wife and daughter in Ahmedabad’s Bapu Nagar colony. You know me. This windy January, it was my kite that soared the highest in all Bapu Nagar. Every evening, the day’s work done, I’d close my shop. If I had money I’d buy a Vadilal butterscotch ice-cream on my way home, my daughter’s favourite. Some days I felt I should think things over — then I’d walk along Ellis Bridge… gaze down into the Sabarmati River… whether there was water or not, it didn’t matter. At times, I became sentimental — usually when young girls in Bapu Nagar, whom I had watched grow up before my eyes, came to get their bridal clothes stitched. Then I would go and buy red glass bangles from the hawkers on Relief Road. In the relative privacy of the mosquito net in our one-room house, I would give them to my wife. When we bought a fourteen-inch TV on hire-purchase, I learned to make cardamom tea. While my mother and my wife watched Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and other serials, I would make tea; so engrossed were they in the drama on the screen that they took the tea without even a thank you… it made me smile.
Mother preferred eating out to going to the cinema: kebabs, mutton korma and fried fish from the wayside eateries in Bhathiyar Gali near Teen Darwaza. Or the ‘Ten Foot Family Dosa’ at Sankalp Restaurant, a treat that my daughter welcomed by clapping joyfully. Or kadi made with curds and oondhya at Gopi Dining Hall. My mother relished this dish made of sweet potatoes, brinjals and potatoes, and other chaste Vaishnavite Gujarati fare. We made it a point to take mother out to eat at least once a month; going by an auto-rickshaw, taking care to choose a day when none of their favourite serials would be telecast.
But not so long ago I, Qutubuddin Ansari, was transformed into a symbol. Delhi has India Gate; Jaipur, Hawa Mahal; Calcutta, Howrah Bridge; and Bombay, the Gateway of India. But Ahmedabad had no such instantly recognisable symbol. A city without a symbol is faceless; it lacks identity. Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram could not symbolise Ahmedabad — it wasn’t impressive enough. The stone window in Sidi Saiyad’s mosque, with its intricately sculpted intertwining branches, was appropriated by the Indian Institute of Management. Ahmedabad never had a symbol unique to itself — until I filled the gap.
The year 2002 ushered in days windier than usual. As the north-westerly wind whistled shrilly through the willows near my house, I concluded that this year would be special for kite-lovers. I went to see my old schoolmate Bhai Chand, who worked in the Railways. His kites flew the highest in our locality. I told him: "Bhai, this Makar Sankranti, I’ll beat you." Bhai Chand thumped my back, laughed and said, "Okay."
The confidence in that laugh didn’t lessen my zeal. That very day I went out and bought three kites with fine rattan frames and a spool of thread from Ayub Patangwala in Teen Darwaza. I also bought a few old glass bottles from a scrap trader’s shop. Now Mother’s work began. I broke the bottles and gave them to her. She put on the thick cloth gloves I had stitched for her and began to crush the shards of glass on a tiny stone, which she used to crush betel nuts. I mixed the ground glass and glue thoroughly, spread it all over the thread and left it to dry.
On the day of Makar Sankranti, the sky appeared dappled with many-hued dots. There were so many kites up there, there seemed to be no room in the sky. My neighbour, Kabutarbaaz Hassan Sheikh, who kept pigeons, decided not to send his birds up for their usual flight. My light green eyes, which set me apart from other people, scanned the skies for unseen currents of air rising up into the sky. Suddenly I saw a dark dot, an eagle poised upon the wind; a couple of tugs and my kite flew into the thermal that held up the bird. The kite now soared on its own. It no longer needed my help. I stood watching the dizzying heights it had reached, my mind emptied of all thought… but after a while I began to fear for its safety. I stopped letting out the string.
My kite flew the highest that day. Bhai Chand hugged me. He had always been that way; he could share in another’s joy without the faintest trace of jealousy.
I began to pull down my kite. Now was the time to attack; the first kite I cut down was Bhai Chand’s, the thread that held my kite gleaming like the blade of a sword as the rays of the sun fell on it. I darted all over the maidan, cutting down as many kites as I could. And then I felt someone tugging at my shirt. Bindiya said: "Darzi chacha, please don’t cut down my kite." I had stitched Bindiya’s nappies when she was born — nappies that were held in place around her tiny waist with a large safety pin — then baby garments, frocks, and now skirts and blouses. She grew up through the pages of my notebooks, through the measurements that I jotted down in them. She was now twelve years old.
"I will. That’s part of the fun. If you are scared that your kite will be cut down, why did you come?"
So Bindiya explained kite-lore to me. For a girl, the kite is her lover; for a boy, his lady love. The thread is their love. A broken thread is a broken relationship. It is important that a kite shouldn’t be lost. Reunion is possible only if one can retrieve one’s kite. Bindiya concluded: "So, Darzi chacha, you shouldn’t ever cut the threads."
Bindiya joined in my laughter. I saw that her dimples had become more pronounced. On my way home that day, when Capricorn loomed in the sky, I saw several love stories enacted around me — love, separation, reunion.
My neighbour Hassan Sheikh lived on the terrace of his building, in a single room surrounded by cotes for his pigeons. He had let out the lower rooms. With the rent, he bought millet seed for his birds. Occasionally, he went to Agra or Delhi, to buy superior varieties of birds, like the Sikandari and the Kabuli. When he clapped his hands, his birds would fly up into the air from all over the terrace, form up in the sky and fly off into the distance. They would then wheel and turn back, still in formation like aircraft, fly back, make another curve and land on the terrace. The smooth, graceful turn just before landing reminded me of the twirling pleats of a dancer’s skirt. The wing-beats, the cooing, the bead-like eyes that reflected the joy of homecoming — my daughter watched it all, clapping her hands and shouting with delight. Besides himself, she was the only person whom Hassan Sheikh allowed to feed his birds.
As early as February, the pigeons alerted us to the unknown menace that lurked somewhere in the days to come. Hassan Sheikh said: "The birds just won’t fly up, however much I clap. Something bad is going to happen." That very day I went to the market and stocked up the house with atta, dal, potatoes and besan. Gas cylinders had already become scarce, so I couldn’t get one. Mother exclaimed, irritated: "What’s got into you? I know the times are not good, but why these crazy preparations? Amdavadis and Gujaratis are kind people, vegetarians, Bapu’s people, Jains who walk with bowed heads; they wouldn’t hurt an ant. Who’s their favourite God? Bhagwan Ranchod, who refused to take active part in the battle — Sri Krishna. Don’t go by what that crazy, unmarried bird-lover says."
The days went by and I began to think Mother was right, after all. Then one night someone knocked at the door: "Ma, Qutubuddin?"
Bhai Chand stood outside. He was breathing fast. He said to me: "I’m coming straight from the railway station. A compartment of the train from Ayodhya was torched by your people — Muslims living near the outer signal of Godhra station near Baroda. Remember Shantiben who was at school with us, who always topped the class in maths? She was killed, along with her husband and children. Several pilgrims, all returning from Ayodhya, were also killed. Loudspeakers have already been set up all over the city. I’m scared. Hassan Sheikh’s pigeons were right. On my way here, I booked Viren Shah’s Tata Sumo to take me, Asha and the children to my elder brother’s house in Jaipur tomorrow. Qutubuddin, look after yourself. Leave this place. I came to tell you this."
After a very long time, I saw fear on my mother’s face. No one except my daughter slept that night. I kept the doors and windows closed even after day had dawned. Finally, when my daughter became restless I opened the door that led onto the courtyard at the back of the house. She began to play in the sand. Suddenly, I heard something fall; as I sat up, alert, my daughter came in holding one of Hassan Sheikh’s pigeons. "Pretty bird," she said, giving it to me. It was dead, its neck broken. I stepped out into the courtyard. Just then I heard Hassan Sheikh cry: "My birds, my birds!" The next thing I saw was his flaming body. The rioters had drenched him in petrol.
Then they came for us. They poured kerosene all around the house and set fire to it. The gas cylinders that had disappeared from the market now made their appearance. Several were thrown at our house. In the flash of an exploding cylinder I saw the bodies of my mother, wife and daughter suspended in mid-air. I opened the outer door of the courtyard and ran out, only to find myself surrounded by people armed with broken bottles, petrol cans and swords and daggers. People just like us. Their waist measurements were those that had grown through my notebooks. The women wore clothes that I had stitched for them; they were the same women who had avidly discussed Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi with my wife. There were others whom I didn’t recognise, who carried swords, trishuls and placards that proclaimed: ‘Boycott Muslim shops’. I saw Bindiya among them; she was aiming a stone at the spot between my green eyes. Her mother stood nearby, a chopper in her hand. I turned towards the Rapid Action Force men who stood close by. I begged them to save me. Just then I heard the safety catch of a rifle being pulled back… I jerked back, frightened. Then I heard the click of a camera shutter. I saw the golden-haired representative of Reuters who had captured my fear on film.
You might have read in the newspapers about what followed; how Qutubuddin Ansari and his family were attacked by the mob; how he cried and pleaded with the police and the RAF men to rescue him; how the six-hour-long agony ended with the arrival of the Army, who brought the situation under control. The soldiers took me up in their truck. They discovered my family under a culvert behind our house.
The next day’s newspapers carried that picture of mine taken by the Reuters photographer — the green of my unfocused eyes heightened, the brimming tears and cry stifled and sealed off forever in the cold pages of the newspaper; my joined palms begging to be rescued gave you a glimpse of imminent death. I became Ahmedabad’s symbol.
Corpses littered the streets of Ahmedabad, the city whose symbol I had become. The sky was darkened by the smoke from burning buildings. Through a gap in the smoke, I saw vultures. I had never seen them before. Half-burned red ribbons that had once been part of a schoolgirl’s uniform, women’s bloodstained undergarments, torn schoolbooks, broken bangles and half-burned family albums lay on the sidewalks. Flowering trees sprouted signboards that exhorted people to boycott Muslim shops. Decapitated dolls, half-burned cars with shattered windscreens, cycle-rickshaws heaped together — heaps that still smouldered; loops of cassette tapes like plucked-out entrails — audio cassettes of songs by Anu Malik and Pankaj Udhas; a report card with very low marks which must have won its recipient quite a few thrashings; and kites — torn kites, crushed kites, kites with their threads cut. I had taken an oath never to look at a kite again; yet they appeared everywhere. I recalled what my mother used to say: "You are an Ansari, momeen, weaver; your hands should never be responsible for the severing of a thread." The photographer from Reuters had made me a symbol of a city whose thread had been severed.
In the relief camp, the women were quartered separately. So I didn’t see my family. I wandered the streets day and night. One day I came upon something that lay shining in the dust — a broken bit of mirror with a stick-on bindi.
I had not seen my face for quite a few days. My reflection now showed that a beard had sprouted and darkened the lower half of my face. Fear still lurked in the eyes. I decided to try something I had not done for many days, something I had almost forgotten — to smile. But however much I tried, I could manage only a grimace. Like a masseur working on a paralytic, I began to work on my laughter muscles. I pressed and massaged my cheeks, the muscles around my mouth. Yet the reflection did not smile. The laughter muscles remained rigid, immobile.
Translated from the Malayalam
story ‘Nilavili’ (2002) by Catherine Thankamma and TLM
N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam fiction. A senior Indian civil servant, he is based in Patna. This is a fictionalised account of a real-life incident in Ahmedabad