A number of my NDTV batch mates had crowded around the TV - the Ayodhya land dispute verdict was going to be announced any minute. Some of my batch mates were seated, some remained standing, and some were ferociously switching between TV channels. I was seated on a chair at a table directly in front of the TV. The longer the verdict went unannounced past its deadline, the closer the crowd began to move in, crushing me into the table until I was closed in from all sides.
I felt self-conscious about being the only Muslim in the group. Was anyone watching me, ready to challenge me about what I dared want the outcome of the verdict to be? In the flux of identities in my inner world – non-smoker, woman, friend, Sunni Hanafi, daughter, author, NRI -, I felt my Muslim identity being forced into the foreground. I didn’t want to be a Muslim that day, but it was like in 1992 and in the years that followed - you were either a Hindu or a Muslim, even if you just ‘looked like one’.
Someone placed their chin on my shoulder. I don’t have a sister but it felt like something a sister would do. I felt comforted, like I had not been abandoned just yet. Was it Apoorva, the Hindu girl from my hometown of Lucknow?
In 1992, our old Muslim moholla in Lucknow shut its black iron gates for the first time in decades. My mamoo and mumaani hid their children, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, in an empty water tank on the terrace. The rifle they used to scare monkeys away with was kept ready to protect themselves from a different kind of intruder this time. The voices out on Victoria Street were loud – the old chowk area had gone mad.
I was 11, in Muscat, Oman, and very angry. For the first time, my family would not let me spend the day at my best friend’s house. Her last name was Kothary.
Things felt strained between the adults in the Indian community in Oman. The Muslims felt afraid of the Indian Embassy, so they withdrew to themselves. They prayed hard for peace at milaads and for someone’s son who had gone missing in India. There was no Indian cable TV in Oman in those days; my mother had only found out about the demolition through the BBC News’s Urdu Service on her radio. Cell phones didn’t exist. People still yelled over international phone lines, if they were able to get a connection at all. India felt far away, like a fortress we couldn’t get into, like a madhouse the people we knew couldn’t get out of. I saw a number of grown Muslims cry and say, “there is no place for us in India anymore”.
I don’t have many relatives left in India. Many families were split in 1947, and many began to leave India during the wars with Pakistan. That’s the first time some strange boys mocked my mother on her university bus and asked her whom she’d cheer for during an IndoPak cricket match. Many more of my relatives left India during the 90s. Why did I, after having lived my whole life overseas in safety, choose to come back to this legacy, these echoes? The India of innocent summer vacations in Firangi Mahal in old Lucknow never will be again. But for now, the Hindu girl’s chin on my shoulder makes me feel like it could.