Debating India


Residence On Earth

Darshan Desai

Monday 18 August 2003, by DESAI*Darshan

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 18 ao?t 2003.

Harmony peeps out of some friendly windows in Gujarat. Irony continues to rediscover itself in Gujarat. While riot victims still live like fugitives and the National Human Rights Commission continues its battle with the Gujarat government over the killings of last year, communal amity has quietly crept back into the labyrinthine bylanes of hate

Irony continues to rediscover itself in Gujarat. While riot victims still live like fugitives and the National Human Rights Commission continues its battle with the Gujarat government over the killings of last year, communal amity has quietly crept back into the labyrinthine bylanes of hate.

All these words, of course, have no meaning for Kubhrabibi Noormohammed, in her late fifties, who had never thought there was anything like communal amity for the simple reason that she had never known any communal hatred to define it against. "Mujhe to pata bhi nahin ki yeh bhaichara hota hai, hum log to pehle se saath me hee hain (I’d never known this is brotherhood, for we’ve always lived in amity)," she chuckles, when asked about relations with her Hindu neighbours. She has lived peacefully in Julywada, which is separated by a huge wall formed by rows of tall, joint buildings from Vanmali Vanka ni Pol, a Hindu neighbourhood. Just about seven feet from this ’wall’ is Kubhrabibi’s dingy home. "The windows up there (on the wall) always remain open. It is the house of Bharatbhai and Indravadanbhai Acharya and we have always had good relations with them," says Kubhrabibi’s daughter-in-law Rashida. Do they often talk with the neighbours? "Of course," laughs Kubhrabibi, and immediately calls out to her neighbour loudly, "Bhabhi, please show up, there are guests here."

A smiling Alka Acharya, the 45-plus wife of Indravadan Acharya, appears at the window some 10-12 feet above on the wall, "Who has come? " She laughs out loudly when Kubhrabibi, also smiling, tells her: "These people have come to ask if we live in peace with each other." Alka asks me: "See how we talk with each other. Do you need any proof? " Alka’s husband has retired from private service and now offers honorary services as the administrator at the famous Panchdev Mandir in Gandhinagar.

Soon Elaben Acharya, in her early forties, comes to stand at another window in the same building, followed by a relative at yet another window, all talking different subjects with Kubhrabibi, her daughter-in-law and all those gathered there. "Where’s Ruzda (the three-year-old daughter of Rashida)? I don’t hear the sound of her laughter? " Ela asks Rashida. The child has gone to a relative’s home to play.

Not that they were spared the ’anger’ of the mad crowds post-Godhra. Says Kubhrabibi: "We had left our home the day Godhra happened. Half of my house was burnt down. We learnt later that they pelted stones and threw bottles filled with acid and chemicals on our house from the same windows up there." But didn’t she just say that her neighbours were fine people who were her friends? "No, no, not them," she says, clarifying. "What happened is that a huge crowd of people from outside came and told the Acharya family to move aside. They barged into their house and perched on the high terrace to attack Julywada. My neighbours are not at fault, they were overpowered. We understand their predicament."

Their cordial relation with the Acharyas is a stray neighbour’s envy, but Kubhrabibi is proud of it and doesn’t bother about what others say. "There are some people around who tell us to stop talking with our Hindu neighbours because they didn’t help during the riots. But we can’t do that, it is discourteous. And then, our neighbours were not involved," she whispers. The Acharyas do not hear this for we are now inside Kubhrabibi’s home. When I ask Alka later, she says: "Yes, their house was attacked. We could not help for we were ourselves scared by the size of the mob. People came from outside, they just overpowered us." According to her, they have excellent relations with their Muslim neighbours. "We give them prasad during Diwali and they give us kheer during Id."

"Not only during Diwali, but even otherwise they just lower a thaili (small cloth bag) containing biscuit packets and chocolates from that window to distribute among children. They always keep their windows open, though those open into our area," says Kubhrabibi. "Bahut soona-soona lagta hai jab ye log nahin hote (We feel very lonely when these people have gone out)." Says Alkaben Acharya, quite effusively, "I don’t like to leave the house even for a few minutes. We miss them."

It isn’t just these two families which share the bonhomie between Julywada and Vanmali Vanka ni Pol. People on both sides of the wall also have economic interactions. Rajubhai Bachubhai’s is another window on the same wall that always remains open, for it is through this that people give their laundry to him. They call out and he emerges at the window with a basket that he lowers with a string. Rajubhai, in his late twenties, is the resident wash-and-iron man for people in Julywada and Vanmali Vanka ni Pol. He stays with his wife and two small sons, Amit and Jasmin. "I have no problems with them and neither do they. Why would they otherwise give their clothes to me to wash and iron? This communal riot business, it is all politics. We have excellent human relations, there is no problem." One gets the feeling that he doesn’t like these questions about Hindu-Muslim relations. Was he scared during the riots? "I slept peacefully even on the day Godhra happened and afterwards. I have never been scared, why should I be? "

He gets irritated when asked if he trusts his Muslim neighbours. "Of course I trust them, why do you ask such questions? You want to know more, I will tell you. My father, Bachubhai, my mother and other family members stay in Varvali Mehta ni Pol (another area). His is the only Hindu family in a Muslim locality. We have been staying there for ages. Nothing has ever happened. And nothing will."

There is yet another instance of economic interaction between the people of the two localities. While others may appear to be dealing with neighbours merely through the windows, Rajubhai Chaipattiwala cycles into Julywada almost every day to sell tea to the residents. At some places, the lane is too cramped to pedal down and he walks around with his bicycle in tow, without any fear of the Other. As I stop him to talk, he says, "Ask whatever you wish to quickly." Is he scared, and that’s why he wants to move quickly? He laughs: "Arey bhai, dhandha nou time bagde chhe (No, no, you are wasting my business time)." Then he says, "I will talk but you promise me that you will click my picture while on business." He poses for pictures and then starts selling tea to Shaikh Mohammed Sharif and others outside Kubhrabibi’s house.

"I come here to sell tea daily, I am not scared at all. I have so many friends in Julywada and I have been coming here for many years," he says. Raju stays on the Hindu side. Asked about his relations with Muslims during the riots, he smiles, pointing at Kohabhai Shaikh, "Ask him how our relations have been." Kohabhai returns the smile, and puts his arms around Raju. A gesture worth a million words.



Gujarat has a long history of communal strife that is a result of a complex mix of politics, economics and old-fashioned mistrust. When riots broke out last year after a train compartment carrying kar sevaks was set on fire in Godhra, one of the biggest man-made calamities in recent times ensued. Hundreds died on the streets and in their own homes. The VHP conveyed through many of its voluble men that this was a "spontaneous reaction". A police officer remarked just after the riots: "In my experience, a spontaneous riot lasts for 15 minutes." While the political nature of the riots has been established beyond any doubt, it is also true that the Gujarat which Narendra Modi inherited had already been vitiated by years of hatred. Both sides have wounds to show that the other has inflicted. It’s in the midst of this mistrust and for all the tall ’concepts’ of general goodness that life goes on in Gujarat.

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