I walked into Anjali’s house. She lives in one of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement colonies in Bombay which were developed to provide housing for slum dwellers and railway slum dwellers affected by the creation of roads infrastructure in Mumbai. Her house is a one-room tenement. She has created a litte bedroom space by placing a large showcase unit which separates the living room and the bedroom. I sat down to talk with her when my eyes fell on the Mecca-Medina mosque photograph which was placed on the wall facing her kitchen, above her newly purchased washing machine. For a moment, I was not sure if I had seen correct. Then, while continuing the talking, I glanced carefully again. It was the Mecca-Medina mosque photograph which is usually found in the homes of Bohra Muslims, Shias, Iranis and Sunnis as some kind of a visible mark of religion or show of faith and practice (or perhaps something else, I am not sure). I was both intrigued and amused.
Then, when she went inside to change her clothes so that both of us could leave for the railway station, I noticed that on the wall adjacent to the left side of the showcase, there were idols and photographs of Jesus Christ, Ganesha and Ambedkar. At that time, no thought passed my mind. I am not even sure what I felt then. We were about to leave when I remarked,
“Arrey Anjali, this terracotta show piece hanging close to the door is very pretty. I love the green and purple colours.”
“Oh, that one huh? Yes, the daughter of my employer was trading in these and she gave me one. Also see, my employers had given me this Mecca-Medina photograph which I have hung in the kitchen. I say, it does not harm my faith. I like it. It also reminds me of the long time that I worked in their home. Then see, here, I have put Jesus Christ and Ganesha’s idols and photos. I believe in Christ. I also used to go for the Novena which takes place every Wednesday in Mahim church. People from my community come into my home and tell me, ‘arrey, hum to Jai Bheem vale hai, aur tu yeh sab ko bhi manti hai?‘ (duh, we are the followers of Jai Bheem (Babasaheb Ambedkar) and you also believe in these (gods and faiths?)) I tell them, how does it matter. None of these faiths have harmed me or hurted me in any negative way. So how does it matter? After all, we are all one, no? It is we, human beings, who have created divisions.”
I listened to Anjali, sometimes blankly, and sometimes, trying to deal with my own confused feelings on religion, identity, faith and dogma.
We headed to the railway station from her home and got into one of the locals. My mind raced back to that day in January 1993. I don’t remember the date. Perhaps daddy does. And even if he does, I would not dare ask him. Some things, dad and I never speak about. The act of not speaking is perhaps healing sometimes. And yet, I don’t know what his wounds were like and whether the scars have healed. I can only guess … Some people rang the door bell on that day. They said they had seen some fires from around the zoo while keeping a watch through the binoculars on the area. They had also heard that a mob had set fire to some unit near the zoo. They asked dad to come upstairs to the terrace and see. He went up, perhaps nervous and maybe as if he would have cried at any instant. Mom held my younger sister and me back. Sometime later, dad came running back. He said he is leaving right away to douse the fires. He said could not see the factory burning. Mom shouted half crying,
“What is the point? If you are alive, we will rebuild all we had.”
I don’t remember how long they fought and for how long she tried to hold him back. Ultimately, he never went. And the fires burnt.
Days after the riots, Nana and daddy went to the factory to see what was remaining. The watchman of the building revealed the story to them:
“When the mob came, they were angry and agitated. They asked me, ‘Musalmaan ka kaunsa karkhana aur gala hai, bataa!‘ (tell us, which factories and units in this building belong to Muslims!) I pointed out to both of your units. They spread as much kerosense as was possible to burn everything inside the first store. Then, they went inside your second store. As soon as they entered, their eyes fell on the Durgadevi and Lakshmidevi photos inside your cabin. They thought I made a mistake in pointing out, perhaps in fear. They left your second unit as it is.”
When dad came back home, he laughed. He told mom that alongside and in the midst of the Durgadevi and Lakshmidevi photos, there was a photograph of the young Aga Khan. But it was an old photo which could have been missed or mistaken for the owner. The mob overlooked it and felt that the unit belonged to some Hindu. They left it untouched!
This incident is engraved in my memory to date and is perhaps one of the reasons why I have been such a fervent advocate of trying to understand people beyond stereotypes and images. Of course, admittedly today, I am in the same sea who makes judgments on the basis images and stereotypes, given my own recent experiences and the fresh scars and wounds that I am dealing and healing with.
When I was in Anjali’s house and I saw the images and photos, I did not know what to make of them. The famous Bombay cosmpolitanism – but then, this was denounced in the aftermath of the riots as cosmetic and superficial. Religion – if it means the ritualistic variety, then certainly Anjali did not fall in that category. Faith – perhaps, may be – my own relatives, aunts and grannies, visit the Novena and believe in Mother Mary as a healer. If this is faith, then how does it differ from religion? What are the times when this faith emerges and what causes such faith to develop? I don’t even know if these are the pressing questions in my mind. They remain, just as much as I question my own identity, being and perhaps … faith …