On the first page of City of Fear the author enquires, ‘Exactly what did Octavio Paz mean when he said, “We are condemned to kill time, so we die little by little”’. He never finds the answer even when an earthquake strikes and blood-thirsty mobs surround him. David, a member of the small Bene Israeli Jewish community of Ahmedabad, begins his intensely personal account of the Gujarat riots of 2002 with the earthquake that killed thousands a scant year earlier. This natural calamity creates large cracks in the walls of David’s family home, as if in grim preparation for the man-made calamity to follow—the burning of the train at Godhra station allegedly by a Muslim mob, when a number of Hindus perish, and the aftermath of massive retaliation—which will force him to finally abandon that home.
David, an assistant editor with the Times of India, and his mother—Esther—lived in their three-generations-old family home sandwiched between antagonist areas of Ahmedabad during the worst Hindu-Muslim conflagration since the partition of India. ‘Guptanagar was like a matchstick waiting to burst into flames because of its proximity to Juhapura.’
The David family struggles to retain its Guptanagar house, its safety and its sanity through all the frenzy. The account reflects the poignancy of these ‘outsiders’, brought here by the forces of history and staying on for generations without deflecting the indifferent gaze of the mainstream. The hatred and fear of extreme situations, however, can cause this gaze to veer briefly towards them, and provoke a vicious swipe, after which the gaze turns indifferent again. The story of a Parsi family also caught in the vice of the Gujarat riots, when they lose their son, is a striking parallel. (The acclaimed film, Parzania, which is banned in Gujarat, is based on this). This is the sort of price India has to pay for its prideful heterogeneity.
David’s acquaintances’ and friends’ reactions, attitudes and actions are part of the grim commentary. His barber, Rameshbhai, till then always affable, enquires one day at his saloon if David is a Christian and exhibits a cold hostility when David tries to explain what he is, as a Jew. ‘Was he upset over the fact that the Muslims and I may have shared forefathers a few thousand years ago?’ wonders David. He never goes back to the razor wielding barber to find out.
Then there is David’s close friend, the sophisticated teacher, Jayendrasinh Sisodiya. Inevitably, during their conversations, ‘his hatred for Muslims would erupt from the depths of his being. “You seculars don’t realize,” he would say, “you are up against a race that is out to screw the world …”’ Jayendra dubs David a traitor for not agreeing that all Muslims should undergo collective punishment for their crimes worldwide, and specifically for the crime at Godhra. Jayendra’s outbursts are repetitions of the familiar jargon that goes with anti-Muslim rhetoric. But the telling moment comes when he unleashes a tirade against ‘those circumcised bastards … bandias …’ ignoring the fact that his Jewish friend is also circumcised, a ‘bandia’. He finally backs off when David erupts in rage.
A Hindu girl is stripped and killed for being married to a Muslim, and her body abandoned on the road between Guptanagar and Juhapura. ‘That is bad …’ says Jayendra. ‘What is bad?’ asks David. Could this incident have reformed Jayendra? But ‘No,’ says Jayendra, ‘I mean the killing is alright but they should not have stripped her …’
‘That is how many people feel,’ says a TV journalist friend who covers the incident. ‘They feel awkward about a woman being stripped in broad daylight, but they feel no guilt … that she was later killed.’
The family lives under constant threat. David is terrified that as a circumcised man, even if non-Muslim, detection can lead to his abrupt end. He is often threatened while walking on ‘curfew-bound streets, fearing for violent mobs and (his) circumcised penis …’ Esther walks down a street while by-standers murmur menacingly and wonder if she is a Muslim, till her huge bindi becomes visible. The irony is she is not a Hindu either, though she has long sported a bindi. Gun shots and tear gas shells explode around their house. Outside, armed Hindu mobs await a Muslim onslaught, which though threatened never materializes. To David there exists a snake ‘with a thousand heads, ready to devour anything that looked even vaguely Muslim. It crawled slowly but stung with the force of a thousand fangs.’
Esther’s attachment to her home, particularly the garden, is overtaken by exigency and she insists on moving to a safer location. The house, already alive with David’s descriptions of the ambient light, the flowering trees, the birds, is enhanced when the marvellous artifacts crowding it, some precious some grotesque, including stuffed snakes and fine china, are detailed. The distribution of these before the shift to the smaller new flat is tinged with regret, for this house is the symbol of the David’s rootedess, a rootedness that has brought them back each time after several failed attempts to settle in Israel. The greatest sadness is the parting from their dog, Ora, to whom the book is dedicated.
Though obviously not intended to give comprehensive coverage, the book could have thrown light on some issues, (David was reporting for the press at the time)—especially the intriguing contradictions surrounding the Godhra train burning still not clarified by state or central government—was it an accident, as the Justice Banerjee Committee, appointed by the Railway Minister, reports, thus exonerating the ‘Muslim mob’, a report later declared illegal by the Gujarat High court? Why has the Gujarat state appointed Judicial Commission, being conducted by Justices Nanavati and Shah, not yet made a final report? etc. This apart from the on-going messy judicial proceedings, the lapsed cases, and the desperate plight of displaced people.
The story is instead dotted with vivid personal portrayals: the emotions of both Robin David and his mother, which are exposed as their fears precipitate endless quarrels; David’s love life, his handicap as a hemiplegic which gives him an out of kilter body, all described with unfettered frankness … But it seems this is David’s intention—an examination from his level—his experiences, his impressions, and his contemplation of the dilemmas thrown up by and during this searing passage. It is, in the end, a moving account, relieved from despair by the author’s ebullience. There is no final comment on Octavio Paz’s conundrum on death. But David is now aware of danger at every turn. He will no longer ignore the tanpura drone ‘humming away day and night … the drone of hatred’. This is David’s first book, and he retains the tension not in spite of, but because of the bold personal slant, though the editors could have been more stringent in curtailing repetitive descriptive passages. City of Fear is important for its fearless look at two important aspects of India—the recurring discomfiture of small, misunderstood minority communities, and—what is certainly one of the most disturbing features of the Indian polity—the deep divide between the two major religious communities. Kamalini Sengupta is a former member of the Indian Administrative Service, a documentary film maker and a writer. Her latest novel is The Top of the Raintree.