“Damodar!” The cry that was an ethereal mix of joy, surprise, and agony staggered me. I looked at the old man who had uttered that cry looking into my eyes. I had just come out from a shopping mall in the city which I was visiting after a very long period though it was the city that nurtured my childhood. I stared at the million wrinkles that crisscrossed his sunken cheeks, at his bald head, into his sad eyes…
“Timur…” I whispered hesitantly.
“Yes,” the man said with relief as well as heightened joy.
It was Amir Timur, my childhood friend. The boy who told me, “Arey yaar, you should celebrate Diwali,” when I told him that my father was against firecrackers which did no good to anyone including the earth’s stratosphere. He took me to the junkyard behind his hut and took out the crackers he had bought on the way and gave me a matchbox. “Come on, this is your Diwali.” He said. “Celebrate it. Darn the stratosphere.”
Timur and I became best friends. I visited his hut and his mother gave me gajar ka halwa and sheer korma. But he never agreed to visit my house in spite of my repeated invitations though my mother would have happily served him vada with sambar or rice murukku. “Palace belonged to the original Timur. I’m a fake Timur.” He said with a smile whose meaning remained beyond my grasp at that time. I was just 13. Not old enough to understand life’s inevitable ironies.
I didn’t understand when Timur remained absent from school for a few days and then reappeared looking sullen and terrified. “Save your penis.” One boy in the class whispered to me. I didn’t understand the meaning of that either though I had heard that injunction mentioned in all sorts of moods by people in different places. It took me quite a while and even more sincere effort which smelt of prurience to understand that a man called Sanjay Gandhi was doing something not quite dignified to men’s penises. It cost me even more time and effort to find out that his religion had done something terrible to Timur’s penis.
Timur stopped attending school soon. He was asked to work in a tea-shop and earn money for family. My contact with Timur was snapped totally.
I was sent to America soon after I completed my graduation. I studied, found a job, married, and settled down in the land of dreams. My country remained a distant reality for me. But I knew what was happening there. It reminded me of Timur occasionally.
I was reminded of Timur when some of my people brought the Babri Masjid down with shouts of Ek dhakka aur do and violence followed in many places soon after. I worried about Timur. But I had no courage to enquire about him. Was it courage that I lacked? Or was it sensitivity? I wonder.
Babri Masjid and Timur did not belong to the same place, of course. But what happens in one place has butterfly effects in other places. Something happens in Godhra railway station and Timur’s people are killed in Ahmedabad and Vadodara and …
Timur’s people. I wonder why I thought of them as such. Timur had no more connection with Gujarat than I did.
I read in the news that appeared off and on in electronic media about men whose foreskins were checked before they were lynched on my country’s streets. I read about citizenship bills. I read about resurgent nationalism. Patriotism began to rise in my veins though hesitantly. I wished to visit the city of my birth.
That’s how I met Timur again. An old man. A skeleton.
He had been arrested by the police after a bomb blast took place in a masjid in our city – did I say ‘our’ city?
“I was in the mosque when the blast took place,” Timur told me. “And unfortunately I was saved.”
He was asked to confess to a crime that he had not committed. He was asked to admit that he was a spy working for the ISI of Pakistan.
“They drove a pin beneath my toenails to make me accept the crime. When I refused, they stripped me and drove the pin into … you know where.”
I had read about that bomb blast too in the electronic media. It was reported that a man belonging to some Hindu right-wing organisation had committed the crime and he confessed to it when he couldn’t bear the weight of his deed on his conscience anymore. I had not taken that report seriously though. I was becoming a nationalist, you see.
“I wanted to become a terrorist,” Timur told me. “To destroy. Annihilate.” He ground his teeth. “But I couldn’t. Aap ki yaad ne mujhe rok diya.”
His words stunned me into silence. What happened to my nationalism?
I searched for my nationalism in the little space between me and the horizon. Cities have no horizon, you know. Instead there are billboards. And right in front of me stood one such billboard with India’s Prime Minister grinning broadly. “Achhe din aane waale hain.” The billboard said.
PS. This story is inspired by a real incident narrated by K.S. Komireddi in his book, Malevolent Republic.