Loss of Shared Meanings

Post the riots, there is a need for the articulation of the trauma of the survivors or we will risk the social death of a segregated community

Ghazala Jamil Delhi 

In muzaffarnagar and Shamli, a community struggles to come to grips with the reality of the events that took place an year ago, and all that has happened since. Not only has their immediate world changed, words have begun to have different meanings too.

I first visited the camps to which the Muslim families displaced by the violence in the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli region had relocated, seven months after the violence. I went with only a vague idea that while relief and physical rehabilitation rightly take priority, it is also important that attention be paid to the trauma such people have faced and continue to experience. Everyone I spoke to agreed that they would rebuild their lives somehow and, of course, that financial resources mattered: but it was equally important for them that they could speak of their experiences.

As they spoke to me about the familiar comforts of their old houses and the bonhomie that prevailed in their villages, there was frequent weeping. “Ghar jodte-jodte zindagi lag gai, ek minute mein ujaad diya. Unke dil bhi naa kaanpey (It took a lifetime to make our home but it was destroyed in a minute. Their hearts did not even tremble at this).” Women rued the loss of the jewellery and other items they had collected bit by bit for their daughters’ dowries. Teenagers and young children have had to drop out of school and have lost an academic year. Many girls and women who used to sew clothes for a living have lost their sewing machines and customers. Combined with their trauma, the loss of livelihood—and, generally, the inability to do anything productive with their time—has struck them hard. Women said their days just passed in a daze. They found it difficult sometimes to believe what had happened to them. Children still often woke up crying at night after having nightmares.

“Woh toh bas ek hawa thi.”

I ask little Zara, all of three years old, if she likes this house that her grandfather has rented. She shakes her head. “Would you like to go back to your old house?” No, she replies. “Why not?”  “Wahan meri gudiya ka palang jala diya (my doll’s bed was burnt there).” Her older cousin pitches in, “Mera basta bhi jala diya(my bag was also burnt).” I look towards their grandma. “They are right”, she says, “all the new and useful stuff was looted from our house and then they burnt the place down.”  “Have you been there since?” I ask her. “Yes, I went to the village to vote but couldn’t gather enough courage to go inside the house. I met some of my neighbours too. The boys said, ‘Chachi, ghar aaja, cha pee le’ (Aunty, come home, have tea). They used to play in my lap when they were mere babies. I asked them, ‘Ghar to tumne na bachaya, sab lut gaya, sab khatam ho gaya, ab cha kyon pilao ho?’ (You didn’t save my house, everything is looted, everything is finished, why do you ask me to tea now?) They said ‘Chachi, pata nahin kya ho gaya, us roz to kuchh hawa thi’. (Aunty, don’t know what happened, that day… it was in the air).”

Eyewitnesses recount the story of an old man in Lisad village hacked to death on September 8, 2013. His body was never found. His daughter-in-law says, “He died because he refused to believe that he might be harmed. Whenever there was a death in the village, it was our Baba who would tie the wooden framework to carry the corpse for cremation. He said, they will do no harm to me.” His eldest son and daughter-in-law were also killed because they said they were responsible, as the eldest in the family, and could not just leave their house and cattle. Their bodies were also never found. Of a large joint family, two other sons and daughters-in-law were saved, as were several granddaughters, grandsons, their wives, and very young great-grandchildren, by a Hindu woman neighbour who warned them the previous night and told them to leave. “Raton-raat bhaag jao (Run away during the night),” she told her Muslim friend. I asked this family too if they had ever tried asking this neighbour who the killers were. They said they had asked her and others in the village, but “Everyone says, ‘Woh to hawa thi’ (it was in the air).

During my later visits and numerous conversations with Muslim victims of violence and forced displacement, I realised that the expression “ek hawa thi” had entered the local lexicon. For some it was an easy way out of a difficult question posed by neighbours whom they had betrayed or had not done enough to protect. For the victims it was the point where language failed them and injustice prevailed. Calling violence by another name is violence continued.

I was reminded of a short story in my school textbook about an old man who had no friends or relatives, nobody to speak to. Days would pass before he had an opportunity to speak. To amuse himself, he decided one day that he would call his bed ‘cupboard’ and his cupboard ‘bed’. So he said to himself, I will hang my coat in the bed and then lay down in the cupboard. This really amused him. He kept going and swapped many pairs of names. When that amused him no more he made the game more complex. So now he listened to music on bread, washed himself with the radio and ate the soap. Gradually, he forgot the original names of things and communication with him became increasingly difficult until it broke down completely. All I remember about the end of the story is that it was a tragedy.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2014