Authors: V. S. Naipaul
Anwar said, ‘We returned to this area about three o’clock in the morning. Some of us were bleeding from the stones, and people asked us what had happened. I should tell you that on that night,
, Muslims stay awake right through.
The next day I had forgotten about the incident. But when I went with a friend to a house near here, I found it full of weapons. That was the doing of one of the big dons. His men had stocked up, to retaliate. Soon after, firing began in the locality. There was curfew throughout the day, and then they banned gatherings of more than five people. In the colony itself – the area where he lived – ‘police infiltrated to check whether people had weapons.’
‘Did the presence of the police calm people down?’
‘I have no confidence in the police. I will tell you. You can’t kill cows in public here – there’s an abbattoir you have to take your cows to. But you can pay a policeman, and kill a cow in public. When goats have to be sacrificed at the festival of Id, most Muslims take their goats to the abbattoir to have them slaughtered. But there are some local hoods who insist on killing the goats in public. It’s a macho act, to challenge the police. When the police come, the hoods say, “If you interfere, you won’t leave here alive.” ’
He had slid away from the subject of the riots of 1984; he had gone back to the subject of the toughs.
I said, These fights with the police excite you?’
He said, with some solemnity, ‘It is exciting. I like it. It happens because the police discriminate against the Muslims, and the Muslims have contempt for the police.’
‘But what’s the point of the game?’
He didn’t answer directly. He said, ‘There are very few sensible people among the Muslims.’ He spelt out the Urdu word he had in mind for ‘sensible’:
. ‘There are few educated Muslims here. People who are educated will never get involved in that kind of fighting.’ He semed slightly to have changed his attitude to the fighters.
‘So it will just go on?’
He said, with his curious mixture of melancholy and acceptance, ‘I see no end to it. I don’t see how it can end.’
‘How did the riots end that time?’
‘Mrs Gandhi came and asked people to try to settle things. But things get settled and then – they burst out again.’
I thought of the narrow lanes and the low wire-netting dwellings, with sleeping lofts below the fragile asbestos roofs. ‘What was life like during the riots? Did people sleep?’
‘When there are riots, you don’t know the meaning of sleep. You can’t sleep. It’s a big sin if someone of your faith is assaulted and you do nothing about it.’
‘Don’t you think that someone like you should be trying to live somewhere else?’
‘I can’t take such a step.’ It was what I thought he would say. ‘There are so many family ties. It is mandatory for a Muslim to honour those ties.’ Family, faith, community: they made a whole.
‘What advice would you give a younger brother, or someone coming up?’
The advice wasn’t about going away or breaking out. It was more immediate. It was about surviving, here. ‘I would tell him that he should think of retaliating and fighting back only if the person in front of him has made a mistake.’
‘If someone abuses you, for instance.’
Abuse, quarrels, fights within and without: that was the world he lived in, and, physically, was so little equipped for.
I mentioned the slogan I had seen: LIBERATE HUMANITY THROUGH ISLAM.
He said, ‘I agree with it totally.’
‘When did you learn about Islam?’ How, living where he did, would he have had the time, the privacy, the calm?
‘I learned from my parents. And I’ve also read the Koran.’
‘There are so many people in Bombay who feel they know the way to liberate humanity.’
He appeared to change his point of view. ‘It’s the nature of the world. When people gather in groups, each one will say that his is better than the others.’
I thought again of the family with the big colour television set near his house. I asked about them.
‘They have a business, making ready-made clothes. They make a little money.’
People in business, making money, and yet living here: it was proof again of what people said, that all you required in Bombay was accommodation. Once you had a place to sleep, anywhere, on a pavement, in a hut, in a corner of a room, you could get a job and make money. But – did the people with the television set show off a little?
The people with the TV and the tailoring business didn’t show off, Anwar said. But my question had touched something. He said, ‘They know that TV is forbidden in their religion.’ Then, as often, Anwar softened what he said. ‘But they don’t want their children to go to other houses to watch TV, and to be turned away. That can cause trouble.’
‘Why do you think so many of the dons in Bombay are Muslims?’
‘I’ve told you. There are few educated people among the Muslims. They go off the rails when they’re young.’
‘Are they religious people, these dons?’
‘They are all loyal adherents of Islam.’
‘Defenders of the faith?’
‘It is inevitable that they will fight for Islam. It is a contradictory role. They will continue their criminal activities, but at the same time they will read the Koran and do the
five times a day. The community does not admire these people. But the people are enchanted by the way the dons behave with the common Muslims.’
‘They are the community’s warriors?’
‘They organize our underground.
that’s what it’s called. It is organized by a don. It was created after the riots. We have meetings and decide strategy. We meet every month, even if there is no trouble.’
‘What do you think will happen to the children in your colony?’
‘The future is awful for them. All those children see murder, assaults.’
‘Have you seen murders?’
‘Yeh, yeh.’ It was an Indian affirmation, rather than American or English, and it was a spoken with a side-to-side swing of the head in the Indian way.
The bar-owner had begun to talk loudly to the bar in general about the people at the far end – he meant us – who had been occupying a table for too long. I was going to leave a fair sum for him, but he wasn’t to know that. I had my back to him, and I thought I shouldn’t turn around to look at him; I thought that if our eyes met he might be driven to a deeper rage. Nikhil, who had been facing him all the time, and occasionally reporting on his mood, ordered
for everybody; and Anwar, who had already worked his way through two tumblers of milk, began – appearing all the while to blow at it – to eat a portion of that rich milk sweet, steeped in syrup.
He said, ‘I saw my first murder when I was ten. We were playing badminton in the colony. There was a hut close by, and there were two men who began to quarrel. These two men usually slept on the same hand-cart at night. They were both about thirty. They had begun to quarrel, and then I saw one of the men running away. We went to see what had happened, and we saw that the man on the hand-cart had had his head nearly severed. He wasn’t dead. He was in the throes of death.’
‘Underwear. Shorts and a singlet. And the body in the throes of death caused the hand-cart to capsize.’
‘People ran up?’
‘Only children. About six or seven of us. And as the body fell to the ground, it spurted blood on us. I was very frightened.’ He began to laugh, eating his sweet, sucking at the thick syrup in his aluminium spoon. It was the first time he had laughed that evening. ‘We were still children. It didn’t occur to us that this was a police matter. Our first reaction was to go and wash the bloodstains off our shirt.’
‘How many murders have you seen since then?’
‘Ten or 12.’
‘Why do you laugh?’
‘It’s part of everyday life to us here. The reasons for those murders are very small. For instance, one day two men with umbrellas had a little collision. One man went to hit the other man, and the other man ran into a house, and the man chasing him ran in after him. I was talking to friend just there, and I saw it. The man doing the chasing pulled out a knife and killed the other man, just like that. Eighty per cent of people in this locality carry weapons.’
The bar-owner hadn’t been pacified by the extra orders for gulab jamun; he had continued to complain. And when Anwar finished his sweet, we prepared to leave. My thoughts went back to the people with the big television set.
‘The people with the TV – are they very religious?’
‘They are devout people. They are more religious in some ways and less religious in others.’
‘In what ways more religious?’
‘They offer namaaz five times a day. I offer namaaz only once.’
Formal prayers five times a day – and yet, to Anwar and his father, that faith, obsessive as it was, was flawed.
‘Can you see yourself living without Islam?’
‘What does it give you?’
‘Brotherhood. Brotherhood in everything. Islam doesn’t teach discrimination. It makes people help people. If a blind man is crossing the road, the Muslim doesn’t stop to find out what creed he belongs to. He just helps.’
‘What do you think will happen to your colony?’
‘I don’t see any solution.’
‘It will just go on as it is? You really think it will be the same when you reach your father’s age?’
‘You don’t ever think of going away?’
‘At the moment I have no intention to do so.’
‘Are you a Sunni?’
He looked surprised. He didn’t think that I would know about Sunnis. To him his faith was something secret, something outsiders couldn’t really know about.
I wanted to know whether there were other Muslim groups or sects in his colony. I asked whether there were Ismailis or Ahmadis among them. He said he had never heard of those groups. Were there Shias?
‘There are no Shias in the community.’
‘Isn’t that strange?’
‘I don’t find it strange.’
His orthodox faith was the one pure thing he had to hold on to. He couldn’t imagine life without it. It was a stringent faith. It shut out television; it had no room for heretics. All the many rules and celebrations and proscriptions were part of the completeness of Anwar’s world. Take away one practice, and everything was threatened; everything might start to unravel. It was correct, for instance, for Muslim men to pee squatting; and I heard later, from someone who worked with Anwar, that Anwar insisted on doing this at the modern urinals in his place of work, though it created problems for him.
Many of the people one saw on the streets and in offices lived in a small space. From small spaces, every morning, they came out fresh and clean and brisk. Whole families, not slum-dwellers or pavement-dwellers, lived in one room; and they might live in the same room for a generation.
Mr Raote had grown up in a family like that. He was one of the earliest members of the Shiv Sena; he had been among the 18 people, no more, at the very first Shiv Sena meeting in 1966. Now, with the victory of the Sena in the municipal elections, he was a man of authority, chairman of the Standing Committee of the Bombay Corporation. He had his own little office in the Victorian-Gothic Corporation building, with a waiting room and a secretary
and straight-backed chairs for people with petitions and needs. But he had lived for the first 28 years of his life in the one room where he had been born, in the suburb of Dadar, in mid-town Bombay.
In Dadar Mr Raote now lived in the top flat of a tall block he had built himself, after he had turned developer in his thirties. But the tenement with the one room which had been his home for more than half his life was within walking distance, and he took me to see it one morning.
We took the lift to the ground floor of his building, went out to the sandy front yard, went from the front to the back through a passage in the building, between shops with stylish signboards; and from the back walked to the next main road. Mr Raote was very well known; his walk created a little stir; people were respectful. It couldn’t have been open to many people to have the past (and a triumphant return to it) so accessible, just at the end of a short walk.
We turned off, very soon, from the footpath of the main road into a yard with an old two-storey building. We went round to the back and went up the steps at the side of the building to a verandah or gallery at the top. This verandah (like the one on the lower floor) ran the length of the building, and the floor was laid in the Maharashtrian way with slabs of stone. Separate rooms opened into the verandah. The room at the end was where Mr Raote’s family had lived.
We looked in from the doorway, and saw new carpentry and paint, in contemporary styling and colours. ‘It’s been done up,’ Mr Raote said. The room next to it was darker and plainer; it was more like the room Mr Raote had known. It was about 15 feet deep by 10 feet wide, with a kitchen at the back and with a loft for storage and sleeping. All the rooms on that upper floor had a common bathroom and toilet.
Before we had come over, Mr Raote had said, ‘My father made us study. You will recognize the difficulty when you visit the spot.’
And now, standing in the verandah where he had walked and run thousands of times, looking down at the yard which would have been shared with all the people from all the rooms in the building, I wondered how life had been lived in that small space, how five brothers and two sisters and father and mother had managed. How did children sleep and play and get ready for school?
Mr Raote said his father and mother used to awaken the children at four in the morning. Between four and seven they did their exercises – running, push-ups – and they studied. They had to do it all before seven. What made it difficult after that? The crowd in the building and yard, the noise? Mr Raote said, The atmosphere.’
As a top Shiv Sena man, Mr Raote had a reputation for roughness. And he had been a little rough with me when I was taken to his office to be introduced to him. When he understood that I wasn’t looking for material for another hostile interview, that I was more interested in his background and development, his manner changed. He was interested in his own story; his idea of himself was of a man who had struggled.