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The Red Slayer

Stephen Alter recounts the horror of being brutally attacked in his own home

The Red Slayer
The Red Slayer
outlookindia.com
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Recent events have proved, yet again, that our human capacity for violence defies the boundaries of imagination. For me, the horror of the Mumbai massacre brought back echoes of a personal experience of traumatic violence. This past summer, my wife Ameeta and I were attacked in our home in Mussoorie. Four men, who have yet to be caught, stabbed, beat and smothered us, then left us for dead. While no comparison can be made between our attack and the scale and terror of the Mumbai killings, in my mind it confirmed the potential for brutality that each of us, as human beings, possesses.

Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of any form of violence is the sense of estrangement that follows an invasion of identity. Mussoorie is the town I was born and raised in, yet the attack made me acutely aware of being a foreigner. The hospital we were treated in was mobbed with friends, neighbours, childhood companions. Still, there remained an inescapable sense of alienation. As the police officers began their investigation, the line-up of suspects included innocent people we had known for years, as well as anonymous faces. Rumours, theories and speculation about the motives behind the attack have ranged from absurdly farcical suggestions to hints of chilling intimacy. At times, I feel as if I'm both witness and victim in my own murder mystery.

Returning home from hospital, Ameeta and I asked ourselves, more than once, if we should remain in Mussoorie. We considered leaving, going back to places where we've lived before: Boston, Cairo, Mysore. Ultimately, we have chosen to stay here, even if recurring pangs of violation and vulnerability sometimes make us feel like intruders in our own home.

***

The most frightening image that keeps coming back at me is a fractured montage of attacking figures silhouetted against the early morning light. One is waving a pistol. Even in that brief instant, I can tell the gun is fake, carved out of wood. Behind the first attacker is a second man with a knife that is unmistakably real. Two of the intruders have knocked Ameeta to the floor. Her screams wakened me a few seconds ago. Throwing off the bedcovers and running toward the kitchen, I plunged from sleep into a waking nightmare. None of the men's faces are visible, only the flailing black shapes of their arms.

Even now, those men keep coming at me, again and again. I rush at them, swearing, hurling whatever comes to hand. We collide outside the bedroom door, next to the ironing board. This is where the image ends, a five-second loop of memory that sends a spasm of fear through my body every time it is projected inside my skull.

***

August 3, 2008. Exactly a month has passed since the attack. For the first time, I'm attempting to type with both hands. My left wrist was cut to the bone, most of the tendons severed. The injury must have happened soon after I began struggling with the intruders but I have no recollection of receiving this wound.

My left arm is weak, flaccid and trembling from having been immobilised the last four weeks. Yet these fingers still work, pecking at the computer keyboard like an arthritic hen, feeding on consonants and vowels.

Today is the first time I have tried to write down what happened. The physical act of typing these words gives me hope because the whole experience was almost entirely physical—being hit and stabbed, my hands and feet tied, being suffocated by a stranger's hand, his fingers pinching my nose, his palm clamped over my mouth, the knife at my throat. There was nothing intellectual or literary about it.

***

July 3, 2008. 5.30 am. We were asleep. Usually, at this hour of the morning I would be getting up to make a cup of tea before going out for a run. But earlier in the night I had been restless, waking at 2 am and working for an hour, reading over the draft of an unfinished novel. Returning to bed, I fell back to sleep and probably would have woken up around 7.30.

Hearing a knock at the kitchen door, Ameeta assumed it was the baker who delivers bread three mornings a week. Seeing daylight outside, she didn't check her watch or the wall clock. On monsoon mornings, curtained with mist, it is impossible to tell the difference between 5.30 and 7.30 am. Instead of the bread man, three strangers were at the door. Opening the latch, Ameeta asked them what they wanted. They said they were painters, sent by the carpenter who was remodelling one of the rooms in our home. We didn't need painters, Ameeta answered, puzzled.

"Where is bau'ji?" asked the taller man. He had long hair and a gaunt face. Ameeta noticed he was fidgeting, restless. "Where is uncle?" another man asked. Realising who they meant, Ameeta told them that I didn't know anything about painting the house. At that point, they yanked the screen door open and forced their way inside. A fourth man, who had been hiding behind a corner of the wall, leapt up and joined them. He was wearing a knitted ski-mask, with holes for his eyes and mouth. Defending herself against the attacker's knives, Ameeta was cut on both hands. When they shoved her to the floor, she twisted one of the men's fingers. He cursed under his breath, saying she'd broken it, then kicked her in the face, leaving her dazed. Soon afterwards, they tied Ameeta's wrists and ankles. One of the intruders slashed her legs, cutting through her jeans. He also stabbed her below her ribs on the left side. Blood began pooling on the kitchen tiles.

By this time, I was also on the floor. With the butt of the wooden pistol, one man kept hitting me on the head. Each blow felt like the crack of a spoon against an eggshell, but much harder. Though it didn't knock me out, my eyes lost focus. Three of the attackers were on me. They worked quickly, efficiently lashing my hands and feet with a cotton cord. As they started to gag me, I bit one of their fingers. One of the men kept whispering in my ear, telling me to keep quiet. "Chup ho jao!" He said nothing else. A few seconds later, he tried to smother me, pushing down on my mouth and nose with one hand. In a panic, I began to kick and struggle.

The warning was repeated in my ear: "Be quiet!" As they dragged me to my feet, I could see Ameeta lying on the other side of the kitchen. She was completely still, one of the attackers crouched beside her. Earlier, I had heard her groan and thought she might be dead. All of this was a blur of shadows, as I was hauled into the dining room. "Where is the money?" they demanded in Hindi. "Where is the locker? Where do you keep your money?"

I could barely speak through the gag. "There's no money," I told them. "Take whatever you want...laptops, camera, TV.... Leave us alone." But they kept asking where the money was, voices calm and subdued, as if they were still inquiring about painting the house.

I was yanked back into the central hall and thrown to the ground. One of the attackers pinned me to the floor, my face scraping against the rough jute matting. Again, he began to smother me. The choking sensation was worse than the blows to my head. After a couple of minutes, however, the man unclamped his hand and asked again, "Where is the money?"

Another member of the gang was standing over me. It was the man wearing the mask. "Tell us where the money is or we'll shoot your wife—madam ko goli mar denge!" As I gasped for breath, I remember thinking it strange that they called Ameeta "madam" after they had beaten and stabbed her. Once again, I told them we had no money in the house.

When the masked man raised his arm, I clearly saw the knife he was holding—a commando knife with an eight-inch blade and decorative serrations near the handle.

Knowing that I was going to be stabbed, I rolled on to my left shoulder, still under the weight of my assailant. Desperately, I kicked at the masked man. Convinced that I was about to die, I didn't want to give up without some sort of resistance. The masked intruder stabbed me six times on the legs, though the only wound I remember receiving is the last. Avoiding my thrashing feet, I saw him brace himself before lunging forward and bringing the knife down on my right thigh, cutting into my flesh and ripping open a deep wound, 12 inches long.

There was no pain. In shock, my body switched off those nerves. Unlike the smothering, this felt as if it were happening to someone else. After the stabbing had stopped, the man who was holding me down must have taken the knife from the other attacker, for he began pressing it against my throat. Somehow, I got my hands up under his wrist, fingers clenched around his grip and the hilt of the knife. The serrations on the lower part of the blade cut into my palm. Unable to see my attacker, it felt as if I were wrestling with my own shadow. There was something intimate and obscene in the way he held me in his arms. From the time I had been knocked down in the kitchen until now, 20 minutes must have elapsed, though it seemed much longer.

Then, without warning, he let me go. The knife was suddenly withdrawn. My attacker pulled away and jumped to his feet, then rushed out of the hall, through the dining room.

Here was my only chance. I rolled over on the jute matting and pushed myself off the ground. With my wrists and ankles tied, I had trouble getting to my feet but when I did, I was able to hop across to the double doors that open into an outer hall, the main entrance to the house. But before I could reach it, I tripped and fell. My blood was smeared on the slate flagstones. Fortunately, I was able to get myself upright again and stumbled toward the outer door. Seeing daylight encouraged me, the chance of escaping those threatening shadows. I continued to feel very little pain, only a heavy dullness in my legs.

Hobbling outside on to the front steps, I pulled the gag from my mouth and sucked in the moist monsoon air. Immediately, I began to shout for help. Our employees, Ajeet and Ram Lal, live a hundred meters from our house.

Eventually, I saw a running figure. My vision was blurred by blood from cuts above my eyes. I couldn't tell who this person was, believing it might be one of the attackers, coming back to finish me off. Seconds later, when I turned to face the approaching figure, I saw it was Ram Lal. He hadn't recognised me because of the blood. "I thought someone was dressed all in red," he told me later, but at that moment he couldn't speak, breaking down in tears.

Ajeet and Ram Lal untied my hands and feet. I asked them to bring towels to staunch my bleeding. One of them put a cushion under my head. Chris Cooke, our neighbour, kneeled beside me. I asked about Ameeta. He reassured me that she was all right. When they lifted me into the back seat of the taxi that was taking us to hospital, I fainted.

***

"Random violence" is a phrase one hears too often these days. The intruders in our home took nothing away with them, except for a couple of Ameeta's rings. There was no cash in the house for them to steal. And they left our laptops and other valuables alone. This led the police and others to speculate on the motives of the crime—though I can't recall having caused any enmity that would have provoked an attack like this.

The viciousness of our assault was matched only by the overwhelming expressions of love and concern we received afterwards. In many ways, I received a second life, for I was treated in the same Landour Community Hospital where I was born.

Now, six months later, I am able to jog three kilometres at an invalid pace. My left hand is almost back to normal and the scar is barely visible, a reminder of how quickly the human body can regenerate itself.

Retelling a story can be a form of healing too, as each rendition attempts to make sense of disturbing events. Many messages we received, expressing sympathy and support, reminded us of the need for spiritual recovery. Being a devout atheist, I never once felt a compulsion to ask for help from god while I was being attacked. Afterwards, however, there were many who came and prayed over us. Even if I don't believe in divine intercession, I am grateful for the prayers on our behalf. Whatever wounds and scars remain inside still fester with fear and anger, but just as my tendons, muscles and nerves have begun to heal themselves, my psychological sinews are also undergoing a process of self-repair.

Several months after the attack, I found myself searching for a poem that I first read long ago. Titled Brahma, it was written in 1857 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who seems to have been responding to events in India of that year. Perhaps there's some solace in the verse of a Yankee transcendentalist meditating upon the violence of his time.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep and pass, and turn again...


(Stephen Alter writes and lives in Mussoorie. This is an abridged version of his essay.)
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