February 26, 2021
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10 Years Later

Gujarat Revisited

I was aware of my family's pain but had never fully realised that our loss in Gujarat’s communal riots was only a minor footnote in a vast library of rewritten lives.

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Gujarat Revisited

Revisiting Ahmedabad, almost 10 years after my grandfather Ahsan Jafri's death during Gujarat riots of 2002, I went with a somewhat undeveloped awareness of the loss. I was aware of my family's pain but had never fully realised that our loss in Gujarat’s communal riots was only a minor footnote in a vast library of rewritten lives.

Being so removed, living in the USA, it had been difficult to truly comprehend the breadth of the emotional ravages of severe injustice. For so long, I was unable to commiserate with those who felt unheard, because I was in the enviable position of having the ear of many, with nothing much to say.

It is mighty humbling to learn lessons one didn’t think one needed.

I took a walk through the now mostly deserted Gulberg society-- past the same bike shop and corner-store my grandmother would send me off to. The houses and courtyards, where we spent so much time as children, were all painfully stark.

Inside the abandoned house, as I stood silent with shut eyes, for a moment I felt I was sweating another hot summer in my grandfather’s beloved library. I could hear the same chirping of the sparrows. Despite the heat, his ceiling fans would remain always off; switches taped over, to make sure those birds could safely weave through our house carefree.

Opening the eyes returned me to reality. The gardens he tended so carefully now lay wild and overgrown, only hiding the charred ruins of a once beautiful and bustling life.

As I spoke with my grandmother, I realized time had treated her as harshly as it did the home she lost. Beneath every deliberately hopeful conversation, the ravaged foundation shone through the cracks.

Standing on our terrace, looking out over the neighbourhood we used to call home, I wondered how people who shared so many common bonds could have let those threads so quickly unravel to a breaking point. She did not want to speak of what we lost as a family, only of those who had so little in this world to begin with, now the ones rendered truly destitute.

Looking out from that terrace which once served merely as a platform for my kite-flying, I suddenly had a panoramic view of a community still feeling the aftershocks of too many decade-old tensions.

With acquired maturity, I could now comprehend the distinct word -- be-ghar. It conveys the meaning which eludes perfect definition in English language, despite my better grasp of it. Literally, it means to be without home, but such simplistic terms seem vapid when articulating the sentiment behind a word of such potential depth. Beghar encapsulates the chill of loss and emotional vacuum, pairing homelessness with hopelessness. Though a home can be built, or rebuilt, to become beghar is to have a loss of identity and crisis of belonging which compromises the very basis of one’s being.

To fully understand the importance of any of life’s necessary gifts, one needs to try and appreciate the substantial void which would manifest in their absence. Even one decade after destructive injustice, after rebuilt homes, after rebalanced families, after repressed nightmares, so many families still learn daily what it is to be beghar. This is a city which has seen riots in decades past but risen back, resurrected—always rebuilt, always repopulated, even if always marred by its own acquiescence.

Once again we find ourselves at a crucial juncture, seemingly prepared to claim closure without actually answering the difficult questions such tragedies always leave in their wake. This is not the first time. It was the same after the Sikh Massacres of 1984, the Bombay Riots of 1992, and countless other instances of communal carnage.

Honest introspection is always discouraged on the specious grounds that a transparent analysis would only reopen old wounds that have healed, releasing, as if, unsavoury demons that we won't be able to deal with. Let's think of the future, we are told repeatedly. Why rake up the past? Move on, think of the future, it is constantly chanted. The dead will not come back, we are told. Why seek retribution? we are counselled. Rebuild your lives. Participate in vikaas, in development.

The dead can indeed not be brought back, but is it possible for those who survived to move on, debilitated by lasting and festering wounds of injustice? Can these wounds even begin to heal in the absence of justice? When some of those talking of development now are the very ones who perpetrated ghastly murders and rapes, and continue to strut around with impunity.

Cicero preached that the foundation of justice is good faith, and when we pursue justice in good faith, we should be brave enough to face the answers we seek, no matter if it involves a troubling look in the mirror. Allowing such injustice to linger on is antithetical to what it means to be an Indian, and indeed human.

I hope with sincere reflection we will realize we all deserve better, from our India, and from ourselves.

Tauseef Hussain is a recent college graduate and lives in the US. He was 13 years old when his grandfather, the former M.P. Ahsan Jafri was killed in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

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