This month, a temple will be inaugurated in Ayodhya, thought to be the birthplace of Ram. It happens the same week as the 75th Republic Day of India. This is not a coincidence. 32 years ago, a mosque stood at that same place. It was believed to have been built by Babar and was the focus of communal disputes for centuries. On 6 December 1992, a political mob demolished the masjid, triggering violence and years of communal tensions all across the country. Several states away, the city then called Bombay, usually oblivious to politics, agnostic to faith woke up to a word called GOD. It was never the same again.
Thank God, he said to me, we are safe here.
No one can catch us.
I’m telling you, no?
You and I, we are safe here.
This is a moving picture, an eternal loop frame,
a chat with Mustafa, something about a hide-and-seek game.
This picture has smells and it smells like home.
Mutton biryani today, in Mustafa’s house, nobody eats alone.
In hungry smiles and dirty faces, this picture stands.
Games forgotten, both of you go wash your hands!
This picture has sounds too.
Hashmi uncle returning from work and when he turns around,
there are blood stains on his shirt
His face is contorted in shock and pain.
Outside the window, the bells of Mahaarti ring out
and Mustafa never speaks to me again.
This is a snapshot from 1992,
a city that I thought I once knew.
So many lessons in class 5 –
History, Geography and Moral Science.
A Hindu superhero, saga of returning glory.
In this place of worship, you are the wrong colour, wrong religion, sorry.
All Indians are my brothers and sisters but only if they follow my God.
You are measured by your capacity for hard work here.
But in 1992, Mumbai’s scales turned to faith and swords crossed in prayer.
As the tricolour became an uneasy peace flag
between raging saffron and seething green,
Names tainted by where our ancestors had been
Mustafa and I shared a school bench separated by one phrase –
Ramjanambhoomi Babri Masjid.
It was all over the news.
It lined our parents’ worried faces.
It slipped into 2AM threats on landline telephones.
It stalked the lanes of once familiar places.
It hid inside the suddenly prominent names of known faces.
Ram or Rahim? Seeta ya Sakina? Depends on the colour of the flag that’s asking.
It hung over the nightly patrols that my father went out for.
It breathed the silence of Hashmi uncle bearing a white flag, standing at our colony gate.
In temple bells and masjid chants, this one phrase, it rewrote my city’s fate.
Then it was a Tiger in orange.
A measured voice that said, “Khoon ki holi khelenge”.
And then it was a picture of men storming the dome, alit with religious fervour.
And across the country from Ayodhya, my city caught fire.
A Times of India headline said, “Bombay Burns”.
When the embers died down to ashes, we rose again.
A new city, a new name.
We got religion. We also got dug up cricket pitches.
Patching together a new life, Mumbai staggered to a new millennium, bleeding from its stitches.
Bad roads, poor lighting in places with names like Al Madina
and ‘Muslims are not allowed in this colony’.
We got high alerts during Id and Diwali.
We got religion. We got Mumbai spirit.
The maha-aartis morphed into louder speakers and oranger politicians.
From lace caps on heads
to turbulent vote banks and ghettoization instead.
Three years later, a Mani Ratnam film riddled with clichés,
a fairytale about a non-existent Bombay.
Two decades later, farewell to the Tiger with honours
and flame wars every time someone mentioned the birthplace of Ram.
But nobody remembers how the city burnt.
I call myself Mumbaiker.
I got with it.
As Bombay plays a rerun to Humma, I pull on my Mumbai spirit.
In the city of cinema, this showreel has been silenced.
But buried deep inside me,
is the memory of a boy who will never speak to me again.
And even where no God can touch it, my Bombay burns again.
But he said you and I are safe. Thank God.