Inspired by the movie Bombay
Vancouver, Canada, is not a place which would be thought of to be reminiscent of any Indian locale. But to Kareem it was. With the ocean waves crashing onto the rocky cliff sides, covered in a mist that both promised and perturbed, and the glistening greenery from abundance of showers, Vancouver reminded Kareem of both Khandwa, the remote nested village his parents came from and Mumbai. Perched on the cliff by the gas station on the sea to sky highway, he often searched for a glimpse of the latter during his work breaks. The glimpses came, and the comforting familiarity of a cotton aanchal; with a musty smell mixed with that of turmeric, and an iron bangle he would often play with on a soft hand, would start placating his tapered fingers holding the cigarette. The trembling he wasn’t aware of would stop. But the glimpses would always start to end, interrupted mercilessly with visions of burning cars, men and women bleeding, and a dark room from where there was no escape. The walls of the room were caving in, coming closer and closer as he struggled to breath, and a scream no one could hear formed near his chest as he jumped up straight, almost losing his balance. The scream was still stuck, and would be for long after, as he would rush inside to continue with his job, escaping the men chasing him. Day after day – afternoon after afternoon.
He couldn’t stop still, in spite of the agony trailing the momentary comfort, from seeking out the glimpses. Today was no different. But today he had received a call from Sameer, so today still held a promise. Of being different.
Sameer used to call without fail every day when he was in New York. Studying hard in NYU and working as a TA to support his scholarship; those calls from his twin brother who had walked miles to call him, used to make him smile unconsciously. But he could never say much, he didn’t know what to say. Sameer wouldn’t understand. Everything that had strengthened Sameer, had destroyed Kareem. Two brothers, that too twins, vowing to be alike were now worlds apart.
Sameer used to blabber on. About how Papa was so proud of Kareem, how he bored the retirees crowding on the bench for evening chat with the rhetoric of how Kareem had secured the NYU scholarship. Their bored gazes lost on his glistening eyes. And how he had caught Ma again; wiping tears and attributing those to onions, each time Sameer mentioned he had talked to Kareem. But his cheerful tone met only long pauses and reluctant, single syllable responses. What Kareem wanted to say, couldn’t be said. The silence in the room, every time the calls ended, turned into a distant cacophony of cries.
The cacophony used to be unbearable right after the riots. As the four of them hugged as tightly as humanely possible when either Sameer or Kareem or both had woken up yet again middle of the night, their screams relaying the horrors of their nightmares, Sameer would slowly let go. He could start to hear the birds outside tweeting on the balcony of their one room temporary rental. But Kareem kept digging his head deeper and deeper into the soft breasts of Ma as his back arched into Papa, for he couldn’t stop hearing the cries.
Ma and Papa had tried. For both of them. As they city settled into normalcy again and the communities struggled to rebuild trust, their parents tried to rebuild innocence. The shattered innocence of childhood.
The day he left New York, a city too loud for his ears overflowing with sounds from the past, he didn’t call home. He left with no forwarding address or number. He hadn’t let his friends or family know. He had failed five out of the six courses he had enrolled in. A career in labour relations had never seemed a reality, even when Papa had thought so beyond doubt. After all, his predictions for Sameer, inferred from the latter’s dedication in helping the needy, had come true. Sameer worked for NIRBHAY. Walking for hours into rural villages miles away from nearest railway station and coming back home with mosquito bites all over after days, and sometimes weeks. His earnings meagre, but his resolve unshakeable. He wouldn’t let 1996 happen again.
But Papa was wrong about Kareem. As the NY transit pulled out of Penn for upstate NY, Kareem shut his eyes, falling asleep at last after 36 hours of struggle.
‘You were so hard to find,’ Sameer had yelled, his voice solemn. Kareem had anticipated anger, demand for answers, but Sameer’s voice only communicated relief. ‘Do you have any idea how many Kareems exist in this world?’ Sameer had added, trying to add a jovial note. Kareem kept listening, still a bit in haze from hearing his brother’s voice on the other end. Unlike his brother, he didn’t use his last name. So Kareem was anonymous – unlike Sameer Abdul – whose name itself held the promise of uniqueness and unity.
I want you to come home, Sameer had said, even if it’s for a day. I am getting married – he had said. Kareem had hung up – muttering almost inaudibly a promise to think about it.
The irate voice of the customer brought him back. Handing of spare change, he made up his mind. He could still catch the afternoon bus if he left soon. He had to, as he might not be able to if he allowed himself time to think about it.
Mumbai hadn’t changed – or so it seemed to Kareem. The noises, down to each decibel, sounded the same to him. He was tired as he nervously stood outside the Chhatrapati Sivaji International terminal trying to avoid being bumped into, holding tight his overnight bag. And then he felt the hug, the same warm, all fear elevating hug with the smell of sweat that he had wished for every night. The hug was so tight that he couldn’t breathe – but he was used to holding his breath.
They had been walking for quite some time, Kareem and Sameer. Kareem hadn’t asked why when Sameer had guided him to the train station instead of hailing an auto to take them home. He had slowly started grasping where Sameer was taking him as the train entered Khandwa station. This is where Sameer had set up his camp – to promote communal harmony with the assistance of villagers – brilliantly using their common woes to unite them. The camp thrived on volunteers, providing food, schooling, and rehabilitation. Yet Kareem had never come to volunteer. Neither had Sameer ever asked. Following Sameer today through the muddy path, it should have seemed strange to Kareem that they are coming here instead of going home.
But nothing seemed strange to him anymore, and even if something did, he didn’t have much left to ask about it. When one has seen the unacceptable, everything could be accepted.
‘This is where Ma and Baba stay now.’ Sameer spoke at last. His voice soft yet proud. ‘But I want you to come see the others first.’ Kareem thought of dissenting. He had no intention of seeing the ‘others’. Sameer’s refuge was not his. He didn’t want to see the sufferers; neither did he care to see survivors. Either angry or overtly grateful. He resented them – reminders of who he desperately wanted not to be. But he couldn’t get the words out. Like always.
Meals were being cooked and some children were crowding under a tree, hovering over a standing black board. White alphabets scribbled over black slate. And then he saw Ma – trembling in fervour, and like always, grasping Papa’s hand tightly. Papa didn’t look any older from what Kareem remembered. He was still standing straight, with Ma’s hand in his grip. Maybe Kareem had just expected the worse. Or maybe they had gained resilience from the same riots that had debilitated him.
Three days and no one had acted as if anything had changed. Ma did weep, as she had rushed to hug him, but no more after the first embrace. Papa like always shared anecdotes as Kareem silently listened. People in the camp – whom Sameer had wanted him to meet even before he met Ma and Papa, have been around but had never interfered. But he hadn’t met everyone. He was yet to meet Salma – Sameer’s fiancée. She was away on a trip to Mumbai, not atypical as many such were needed to keep the camp running. Perched up on the river banks, debating whether or not to stay longer, Kareem’s thoughts were startled by a hoarse voice.
Kareem’s hands were still trembling and his chest heaving. The anger he couldn’t express for years had just been let out with an earth-shattering scream. He had met Salma, who had found him on the cliff as she was told she would, coming straight to meet him on returning from her trip. Salma was a burn victim. Burned severely and disfigured – with a face almost non-existent and limbs scarred and shrivelled.
How typical of Sameer to play the saviour – bringing clichés to life. Reminding Kareem with every action how he had defeated and conquered what Kareem had only physically survived. As if their memories weren’t reminders enough, Sameer has managed to personify the horrors with a living reminder. Kareem fumed as he sat waiting for the train in the godforsaken station.
He hadn’t said any goodbyes, neither had he gone back for his belongings. His last interaction was with Salma. Shocked to shell, he had managed to get out a barely audible, curt and rude desire to be left alone. Salma had complied, slowly retracing her steps back.
‘I am not marrying her because she reminds me of the riots.’ The voice, soft yet firm, met the gaze fiery with resentment. ‘I am marrying her because she doesn’t.’ ‘The voices I hear, the screams I want to drown are gone when she speaks.’
‘You know nothing about voices,’ Kareem retorted, ‘please go back and save the world.’
‘I do,’ the response came slow, lingering in the air, ‘but she doesn’t. In spite of how she must have lived her life, she has no scars left over.’
The marriage ceremony was a simple one. Maharashtrian weddings always were. Moreover they hadn’t been raised with religious identity to have norms to follow. And Salma was an orphan. The post-wedding arrangements were simple too: a room with clean sheets and some flowers in vases. But the groom wasn’t there.
He was on the riverbanks, perched on the dark rocks with his brother.
‘Salma will understand,’ Sameer said, squeezing Kareem’s hand even tighter. They were seated so close that from distance their silhouette seemed to be that of one. Kareem’s head on Sameer’s shoulder. ‘I am sorry I couldn’t complete NYU,’ Kareem whispered at last. ‘I know how much that must have heard Baba.’ His hands, in the firm grasp of his brother, weren’t trembling anymore.
‘We knew why you couldn’t,’ Sameer said, his voice soft as always. Even though Kareem never spoke on the phone calls, Sameer had listened.
The night kept getting darker, but not in doom. Rather the moon too seemed to have chosen not to interfere in a reunion that had the power to heal all afflictions. And as the sounds of the riots faded in the background, the lapping of the river on the rocks could be heard louder and louder.