The Unpleasant Winter
It was December 1992. Right after the Babri Masjid demolition in Uttar Pradesh. As a consequence, we knew that several inter-communal riots arose in different parts of India. People of Assam also experienced the riots. One-third of the total population of Assam was Muslim and most of them were migrated from Bangladesh. During that time in Assam, the Hindus became more protective and conscious about their religion, and the Muslims started to live in groups to protect themselves. However, both the groups hadn’t seen any riots. That time, I was 5 years old child, living with my mother in the town of Nagaon. My father worked in a different town and mother was a school teacher at Nagaon. So apart from me and my mother, a girl had been staying with us for a few years. She was Rahima Khatun.
Rahima was from a nearby Muslim Basti located 100 meters away from our house. There was a small field in between the basti and our house: the only place for the children to play. Usually, many women from that basti would come to our colony for household work, and men to sell fruits and vegetables. Rahima’s father worked as a watchman and her mother, a housemaid. For safety, several of the basti left their existing places for an interior village. Later, Rahima’s parents also moved to the village.
Those winter mornings and evenings were not at all pleasant and peaceful at Nagaon. People were so scared that they could not even think of moving alone. Everyone from our colony had started believing that the Muslims would attack anytime. So, the young men in the colony stayed up the whole night with fire torches while women with their children would gather in one place. But, Rahima was with us. My mother thought it would not be good if she lets her go to that the basti. Rahima also felt safer with us. She and I loved each other so much that none of us wanted to separate. Later, my maasi joined us to support my mother.
One night, we four were chatting with each other in the house. I was in a corner with my books and was so afraid to even move inside the house. Rahima had to escort me always. Suddenly we heard a hubbub of 100 people from outside. They were running and shouting. No one knew the reason. The crowd was shouting ‘move… move…and move’. It seemed the riot had started. Four of us ran out through the backdoor. I remember somebody carried me but we both fell down on the way, got hurt but we did not stop. Crossing a banana garden, we reached the house where women, girls and children had taken shelter for that night. I don’t remember anything after that.
Next morning, I woke up and saw my maasi sleeping next to me. My mother didn’t stay with us as the owner of the house did not allow Rahima to spend the night in that ‘safe zone’. Mother came back to our house taking Rahima along. Till now, it’s been a mystery for me: Where were they that night? Next day, early morning, the mother decided that all of us, including Rahima, would go to my Nana’s house. This place would not be safe anymore, especially for Rahima. Immediately, we began packing because we did not have any idea of how long we will be going to stay there. When we were about to leave the house, Rahima told that she does not want to come with us. She would like to go to her parents. She didn’t want to create any more problems again for us, she thought. And she was stuck to her decision. Finally, we had to drop her in the middle of our way. I was crying for her whole day.
Later, my mother told me that the noise that night had begun with the fake news of the Muslims coming to attack. Someone had fueled this by saying that he saw a few people coming from the basti side with fire and stick. That was an illusion. When the mother came back to the house late in the night, she saw men in the colony were not there who were supposed to protect the colony. All had run away.
It’s been 25 years now. Last time, when I had gone to Assam, Rahima came to meet me with her son and daughter. We remembered the old days. Her children are studying in a school. She lives little far from our house but she regularly visits my parents. Rahima plays an important role in my childhood memory and that night made a deep connection between us.
Image courtesy: Maneswar Brahma