He could have been a wastrel, or a cheat, or inept. He probably was. But on that day as he fitted the grilles outside the entrance door to our house, his name gave him a special status: One of us. Salim was the need of the hour and, as it turns out, the harbinger of reassurance.
Barely a couple of days after the riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, Salim stood outside the door to take the measurements. It will remain a disturbing memory even as it continues to be a reality. Doors are symbolic of comings and goings, and to further enclose a door seems to tamper these. It is also tautology to close an enclosure.
Salim's part in our lives was ephemeral. As much as the credo of 'one of us' often is. The Sunils and Bharats feature more prominently as they hammer the nails into recalcitrant wooden frames. Yet, it is Salim who is a part of my personal journey without being present. He, a scrawny lad with a loud voice who I had never met before, became intrinsic to my coping with what happened because of what had happened.
Neither of us referred to the riots. Or the mosque. Or even about Muslims. For him it was probably just another job. In bulk. For a whole lot of us got similar grilles fitted. It wasn't even my idea, but I had agreed. This was not about fear; it was like a confinement forced upon oneself to retain what was amid the crowdedness of what should be.
Today, I am thinking about somebody else too. Suleiman. He should be 22 now. Is he hungry? Will he get his food? Is his house still ridden with bullets? Have the stains from the blood been cleaned? Has their memory been erased?
Suleiman was an infant lying on the lap of an elderly woman in Behrampada. I take some poetic licence here. I have named him Suleiman while writing this. When we met all those years ago, and his milkless baby cries broke the silence, he was nameless. There were far too many adults who were afraid of turning into numbers. I got their names, their stories. This little baby's story was plebeian. He was hungry. There was no milk. The water from rice acted as substitute. In all the violence and loss around, it was this tale that was witness to a more palpable loss — he was the life amidst death and destruction.
I have not been able to bring myself to revisit those places. In my mind, Suleiman could grow up to be a doctor, a businessman, a lawyer. He could be a Salim hammering and chiselling, and I hope not having to fit door grilles on an emergency basis.
It is with sadness that I also know that whatever Suleiman does he will still be thought of as a jihadi. Or a haramzada even though it was those with legitimate power who had transformed his life into a tragedy when he could not even walk or talk.
December 6, 1992. The day something died in many of us.
On why 800 million Hindus find Muslims a threat and questions about minorityism:
The legacy of Babri Masjid
On what happened in Ayodhya and the lies:
Uma Bharti ji, may I show you the light?