Books | Between Fear and Courage

How to keep one’s humanity and sanity in the face of unforgiving violence. An extract

Zeyad Masroor Khan

City on FireI kept looking out of the window. Every sound felt like a mob was assembling outside. Is the man who had once warned me not to live here assembling a mob to burn us to death right now? I kept thinking. It wasn’t an unrealistic thought. A few hours earlier, an eighty-five-old woman, Akbari Begum, eagerly waiting for a grandchild to be born, died when her house in Delhi’s Bhajanpura was set on fire by a Hindu mob.

I, on the other hand, was a young Muslim man—the perfect enemy.

I pushed these thoughts out of my head and went back to posting alerts on Twitter and sending my hastily written story to my editor. Before I could think of a plan to escape my ‘home’, I got a call from my friend, Rafiul Alom Rehman, an activist and academic I had once interviewed. He was crying. ‘Zeyad, please save my friend. He will burn to death!’ he said, his voice choking.

‘Calm down, tell me what happened?’

His friend Mursalin lived in Ashok Nagar, a mixed-population locality in northeast Delhi. An armed mob of over 100 had surrounded his home, chanted religious slogans and set his house on fire with him inside. ‘He has been texting me frantically. If help doesn’t reach him, he will suffocate to death,’ he said, now weeping profusely.

‘I don’t know what to do, Rafiul, but let me try my best.’

I reached out to a few local activists in the area, shared Mursalin’s contact and one of them reached Ashok Nagar to help him.

‘His phone is now unreachable,’ the activist told me.

This guy is dead, I thought. I had failed to save him.

For the next hour, I doom-scrolled through my Twitter feed and kept glancing at our balcony at every little sound: a child crying, a mother screaming at her son and a man calling out for his friend.

The sun was going to set soon. The day is when the spontaneous attacks happen. The night is when planned, targeted killings happen, I thought. I could easily visualize the panchayat leaders in my area assembling to meet for their evening hookah and planning to kill the Muslim tenants living in that area.

Just then, an SOS was passed on one of my journalist WhatsApp groups. ‘A thief has been beaten up by a mob in the Madanpur Khadar area of New Delhi. The situation around the area is said to be tense.’

Thief? Or a Muslim whom somebody wanted to find an excuse to beat, later proved to be a thief? Should I continue to take a chance? I knew waiting wasn’t wise, but going outside had its own risks. Delhi, my home for a decade, was now a dangerous city for my frightened mind, where everyone was a potential killer whose conscience had numbed. Where death had conquered the street corners, swords waited to slice our necks and guns waited to shoot us down as traitors. Where students and activists were seen as enemies, and mobs with weapons seen as the saviour. Where hopes died an uneventful death and words ended up in meaningless sentences, stripped of their ability to comfort loved ones.

My phone rang. It was Rafiul, ‘Mursalin is alive! He escaped through the terrace. He just called from a safe place.’

This gave me some hope that we could still save ourselves. I called Zaidi. ‘I am packing our things. Let’s go to Neyaz’s place in Jamia,’ I told him. Neyaz Farooquee was a friend, journalist, writer and senior from Jamia.

As soon as Zaidi arrived home, we began making a plan. There were no autos outside and going on foot with bags on our shoulders from a Hindu locality kind of shouted that we were Muslims leaving. Ready for the slaughter if a mob caught us. Then we would be called suspect thieves, I thought. No Muslim fried would come to pick us up from Khadar. There was only one solution. ‘Let’s call an Uber,’ Zaidi said.

It was easier said than done. As soon as we put the destination as Jamia Nagar from our accounts with Muslim names, all the Hindu cab drivers would cancel. And no Muslim driver would come to pick us up in Madanpur Khadar.

One of the reasons I hadn’t lived in the Muslim-majority Jamia Nagar was that most cab drivers simply refused to go there. Everyone who lives there knows that it would generally take at least thrice as many attempts to go there than to other places. We wanted to book a cab to Jamia when there was communal violence happening on the streets! For the next hour, we tried booking an Uber but to no avail.

‘Zeyad, try Ola,’ Zaidi said, as he tried to convince another Uber driver to come to help us escape our home. But our luck changed when I was able to book an Ola cab, that too with a Hindu driver! Preparing myself for another disappointment, I called him.

‘I am just reaching in 5 minutes,’ said the voice on the other end.

I couldn’t believe it. ‘You are coming?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I’ll be at the location in five minutes.’

We were still unsure. ‘Do you think this a ploy by a Hindu driver to lure us outside and give us to the mob? I asked Zaidi, speaking my thoughts aloud, cutting short our celebration.

‘This is our only hope. Let’s go with it,’ Zaidi said.

We picked up our bags, locked the door and quietly went down the stairs without telling Aunty. There wasn’t a mob waiting for us in the deserted lane. We walked nonchalantly, passing the village elders busy with their evening hookah discussions. As promised, the driver arrived soon, but the three minutes that it took to get out of our area were the longest of our lives. ‘Please don’t stop if somebody flags us down,’ I told him as he started the ride. The highway was deserted, but we didn’t encounter any difficulty reaching the Jamia campus.

‘Isn’t this where the protests are happening?’ our driver asked us, looking at the street graffiti with slogans of protest.

‘Yes, students have been protesting here but it’s safe’, Zaidi told him.

‘I know. I have been here before. They had been protesting for months, and there was no violence,’ he said.

As we left the campus and entered the narrow lanes of Noor Nagar where Neyaz lived, we were grateful to this guy for driving us to safety. As we got down, we thanked him profusely.

‘Bhaiya, I don’t know how we would have reached safely without you,’ Zaidi said.

‘I was just doing my job,’ he told us, reversed his car, turned into the slim lane and got lost in the streets of Delhi.

Zeyad Masroor Khan
HarperCollins, Pg 294, Rs 599


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