Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Death at the Protest


"Bye ma!"

She ran out of the house, a multi-colored floral jhola bag with flowers of every hue appliqu├ęd into it trailed behind her in a rush even as she chomped on a paratha rolled into a tight cylinder in her small hands. Her red chiffon bandhni odhni fluttered like a full mast on a windy day.

"Thar she goes!"

Her brother retorted just missing a full-on collision at the doorstep.

"Haven't you heard of a thing called bath?" She parried back wrinkling her nose at him as he tried to scare her with a dirty football aimed at her direction.

"We men need fresh air and exercise unlike you..." He baited her rushing back and she fell hook line and sinker. Turning awkwardly on her wedges she wrilled around and shouted, "I exercise as well. Just don’t like making an exhibition of it unlike your kind..."

He opened his mouth to retaliate but was cut short by an impatient honking.

"Will you two quit it now? I have to go to work and Arushi, if you want to fight with your brother then please feel free to catch the Metro when you are done."

"Sorry dad! I'm coming..." She ran pell-mell and turned at the door of the car to face her brother who was openly hooting with laughter by now. Aiming a tongue at his face she mouthed a promise, "Evening idiot!" and shaking a fist at him got in through the passenger door.

It was a Saturday. College was closed for the weekend but, all of Arushi's classmates along with hundreds of other students, concerned citizens and seasoned activists were scheduled to sit-in a protest condemning the government and the city police in the case of a brutal rape and murder of a young student in a government-run hostel.

Her dad, who had a meeting near the center of the city, dropped Arushi off at a designated place where others from her class had congregated.

"Have a safe time kids!" He drove off, his mind on the business at hand.

                                                                      ***

The kids walked the short distance to the Governor's Bungalow where hundreds had already gathered. There were TV crews and Press journalists who seeing a bunch of obviously college-going kids made a bee-line for them.

"You have come here to protest on a cold misty weekend morning for a girl you didn't even know. What made you come all the way?"

A mike was thrust at Arushi's face. She realized with trepidation that she was on TV now. She stuttered for a second but then putting on a brave face said, "It could have been any of us."

"Do you feel unsafe in the University Campus?"

This time the camera had whirled to another in the group and Arushi took a deep breath remembering Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" quote. She just had her 15 seconds she thought drawing in a deep breath and brushing it off with a shrug.

By afternoon, the crowd had swelled into thousands. Though the protests were still peaceful with only some people speaking to the gathered group from a make-shift dais, the governor had panicked and called in the reserve forces as well as the police. There were around 300 men in uniform - some with guns but most of them with batons who were hovering at the edges of the unarmed protesting gathering.

Queen started singing in her purse and Arushi pulled out her cell phone to see who was calling. Some of her fellow protesters turned around and smiled at her for her choice of ringtone. "I want to Break Free" could have been the anthem for today's protest. It could also be because the Queen's front-man, Freddy Mercury was actually Freddy Balhara, a Bombay born Parsi, a fellow Indian.

She clicked the Receive button cutting off the music and put the phone to her ear. "Sweetheart, where are you? Your dad and I are very concerned. They have called in troops to control a bunch of kids. Are you still there? Please come home now. You've made enough impact - I think."

Her mom's pleading voice filled Arushi's ears though most of what she was saying was lost in the noise around her.

"Mom we are fine. Some of our professors have also joined us and we are all together in a group. There are at least 4-500 of us from the campus. So, chill. We have done nothing but sit here under the tent and listen to some of the people speak on state of womens' rights in India."

Since further conversation was impossible as a well-known social activist joined the small group on the podium and a thunderous roar arose from the crowds to welcome her. Arushi disconnected the call and sent a message to her mom and on second thoughts to her dad. It simply said, "Don't panic. We're fine." A smiley face rounded the message.

As the new participant walked on to the mike and started her strong moving speech peppered with facts and figures the crowd started chanting, Vande Mataram! It was not a battle cry. It just meant, "Salutations to Motherland." It was an old slogan used by freedom fighters during India's struggle for independence, taken from a patriotic novel by a 19th century Bengali author.

It was used in all rallies, political or protest marches all across the country. It was used by the Army during battle. It was a part of the nation's history and nothing that was earth-shatteringly threatening.

But, to the ears of the men in uniform it sounded like a belligerent call for violence. With all the protestors still sitting and chanting Vande Mataram even the media (which had trained its eyes on the squatters who now looked rejuvenated) did not feel the need to turn around and check the police barricade. It was a peaceful protest after all.

The lady had by now finished her rousing speech and was ending it with the customary three calls for, Jai Hind, with everyone repeating it after her. All across the nation, everyone glued to their TV sets felt goosebumps rising on their arms as always. It was one of the most patriotic greeting that the nation knew of. Coined by the nationalist commander of forces of Indians fighting to free India from abroad, Subhash Chandra Bose, who was also the first Indian leader to give women the opportunity to march side by side with men in his Indian National Army, it was common parlance in the Indian political and bureaucratic system. Even the police and Army used it as a greeting.

No one saw it coming since everyone was busy with the lump in their throats till it landed with a plop and went hissing right at the middle of the congregation.

White fumes rose up making everyone's eyes water.

Girls shrieked many coughed into their hands, hiding desperately their watering eyes.

Someone from the armed contingent had dropped a tear-gas shell into the crowd of mostly kids, women, and elderly citizens. The media went into a massive overdrive as people ran helter-skelter to get away from the noxious fume that was by now filling the massive tent in its fog-like white darkness.

The shrieks intensified and one could now discern groans and crunches because many people had fallen down in the rush and others had either fallen on them since not much was visible through watery eyes and a melee rushing for fresh air.

If people had known that a fate worse than tears waited for them when they were smoked out like bees forsaking their hives they would have, perhaps preferred to shed copious tears.

As the crowd rushed out of the tent running blindly, knocking down each-other and then bending down to say sorry and even pulling up those who had fallen, they were met by armed police and commandos in bullet-proof jackets and helmets. The men in uniform were holding light shields made of bamboo, the kinds used during riots to keep off mobs.

The media was filming everything as best as they could. The teary-eyed reporters were facing the camera and showing the nation how a peaceful protest was now turning into a stampede of sorts. People across the country were sitting on the edge of their seats and staring dumb-founded at the drama unfolding. Many, whose family or friends were in the protest picked up their phone and started dialling.

Shrill rings filled the air both in the tent and outside. Phones rang in the myriad purses and pockets of the protesters. Many phones were lying on the carpet inside the tent and on the tarmac road - separated from the hands and pockets of the owners when they ran or fell down.

Some of them, that were not too badly damaged also added to the din. Then, the noise stopped as did time.

As the nation watched dumb-struck, several jets of cold water were sprayed on the public and many fell to the ground gasping for breath.

An old lady clutching the hands of the pre-teen, probably her granddaughter, fell on her knees and pushed the child under her to protect the kid with her body. A bunch of girls seeing the old woman trying so valiantly to save the child rushed to her aid and fell on top of her trying to cover the two. Arushi was one of them. Her phone like the phones of her other friends had suddenly stopped ringing a few seconds ago.

Her mom, who was now openly crying in front of the TV set. She saw her little girl on screen for the second time that day and looked up at her brother who was trying repeatedly to call her. The recorded message spoke monotonously, "All routes in this line are busy."

Frustrated, he looked at the TV screen and on seeing the drama unfolding in front of him sat down with a thud on the floor.

His sister and her friends who had rushed to save an old lady and a child from water canon were being kicked and beaten by three policemen wearing bullet vests and helmets. They were using batons and hard soles of their shoes to repeatedly rain blows on the girls and were pulling them by their hair and arms to separate them.

He started crying when he saw his sister had taken blows on her face and was bleeding through her nose and mouth. She was crying for help and many people tried to come to her aid but, they too met with the same fate as more and more policemen and troops gathered like vultures around them.

A reporter tried pushing his way into the circle and handing his mike to another protester, jumped heroically into the melee hoping to perhaps talk to the brutes in uniform but, he too got a vicious punch on the face, making it to the heap of bodies on the ground.

The boy looked at his mom now, staring at the TV screen - a look of terror masked her features and she looked pale as dead.

They both knew that Arushi was as good as gone but, try as they might, they could not look away from the TV set showing her being marauded to death. They did not want her to be a martyr. They wanted her to come home.

(This is a work of fiction and a totally imaginary account. Any resemblance to any person living or dead or to any incident is merely a co-incident and without any intended malice or hurt towards any person or community of people. - Shoma)

Christ by Edvard Munch

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