It was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. My friend and I were sitting in a Barista at Connaught Place and discussing what dissent looks like in Delhi. I had just been to a dharna on Jantar Mantar Road, organized by the Anti Commonwealth Games Front, and couldn’t help feeling a bit sad about how trivial such a demonstration could be made to look by Delhi’s decked-up hugeness. The protests were reduced to a comical roadside spectacle that busy city-dwellers ignored and tourists and day-labourers taking a break stopped to gape at without understanding what it was all about. My friend, in his early twenties, studies anthropology in a Delhi college. He comes from a small town in UP, and has a keen outsider’s eye on everything happening around him in the city. We were talking about dissenting wardrobes, for two academic-looking women had just walked in wearing Anokhi kurtas and carrying conference files. At the dharna too there were interesting Fabindia vs Anokhi nuances.
We both knew that we were trying not to talk about what we were waiting for. The police were everywhere, but it had been like this for days because of the Games. The streets looked deserted, like siesta-time in a Mediterranean city. A tiny feeling of sickness stirred from time to time in our tummies, but we quickly drowned it in cappuccino. Then the phonecalls started. First, the somewhat bemused relays from friends in Calcutta. Then, the gradual waking up to the meaning and tone of the verdict. My friend went out to take a call from his brother in their home-town, which was on high alert with all shops and offices shut. He had told me how his family was more or less Hindu Right, though curious about his life and politics in Delhi. He came back white-faced after the call, angry but not sure whether to be angry. We got up, paid the bill and decided to take a scooter to the Jama Masjid. On our way out, we saw the two Anokhi-clad women closely reading an Urdu pamphlet together. Why did we notice that?
The first few scooters refused to go to Old Delhi, then one agreed. We noticed the driver was Muslim, and we noticed that we noticed. We sped through nearly empty streets, saw shops pulling down their shutters. Perfectly ordinary scenes like people gathered together and talking into their phones suddenly began to look meaningful. As we got off near the front gate of the masjid, we saw a large crowd gathered there, as if waiting for some sort of announcement. Lots of police, but everyone was very quiet. As we approached the crowd, I felt, for the first time in a public place, something that I musn’t hesitate to call fear. And I instantly felt guilty for feeling it. (I was studying abroad in December ’92, and Gujarat happened far away from Calcutta.) I found myself checking the name of the policeman closest to me: Something Yadav. Again, I noticed that I noticed. For a moment, we wondered whether we could go into the mosque, and then asked ourselves why we thought we might be barred entry? It was all in the mind. Or was it?
We went through the bag check and up the steps. At the gate to the courtyard, where you must take your shoes off, the man checking for cameras fished out my phone, pointed out that it had a camera and told me to pay him 200 rupees. I refused. He consulted his companion, looked into my eyes for a second and let me go. Again a twinge of fear followed by guilt.
But, as we stepped into the courtyard and our feet took in the late- afternoon warmth of the stone, everything changed. The sense of peace, of timelessness, of the architecture opening up yet gathering people into itself, of a place more protecting than protected, took over instantly. A couple of years ago, I had spent a number of days at the G.B. Pant hospital nearby with my mother, then gravely ill, and every evening I would walk to the masjid through the bustle of the market, have a plate of shahi tukra outside Karim’s and sit in the courtyard and let its peacefulness comfort me and make me feel lighter. This afternoon, too, we stood in the shade on one side, looking out across the surrounding rooftops. The light was failing, but in one clearing, the boys were still playing cricket. The rooks and kites circled above them, and there is always something ominous about large, dark birds slowly circling the skies. On one side of the courtyard, there was a square marked off with a yellow line, covered with bird-grain and droppings, on which hundreds of pigeons gathered, pecked, hobbled about and crooned, to fly off in great, mindless gusts of panic, and gather again just as inexplicably. A man came from time to time to scatter more grain from a plastic bag as if it were his life’s vocation. The rhythm of the pigeons gathering and scattering was hypnotic. As we watched, our conversation petered out and the dusk thickened. Men in white were assembling inside the main hall for prayer, the lamps glimmered brighter, and the women flocking outside in black seemed to gather the afternoon’s last bits of light into their burqas.
Then, all of a sudden, as if from one of the minarets I had once climbed to the top of, emanated, into the expanse of the evening, a sombre, amplified voice that we soon realized was not the azaan. It was a call to the people who had gathered at the gate and inside — a call of the last solemnity — to react to the verdict with dignity and restraint, to not give in to disappointment or a sense of injustice and not be roused to untoward passions. Within the cadences of an almost ritual Urdu that I understood only in parts, I caught the words high court, supreme court and appeal. They sounded strangely incongruous, even absurd, as they floated out into the evening on the steady wings of an indescribable melancholy, which was somehow more musical to my ears than worded.
We were both glad not to be alone during those moments, for we prevented each other from indulging in the vanity of believing that we had just lived through history. Everything seemed to come together too dramatically in deluding us into that feeling. Suddenly, pointing to something behind a pillar near us, my friend whispered, Look! It was a large black cat tensely crouching in the shadows. I followed its gaze and found it fixed on a lone pigeon pecking away inside the yellow line, left behind by its flock and blissfully unaware of being looked at so intently. A mad man kept shuffling up and down between the cat and the pigeon, calling out to an absent or indifferent Farooq Begum. But animal and bird were unmoved. Then, with a sure and deadly swiftness, before our reflexes could work, the cat shot across the square and leapt on the bird. There was a brief, horrible struggle, and even in the failing light we could make out the jaws tightening around the neck. Then it shot back into the shadows and disappeared behind a pile of rubble with the bird in its mouth. And the very next moment, as the cat melted into the darkness, the great voice of the muezzin’s call broke out above us, with a supreme sense of timing that makes my hair stand on end as I try now to write it all down. As the azaan’s sadness waxed and waned in the skies above Dilli, something else — something unspeakable but too non-human to be called cruel — was going on, we knew, behind those broken stones lying in a heap in that peaceful old courtyard.