Around 8.30 am on Monday, Mohammed Zubair set out from his house in Chand Bagh, in northeast Delhi, for an annual ceremony at Shahi Idgah. Built in the seventeenth century, the Idgah is now located in Old Delhi’s bustling Sadar Bazar neighbourhood. Zubair, who is boyish-looking despite his 37 years, had been going to the Idgah ceremony called Ijtima—which draws anywhere between 150,000 and 250,000 people each year—for nearly two decades.
From the beginning, his day was full of strange lapses and lucky breaks. First, he forgot his mobile phone at home, which would prove to be a near-fatal error. Then, while struggling to find transport at the Kashmere Gate bus stop, a stranger on a motorcycle stopped in front of him and offered him a lift. Perhaps deducing his intended destination from his crisp, white kurta-pyjama and skullcap, the stranger asked Zubair if he was going to the Idgah. “I thought it was a gift from Allah,” he said, of the unexpected free ride.
On the way back, Zubair picked up food and fruit for his family—treats that had become part of the ritual from his annual pilgrimage to the Idgah. This would prove to be another fateful decision. “If I was not carrying polybags full of food and fruit, I could have taken another route back home or even run away,” he told me.
Zubair took a minibus home on the return journey, at around 2 pm. By this time, violence had erupted in several localities of northeast Delhi. As the news of violent disturbances spread, the minibus dropped him at the Yamuna Pushta, some distance away from his neighbourhood. “I heard that rioting was going on in Khajuri so I thought I’ll take the route through the Bhajanpura market,” he told me. Both Khajuri Khas and Bhajanpura are in close proximity to Chand Bagh. “When I reached the Bhajanpura market, it was closed and deserted.”