A Testimony to Survival

How poetry speaks to power in Gujarat

A Muslim woman by her destroyed home in Ahmedabad in 2002. AMAN SHARMA / AP PHOTO
01 February, 2011

IF YOU TYPE THE WORDS “Gujarat riots” into Google Images, the photographs that pop up include the following: Narendra Modi, burnt children, houses on fire, men armed with swords, and the face of a young woman I had met, during the months following the 2002 riots, in the Darya Khan Gumbat relief camp in Ahmedabad.

Her name was Noorjehan. When I saw her in the camp I recognised her from a photograph I had seen in the papers, the same photograph that was now appearing on my screen. When I asked what had happened to her, she said that her pets were killed on the first day of the riots. Then, she began to speak about herself. She said that when the crowd came there were about seven or eight hundred of them, filling the streets. She had been watering the plants in her garden. Noorjehan used the English word “flowers.” She was watering her flowers when several men entered her house, hit her on the head with a sword, and then gang-raped her. Later, a young niece had to pull Noorjehan from the fire set by her assailants before they left her.

I came across Noorjehan’s photograph again the other night because I had written a short piece for The Indian Express, about an Urdu poet in Gujarat, and I was looking for an image to accompany my article.  I had written about the Urdu poet, whose poems about the riots offered a testimony of survival. But the sight of Noorjehan’s face made my stomach turn. I suddenly remembered what the little girls at the Shah-e-Alam camp had told the six female members of a fact-finding team when asked if they understood the meaning of the word balatkaar (rape). A nine-year-old gave this reply to the visiting women: “Mein bataoon Didi? Balatkar ka matlab jab aurat ko nanga karte hain aur phir use jala dete hain.” (Shall I tell you, Didi? Rape is when a woman is stripped naked and then burnt.)

And it was in this mood, then, that I settled back in my chair and looked at the picture of Narendra Modi on my monitor.

The Gujarat Chief Minister was on my mind because the piece I had written about the Urdu poet, Aqeel Shatir, was also very much a piece about Modi. A few days before Christmas, I had been sent a news story about Shatir, who was asked to return 10,000 rupees which he had been awarded by the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi. The reason, according to the article, was that an anti-Narendra Modi remark had been found in a critical essay included in Shatir’s book of poetry, Abhi Zindaa HoonMain (I Am Still Alive).

The offending lines were penned by Raunaq Afroz, in a commentary on Shatir’s poems: “May good come the way of Narendra Modi who, as soon as he came to power, killed Urdu in Gujarat. Not only did Modi do that, but in 2002, under a well-thought-out plan for the whole of Gujarat, he played so nakedly with violence and barbaric riots that he shamed the whole of humanity. Everywhere, with loot and killings, murder and mayhem, rape, burning and genocide of the minority community, he created a climate of terror in the land.”

When I called Shatir on the phone, he was sitting in the STD/PCO shop that he owns in Ahmedabad. But as we talked, I realised he too had Modi on his mind. He told me that “Shatir” is his takhallus, or pen name;  its literal meaning is “chess-player,” but it suggests a person who possesses cunning. And, he explained to me, true to his name, he wrote not about love or beauty but about the machinations of power.

To prove his point, he recited a few lines of his poetry:

Abhi zindaa hoon main, dekho meri pehchaan baaki hai /

Badan zakhmi hai lekin abhi mujhmein jaan baaki hai /

Tum apni hasraton ko zaalimon marne nahin dena /

Shahadat ka mere dil mein abhi armaan baaki hai

I am still alive, the person I was is left in me /

This body is wounded but there is still life left in me /

You, my killers, don’t let your ambitions die /

The desire for martyrdom is still left in me.

When he was reciting his lines on the phone, I tried to imagine Shatir reading them at a mushaira in Ahmedabad to an audience of riot victims. Think for a moment about the atmosphere at such a gathering in Gujarat where people, listening to a man reciting poems in Urdu, hear that despite the injury done to them they are still very much alive.

Earlier in our conversation, Shatir had told me that he wasn’t too perturbed about the Akademi’s actions. They were only lodging this demand, he said, because he had filed various official inquiries, under the Right to Information Act, asking about their use of public funds. But if things changed and the money needed to be returned, what would he do? Shatir was frank. He said, “It would be difficult. I am poor.”

I then told him that in the week leading up to our conversation a small group of writers had come together to support him—financially, but also politically, to oppose censorship. This group had formed on Facebook and had borrowed its name from the opening phrase of the section that the Akademi had found offensive: “May Good Come to Narendra Modi.” At last count, it had 60-odd members. Mostly writers who wrote in English but also a few others who used Hindi or Urdu. I didn’t know many people in the group, even though I had met its founder, Peter Griffin, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. And I had read the work of some of the writers who had joined the list, like Indra Sinha, author of Animal’s People, and others like Nilanjana Roy, Altaf Tyrewala, Annie Zaidi, and Vivek Narayanan.

In the last few days, with the reports in the news about “Vibrant Gujarat,” the international investors’ summit, Narendra Modi has been again on my mind. Over this two-day summit, which began on January 13, the state of Gujarat has purportedly attracted over 450 billion dollars in promised investments. It would appear that a lot of good has already come to Narendra Modi.

On the phone the other day, I had asked Shatir whether he thought Raunaq Afroz’s words about Modi’s role in the riots were incorrect? “No,” Shatir replied, “Raunaq Afroz’s views were no different from my own. And yet, if one were to remove that one page about the riots from the book of Modi’s history, it could be said that Gujarat had never found a better Chief Minister.” I then said to him that Modi had been Chief Minister when so many Muslims were killed, but was there any evidence that he had also killed Urdu. Again, Shatir was forthright. He said, “If the Muslim is killed, then his tongue, his zubaan, will die too.”

My memory now goes back to the camps in Ahmedabad. The last time I saw Noorjehan was when the weddings were being held in the school-building where some of the riot victims had taken shelter. After the ceremony was over, the father of one of the brides told me that he was happy his daughter would now have a roof over her head. Parents were particularly fearful about their unmarried daughters. I wondered what would happen to Noorjehan.

I thought of her again when, before the year was over, the elections were held in Gujarat. One week prior to the elections, in mid-December 2007, a report in Time magazine said that Modi asked his audience during an election rally, “Why are so many of you here?” In answer to his own question, referring to the train-burning in Godhra, he shouted, “Because the fire that burns in my heart is the same as the fire in yours.” The Time reporter had written that, for anyone missing Modi’s meaning, a young woman in the front had screamed out, “Kill the Muslim motherfuckers.” Modi won by a landslide.

During the Vibrant Gujarat summit, Modi has been hailed as a model leader. The likes of Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata have cried themselves hoarse calling him a great visionary. Anil Ambani even likened him to Mahatma Gandhi. May I on this auspicious occasion once again reach for the words of Aqeel Shatir?

Aap teer-o-kamaan rakhte hain /

Hum bhi seene mein jaan rakhte hain /

Aur itna ooncha na boliye /

Hum bhi moonh mein zubaan rakhte hain

You have weapons in your arsenal /

I too have this lust for life in my heart /

And please don’t shout so much /

I too have a tongue in my mouth.