So, what do you really have to complain about, asked my pale orange friend, his skin deepening, like that of a chameleon even as we spoke, to a much deeper hue to match the saffron-dominated colour scheme behind him, this August 15 just past. A little more, I thought, and he would completely vanish, his physical self remaining just a disembodied head filled with a nationalistic brain.
You are Christian. You are a woman. You are a journalist. You are a left-leaning liberal who says anything she wants. You’re comfortably off. You go for rallies. You sign petitions against the government. You have friends in all parties, you write what you want, so what are you complaining about? Article 370? What does it have to do with you?
I didn’t celebrate Independence Day. I observed it, went to church because this day is also immensely important for us as the day we believe the mother of God was assumed into heaven, body and soul. It is also my husband’s birthday, so triple celebrations are in order.
But how do you celebrate when the geographical head of this country is hemorrhaging blood, despair, fear and anger that is trickling down to its toes? What is there to celebrate when you look at your Uber driver and wonder whether it is alright to pass a comment on a piece of news that has come up on your phone?
How do you celebrate when you are struggling not to slap your friend’s fake reasonable expression as he asks you idiotic questions about why you are complaining. Then you contemplate what he would look like next time he went north, after a gau rakshak mob got hold of him and beat him up just because they didn’t like his face, never mind that he belongs to the majority community. Sure it would be a mistake, but I have never yet heard of a mob that stopped its attacks midway because someone yelled “Wrong target”.
How to explain to this man that I am fully aware of my privileged position as someone with access to media, as an educated, feisty woman who has always given at least as good as she got? But in the last four years, where once India was my oyster, I have felt the borders of my imaginary country pulling in around me and I realise that Mumbai is the place I feel safest and most like myself. Then the rest of Maharashtra and further south. The north for me is a foreign, threatening space. The north east, however, still beckons.
I used to joke with friends in college, that once I left Bihar, I would be like the Beatles about India, post their Maharishi phase. I would never even fly over it. Thirty years after I left, I returned for a visit and for work, flying into the dinky little airport where regional satraps swaggered around encased in rumours that they headed gangs that had made kidnapping into a business. This was after the Gujarat riots when communalism
finally tore off its mask and stood exposed for what it was — a festering sore in Indian society of which, shockingly, even educated people were proud.
I made some more trips to Patna after that. Each time I flew in and flew out, as if I were flying in the Berlin airlift. Trains were out of the question because of the safety issue. What Bihar was for me then, is now what the whole north has become.
I am Christian, a woman, a journalist. All my professional life, I have been able to communicate easily, to tell my stories, to carry my messages. Now the words are drying and fear clouds every waking moment, not for me, but for others worse off than me. Men and women who are Muslim, Dalit, poor, old, different, living and working in the badlands that the sick northern states have become. Millions of them and it’s no exaggeration.
And if I should leave my safe haven, I would be very much afraid for myself.