Of a Wedding and a Ghetto

We are in a colony in central Ahmedabad watching a Hindu wedding ceremony. By the groom Jayesh Bhabaria’s side, are a group of women, all Muslims. They are his neighbors, people who practically raised Jayesh from the time he was a little boy. “They regard my father as a brother. After he died they pretty much adopted me and I wanted them by my side today. I will look after them until I die.”

It’s a rare friendship on display. A sight and sentiment virtually unseen and unheard of in a city where religious partitions run deep. Since the 60’s Ahmedabad has witnessed some of the worst communal riots. With every riot, residential areas in Ahmedabad kept getting divided on religious lines. But after the riots of 2002, even the mixed areas, the so-called blurred localities, where Hindus and Muslims lived together, have virtually disappeared.

“2002 was the watershed year,” says Gagan Sethi, founder of Jan Vikas, an NGO that has been actively fighting for justice for 2002 riot victims.  “It was the completing year for the process of ghettoization, the separating of Hindus and Muslims. Earlier people could risk living together. That is now over.”

The divide, he goes on to add, is not just in residential spaces. “Even occupation has coagulated on religious lines. ‘Earlier there would be Hindu fruit traders buying from Muslim wholesalers. Now Muslims wholesalers will have Muslims as their buyers.”

Most worrying is that even schools have divided on religious lines. With even well-to-do Muslim families preferring to opt out of schools in mainstream areas. They feel safer sending their children to schools closer to home.

Dr Hanif Lakdwala, head of Ahmedabad-based NGO Sanchetna, which works among urban slum dwellers, minorities and women, sees this as a disturbing trend. ‘Since the physical segregation has happened, the Gujarat government has not set up schools in Muslim areas. So the community has started private schools to educate their children. Muslim children study only with each other and when they grow up they don’t know what Hindu religion or culture is. In the same way Hindu children have no awareness about Muslims. Both sides are growing up with negative stereotypes about each other.”

I head to Juhapura, a colony in Ahmedabad, where the largest ghettoization of Muslims happened after 2002. Referred to as chhota-Pakistan by many locals. I am here to meet 32-year-old Nazim Qureishi, an IT professional who works in a school. In 2002, Nazim was in college. “I will never forget the help my Hindu friends gave me during those days”, he says. “They took me into their homes, made sure I could focus on my studies and I was able to take my exams.”  Has that changed since, I ask. “At an interpersonal level, the emotions are as strong as they were,” he responds.

Nazim grew up in Jamalpur, which until 2002 was a mixed locality. I ask him why he chose to buy his house in Juhapura. “There are not too many places in Ahmedabad where a Muslim would be given a chance to stay”, he says simply. “I can afford a flat in a prime area; I would not be given a place there.” Does he see things changing?  “It will. It has to”, he says. “Education is key. That is why I want to start a school where all children will be taught  religious tolerance, about accepting differences. Things will change.”

Nazim’s words, like Jayesh’s offer a glimpse into the lost Ahmedabad; its legendary calm even during the brutal Partition riots. Perhaps someday Ahmedabad will return to that. But first, justice has to be done. Justice for the thousands of riot victims who even today live in relief camps, their plight, unacknowledged by the state government.

Wadsar, Gujarat 1978

    I was 7 years old when I heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the first time.
    It was 1978, and my father was stationed in Wadsar, where the Indian Air Force had just set up a base. We, and ten other families, were the first occupants. Wadsar, then, was in the middle of nowhere. Other than the base, there was nothing.  For every thing, from milk to movies, we had to drive for over an hour, to Ahmedabad.
    In the winter holidays, Panditji would come here his family to spend a week with his younger brother, also in the Air Force. We were a gang of 15 kids, and all of us would line up at the gates, waiting for him to arrive, highly excited about a famous person visiting our colony.
    Every night, after 7 pm, Panditji would have an adda, with his brother on the tabla. I, by virtue, of being best buddies with Rama and Dhruv, his niece and nephew, was among the few kids allowed inside their drawing room to listen. Most nights, he would allow us to hang around, watching us in a  tolerant fashion, until our mothers would drag us off home. Their sessions, would carry on for a long, long time; his voice filling the cold. night sky.
    Three years later, my father was transfered out, bringing an end to those encounters with Panditji. The connection to his music, I am glad to say, remained. First, through my father, and later my husband who made it a mission to acquire rare recordings.    I saw Panditji again 25 years later, at a concert at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai. He had been ailing and was performing onstage after a long time. He looked feeble and needed his son Shriniwas’ assistance to walk. His voice though was unchanged, and wove that same special magic.

    Even today, when I listen to his music, I am filled with the same tranquillity and wonder I felt as a 7 year old hearing him for the first time.