Authors: Karan Mahajan
ansoor was sitting with Tara and Ayub at a dhaba in JNU, drinking cutting tea, when it started.
After Ayub had told him about Tara, the three of them had started going out together, eating pizza and burgers and lime ice at Nirula's, savoring tea from Tara's and Ayub's favorite dhabas, and discussing their dreams.
Tara wanted to start a communal harmony institute, one in which common values would be shared and discussed. “There's a big scope for that,” she said. “You can see people have a hunger to discuss these issues when you go to schools. But there isn't any outlet for them.”
Ayub wanted to get into politics. “People like me need to take some initiative,” he said. “That's why I left engineering. My whole family was in shock. Every day they send me messages through relatives trying to see that I'm not on drugs. They can't fathom why someone like me would do something of this sort.” He grinned and pressed his hand for a second onto Tara's palm, which was open limply on the table, as if this were an old joke between them. Tara, who was slumped forward on the tableâshe slumped when she was happy and at ease with peopleâsmiled at him, a tiny candle of a smile, one that created intimacy in the crowded dhaba with its students debating Marxism and whatnot.
“So what do you want to do, Mansoor? Be an engineer?” Tara asked, looking across at him after that private moment.
“Me? Be an activist, I suppose,” he said. But he was gulping now, for reasons he couldn't understand.
He noticed that Tara was pressing her other hand against Ayub's under the dhaba table.
That's when it started. It was as instantaneous as pain. It was jealousy.
He didn't know why or how it took holdâbut there it was, lurking powerfully. This relationship, Mansoor thought, it's just Ayub's way out of poverty, out of being lower-class. That's why he's in this NGOâto attach himself to this rich, idealistic girl.
As for Tara, she likes having power over these desperate Muslim men.
But Mansoor was thinking of himself. As the three of them had ventured out together, he had become more and more attracted to Tara. His blood jumped in her presence. Her perfume, her mysterious unfashionable waft of coconut, even her sweatâall this turned him on. All the old sexual obsessions returned. But he had no way to exorcize these thoughts nowâwasn't allowed to masturbate. At home, in his room,
masturbating took up all his time; it was almost as all-consuming as watching porn and masturbating.
He wanted to talk to Ayub about this struggle against sexual impulses but felt guilty that he was struggling over his girlfriend.
As the weeks went on, Mansoor's struggle became solitary. Thoughts and images about sex, about undressed women, shot like arrows of flesh through his brain.
, he shouted, at home, down on the marble floor, praying. When he visualized the happy round of cricket with Tushar and Nakul in the park, a naked Elizabeth Hurley stalked onto the pitch, interrupting the game.
, Mansoor prayed.
Are you testing me?
Then one day he lost control and masturbated and was filled with disgust and cursed himself: May your wrists go black!
But in this way, slowly, he fell into a trap of masturbation and self-hate.
So when he met Ayub and Tara a few days after the encounter at JNUâthey were at Flavors nowâand they told him excitedly that they were organizing one of the largest mass protests in Delhi's history to interrupt Narendra Modi's visit to the city, that they had corralled activists from all over the city, Mansoor could only nod grimly. He was a miserable, poisonous person, he felt, unworthy of God.
“We want to bring the city to a standstill,” Tara was saying. “If necessary, we want people to court arrest. You know what Gandhi said the Jews of Europe should do when faced with Hitler?”
“No,” Mansoor said, though he'd heard her say this a million times.
“Commit mass suicide,” Tara said, savoring the words with the intensity of someone who has obviously not considered it seriously. “Throw themselves from cliffs. Think of it. If the Jews were able to muster that kind of courage, the Holocaust would have never happened. We want to get to that level of nonviolence.”
“But doesn't suicide count as violence?” Ayub asked rhetorically.
“You're right. It does. But you're allowed that kind of contradiction when you're up against a completely unrepentant force.”
“I see,” Mansoor said, interrupting this public lovemaking of activists. “And what about the 1996 blast accused?” There had been a lull on that front. Mansoor and Ayub and Tara had written editorials together about the accused and mailed them to the
Times of India
, and the
but had not heard back; the editors at these papers, it seemed, were not interested in the unique slant of a victim asking for a terrorist's release.
“We'll work on that after the rally,” Tara said in her direct, no-nonsense way.
“Everything OK with you, boss?” Ayub asked him when Tara had gone to the toilet.
“Of course,” he said, though he meant the opposite.
When Mansoor looked at himself in the mirror at home, he saw a dark, small, pathetic person, an ugly person, a person who shouldn't have lived. He saw that these feelings had nothing to do with the bomb. This was who he was.
yub and Tara had been planning the rally for months, even before Mansoor had joined the NGO. To see it on the horizon excited them. Then, in March, it happened.
Ayub and Tara came to the roads near the India International Centre worked up and expectantâhaving not slept the previous night, having stayed up reading selections from Gandhi's
, Ambedkar's essays, the speeches of MLK and Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. “It's so touching, the sense of empowerment Islam gave to all these colonial people, to slaves. America's attempt to crush Islam is an attempt to destroy the self-esteem of the rising, conquered people,” Ayub had said. Tara had nodded her head in agreement.
Then, in the late morning, right before the rally began, Ayub faxed the police about the protest from the market near the site of the event; this was a loophole activists exploited. You were supposed to inform the police about any rally you held, but there was no statute on exactly when you told them, as long as it was before and in writing.
Doing it in person was too dangerous since the police would ask you to lead them to the rally.
Yet, when Ayub joined the crowd on the roadâhundreds of men and women chanting and holding up signsâhe found the police already there, battalions pouring forth from Gypsies and coming up to the protesters,
asking them questions and gently herding them onto the sidewalk. “You can't do that,” Ayub said. “It's a nonviolent protest.”
“You shut up, you terrorist,” a policemanâyounger than Ayub, livid with youthâsaid.
Ayub was wearing his skullcap.
Ayub made to attack him but a couple of older policemen, blasÃ© in their interaction with the disaffected, pushed him aside.
“Arrest me,” Ayub said, holding out his wrists.
“You're not worth an arrest,” a policeman with gray hair said, stepping out to shout at a pimply activist who started running at the bark from the policeman.
Then something terrible happened on that spring day. The crowd dispersed.
The next day when Tara and Ayub opened the paper, there wasn't even a mention of the protest.
Tara and Ayub debated what had happened with the members of the NGOâall of them, including Mansoor, had attended the disappointing protestâand fell privately into despair. Ayub began to believe that nonviolence didn't work. He'd had this feeling for a long time but had said nothing to Tara about it. In the NGO room, where they often met to kiss before meetingsâthey had still never made loveâhe scolded her. “I knew it wouldn't work.”
“I didn't personally tell people not to come,” she said bitterly.
“But we should have known.”
“You prepared for it too!”
Ayub went on ranting for a whileâfrothing, gesticulating, blaming Tara for her na
vetÃ©, for her earnestnessâtill he finally stopped. “I'm sorry.” He lived like thisâin these explosions of passion. He was a passionate person.
Nevertheless, his loss of faith in nonviolence cut deep. He believed nonviolence suffered the fundamental problem of having no traffic with the
media. The media reveled in sex and violenceâhow could nonviolence, with its graying temples and wise posture, match up?
Ayub tried to come up with alternativesânonviolent spectacles, theater, protestsâbut all these needed participants and an audience.
He was not prepared when, a week later, Tara broke things off with him.
ara had become tired of Ayub, of his brilliance, his neediness, his delusions of grandeur; she felt she deserved more. In December of the previous year, in anticipation of an eventual breakup, she had secretly applied to Brandeis for a master's in social work. When she was admitted soon after the failure of the rally, she confronted Ayub and told him she wanted to break up.
Ayub, when he heard what she had to say, stood up from the bed in the NGO room, his eyes livid. “How dare you, you bitch!” he frothed, full of his normal uncontrolled anger.
“It's my life!” Tara said.
“How dare you!” He thought she was doing this because the rally had failed.
They calmed down after a while and made up, sitting on the bed together, cajoling each other, feverishly discussing whether Ayub could find a way to go to the U.S. too.
But then, suddenly, Tara said, “I don't like your smell.”
Ayub looked on in cool shock. Tara's fairness, then, on the bed, was frightening to Ayubâlike porcelain, speaking of centuries of superb breeding, of Aryan excitement.
“Brandeis, applying, going abroadâthese are all excuses to get away from you,” Tara said. “I like you,
you, butâsomething isn't right. I don't like the smell of your breath,” she repeated, as if shocked with the truth of this, formulating it for herself.
Ayub looked out of the window. From the room he could see an alley, and beyond, a backyard festooned with clotheslines. In the alley, a car had broken down between two flowing gutters. Beneath it, a runway of needles, discarded by the hospital, glistened in the sunshine, the garbage ponderously overflowing, everything protected by the rusty, aggressive fragrance of the air conditioner, in whose lungs the krill of pollution stuck.
Ayub's heart got mixed up with the freezing waves of the air conditioner. A few days later, he left Delhi and returned to his hometown, Azamgarh.
When Mansoor heard of Ayub's departure, he was shocked. “Where did you go?” he SMSed Ayub.
“Decided to start a job as an area salesman for Eveready,” Ayub SMSed back. “KEEP THE FIGHT ALIVE.”
Area salesman? For a battery company? What about Tara?
Tara was not helpful either. “Oh, that's what he said? I think he's gone to visit his father, who's ill.” She threw her hair back and laughed her rich, upper-class tinkling laugh. “He's so eccentric.”
yub started working in his father's “organick” nursery in Azamgarh, digging up turnips and potatoes under the hot UP sun.
He'd come very far, in a sense. Starting from a lower-middle-class Muslim family in UP he'd made his way to Delhi and established himself with his wit and charm and intelligence. Like Mansoor, he'd dealt with painâthe pain of separation, of being out of one's depth, fearing one's mortalityâbut had cured himself. (Unlike Mansoor, he hadn't had the luxury of physiotherapy.) But he saw now that freedom from pain was a kind of sentence tooâyour mind, free to cast about in any direction, latched on to every outcome, every path, every regret. Whereas pain was focusing and drew you into yourself. It cut off options.
Sometimes, working on his father's farm, Ayub tightened his neck, wishing the pain would return. It didn't. He'd made himself too sturdy through religion and exercise. But his mind began to flower outward, became crowded with mirages. Tara stood knee-deep in a field of wheat, a few meters beyond him, hunched over and ready and sly, her eyes blinking and the soft, sensual braid tossed over her shoulder. A rumble in the distance made him glance up and he thought he saw an airplane flaming overhead, but it was just a trigger of sunlight. At night, in bed, he dreamed of school bullies and friends who had let him down out of jealousy when he'd had a little success in college as a festival organizer. A mild person, he'd always gone out of his way to put others at ease, to not threaten them with his intelligence. Now he regretted it.
He kept endlessly revising the day of the rally, his conversation with Tara, the swiftness with which everything had fallen apart.
Why hadn't he said more when she'd broken up with him? But there was a part of him that was addicted to defeat. Even as he'd received the stabbing message from Tara, that part of him had swelled with brilliance and promise and negative fulfillment.
Ayub dug holes and toiled under the sun.
“We can show you a girl,” his mother said.
His mind was coming unmoored. The field, with its hideous infinity of dirt packed into a few acres, didn't help.
He could have boarded a train and gone back, but he had no money and no real way of making any; his work with the Muslim community had taught him how difficult it was for educated Muslims to get jobs or even housing and this paranoia infected every future he could imagine for himself in Delhi. And the more he thought about money, the more he regretted how things had turned out with Taraânot only had they got along, but she had paid him a salary. “To hear you talk,” she'd once laughed. He was irritated by this comment, but once he began to speak, his self-consciousness fell away and he looked at her with unembarrassed frankness. “So what if I love to talk! I'm good at it.”
But there was also anger in him about how well she knew him, and he would be turned on and would wish to make love to her.
Of course, this never happened. Tara always stopped himâfor religious reasonsâand he couldn't refuse. Nevertheless, it frustrated him. He had a tremendous sexual drive and he sometimes thought he should have been allowed, by God, to break the rulesâfor the sake of revolution, for India. Instead he proposed marriage.
“You know I'm engaged, right?” she told him.
“I'm only joking,” she said. And they held hands and she said nothing and this had been a kind of promise.
Months passed. The possibility of returning grew bleaker and bleaker. He saw that his life was over, his happiest moments were behind him, and that
he had lived those moments unthinkingly, so consumed and fired by thoughts of the future he hadn't even been aware of how happy he was.
Then one day he heard from Mansoor that Tara had left for the U.S.
That day he went to meet Zunaid.
Zunaid was a local fixer and thug, known to have ties with gangs, and Ayub came up to him in an alley late at night. In the distance, a Maruti van lay twisted in an open sewer trying to rev itself out. Two men helped push the awkward cockroach of a vehicle.
“Ustad, how many years it's been!” Zunaid said. “Tell me, how can I help you?” He was a big man in an impeccable kurta.
“I want to buy a gun,” Ayub told Zunaid after some preliminaries. “We have a big monkey problem in the field. They come and tear our plants every afternoon. We've tried to use a spade and a scarecrow, but nothing works. I thought using a pistol might help.”
“A pistol, is it?” Zunaid gauged Ayub's face. Ayub had been one of the golden boys of the town, with a legendary academic record, and Zunaid was curious about this shift. “You sure you don't want me to do it for you?”
“Monkeys multiply very fast.”
“I see.” Zunaid paused. “Eight hundred rupees.”
“Very good, boss.”
A few days later, when Zunaid brought Ayub the pistol, Ayub said, “What is this nonsense? Are you sure this won't explode in my face? This is the sort of gun the student union leaders carry in Shibli. One lost his hand shooting this kind of gun.” It looked like a tin imitation of a pistol, the metal corrupted by holes. It had a handle ripped from a cooking knife and a barrel fashioned from the steering shaft of a rickshaw. The nails on its sides were poking out.
Zunaid explained patiently, pedantically, why it worked well regardless.
“Come, let's go try it,” Ayub said.
In a field, Ayub took a long lead bullet from Zunaid, slid it into a hole at the back of the pistol, rocked back on his heels, and took aim at an old
family-planning advertisement up along the road that ran into the town. “Shit!” he shouted, dropping the overheated weapon.
Zunaid looked at Ayub and marveled at how gaunt he seemed, how ringed his eyes were. Then he sighed, took the gun back from Ayub, and, while explaining its qualities, shot within the inverted red triangle of the family-planning sign. “You just have to practice,” he said. “Can you tell me what you need it for? If you're trying to kill someone it's better if you hire one of our sharpshooters. Doing it yourself will only lead to trouble.” As he spoke he was proud that he might be spotted with Ayub, and he went on. “For you, bhai, because I respect and admire you, I'd even give you a special rate.” When Ayub said nothing, strange tears came to Zunaid's eyes and he said, “We'd even do it for free.”
Ayubâstanding in the field, with this man, days from Delhi, the country vast and unbending around him, the bullet in the gun small, the heart of the man he wished to kill even smallerâwas overcome with despair. It was the kind of despair he felt often in Azamgarh when he walked through the alleys at night or watched the burqa-clad women cower in their homes or when he fell out of step with the pleasant mood of manual labor.
He told the pesky gang member he didn't need his help, paid him five hundred rupees, and left with the pistol tucked rakishly into his trousers.
Ayub now began practicingâfirst with bottles and then with pieces of wood, dead plants, mongooses, stray dogs. His aim got better; he grasped the wayward path of the shotgun bullet. He often chewed tobacco when he shot the pistol and sometimes swallowed an entire wad in excitement, experiencing a deep, watery high, the bullet magically standing still in its cape of smoke and the bottle exploding into shards moments later. There was no shortage of things to shoot in Azamgarh. It was a town made of trash.
As his aim got better, he laughed his high-pitched laugh. His parents, who were going blind from diabetes, groped around in the single room of the hut, worrying, not saying anything.
But at night, when he lay on his bed with the pistol under his charpai, praying that no one would break into the house and force him to use it, he was fearful of what was in store for him if he actually went ahead with his
plan, of the torture he'd be subjected to, the years in prison, the electrocutions and head dunkingsâalso, the almost certain failure. But there would be one difference. Whereas other people who had tried to assassinate political figures or planted bombs escaped after the deed was done, leaving innocent Muslims to bear the brunt of the police's fury and oppression, he would turn himself in. This was the biggest incentive for taking matters into his own hands. No matter what, then, prison lay in store for him. (He could also kill himself after committing the crime, but this would lead to the same outcome as escaping; no one trusts a suicide note by a nobody.)
Funny, to be confronted with prison after years of working with inmates, of learning the full horrors of the systemâbut wasn't this always the case with things you got to know too well, even if you feared them? He knew the power of visualization. Most people never go to prison because they never think of it. Whereas he had thought so much about prison, about the state of inmates, that his ending up there had a whiff of inevitability. Would Tara come to visit him if he were behind bars? Would that reignite her interest in him? Romances conducted from jail were common, and Tara had always romanticized inmates, people cast down into complete helplessness, people so disenfranchised that they had a certain dignity and directness.
In his sleep, he imagined a long trial following his arrest, Tara getting him out of jail; he imagined being vindicated for killing Modi when the man was officially recognized as a war criminal by the International Court at The Hague; he imagined books being written about his heroism, his humble background, his idealism, the world he carried within him, the dozen rooms he'd occupied in different parts of India, his photogenic handsomeness, the dignity with which he endured the indignities of jail.
The distance between these dreams and his ambitions was revealed to him when he shot his shoddy little gun and wiped it with a towel in the evenings. To kill Modi, it was necessary to aim from within a crowd, with people around you, and then through the phalanx of bodyguards that spread on either side of him like the multiveined hood of a snakeâhe had seen Modi's setup during his Gaurav Yatra rally in Delhi.
How could heâa small person, in a ruined place, with a gun fashioned from throwaway parts, the rusted infrastructure of the townâsucceed?
In May, he took a train to Delhi on the pretext of finding a job. In the cramped compartment, as he bent his neck to read a copy of Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons
, a commotion started up. An old man with powerful jaws was demanding a magazine from a bearded student. When the student said, “Let me finish,” the old man started swearing. “You pigs! Fucking Muslims!” The student finally gave up and handed the magazine to the old geezer. But when the old man flipped through it, he snapped again, “This is in English!” and threw it down. Ayub did not intervene. He was light-headed and tired and hungry, the pistol pressed against his hip like a piece of bone, and when he hopped off at Old Delhi Railway Station, he took a rickshaw and then a bus to a vast field full of people. Modi's rally. Holding his breath, swaggering, he swam through the dam-burst of people: office men, peasants, women covering their eyes with free posters handed out at the entrance. Modi twinkled in the distance behind a stage. You could barely hear him. Nevertheless, Ayub lifted his head and stared at him, and imagined Modi staring back, and he felt something pass between them. He put his small, neat hands in his pockets. He couldn't do it.
He had planned to meet Mansoor and his Peace For All friends if this mission failed, but he took the train back the next day in despair.
When he got to Azamgarh, he was trembling and twitching from his inaction, a wedge-shaped headache squeezing the top right corner of his skull. He wasn't sure he could control his faceâfelt it might split away from him in a series of twitches. Perhaps, he thought, he had brought himself to the point of such stress that he would suffer another physical collapse, implode, experience something much worse than back painâan aneurysm, maybe, a blood clot, one of those deadly killers that gathered evidence from the rest of your stressed body before detonating the whole sorry scaffolding.
When he ate a meal with his mother and father, he told himself he was seeing them for the last time. He clutched the pistol in his pocket; his eyes felt weak.
This sort of thinking continued for a few days, till he realized he was as
incapable of killing himself as he was of killing Modi. Besides, he still loved Tara. He wrote her another letter and posted it to a friend in Benares, who, in turn, typed it and e-mailed it to her (Azamgarh still didn't have an Internet cafe). Afterwards, he felt happy. Having Tara even once, for a short period, had been a great thing. He visited a prostitute, mastering his disgust by imagining he was making love to Tara, her sweet face turned up, the braid beside her like a watchful dangerous snake that he took in his mouth.
It was in this unstable, ecstatic, endorphin-soaked mood that he went to visit Zunaid.
Zunaid was playing cards in his house with friends when Ayub entered; he immediately put the cards down in embarrassment, treating Ayub with honor and respect. “Tell me, Ayub bhai, what brings you here?” Zunaid said, clearing space for him on the charpai, his lips wet with spittle, as usual.
“I wanted to talk to you alone,” Ayub said. “But there's no rush; play your cards.”
“We can go back and talk.”
“I'd prefer if you all played,” Ayub said. “I've brought a paper. I'll sit and read.”
“No, no, that's too awkward, you just watching us,” Zunaid protested.
“Abe, play,” one of the men on the charpai said.
So they played and were soon lost in their cards. Whipping the newspaper to crispness (like women whipping clothes to open them out before hanging them on a clothesline), Ayub watched the faces and personalities of the four men in the room and admired their concentration, their ability to find peace, even happiness, in this tragic hellhole of a town. My mistake was to leave in the first place, he thought.