Authors: Karan Mahajan
A bomb. He had survived, witnessed, walked through a bomb blast. He couldn't believe it. He had heard of bomb blasts before, of courseâthey were always in the news and had been recently because of the 1996 World Cup; some of the matches scheduled in Sri Lanka had been canceled because of bomb threats by the LTTE, an organization his father called “ruthless.” “In this country, they're always accusing Muslims of terrorism,” Sharif had said, bringing his soft paws togetherâhe was a fat man with unemotional features that were childlike, even pitiable, in their convictionâ“when the most dangerous terrorists have been Hindus and Sikhs. You know who blew up Rajiv Gandhi? Hindus. A woman from the LTTE, the same group that set off the bombs in Colombo that so scared the Australian team. You know who killed Rajiv's mother, Indira? Her sardar bodyguards. So when people sayâ” He shook his head. “It makes me angry when the proof is right there, the statistics are there, and the journalists won't consult them.”
“Gandhi-ji's assassin was also a Hindu.”
“Yes,” said Sharif. “We're very lucky that that was the case. Your Nana-ji was in Aligarh when it happened.” Sharif's grandfather had been a freedom fighter, an associate of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan; Sharif was proud of this fact, and loved telling Mansoor about it. Mansoor, though not interested, liked sending his father into raptures of open-ended conversation so he could daydream about the girls he loved in school. He was, he felt, a tragic romantic hero. He stared at girls shyly and gave them poems that he claimed to have written but that he had copied from his mother's thick
Emily Dickinson anthology; she had an MA in English from LSR and had been a theater actress and a counselor at Air Force Bal Bharati School before becoming a housewife.
How far he'd come, in the space of a few hours, from that home life!
Mansoor, tired, bleeding, walked on Ring Road, past a mandi with its nauseating smell of rotten, overripe fruit and covering of blue tarpaulin. After spending a few minutes on the jammed road outside the market, listening to people speculate about the bomb, whether it had been planted by Muslimsâlistening, in other words, to people intent on gossiping about the tragedy rather than heeding a victim passing before themâhe had made the decision to walk home. Of course, he only knew the city from the insides of an air-conditioned car. How far was home from here? Fifteen, twenty minutes? The streets with their bracing angles scrolled and zagged in his mind's eye, unfurling at whatever speed the vantage of the car provided.
By the time he was outside the mandi, he was exhausted, and worried about how he would navigate the thundering pitiless straight-shooting traffic on the main road. His body tensed; he held his bleeding wrist, disgusted by the stickiness, and walked on.
It became easy to avoid oncoming traffic; he pressed close to the edge of the mandi, often standing in the way of cursing, bell-ringing cyclists, and he only had to jump out of the way when a cow browsed toward him (he had once been knocked down in Bhogal by a bull, losing a milk tooth, and that had been the end of his mandi-going ways).
Dusk deepened, coloring the sky a polluted pink; birds wheeled restlessly overhead, as if waiting for rush hour to end so they could head down to collect their spoils. Mansoor ambled past a school on his left; crossed between hawkers smoking peanuts in black vessels on the sidewalk; dodged cakes of cow dung; and wondered, with a half smile, if his parents would be impressed with his presence of mind, his ability to navigate the city after the shock of the explosion. Then the smile fell away as he remembered Tushar and Nakul. What had happened to them? Were theyâdead? And why had he run? If he were to go back and play the thoughts running through his head at the moment he had left them, they would have been
something like this: They're brothers. They can take care of themselves. Or: Didn't I tell them I didn't want to go to the market? Why did they force me?
Men and women and kids and dogs passed by, unaware of who he was, why he was bleeding, why he stood in his upper-class shorts alone on a city sidewalk. Their faces were sweaty and private in the Petromax lights switched on by the street carts.
“Sir,” Mansoor said to one man in his twenties, but Mansoor was too feeble and the man passed him by.
“Uncle,” he said to another man who walked by, licking an ice cream. And this man stopped and studied Mansoor with eyes that were either surprised or glaring. He was middle-aged and paunchy and mustachioed and his tongue shot out to keep the sides of the softie from melting.
“Talk,” the man said.
Mansoor told him what had happened: the blast, the market, the boys, the walk.
Perhaps because he lacked another option, the paunchy man with the unblinking, ambling eyes kept licking the sides of his ice cream, sculpting it into a manageable shape with his tongue.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“South Ex,” Mansoor said.
“In part one or two?”
“Two.” How was this relevant?
“Your parents are at home?”
“And your friends' mummy and daddy?”
“At home also, uncle.”
He shook his head seriously. Then he said, “Will you have some ice cream?”
The man was much more at ease with the ice cream out of his hands. Taking a hankie out of his pocket, he wiped his face and then his forehead. “There's a PCO nearby. We can phone from there.”
As they walked in the direction Mansoor had come from, Mansoor having gratefully demolished the ice cream (even as he dreaded the germs he'd
imbibed), the man said, “You're badly hurt, yaar. Maybe we should go to a hospital first. My car is parked nearby. Come with me.”
Till this point, Mansoor had been happy to walk with the man, but as soon as talk of the car came up, he recoiled. “No need, uncle. Let's make the phone call.”
“But, son, the car's right here. In the time we make the call we can get you treated.”
“But, uncle, my friends are in the market.”
“Let me open my car.”
Mansoor wanted to tell him about the traffic jam, but something came over him and he ran.
“Son!” the man shouted.
He ran fast, kicking up dirt with his heels; when he stopped, only a little beyond where he'd first spied the man, he was winded and ashamed. He looked over his shoulder to see if he was being pursued. He felt he'd done the right thing. He had grown up in a city full of stories about kidnappings and disappearances; had heard from his mother about how one maid dressed up her ward, a two-year-old, in rags, blackened his face, and took him out on the street to beg. The parents of the child were always wondering why the child was so tired when they came back home; then one day the mother was driving on the road andâAh!
Mansoor walked with urgency. He did not want to be pursued by the fat kidnapper. He cursed himself for not having asked a lady for help.
His house was still at least a kilometer away and he'd made little progress. Heavy black smog sat over the road. A stranded ambulance screamed in traffic. Beyond, blinking, he could make out Moolchand flyover, and beyond that, the mirage of South Extensionâsmoke and haze and the familiar congested approach to home.
The Ahmeds were convinced their son was dead. Leaving AIIMS hospital, where Afsheen's cousin promised to keep vigil, they headed to Moolchand hospital. One by one, in this manner, they made a desperate tour of the hospitals of South Delhi. Afsheen was sick and crying throughout. “Be
positive,” Sharif said, as he watched his high-strung but sweet wife dissolving. “There's no objective evidence that anything has happened.” He was at the steering wheel of the car. “He might be at someone's house.”
“How could they do that? How can you be so irresponsible with someone else's son? How many times have I told them I don't want him to go out?”
“They've lost two kids.”
“They should lose two kids! They should lose everything!”
“Afsheen,” he said. But the truth was that he felt the same way.
The hospitals yielded nothing. But that night Sharif felt he'd come closer to the realityâand sufferingâof the city than ever before: the tired grief-soaked expressions of patients; the exhaustion of nurses; the crumbling medical infrastructure; the weak tube lights flickering and clicking; the way in which doctors became bureaucrats the moment they were questioned. Sharif felt he ought to wash his hands of this country, this place he had fought so hard to make his own, enduring the jibes of his family members who claimed to lead happier lives in Dubai, Sharjah, Bahrain, Lahore.
By now the tears had dried up; husband and wife sat at the dashboard in rage-filled silence. “Let's go to the police,” Afsheen said, half-crazed. “We should register a criminal case against the Khuranas.”
“We should have gone to the market earlier,” Sharif said, slapping his forehead.
They had gone to the market briefly before coming to AIIMS, springing through the debris, calling out for Mansoor. In doing so, they'd realized they were far from the only people searching for a relative in the market: half of Delhi seemed to be out in this dung of destruction, though, in the end, the death toll would be only thirteen dead with thirty injuredâa small bomb. A typical bomb. A bomb of small consequences.
“Let's go home first, in case he's there,” Sharif said.
Home. The last time we'll come back and be able to call it that, he thought, pulling up in his Esteem, the dark colony illuminated with the dirty electricity of the city. But as soon as he parked, he saw two individuals outlined in the light of the front landing.
Afsheen got out of the car and ran over and hugged and then slapped her son. The servant, who was sitting next to Mansoor, got up excitedly.
“How could this have happened?” Afsheen wept. “Why didn't you phone us immediately?”
Sharif hugged his son tightly on the landing. He only now realized how tense he was, how much he loved his son. “Bring me some water,” he told the servant when he was inside, trying to control his emotions, the three of them holding each other in an odd huddle.
“We have to go help the Khuranas,” Afsheen said, looking up from her son.
ikas's concern for Mansoor had long since given way to grief over his sons. It became his priorityâand his wife'sâto spend as much time with them as possible, to not abandon their corpses for even a minute. It was as if, having failed to protect them in life, they felt double the responsibility to fulfill their duties in death. Still, the cremation, which happened the next day at Nigambodh Ghat, stunned them both. They howled as the boys were crushed to ashes.
The bodies had been taken away briefly the night before for a postmortem so the doctors could recover pieces of the bomb from Tushar's and Nakul's corpses. The leftover piecesâbright triangles of metal, serrated edges of bottle caps, nailsâglittered in the pyre.
Deepa, weeping violently, her hair pouring everywhere, gray from smoke, screamed, “Take me away.” Vikas watched with his arms behind his back, like a military man at the funeral of his entire squadron.
The members of the Khurana clan did not see each other frequently, but they took the responsibilities of family life seriously, and after the cremation, they came from their flats and gathered around the couple in their house to console and comfort them. Rajat, Vikas's youngest brother, a handsome fellow in his thirties with an unfashionable mustache and an air of self-important family-oriented efficiency, pulverized sleeping pills with a rolling pin and dissolved them in the couple's tea; that they drank this hot cocktail without noticing was a sign, to him, of how far gone they were. Bunty Masi went through the kitchen drawers, collecting knives and
dropping them into a jute bag she took home. The Khuranas' close friends, writers and filmmakers and decent professional types, came together and sat in a grief-stricken huddle; the blow had been so big, it had the potential to damage an entire friend group.
Others crowded on the floor, offering homilies, stories, banalities. Everyone (save for two patriarchs) agreed it was impossible to imagine what the Khuranas were going through.
The bombing happened at six p.m. on a Tuesday. By nine p.m. a group calling itself the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force had called Zee TV and NDTV and claimed credit for the attack. The family members discussed the group and its intentions and fell back on their normal scorn for Muslims. “They can't live in peace, these Muslims. Anywhere they show up, they're at war,” one Masi said. “A violent religion of violent people. In the Quran, it's writtenâno Muslim is supposed to rest till he's drunk the blood of seventy-two unbelievers.”
“Kashmiris have always been filthy people. The whole winter passes and they don't bathe. That's why Srinagar stinks so much.”
“The problem is they believe they'll receive seventy-two virgins in heaven.”
“You're saying this, but I work with Muslims every day. All the craftsmen and weavers are Muslim. You go to their locality and each of them has twenty children.”
The Ahmeds too were adjusting to this new worldâthis world in which their son had nearly perished and in which his two close friends had died before his eyes.
The doctor who had seen Mansoor on the day of the blast said he was very lucky: some other object or person nearby must have absorbed the shockwave. It was the shockwave that killed most people. If you inhaled at the moment of the blast, which was the natural impulse, the compressing air got inside you and tore up your lungs and you died of “massive trauma.” “You, young chap,” the old doctor said, slapping Mansoor's cheek in a
friendly but unsettling manner, “you've only got a fracture and some stitches in your handâthings that all boys of your age get. Soldier's wounds.” Then he slapped him again and prescribed a few months of physiotherapy. Mansoor was allowed to take home all the shrapnel that had been pulled out of his armâtwenty pelletsâin a plastic bag.
“Should we take him to VIMHANS?” Afsheen asked afterwards, referring to the mental health institute on Ring Road.
“Tell me what happened, how it felt,” Sharif said to the boy.
“You can't just ask like that!” Afsheen said. “There's a proper process for these things.”
But the boy was happy as he was, at home. “Please, Mama, I don't want to go anywhere,” he begged.
“See, Afsheen, what's the rush?” Sharif said.
In any case, the Ahmeds found themselves very busy with the cremation and funeral rites of the Khurana boys. Blessed with good fortune, they experienced a strong obligation to be present for their unlucky friends and they went and sat in the Khuranas' flat every day, ignoring the abuses hurled at Muslims by Vikas's relativesârelatives who were either not aware they were Muslim, or wished to harangue them in a sidelong manner.
“Only another mother can understand what you're going through,” Afsheen cried in Hindi, sitting on her knees by Deepa in the Khuranas' drawing room. “Mansoor keeps saying his life should also be taken away if Tushar's and Nakul's were, and I have to tell him, No, beta, no, don't have these thoughts.”
Deepa barely registered Afsheen's presence. “They were such good friends, all of them. Best friends.” She sniffled again, covering her sharp nose with her bony hands, and then said, “I'm so sorry. I'm crying too much.”
“Cry. It's OK to cry.”
Sharif spent time with an ashen, shocked-looking Vikas. “The terrorists were Kashmiri fellows,” he said, in the measured and serious way of someone unused to emotions, someone obviously puffed up by the opportunity to proffer advice. “It'll be easy to find these people. They're not
professionals. The important thing is that you take care of Deepa. She needs you. I'll ask Mansoor if he saw anything suspicious at the market.”
Mansoor was the one who provided the Khurana family with an eyewitness account of the boys' deaths, putting an end to morbid speculation about their final moments. But he'd been unable to explain to his parents why he'd walked away. “Why didn't you phone us, beta?” Afsheen said.
“I thought the lines would be cut,” he lied.
“But promise me, if there's ever,
such an emergency again, you will phone. Each market these days has hundreds of PCOs.”
But Mansoorâdisoriented, overwhelmed Mansoorâwasn't listening. He was thinking instead of the shattering, deafening moment the bomb exploded, the pain he'd felt in his extremities, the way Tushar and Nakul had snapped into sleep, going from on to off. What could he have done? Though he had no experience with mortality, though he had not gone over to their corpses to examine them, he had known they were dead, and had known there was nothing he could do. How to explain this? How to tell his parents the obvious thingâthat walking had been his way of grieving, of indicting the entire city with his eyes?
His parents protected him from the Khuranas and the cremation and the chauthaâhe was a victim too, after all; his right wrist and arm, fractured, were in a castâbut one day, he was nevertheless taken to meet the Khuranas in their flat. Vikas, grief stricken but affectionate, hugged Mansoor with downcast eyes, smelling his hair deeply, wanting a full version of events. Deepa, dressed in an obscenely yellow kameez, sat on the sofa chair next to him, dazed, a hand on her head, the embodiment of a crushing headache. Afsheen kept throwing worried glances her way. “Deepa, will you have anything to drink?” she asked, even though this was Deepa's house and the servant could be heard operating the mixie in the kitchen.
Mansoor told them about the auto ride, the walk in the market, the explosion. “But did they die instantly?” Vikas asked.
“They weren't moving, uncle.”
“But you know for a hundred percent sure?” Vikas said, muddling his
words. “We're trying to make a case against the hospital and the police. When the bomb exploded, people phoned the fire department from the market, and they kept saying, we're coming, we're coming. But they didn't come. They phoned AIIMS for an ambulance and they also didn't come. They actually put people in the back of a police van and drove them to the hospital. They piled them on top of each otherâ”
“Answer uncle's question, beta,” Afsheen encouraged him, realizing Vikas was getting lost in the horror of these imagined events.
“They were no more, uncle,” Mansoor said.
Vikas looked at Mansoor and in that glance it was clear to Mansoor that Vikas blamed him, that this question was not about the hospital or the fire department or the police but about why he had left them to die and walked away.
Why? He didn't understand either. He saw the landscape, the dripping city with its thousands of watery, refracted lights; saw the dust on the yellow necks of the traffic lights; saw the torrid concrete undersides of the flyoversâsaw it all and felt afraid, as if the city had recognized his guilt on the way home and would find a way to destroy him.
“Had they gone to pick up a watch or a TV?” Sharif asked Mansoor when they drove home in their Esteem.
“You don't listen properly,” Afsheen scolded Sharif.
“TV, Papa,” said Mansoor.
“That's what I thought. Because today I heard some relatives saying they had gone to pick up Vikas's watch,” Sharif said. “That's all. I was just checking.”
Having chased down the leads, having talked to the boy, having come to see there was no one else to blame, Vikas succumbed to shame. He felt his entire life had been a failure and that it was this failure, particularly the failure to make money, that had brought him to this point: if they'd had a driver, how could this have happened? He kept apologizing to his wife. “I told you I should have gone back to being a CA,” he said, referring to the
career as a chartered accountant he had given up thirteen years before to make documentaries. “I'll do anything for you.”
But Deepa wanted only one thing: revenge. Having passed rapidly through the stages of grief, she had emerged at a clearing of rage and felt the only reasonable thing was to watch the boys' killers die a violent death. “Do you think they've actually arrested the right people?” she asked Vikas.
As usual, the police had made a few arrests right after the blast.
“God only knows, DeepaâI'm so sorry.”
When would this pain end? Vikas wondered. He'd experienced nothing like thisâhad never known a pain that could slip into every fold of the bodyâand he could only imagine what his delicate wife was going through. She was not a healthy person to begin withâher lung had collapsed some years before, and cancer ran amok in her familyâand he worried that this uprightness, this forced bright rage, was a prelude to serious illness.
The family continued to surround them. But now the advice grew more specific. Bunty Masi suggested they see a guru she visited in GK. “Talk about a great spirit. He touches your hand once and half your problems disappear. Remember how bad Mansha's leukoderma was? Absolutely gone.” Pratap Tau said grief made people holy and they should consider having another child during this period. “Adoption is also a possibility,” a do-gooder added (the house was full of do-gooders). Rajat offered to buy his brother and sister-in-law an all-expenses-paid tour to Switzerland. “May-June is the best time to go,” he said, smiling awkwardly. “There are very nice waterfalls.”
These people bewildered Vikas. But then again, they had never suffered such a loss, had never really known his kids. To them, every child born into the family was the same, a continuation of genetic material. He remembered why he had cut himself off from these people in the first place.
Deepa grew more and more adamant that they press the police to find the killers. Then, one day, to everyone's surprise, it happened: the police said they had arrested the