The kid could not have been more than six years of age when Jessie first saw him. She was a new bride and he stood on a stool and peered into their flat along with his fourteen-year-old sister who was curious to have a look at the new ‘bahu’. Jessie smiled at him and he waved back. They were a muslim family staying in a flat behind Jessie’s. Though the two families did not visit each other’s homes they did spend a lot of time talking from their respective verandahs. Theirs was a family of seven members including five children. Ayesha was the oldest and Ahsan the youngest. Their mother Zeenat was a friendly woman and would advise Jessie on housekeeping and dealing with servant maids.
“How do you manage to use that thing?” she’d ask pointing out to Jessies knitting machine. “Don’t your hands ache?”
“It’s really very easy” Jessie would reply, “Send your daughter over. I’ll teach her to do it.”
“Naa baba naa” she’d throw up her hand in mock despair. “. We are better off using our two hands! Moreover, as it is, we have enough work to do.”
Those were times when Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same area and would exchange sweets during Diwali and Id. Who would have thought that things would change over night when communal riots broke out in the steel city.
Riots had paralyzed life in their small township. Night curfew was on. Schools had closed down. All sorts of rumors were doing the rounds. Nothing could be confirmed. Muslim families fled from Jessie’s locality taking with them only essential belongings. Hindus likewise fled from muslim dominated localities.
Jessie wondered if Zeenat and her children were safe. Six years had gone by since the day she first saw them. Ayesha had now grown into a beautiful young woman. Each time Jessie heard of rape and abduction she remembered Ayesha. She shuddered to think of what might have befallen her.
Suddenly there was a commotion. Jessie looked out to see a huge crowd gathered below her block. They were pointing out to Zeenat’s flat.
“There is some one there. He has been there since last night.”
“May be he has come to plant a bomb.”
It is their youngest son, Ahsan or something..”
Jessie’s heart missed a beat. What ever made the child come over? Good God!
“These people can never be trusted.”
“They have relatives in Pakistan.”
“ The father is a committee member or some such thing.”
Jessie saw a familiar face among those present. Raju Bhaiyya. She tried to catch his attention and succeeded after a few attempts. He came up to her house.
“Raju Bhaiyya “ she implored. “ Ahsan is only a kid he can do no harm. Ask them to let him go.”
“Listen Jessie, You keep out of this.,” said Raju Bhaiyya “ A kid has no business coming here. Which father would send a twelve year old to a sensitive area unless he has a motive?”
“Send him away after a warning” pleaded Jessie.
“I’ll try. But I cannot promise.” Raju relented.
Unfortunately it was too late. Ahsan panicked and tried to run away. The crowd chased him and literally drove him to his death. Ahsan in his confusion ran across a neighboring park and reached the banks of the Kharkhai river. Seeing a whole lot of adults in close pursuit, the boy jumped into the river. He was probably unable to swim to safety for the news of his death was published in local newspapers two days later. Jessie was shattered. It took her a long time to get over it. She kept wondering if there was something she could have done for him. Her neighbors were less sympathetic.
“It was his destiny” they claimed. “ None could have prevented his death. Why did he have to come to here of all places? It was death beckoning him.”
‘How very convenient’ reflected Jessie. ‘ So easy to blame destiny. After all destiny could never defend itself!’
It was only two years later that Jessie could find out why Ahsan had come over. It was his mother Zeenat whom Jessie met in a local transport that told her.
“Ahsan had left without our knowledge or permission.” she said. “ He wanted to get his books as his final exams were to start as soon as school reopened. He told Ayesha that since he knew the uncles and aunties in the block, they would take care of him in case of trouble. How was he to know that the very same people would kill him? What did they gain by murdering my son?”
Jessie had no answer. Zeenat spoke with sadness in her eyes but her tone bore no grudge.
“ People lose their senses during riots. Our community as well as yours. I may not be educated but I do know that neither Allah nor Bhagwan want bloodshed. We Indians talk of having inherited a rich culture. Was there any culture in driving to death, a helpless twelve year old?”
How very true!