After the Babri Masjid Massacre
Ayodhya, India, December 1992
Knowing you so well, Hisham,
you must have been sitting at an old wooden desk,
hiding behind a wall of books, contemplating
the unifying potential of Rumi’s poems
when the rioting suddenly broke, when the mobs flooded
the streets, heading straight towards the Babri--
that cursed house of God long evacuated
and left to crumble under the weight of the centuries.
That afternoon, children exiled into the bowels
of misunderstood history, suffering
from the inheritance of their parents’ grievances,
hypnotized by stories that spoke of imaginary pasts,
of holy birthplaces and forgotten birthrights,
ripped through Ayodhya, roaring like a stampede
of elephants, thirsty for the taste of a brother’s blood.
Convinced only a divine decree could inspire
so many to suddenly become so god-conscious,
even the most simple-minded onlookers
must have felt compelled to join in, to help dismantle
one version of history, brick by brick, bone by bone.
When darkness finally fell on our city, falling like a black veil,
as if trying to keep the stars from bearing witness
to this unholy event, from this suicidal December day,
the demolished edifice was mere backdrop.
The 3,000 corpses were what reminded us
that Ayodhya would belong to no one anymore.
Yet this city was still ours--
we grew up here, misfits who spent our days in the streets,
our nights sneaking off to the movie houses
to see our boy-dreams projected onto movie screens
as wide as the night. This is our Ayodhya.
Here we attended the same school our fathers did,
the one behind the dilapidated church, peopled by the poor
Hindu-converts who were fooled into believing
that Jesus was born blue—that the name
Krishna was rooted in the words Christ and Christian.
That was our Ayodhya. Do you remember
how we longed for school to end each afternoon,
suffering through the schoolmasters’ thrashes,
generously intended to subdue our perpetual impatience?
We couldn’t wait to go hide behind Black Joseph’s
sweetmeat stand, positioned perfectly to steal quick glances
at the girls blossoming in our neighborhood.
Remember how boyishly we battled over Nargis,
the girl we renamed after the film goddess?
She taught us the meaning of lust
by occasionally winking at us with her dark eyes,
making us hard between the legs, an obvious embarrassment.
Do you remember how Black Joseph,
whenever he saw us eyeing Nargis, our crotches
pressed up against his stand, would sing songs stolen
from films—songs our fathers sang to us long
before we understood the meaning of heartache and loss
and memory? And how, lost in musical reveries,
Black Joseph, hands on hips, would whirl
like a drunk dervish, mocking us with his fluttering eyelashes?
How whenever he laughed he would be overcome
by a bout of coughing so violent he had to hold onto his
sarong-like dhoti to keep it from falling to his feet?
Hisham, do you remember the sweet scent
of the mango trees on my uncle’s farm in Amritsar,
their thick leaves dangling elegantly like earrings
from the ears of Queen Noor Jahan? Do you know
why we never went back there? Outside,
under their generous shade—in a darkness so viscous
it held us like a black net—we remained unaware
of the turbulence raging in my uncle’s kitchen.
We never heard him cursing wildly, throwing guilt and history
in my father’s face, who, I learned many years later,
had dared to bring a Muslim into a Brahmin home,
who threatened our family name with an unwashable stain.
My father—who always called your father Bhaiya
and taught me to call you by the same brotherly name--
never spoke back, allowed his brother-in-law
to beg Lord Krishna’s blue face to curse my family
with sickness and a shameful legacy of barren daughters-in-law.
Protected from the sweltering summer sky
by the mango trees, we enjoyed our youthful ignorance,
counted the ants crawling up our legs,
and eventually admitted drowsiness, the heat heavy
on our eyelids, pushing them down, slowly until shut.
I leaned back in my charpoy, rested my head in my hands.
Between the dull thudding of ripe red mangoes
falling to the ground, I enjoyed the calming silence
of your sleep, and dreamed away the restlessness
I sometimes saw dancing in my mother’s eyes.
My friend, it is a shame our mothers didn’t talk more.
They both suffered from the same epidemic of silence,
a clinging to a nameless injury, one no words would heal,
one no amount of forgetting could ever undo.
I remember one Friday afternoon, when you disappeared
with your father into a masjid near the vacant Babri,
my mother asked that I come home to help her
chop greens for dinner. We were expecting company,
old family friends, people too important to disappoint,
and I was expected to be godlike, to sit silently in the corner
of the room, watchful, smiling, dead to the living.
After a morning of street cricket and wrestling
in the dusty school gardens, my face was dark with dirt,
and mud stained my clothes—I looked like a beggar,
absolutely shameful. My mother joked that I was too filthy
to be her son. As she washed my face, her hands
kneading at my skin, she let a long, deep sigh betray her smile.
When I asked her why her eyes looked so
all-of-a-sudden dim, her face became the sun,
no longer sad. She said she just preferred that I spend
more time indoors, out of reach of the sun’s summer fury,
which—if I wasn’t careful—would make me
dark-skinned forever, like an untouchable.
When your wife Jamila begged you to forget
Ayodhya, to find a teaching post in Lahore,
where Urdu’s best writers spent their evenings
at the Pak Tea House—at least for your unborn children
if not for her—you pressed your body hard against hers
to still the violence of her breathing. You knew she had never felt
at home in India, had begged you since your wedding night
to do as her parents had done and migrate away
to Pakistan. But you refused to flee. You would not
tolerate her mistrust of Hindus, would not fall victim to a history
flooded with misinterpretations. In your eyes,
the mistake of Partition had disfigured the Subcontinent,
had left this land wounded, aching, fractured, forever searching
for wholeness. Now she curses your relentless optimism
and wishes to forget your ghost, which she sees forever
in your son’s eyes. Bilal must be in school now, a small prince
of a boy who will soon inherit the poison of a mother’s suffering.
Hisham, when you were killed outside the Babri,
in the aftermath of the storm that bathed our city with blood,
each drop in the name of one god or another,
I fell against the wall, torn apart, mumbles of some broken language
spilling from my fumbling lips. With an aggression
that gave me nightmares for weeks, I seized the statues
my parents had given me, so placid and silent
on bookshelves and tabletops, no longer worthy
of my trust, and flung them to the floor.
Decapitated heads, amputated arms, severed legs flew
in all directions, in splashes of marble, stone, and porcelain.
My body quivered with the disease, I considered
prying out my eyes from my skull with my fingers,
but only pushed hard enough to see explosive red flares colliding
against the backs of my eyelids. Then I disappeared
to find you--but all I saw were faces, glowing,
alive with fury. Faces broken and blinking, without
sequence, like film clips sewn together haphazardly—faces
lost in time, in slow-motion, overlapping, becoming
the same face. Faces white with fear, flowering with a flourish
of curses, some lips spewing spit, mixed with blood, dust.
Others stitched shut, with voices clogged in windpipes,
the muffled sounds of gagging and suffocation reverberating
through the alleys. I saw faces with eyes gouged out,
limp optic nerves hanging flaccidly from empty eye sockets.
Faces singed, seared onto corpses, strewn through the streets,
left for the dogs to manage. Faces full of tears, shame,
happiness, disbelief. For a moment I saw your face,
one of the many—a transient flame, flickering, fading fast,
engulfed by even larger flames, consumed by chaos,
disappearing completely, drowned in a sea of other faces--
forever lost, forever lost.
My dead brother, Ayodhya suffers without you,
continues to battle its own wounds, and I no longer know
what to believe in. The difficulty of Ghalib’s poems
brought us together at school, while Amitabh Bhachan
united us in the evenings, in film. He was the hero of our lives,
defying the test of time with movie after movie,
handsome as ever, the only true actor-singer
Bollywood has ever known. His Namak Halal was our favorite,
with the crazy action sequences in which he would defeat
the weakling villains, each with a single punch.
We wanted to be him—or just like him
since we preferred to kiss the heroine at the end.
But such were the storyline formulas of Indian cinema--
nothing could ever be changed, and we knew
to let our dreams fill in the rest, to complete the vacancies
that perforated our lives. We were just two boys
too close to notice the differences that would fall between us
like worlds, two friends growing up, learning to absorb
the tremors of inheritance, the rhythmic pounding of
clashing histories, remaining unshaken, never questioning
the motherly silences that congealed in our memories,
that became stones and sunk into the sands of
our forgetting. Perhaps nothing has brought us so much
misery through the centuries than these religions,
these solemn ways of life and death and indifference.
And our abbreviated brotherhood was blessed to have
such perceptive fathers who shielded us from the foolishness
that accompanied blind faith, who taught us that new partitions
would not help us unravel our convoluted pasts.
Yes, Bhaiya, every year as a stranger I come to Ayodhya
under quiet circumstances—just the wind and me--
to keep myself from forgetting you. Yet I pray
for forgetfulness here, for some way to erase the events of
that bloody December, which replay themselves in my nightmares,
frame by frame. I have learned from the violence
that still stains our soil, that no one ever forgets
the things that must be forgotten. Forgetting, a kind of forgiveness,
eludes our people, keeps them helplessly bound to pain,
so easily ignited into bursts of hateful action.
Visiting you helps purge my despair, instills in me
a new kind of hope, one that propels me back
into my incomplete life in a faraway city. I have left Ayodhya
many times, and in leaving I continue to live.
This is a city still devoid of faith, a city wounded
and bleeding, a city once ours to trust, once ours to pass on.
I press my ears against your tombstone, flat on the ground,
closer to you. I feel its cold hardness and listen
for our fathers’ songs to rise like phantoms from the earth.
From this fallen position I remember your voice,
remember how you impersonated Mohammad Rafi
with effortless precision, while I stretched to be Lata,
as we sang together the old songs, once again
unstaging the tragedy of time. On the train home,
whenever my body begins convulsing in tremors of sadness,
these songs console my lostfulness and save me
from weeping loudly in the company of strangers.
First published in Atlanta Review, Fall/Winter 2006; reprinted in Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, University of Arkansas Press, 2010, edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam.
Renowned French book artist Jean-Claude Loubieres has made "Ayodhya" into a stunning limited edition handmade book. It features the original English text of the poem alongside Joel Toureille's French translation. Now in its second edition, it is part of the permanent collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University Library, Bibliothèque Nationale du Luxembourg, Bibliohèque d'art et d'Archéologie de Genève, and Bibliothèque Alcazar de Marseille. (Click on the image above for more information about Jean-Claude and the book.)