Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaar – which is a criss-cross of narrow lanes that I am sure will amount to a hundred or more, though I have not counted them and I do not know of anyone who has – you will arrive at Arsalan Miyan’s house if you take the lane in front of the green Jama Masjid, by the huge transformer, past more lanes till you have forgotten where you started. Right there, where a lane seems to end, but actually doesn’t, because if you come up to the wooden door the colour of ash where the lane seems to end, you will see a small angular cut to the left, which will open up another lane between walls of houses to more lanes.
Anyway, right where the lane seems to end, when you come up to the huge wooden door that looks like it’s a hundred years old, you will know that you have reached Arsalan Miyan’s house. And if there is any confusion, just hang on there for two minutes, and an enormous shadow will growl at you from the first-floor balcony.
“Hey! Who stands there? What do you want? Where have you come from? Why do you stand there? Whom do you want to meet? What business brings you here?”
And you will stand there with your mouth open, ready to utter the first word once the old man stops. But he doesn’t. So, you stand there with your mouth open taking in the sight of a huge dark-skinned man with a mop of orange hair, obviously grey hair henna-dyed, in a faded white kurta leaning out of the little white balcony with green latticed railings.
Arsalan Miyan continues to volley questions at you, as your eyes shift from him to the buildings around which seem to have sprouted from the ground stuck to each other. Finally the old man stops for breath. And you quickly cut in, Is this Arsalan Miyan’s house?
He looks at you like a student does when the teacher has posed a question which he cannot, for the life of him, answer. “Who?” he says meekly this time.
“Arsalan Miyan!” you respond with more vigour.
He looks at you like you just ordered his punishment for not knowing the answer.
Just then you hear hurried footsteps. A young lad leans out of the balcony and says, “Yes, yes. Come right up. Push the door open, you will find a flight of stairs. Come right up.”
As you reach the first floor, Arsalan Miyan is already seated on a sturdy, rocking armchair that was brought over from the wooden furniture workshop downstairs that the family runs, his eyes fixed on the whitewashed wall ahead. The balcony is bare, except for two pots of money plants randomly placed – one near the small white sink with a plastic pipe dangling beneath and the other in a corner from where one can take a flight of stairs to the terrace. The young lad welcomes you inside through a small door.
“That’s my eldest uncle, Arsalan Miyan. He can’t remember things now, including his name.” And you nod. “But he sits there the whole day and his ears pick up any footstep that stops at our door. So we don’t need a calling bell,” he tries to joke. But you don’t think it is funny because you are here to meet Arsalan Miyan, and the man doesn’t remember a thing.
They say Arsalan Miyan was not always like this. He lost his mind only when the communal riot hit Saharanpur in 2014. It exploded a mine within him. He was already a good 86 years old by then. And before this incident took place, he had visited the green Jama Masjid at four in the morning every day, without fail, to let his voice spread over the old part of the city in a heart-warming azaan.
The riot claimed his memory. And the azaan within him.
It was a usual July morning, hot and loo-scorched. Nargis Khala, the widow of Arsalan Miyan’s eldest brother, who lived in a crumbling small room behind the wooden furniture workshop, because that is the only place in the household the family could offer her after her husband died of consumption and left her with neither resources nor offspring, came running up screaming, “Allah! Arsalan Miyan! Arsalan Miyan! Allah!”
The man was just beginning to sip from his cup of tea when the urgency in her voice stirred a distinct emotion in him. He nearly jumped out of his skin and rushed to the landing of the stairs. He had heard that ring in people’s voices when something ominous happened. “Nargis Khala,” he called out urgently. He addressed her as Khala – aunt – although she was his bhabi – elder brother’s wife. But she was actually an aunt to him in relation even if she was a good seven years younger than him. By that time the entire household had gathered in the balcony.
“A riot!” the woman uttered breathlessly. “There’s a riot!”
A gasp broke out. Family members began to recite from the Quran.
“The shops are burning!” she cried. “I saw it! I saw it! Our people, they were throwing petrol bombs at people on the street and inside shops! I saw it! I saw it! They were wearing skull caps! Our people! Our people!”
“Where did you see it?” Arsalan Miyan growled.
“Right outside our lane!” she wailed. “They are burning all the shops! Killing all the people!”
In some time, they could hear the mob – like a rumbling, erupting volcano – and the sounds of explosions.
That whole day, until late in the evening, the family stayed indoors. And soon, curfew was imposed in the city, albeit much later than it should have been. And slowly, news trickled in about what had happened. A dispute over a plot of land – that had been it, apparently.
In the wee hours of that Saturday, the Sikhs and the Muslims had clashed in the Qutub Sher Police Station area. The day before, as an extension to the Gurudwara, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha – the Gurudwara committee – had begun construction at a site where a mosque seemingly stood. Many hours later, Nadeem Akhtar, the Saharanpur city Qazi, told the media that the property was disputed. But Prabhjit Singh, a member of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, brandished a May 2013 order of the Saharanpur Additional District Judge which said that there was no evidence of a mosque on the disputed land. It further sanctioned the uninterrupted construction of the Gurudwara on the land. Nadeem Akhtar, in return, contested this by saying that there were revenue records, Survey of India records, and the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board records which proved that a mosque did indeed exist on the land which now belonged to the Sri Guru Singh Sabha.
Arsalan Miyan did remember hearing the following story from Nadeem Akhtar’s father, Qazi Sultan Akhtar many years ago: It was in 1949 that Hasan Askari had sold his property on the Gurudwara road. As the property exchanged hands, the papers specifically mentioned that around 500 square yards of the land must not be used for any construction as it had a mosque. Over the years, the property exchanged hands again. This time it was bought by the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, but the family which sold the land had not mentioned the part about excluding the area occupied by the mosque. Arsalan Miyan clearly remembered the grave tone of Qazi Sultan Akhtar’s words when he said, “The Sri Guru Singh Sabha demolished the mosque in 2010. Since then the land dispute has been a point of contention between the two communities.”
The day passed on the phone as people called up to ask after one another and information trickled through that the Muslim men seen attacking the shops and people were not from the town and that no one knew where they were from. But it was the disappearance of Arsalan Miyan’s youngest son, the youngest in a brood of ten children – a thirty-four-year-old handsome man – that was gnawing at the household. As evening arrived and an abnormal silence cloaked the otherwise noisy city, the bustling household became more and more restless.
“How come no one knows where he is?” Arsalan Miyan stormed.
“I thought he would be downstairs,” replied the mother meekly, gathering her twelve grandchildren by her side.
Arsalan Miyan looked at her as if he could kill her. And then he looked at the other members of the family as if he might kill them too. He barked at his young daughter-in-law, “What took you so long to notice that he is missing?”
And his cell phone is not working, somebody informed in a faint voice.
Arsalan Miyan tore down the stairs and stepped into deserted lanes. It was late in the evening by then and very dark, as if a black shroud had been laid over the town. He wanted to call out his son’s name, but stopped himself. As he reached the road that led to the Gurudwara, he saw groups of policemen huddled together here and there. He wanted to approach them for help,but didn’t. He didn’t know why he couldn’t trust them that day when every other time anything small happened he would rush to the thana to complain. He made a shadow of himself in the darkness by staying close to the charred remains of the shops. But he felt that he was being watched. He didn’t know by whom. He took quick steps around the neighbourhood, turning back every now and then to spot someone following him. There was no one, yet he knew he was being followed. Like the times when he was a little child and ran around these alleys knowing very well that he was being chased by his friend Fazal, Jamal, Farashi or Sohail. It was a game. But then he hadn’t felt the fear he felt now. In fact, now, he felt the fear that had gripped him at the moment of Jamal’s death.
It was at the time of the Partition. A flag march was on. Young Arsalan Miyan was squeezed together with Farashi, Sohail and Jamal at the small second-floor landing of Fazal’s house waiting to catch sight of the soldiers as they marched past. All of them must have been a little over or under ten years old then. Fazal had gone downstairs to get some tea for his friends. All over Nakhasa Bazaar, adults and children peeped out of their windows and balconies and terraces in groups to take a look at the rows of soldiers. Family and friends were still moving over to the newly crafted state of Pakistan while strangers from across the border were streaming in to fill the spaces in Saharanpur. The gaze of those who peeped out of the windows, balconies and terraces those days held curiosity for the strangers and a burning longing to spot the face of a dear one who had left for Pakistan.
That day, just when the soldiers marched into sight, Jamal raised his head and cried out, “Oye, Fazal! Come up! They are here.” In the next split second gunshots were heard and Jamal’s back hit the ground, a pool of blood creating a halo around his head as a dark hole drilled through his forehead. Commotion erupted on the streets. But young Arsalan Miyan and the boys stayed glued to the second-floor landing, unable to move in fear and shock. It was this emotion – a fear that bordered around uncertainty – that Arsalan Miyan felt once again that day as he combed through the lanes of Nakhasa Bazaar looking for his son.
After about two hours, he returned home, looking much older. His son was not yet back. The mother was already wailing, and all around her were the other women of the household, joining her with cries of grief and eulogies for the boy. The daughter-in-law sat quietly in a corner with a four-year-old playing by her side and a new-born in her arms. But Arsalan Miyan sat in the balcony, alert. He felt that the night had a thousand eyes. His heart raced. Finally, at around midnight, a few people knocked at his door.
And then called out, “Arsalan Miyan!”
His wife darted out into the balcony and saw him still sitting in the chair, a white plastic chair by the staircase. The other members of the household came out too. But he kept sitting, staring at the darkness. His wife gently laid her hand on his shoulder. Startled, he turned to look at her. There was concern in her eyes. The door, she whispered. Someone’s at the door. She noticed that he looked different; definitely not like the man she had known all her life. He looked hard at her for a long time and then said, in a distant and formal manner which had never before been a part of their life together, “Yes, I heard. They are calling out for Arsalan Miyan. Do you know him?”