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What Is it Like, Growing up Muslim in Aligarh?

'City on Fire' is a rare visceral portrait of how everyday violence and hate become a part of our lives and consciousness; a society where name and clothes mark out a person as the ‘other’.
Representative image of children playing in Aligarh. Photo: Flickr/Akif A Khan (CC)

Below is an excerpt from the novel City on Fire, a coming-of-age memoir in which Zeyad Masroor Khan writes, with searing honesty, about the undercurrents of religious violence and the ensuing ‘othering’ that followed him everywhere he went, from his schoolgoing days in Aligarh, through his years as a college student in Delhi, to ultimately becoming a journalist documenting history of his country as it happened.

‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.’

– James Arthur Baldwin, 1924–1987

The slope was red with bricks and blood. More bricks dropped from the sky like missiles. Once in a while, a bottle of acid or a petrol bomb made its presence felt among the variety of objects being hurled. Amid the clash of religious slogans and verbal abuses, gunshots were heard. The riot was at its zenith – and my home lay exactly in the middle of it.

Anger rose in the hearts of men flooding the streets. ‘Har har Mahadev!’ they shouted from the bottom of the slope. ‘Allahu Akbar!’ shouted other angry men from the top of the slope. The body of a twenty-year-old boy lay somewhere between this mass of angry men, his intestines ripped out, his blood spreading across the tarmac.

City on Fire, Zeyad Masroor Khan, HarperCollins, 2023.

But the memory that haunts me the most is the sound of women’s screams coming from all directions at once. As if all the women in my mohalla were screaming in unison. ‘Ya Allah!’ cried an old woman standing in a balcony in front of the foyer of my house, wiping tears with her dupatta. Her daughter called out to her brother urgently, repeatedly. ‘Faisal! Faisal! Come back!’ This was the first time I had noticed these particular neighbours. The woman started breaking away loose bricks from her balcony wall and dropping them out to Faisal. ‘Don’t give them an inch or they’ll enter our homes!’ she cried. Almost everyone picks a side when it comes to staying alive.

There was no shortage of bricks on our side of the fight. An unlucky neighbour had ordered a truckful a few days ago. Nobody asked his permission before taking a whole slab away to be used as weapons. Some men went inside an old house and demolished a broken wall for more arsenal to attack the marauding enemy. Apart from this advantage, we were also at a height. So, when the Hindu mob tried to push up the slope, they were easily turned back. ‘I will return and fuck your mother in front of you,’ cried one of them as a part of a brick hit his head and blood gushed down his face.

A few minutes later, they returned with more guns, and all our advantages turned to dust.

Inside our home, my mother was trying to decide whether it was time to run. She was reading Ayatul Kursi, the verse Muslims read when they are afraid. My father was at his office at the university on the other side of the town. Mother told my elder brother, Saad, to keep a watch and gauge the danger outside.

He came back in a rush. ‘Ammi, bullets are being fired from everywhere. One missed my ear by a few inches,’ he said, sounding more excited than afraid.

‘Did it really go past your ear? Don’t lie,’ I asked circumspectly.

Before he could answer, Sayema, our sister, began to cry. She had been calling my father’s office landline from her Nokia 1100 phone non-stop. Her husband had given her this brand-new phone with an orange keypad before she left Saudi Arabia to come home to deliver their first baby.

Of course, the eight-month-old baby in Sayema’s belly was our primary concern. Running away involved the risk that she – or anyone else among us – could be shot. Or Hindus could enter our house through the garage door and set it on fire (like they once had when Sayema was one). As my mother weighed her options, four strange men rushed into our home. ‘Baaji, we need to go to the terrace to attack enemies from a height. Unlock your staircase,’ said the shortest among them, his eyes wet with tears of anger.

‘Forgive us, for Allah’s sake! We don’t want our home used for rioting,’ said my mother as she pushed them out of the house.

‘We are fighting to save you. If not for us, they’d have entered your homes by now,’ he said before going away to knock on other doors.

As we latched our door, I heard the sound of stones hitting the ground. It was coming from across the foyer in Palle Ghar, the portion of our ancestral home inhabited by the twenty-one members of my paternal aunt’s family. The attack had arrived there. I saw bricks raining down her porch, bypassing the giant peepal tree separating her home from Hindu neighbours. ‘I have spent my whole life here but never seen such bad times,’ said Mehro, my Phuppo, blankness reigning in her green eyes. Her sons had moved their children to safe places, far away from bricks and bullets. Two of the sons and their families would leave this home in a month.

The attack on Palle Ghar had also opened up another grim possibility: people firing bullets at our house. ‘The Hindus are standing with guns on their terrace. I saw somebody firing from the roof of Punjab Bank,’ said Nadim Bhai, Phuppo’s youngest son. Anyone standing on their terrace now scared us.

‘Ammi, should I close the window? They can see us moving inside our house,’ I said.

‘Don’t act too smart. Stay away from the windows,’ she said, reciting another set of dua with the women of Palle Ghar. I shut the window. I wanted to prevent them from seeing us moving around our living room. My brother promptly switched off the lights.

Suddenly, Tariq Bhai, my paternal cousin, came rushing into our living room. ‘They are trying to climb up. You should run across the lane,’ he said.

‘What about Sayema?’ Ammi asked, pointing to my sister’s eight-month-old stomach bulge.

‘Let’s walk slowly,’ said Saad.

Amid all the panic, Ammi took her time to lock the doors and hide anything that had a remote chance of being stolen. Finally, we left our home.

Outside, the screams of women mingled with gunshots, profanity and religious slogans to create a strange cacophony of chaos. We walked holding each other’s hands before running into a narrow lane that led towards Jama Masjid. ‘This way! This way!’ said neighbourhood women we had never met, showing us the way to run away from our home while they were firmly planted in theirs.

After we left, the four strangers who wanted to enter our terrace returned to our home. They broke the rusty lock on the staircase. One of them later died of a bullet wound in a clinic nearby.

It was only later that I found out that Shadab had also died.

Zeyad Masroor Khan is a journalist, writer and documentary film-maker based in New Delhi. In his decade-long journalistic career, he has worked with national and international media companies like Reuters, Vice, Brut and Deccan Herald.

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