Silent Flow the Saryu

My father’s first name is Ram. As is the first name of every male member of my ancestral village close to the twin towns of Ayodhya and Faizabad. No one quite remembers when this tradition came about, but it was while asking questions about it as a child that I was first told the story of Lord Ram’s birth.

When I think back to the Ayodhya of my childhood, I can still feel the sense of calm it brought on as we drove in from the bustling chowk of Faizabad in our pista-green Ambassador. Unlike other temple towns, Ayodhya was never big on religion retail- no shopkeepers heckling you to buy prasad or deposit your shoes, no pandits offering to relieve you of your sins and no alms-seekers tugging at your elbows for change. My memory of that town is a memory of unfettered freedom- an invaluable treasure for a child. My cousins and me loved Ayodhya because we could run around there unchecked; because once we were there our guardians would somehow stop worrying about us the way they did everywhere else.

As charitable as the deceptions of nostalgia may be, there are times when it must be indulged, especially when it relates to a town that lost its individuality when the entire nation’s history took a sharp turn around its quaint corners on the 6th of December 1992.

I don’t know if these memories mean more than others but I find myself sifting through them often to make sense of everything that has happened since.  I almost always start with the besan ladoos that were sold at the foot of Hanuman Garhi, the fear of monkeys that lay in wait to snatch them and the discomfort of the cold temple floor in winter while we raced each other through our parikramas. Our day would begin there and then lead to the banks of the Saryu, the river we Saryupareen Brahmins derive our identity from. Finally, at dusk, we would line up and enter the Janmabhoomi temple, a dark morbid chamber under decrepit domes with a tiny idol of Ram Lalla. The interiors of that structure were palpably devoid of the air of sanctity and festivity that I associated with temples and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the King God was born in conditions so averse. But on the other side of the thicket of gloom were temple shops we joyfully raided for trinkets and toys.

My father’s first memory of this structure is very different from mine. He was a student in Kshatriya Hostel in 1949 when word began to spread that the then District Magistrate of Faizabad, K.K.K. Nayar was going to throw the doors of the disputed structure open to allow worship inside. He ran to join the very orderly small crowd that had gathered around and recalls a sense of electric excitement in the air. He understood little as a child about the complexities of this decision but couldn’t possibly imagine it could be harmful to anyone. The times were different. For most Muslims living in Ayodhya their livelihood was linked to the pilgrimage sites. My father who studied in an Urdu medium school was told by his grandfather that Urdu was the only language worth mastering and scolded for reading its “poor cousin”, Hindi. His childhood was not marked by the differences between Hindus and Muslims that were exploited by politicians in the 90’s to whip up a bloodthirsty frenzy.

I was as old as he was in 1949, when the first Kar Sevaks started coming in. We would let them take sugarcane from our fields because they were out on a ‘holy mission’. That is all we were told. That is all we knew. Overnight the clay-toy shops I frequented in Ayodhya were stacked with propaganda cassettes. Once in a while these tapes would play across the river after the aarti and I would hear Uma Bharti and her compatriots shouting fanatic slogans like “Ram Lalla hum aayenge, mandir wahin banayenge”; their voices distorted by the gentle wind that blew over the Saryu. I knew my father strongly disapproved of what was going on but I couldn’t help feeling a curious excitement towards what seemed like a revolution in the offing. I had heard it was a fight for Ram, but was much too young to realize who the enemy was.

It was only when I saw them bring it down on Television back in Calcutta, where I lived, that the horror first registered. All of a sudden I felt curiously attached to that ramshackle structure- a structure no one told me was disputed. It was the 6th of December 1992. In 5 days we were to leave for our village as we did each year in my winter break from school. But that winter we were forced to stay back. Calcutta, like every other Indian city was tense but not nearly as affected by the rioting that cities like Bombay witnessed. Having never seen a curfewed city before I began to enjoy its little perks. For one it meant my father was always home. I also felt a sense of misplaced pride that all of this had something to do with my tiny hometown. My friends always seemed to go to cooler destinations on their holidays while I always wound up in Ayodhya, a town that failed to excite their imagination. But this time around it was my turn to tell stories. I know Ayodhya, I said and they listened with the same rapt attention with which I had lapped up their stories of Disneyland.  I have never since seen the Ayodhya I told them about.

As a writer in my youth it became impossible to talk fondly of the temples in Ayodhya without the anxiety of being judged by my friends and peers, most of who, like me, can broadly be described as left-liberals.  It was even more difficult to write about the events critically. All I could come up with was an overwhelming, navel-gazing sense of personal loss- the loss of home. My father and I, otherwise given to lengthy and heated political debates, never spoke of Ayodhya. My mother asked him once about the on-going court case and I overheard him say- “It doesnt matter whether it goes to the Hindus or to the Muslims, Ayodhya is never coming back to us.”

How does one write of a time in history that one is implicated in? I had been looking for an answer when I read an essay by Amitav Ghosh- The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi. It took him a very long time to write about what he witnessed first hand during the carnage that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi in 1984. But write he did. And he explains why by quoting Karahasan, “Let us not fool ourselves. The world is written first- the holy books say, that it was created in words- and all that happens in it, happens in language first.” He goes on to say, “ It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.”

I couldn’t help think of Ghosh’s extraordinary work when I sat down to write this essay. But first I made a call to my father and asked him, “What remains of Ayodhya?” “The Saryu,” he said. It has changed its course several times but never leaves Ayodhya.” All that remains with me is these memories from childhood- a lingering taste of besan ladoos. They have endured the worst blow of history.

(Originally published in the Sunday Herald, 6th December, 2009)