We have read all about Hindu revivalism in newspapers, and seen the pictures on television; one’s personal feelings about it cannot be separated from the information the media give us. When I returned to Calcutta for two months in mid-January, I listened to all the arguments given by people one had always thought of as ‘liberal’, a category as vague as ‘normal’, for and against Hindu fundamentalism. I listened to the various ways, small and big, in which middle-class Hindus had been infuriated by Muslims – the recitation of prayers five times a day on loudspeakers; the Shah Bano case, where a Muslim woman pleaded to be divorced under civil rather than Muslim law (her plea was upheld by the Supreme Court, but overruled by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the face of widespread Muslim protest, and against the advice of ‘secular’ Indians, both Muslims and Hindus); the way in which Muslims supposedly support Pakistan at cricket matches. Hindu fundamentalism was only an extreme reaction to years of ‘pampering’ Muslims, I heard; but then I heard about its disturbing consequences as well: many innocent people were killed, mainly in the slums, during the riots in Bombay, the city where I grew up; militant Marathi Hindus – the Shiv Sena – even invaded the exclusive, inviolate upper-middle-class areas where my parents and I had once lived.
Visiting a building in Cuffe Parade where we had lived before my father’s retirement, I noticed that the metal nameplates on the ground floor, on one of which my father’s name had once been inscribed, now were all blank – this had been done, apparently, to protect the Muslims living in the building. Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called incidents, told me I was now living in a slightly altered world, where certain signs and words had changed imperceptibly in meaning. Taking a stroll down a quiet lane near where my parents live in Calcutta, I noticed the usual political graffiti on the walls, and among other things the symbol of the North Indian Hindu revivalist party, the BJP – the lotus. Yet the sign, or the emotions I registered on seeing it, had changed in some way from two months ago; it inhabited a new world, and I would have to find new words to describe it. Similarly, people had changed, and I mean the everyday, recognisable people who form one’s friends and family. Everyone speaking for and against the Muslims, and sometimes doing both at once, seemed to have discovered a faculty or talent that they did not know they had had before.
In Calcutta, news came to us of what was then happening in Bombay from the National Programme – although these days even Calcutta has satellite television, with stations like Star TV and Zee TV and the greatly revered BBC Asia. Satellite dishes multiply on terraces where clothes used to dry and servants bathed, and still do. A small industry has spontaneously grown up around them; boys who were bad at studies but good at ‘fixing things’, and who once would have become motor mechanics, have now become fixers of antennae and tuners of satellite frequencies. When Star TV first came to our building, the picture our set received was very poor. It soon got better, though the general consensus on the quality of its programmes was that, as a Third World country, we had been cheated again – not only were banned drugs and obsolete guns being dumped on us, but also, now, a huge mountain of television programmes that the Americans no longer wanted to watch. However, BBC Asia – in fact, anything with the letters ‘BBC’ appended to it – continues to be trusted, as something natural and whole, in the way that preservative-free orange juice is trusted these days in the West; as something that has the ring or the flavour of that old-world thing, ‘truth’, about it. And it was BBC Asia that had first flashed the news, to Indian audiences, of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Yet during my visit, I often found myself seized by a great nostalgia to return to that forgotten giant, the National Programme, to watch its numbing series of documentaries, news programmes, historical dramas. Compared with the liberating and anarchic fun of Star TV, the governmental, bureaucratic world of the National Programme served as an anodyne to the muted panic of what was happening now in India; it muffled, numbed, took me back to my grumbling adolescence, when we hated television, politicians, the Hindi language, longed to see adult films without the crude cuts, but took for granted the immortality of our parents and the existence of the nation.
The National Programme showed us thousands of people crowding the Victoria Terminus railway station in Bombay, nearly all of them from the working classes, anxious to leave the city. Not only Muslims, but Tamils, Bengalis, Gujaratis had been attacked or threatened; and I remembered the servants we had had, people who had arrived in Bombay from different parts of the country and quickly been absorbed into its world of part-time jobs as cooks or bearers, people from villages in Kerala or flood-hit Midnapore who learnt how to make a perfect cheese-toast or twist napkins into flowery shapes and put them in tumblers. I remembered James, an honest, ebony-coloured Keralite, who called himself ‘butler’, and who had a weakness for only one thing – coconut oil. One day, more than twenty years ago, my mother found the lid off a tin of coconut oil in her bathroom – and in the afternoon, she found James, bathed and fresh and smelling of it. He was the one who told me that the Marathis wanted the Madrasis (as all South Indians were then collectively called) out. In much of the next two decades, however, Marathi chauvinism went underground and remained hidden, only to resurface a few years ago in Bombay as Hindu fundamentalism. James retired and went back to his village long before that happened; his life as a ‘butler’ had been a distinguished and unendangered one; and we received letters from him, one of them asking for money for, as his letter-writer put it, ‘the affection of his body’, until we heard from him no more.
And I remembered the Shiv Sena as well, vague images from a protected childhood. One day, in the mid-Sixties, I first became conscious of them, in the strange new way that I was then becoming conscious of things, as a shadowy but noisy procession of men that caused our car to become immobile for forty-five minutes in Breach Candy one evening when we were returning home from the suburbs. Who were they? My own life had its certain and fixed co-ordinates: soon my mother would get off at Breach Candy and buy a few hot ‘patties’ from a hugely popular confectioner’s, Bombelli’s; these men had no place in that life. On my visit to Bombay in mid-February, I noticed, while taking the taxi from the airport, hundreds of small orange flags flying on the roofs of slum settlements on the outskirts, denoting the Shiv Sena’s power if not necessarily its popularity. Those flags suddenly had a brightness and a presence: to the Muslim, they signified a certain kind of disquiet about the present and unease about the future; to the non-Marathi, another kind; to the lower-caste Hindu, yet another; and yet another to the representative of the middle class, whose life had generally held no terrors, except nightmares about promotion and his children’s school admissions and higher taxes, and to whom, if anyone, India had made sense as a nation and a democracy.
The Shiv Sena – its figurehead, and the derivation of its name – is not to be confused with Shiv, the Hindu god. For, although Shiv is, aptly, the destroyer of the universe, ridding it of civilisations and human beings when they become too corrupt and too many, he is generally a god who spends most of his time alone, meditating and smoking charas (cannabis). The politics of power-sharing, which most of the other Hindu gods are always indulging in, and by which characteristic they so faithfully allegorise Indian politicians, is of no interest to Shiv. No, the Shiv in Shiv Sena refers to Shivaji, a brave Marathi ruler who used brilliant guerrilla tactics to strike terror into the hearts of fierce Muslim kings – or so we learnt from history books, and more vividly from Amar Chitra Katha comics, the Indian version of Classics Illustrated. (Amar Chitra Katha means ‘Immortal Picture Stories’.) There, Shivaji was shown as a lean man with a pointed beard who smuggled himself into enemy camps in sweet baskets and neatly chopped off villainous heads.
Bombay, in the Sixties and Seventies, had a Utopian air about it: It was the only city in India in which everyone was potentially upwardly mobile. We who were born at the beginning of the Sixties, and whose fathers belonged to that corporate class whose activities constituted the commercial life of this sea-front town, grew up with Tintin, Archie and Jughead, Richie Rich, with war films like Where Eagles Dare and Westerns like McKenna’s Gold, with Coke and Gold Spot and later with rock music. The comic-book idyll of Fifties America, of California, with palm-trees, swimming-pools, sunny promenades, sodas and jukeboxes, persisted in that Bombay. Half the life of a human being, they say, is made up of dreams; living in Bombay then, one would have known that half the life of a colonial or post-colonial is made up of dreams of the West.
In the Eighties, Bombay began to change. Increased growth accompanied continued deprivation. The number of homeless people, living in makeshift ‘bastis’ or shanties, multiplied; at the same time, property prices rivalled those of Tokyo. Young film-stars, usually the sons of older ‘veterans’, kept guns in their houses; there were Mercedes Benzes on the roads and ‘bastis’ along the sides, some of them selling ‘smack’. The aura of the colonial city had disappeared from Bombay, replaced by the feverishness and electric radiance and wealth and destitution of a Latin American town, the contradictions of a Third World city. Seventeen-year-olds drove Marutis – a new lightweight car made with Japanese collaboration, symbolising the buoyancy and lift of upward mobility and money – that had been given to them by their fathers; often they had no licence; often they ran over and killed or crippled people sleeping on pavements. My old friends – the comic book generation – either got into drugs or into business management (a degree in business management was a symbol of prestige for this generation, just as a degree in science was for the previous one) or they left for the real America which they had always dreamt about. It was in this context, strangely, but perhaps logically, that the Shiv Sena had its rebirth.
In mid-February, when I was there, Bombay seemed to have recovered from the riots that had taken place more than a month before. Half of the upper-middle-class population seemed to gather each day at the Bombay Gymkhana, to eat from the hot buffet, and children from the Cathedral school, which was nearby, and where I had once studied, kept coming in and sitting in groups, or alone, to study for exams during the lunch break, while bearers brought them sandwiches. The members of the club seemed addicted to its atmosphere, to its cricket grounds, its swimming pool, its Chinese soups, us dining-room, and the long verandah, on which everyone sat in wicker sofas; many of them would not leave till it was night. Members kept coming in, waving to each other, looking at each other’s clothes; the middle-aged men were like boys, wearing jeans and eating ice-creams, or wearing shorts and swinging tennis racquets. Everyone, in an oppressive but childlike way, enjoyed being on display. Beyond the cricket green to the right, one could see a steady stream of anonymous commuters hurrying to catch trains, either at the Church-gate station which lay on one side, or the Victoria Terminus on the other. When the bombs went off three weeks later, I was back in Calcutta. Once more, it was BBC Asia that first told us about it. I thought, then, about the commuters, for one of the bombs had gone off at the Victoria Terminus, and I also wondered if the members of the Bombay Gymkhana were still able to gather inside it as before, or whether the verandah was more or less empty now. I could not imagine it, though: in my mind, I saw the dream-addicted members still finding their way through the war-torn city to the club in order to re-create their world.