I was hiding behind the debris of a smashed government bus, which had been set ablaze by the rioters, when suddenly he collided against me and I screamed. Frightened, I almost jumped into the fire but he caught me in time. I continued to scream. The horrifying memory of the slaughtered goat, which had been struck by the butcher, bleeding out its life, crying out to me to rescue him from his murderer, came back to me in a flash. I had fainted watching the goat die. Since that day, I had hated them. Now, I was the goat. I knew he would rape me and then perhaps push me in that fire blazing in the background. I would have rather killed myself with honour and dignity. I struggled to free myself from his clutch, still screaming, pleading to the inferno to engulf me. He tried to stifle my scream by covering my mouth with his one hand and then pushed both my hands behind me, holding them both in a tight grasp of his other hand. He looked straight into my eyes with such a scorching glare that the fire behind us felt its power was threatened and so it began to burn with greater intensity. I froze with horror; I had never felt such terror in my life. I was defeated; I surrendered myself to his carnal appetite.
Slowly, he removed his hand from my mouth and let me breathe again. He even released one of my imprisoned hands but held onto the other. I was too shocked to even scream let alone attempt to run. He started dragging me along with him into a sequestered alleyway. The rioting mob was still demolishing vehicles and incinerating houses behind us. May be my screams could not compete with their frenzy, for they did not hear me; may be they left me as a feast for one of their vultures to feed upon. I, anyway, was almost dead.
I would have been raped and killed that night had he not saved me.
After he pulled me into the dark and deserted alleyway, we kept running and walking for nearly an hour. He led me by my hand and I followed him like his chained captive. We crossed many places of riots—erstwhile thriving places which had been converted into open graveyards, where people lay strewn all over the ground, mutilated and murdered. The world was in flames while we were passing through Erebus miraculously alive. Gradually, fatigue made me aware of my nerves and muscles again. I had begun to dread that misfortune worse than rape awaited me. We had left the rioting places behind us. Our pace had slowed down. We were walking towards the river.
All of a sudden, I stopped, and with a jerk, withdrew my hand from his hand. Without a tremor in my voice, I spoke, “Rape me now and get it over with. Kill me like you killed my family.” He looked quite taken aback. Mortified, he hung his head low and said, “I do not want to. I have not killed anyone. I was only trying to save you from the rioters.” He did not hold my hand again while we walked towards the river. Shame filled my eyes with hot tears and with them I regained all humane feelings; those which I had relinquished an hour back while surrendering myself to the man who had saved me from brutality and death, risking his own life, but whom I had mistaken to be one of them, when in truth he was one of us.
I did not question him about our journey across the river. I believed he was taking us somewhere far away from our gruesome fate, somewhere peaceful. I had begun to trust him.
It took us a day and a half on the river to reach our destination. During this time, neither he nor I spoke to each other. I was ashamed of my earlier conduct towards him but he did not seem to begrudge it to me. Though he stayed away from me, yet, he ensured that I was safe in the company of other men on the boat. He sensed my distrust of men and he evidently understood it. I was beginning to respect him. When we reached the banks of the river, he held out his hand to me once again, albeit a little hesitantly, to help me alight on the river bank. The place was peaceful. I no longer thought of my dead family and my village. I was grateful to be alive. I was grateful to him.
We walked with the crowd. After some time, he said, “I do not know anyone here. This seemed to be a safe place, far away from where we were, so I brought us here. I am sorry I did not ask your opinion. I hope you will not misjudge my intention.” Deeply embarrassed, I said, “I am ashamed for having doubted your intentions earlier. Fear and hatred had caused me to believe that you were one of them. You have saved my life from a dishonourable and cruel end. I cannot thank you enough.” He looked uncomfortable at my words of gratitude but for the first time looked at me and smiled. I too smiled back in gratefulness. Then I said, “Let us keep walking and find a place to rest tonight.”
Though the riot had filled me with abhorrence for humanity, this village helped to restore my faith in it. The impressions of torture in our faces told the people from where we were and what dire destiny we had escaped. They were hospitable and kind and they grieved with us for our sufferings. We found a humble abode to rest at night, generous hands to fill our famished stomachs with simple food which tasted like ambrosia then and large hearts that took us in, as one of their own. Life was giving us a chance to live anew.
Someone asked us our names. “Rashmi Singh,” I said, with an unveiled twinge in my voice. The associations of several people with that name were now severed forever, in a matter of life and death, and that loss can never be compensated. Hearing my name, he shot a glance at me and unexpectedly looked disturbed. Slowly, he said his name—Gulzar Ali. I thought I heard his name wrong. So I asked, “What is your name again?” This time, he said loud and firm, “Gulzar Ali.” We both were in shock. I could not believe he belonged with them and was not one of us. Anger and contempt attempted to dissolve all the feelings of gratitude I had for him. I felt disgusted that he had even touched me. He left the room and went and sat outside on the porch.
The family, which had kindly arranged for us to stay at their house that night, sensed the abrupt antagonism between him and me. The wife, an elderly woman, spoke to me, “Child, he saved you from the hands of god-forsaken men. Does it matter what his name is?” The memory of that satanic night caused me to shudder and again filled my eyes with tears of fury and shame. Foolishly, I had the urge to know whether the woman too was one of them but thankfully did not mouth those words and disgrace myself before her selfless benevolence. I composed myself and walked up to him. After a few minutes of impenetrable silence, I said, “Thank you once again for saving me from your own people,” expressing great contempt at my last few words. He breathed heavily and said, “I did not know you were not one of us.” Those words pierced my heart. My eyes were beginning to bleed again. I asked him, “Do you regret saving me?” He closed his eyes in unspoken agony and said, “No.” In the dim light of the bulb in the porch, I saw a few drops of grief escape the corner of his shut eyes.
We sat there beside each other, for eons, in complete silence, each absorbed in deep thought. When he broke the silence, he said, “My sister was raped and murdered by one of your people two years back and the culprit was not even brought to book. Since then, I hate your kind.” His voice quivered while he spoke. I recalled the infamous incident in our village which I had earlier not believed to be true. I had conveniently assumed that only those, who could kill an animal, could be so barbaric. Presently I realised, those men had only killed that goat for food but one of ‘my people’ had raped and killed a ‘goat’ only for his animal pleasure. Suddenly, I could feel Gulzar’s pain deep in my heart. Just as he ceased to be one of them, I was not sure where I belonged. Suddenly, I felt guilty and I began to wail.
He said, “Don’t cry. You are safe now.” Still sobbing, I said, “You and I suffer the same ache. The pride we had felt in our own people had been undeserved. Our hatred of one another has been unjust. Man is benign or bestial by his own choice. We have learnt it the hard way.” And I continued to weep. He looked at me with gentle eyes and smiled. I smiled back at him through my tears.
We made the village our home. The people there were neither imprudent nor irrational to brawl among themselves for communal reasons. They all lived together amicably like a large symbiotic community. With the kind assistance of the village panchayat, I soon found a job as a teacher in the primary school and along with that a small but decent accommodation. Gulzar worked in the village post office—he overhauled its IT infrastructure.
It did not take long for friendship to blossom between us. He was a good, intelligent and respectable man. I trusted him deeply. We would talk for hours—about the life we had before the riot, our families and friends, dreams and aspirations and our affliction. We had begun to understand and care for each other. Before we realized, we were in love. It was not easy to accept this fact in the beginning, letting go of our previously held prejudices completely. However, time wrought a strong bond between us, which derived its strength from the dismal past we had escaped together and to all the miseries we had borne, which had shattered all walls separating him from me. An attachment formed in extreme pain is one that cannot be wrecked easily.
We could have married as Rashmi Singh and Gulzar Ali and lived happily ever after, but we did not. We chose to marry as Rasheeda and Gaurav, exchanging not just vows of the holy matrimony and embracing each other, but also trying to understand, with love, what we had hitherto hated in one another. Life had given us a chance to live again. We had to live better this time. Love had shown us the way.