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An unruly mob had already caught sight of the bus and were approaching it with fire in their hands. The bus was to be set ablaze. Not a single person should escape.
Rishita had missed the hostel bus to college yet again. This had happened third time in the current month. The distance from the girls’ hostel to JJM College was a good twenty kms. On a normal weekday, it would take forty five mins to an hour to reach her college through public transport. Today was supposed to be the day when the minority groups were taking out a rally as a mark of protest against the atrocities committed on them. She realized that she had a very dim chance of making it to the department before the class tests started. She was literally in tears. If her Doctor father got a whiff of her missing the first of the periodical tests, he was sure to board the next flight to Kolkata and get her back to Delhi. He hated Calcutta as a city and more for the memories associated with her mother.
This is the city where they had met as batch mates, fallen in love, eloped against the wishes of both set of parents and shifted to Delhi where no one knew who the Roy’s were. Rishita had just turned fifteen when she passed away due to a major heart attack. Post plus two, when Rishita had wished to pursue English literature instead of the expected course of medicine, her supportive father was encouraging of her choice. All hell broke loose when she mentioned her dream of studying at JJM College, Kolkata. Her father refused to understand the reason of her choice. For him, it was a foolish path of choosing to struggle in a hostel dormitory two thousand kms away from home.
The shrill sound of the auto horn brought her back to the present. The man could only drop her till Jhamtala – that would mean half way to her college. But she could either take a taxi or a public bus from there. The auto driver, taking pity on a hassled Rishita dropped her a little further ahead of his destination. In a matter of seconds, she could see a mini bus approaching. The bus was almost full yet she managed to squeeze in. She wondered if her friends were also struggling to find space in the U-special buses in Delhi. She missed them at times. She was still struggling to fit in. She must have been lost in her own world listening to Boyzone playing on her walkman when the combined screams and shrieks around her jolted her back to the horror that was nor ahead of them. The streets were a shade of red and yellow.
Prince Street prided itself for housing the highest population of Muslims living in the city. Her daily commute to college had never been through this street. What she could gather from the broken conversations around was that a communal hate speech by one of the opposition leaders had sparked a riot like situation in the area. People were running around with sickles and knives. Flamed torches were passes around to burn the people and properties. The civilians were fleeing for life. She could spot some lifeless figures lying in a pool of blood. With twenty eight passengers on board, the bus was caught amidst such a situation.
People were trying to escape through all available routes – windows and doors. A stampede looked inevitable. An unruly mob had already caught sight of the bus and were approaching it with fire in their hands. The bus was to be set ablaze. Not a single person should escape. She was already stuck near the door. All of a sudden, a strong pair of hands were pulling her out in all might. The moment her foot touched the ground, she ran alongside the hand guiding her through the narrow alleys. Only when they managed to nearly destroyed and deserted house with a broken rickshaw cart hiding the front door, she felt safe. As a measure of protection, she hid behind the remnants of the wall. Her throat was parched. Rishita finally managed to breathe and turn towards her guardian angel.
“Thank You” she muttered under her breath as she looked at the middle aged bespectacled lady wearing a white hijab (a piece of cloth used to cover the head). She was a Muslim woman. Rishita grew paranoid about the woman’s intentions.
“Bacha (Baby), don’t worry. I won’t harm you. I had been at the window when I saw you bus. You were the only woman in it. If these morons had caught hold of you, they would take turns in raping you first and then kill you. The worst affected from such riots are always women and innocent children.”
She was taken aback. Her mom would always tell her that a city is defined by its people. She always spoke very fondly of Calcutta – her home. Delhi was just a stop gap arrangement for her. This unexpected kind gesture from a middle aged stranger was indeed proving her mom right.
“But won’t this affect you adversely?’ – The question came rushing to her mouth.
“The Holy Quran never approves of killing. These goons are fed and fostered by political parties. Today they are killing Hindus, tomorrow they will kill Muslims. All they are asked to create is an environment of fear in the name of religion”
“What is your name Ma’am?”
“Naz Begum” she said wiping her glasses.
“Naz didi, did you grow up here? You know the lanes and gullies so well.”
“No, but my marital home is here- very near to the source of riots. That is how I could easily spot you in the bus.’
Few minutes passed in silence before Rishita’s phone started ringing. Naz snatched it away and switched it off.
“What the hell! Why did you take my phone? It could have been my Dad. He would be so worried” Rishita was fuming in anger
“If you had let it ring for a second more, we would have been caught. Can’t you hear footsteps, you stupid girl? Keep quiet and keep your head low.”
Fifteen minutes must have passed before Rishita started wondering why any police force or RAF had still not arrived on the spot. The situation needed an emergency handling.
“Sorry about my behaviour. But why isn’t anyone coming to take control of the situations?”
“They must be waiting for the instructions from the higher-ups. It is always left onto the whims and fancies of the top notches as to when the civilians should be saved or attended to. The ambulances would also take eternity in arriving.” A caustic Naz replied.
“Are you worried about your parents?”
“You can call me Rishita. Yes, I’m worried about my Dad. If he has already seen the news on TV, he must be freaking out. As it is, he never wanted to send his only child away from Delhi. We only have each other.”
“What about your mother – where does she stay?”
On any other day, this question would have sounded too personal and intrusive. Today the scenario was different. Sitting in an unknown territory bordering on a life risking situation, this stranger was someone she would remain indebted for life.
“She passed away when I was fifteen. My parents had an inter caste love marriage. My grandparents from both the sides never accepted. My Dad severed all ties with his parents and siblings. But my Mum kept trying until the last day to coax her parents to accept us as a part of the family. They never did. Their constant rejection was the primary reason for her passing away.” Normally Rishita preferred to keep her emotions private. Even her father wasn’t aware of the copious amount of tears she had shed every night until few months. But she felt comfortable in the company of a stranger.
“That’s so sad. I don’t understand why people make such big issues of something so trivial. Caste, religion, and skin colour – will these go with one when time comes to leave the world!”
“Who’s there in your family Didi?’ she attempted to shift the focus to Naz now.
“Oh it’s just me and a bunch of stray cats and dogs that are my pets now. The birds also come daily at fixed hours to get food and water.”
Rishita was stunned. She took few minutes before she could gather the courage to ask hesitantly,
“What about your family?”
“My parents and in-laws are no more. My husband was killed five years back in a similar riot. He was a school bus driver catering to primary class students. While driving through these lanes, dropping off students in nearby areas, a bunch of unruly mob had been marching towards the bus to set it on fire. The bus still had three more children to be dropped back home. He drove as fast as he could towards the main road. He wasn’t aware that the special task police force had already arrived there. They saw a speeding gun with crying children and a Muslim driver – they mistook his intentions and shot him from the back.. The bullet pierced through his chest but he didn’t stop until he ensured that the bus had reached a safe destination. The children were saved by the cops.”
Rishita was beyond words. But before she could utter a word, Naz continued,
“Before we could cope up with his loss, the hooligans came back a week later. I had been out for work. They took away my thirteen year old daughter. When I returned, the house was in a mess. I went to the police station to file a complaint. Two days later her body was retrieved from a gutter two kilometres away. She had been brutally raped and killed. She paid the price of her father’s humanitarian act. I am still shuttling between police station and court trying to get justice for my dead daughter while her rapists are roaming free on the streets.”
Rishita could feel tears well up in her eyes. Her saviour had been wronged by the society, by the people of her clan and religion yet she went on saving others life irrespective of any prejudice.
“Didi, is there anything that I can do to help you in this situation?”
“Oh don’t worry about that. I work as a day cook cum helper in a nearby restaurant. The money is enough to run my household expenses. You know Salma, my daughter was very fond of fairy tales. I’m uneducated but she would sit me down on the evenings and talk about the princes and princesses. On her birthday, I would pull her leg saying that Cindrella, today your prince charming will come to take you away.” Her eyes were getting moist.
“After she passed away, I realized that as a society we are bringing up our girls with the wrong notion that they are weak and need to be taken care of. Every girl is told that there will be a prince charming waiting to take her under his wings. But the truth is that she is in charge of her life. What she needs to be told is that she is not a Cindrella or any damsel in distress. She is powerful enough to take on the world. I started giving free self defence evening classes to the young girls in the area. I had learnt it after getting married because Salma’s father was working in Dubai then and he would be gone for months together. I had to learn to protect myself for survival. By empowering these girls, I am trying to let Salma live through them.”
Rishita was mesmerized. Her trance was broken by the siren of police vehicles approaching the place. It was time to return back to the safe haven of the hostel. But before bidding her good-bye Rishita promised to come back soon to witness the phenomenal change that this outstanding lady was working towards in her own way.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the February 2018 Muse of the Month, but not among the top 5 winners.
Header image is a still from Pink