I grew up for the most part in the city–the quiet, mountain-laden land that is known for its frothy coffees in the morning and wispy skies that turned grey from blue in the blink of an eye. The Ukkadam river is an abeyance to the rest of the city, however, with birds circling the ever-growing smoke spewed from tall towers of The Chennai Silks. To navigate through the streets of Oppanakkara–a heavily industrialized scene since the arrival of the Sassenach with their west-coast lilt–is a feat that is not achieved by very many.
For the most part, Coimbatore is a safe city, free of communal riots. The neighbors knew each other, donned on a celebratory attire for every Christmas and Diwali and Ramadan alike. All that changed, however, when a series of bombs went off in the year 1998 and set off a rhetoric that a certain sections of the community were outsiders. The narrative even took a physical shape when several parts of the city were blocked by barricades against the “invading muslims”. The long, winding road that stretched from Ukkadam to Mettupalayam, I was told, was mostly deserted with all the restaurants asking the guests to prove they were not muslims to be seated inside. I was five at that time and I have no single memory to recall when it happened, but the aftermath pervaded into our lives well into my teenage.
My family lived in a two-story house with matching criss-crosses lining the facade of the top-portion of the building. The nearest connect to the hospital was thirty-minutes away. The rainbows here were full and the rain bore the full, unadulterated sounds of croaking frogs looking for mates under the dark-resin sky. We had a dhobi who came to our house every Sunday to wash clothes and clean the front and back sides of the house. She wore no blouse with just the hem of the sari draped around her dark, glistening torso. She smiled at me widely every time she saw me–a twelve-year-old lanky boy–with her pan-bleached teeth and I used to beckon at her affectionately pretending to listen to her blether (her words, not mine).
I grew up around the times when the world was in a frenzy of Computers. The external commodity, the product of the western world, had begun seeping into our lives intertwining with the boring walks of the Coimbatorian soliloquy. My friend, at that time (probably the only one), was Youssuef, who also shared my passion with learning the computers–that started (and terminated) at drawing flowerpots on Microsoft Paint. Youssuef came to our house pretty regularly back then and since we didn’t go to the same school, evenings were out forte. I went to a Christian school and said holy-spirit prayers and he to a Hindu school which didn’t force religion down his throat like mine did. I have been to Youssuef’s house for dinners. His father was a short, meek-voiced man with large brown eyes, his mother a gently, fair lady. He had two sisters–one older and one younger and they were asked to go into the bedroom every time I visited. Youssuef and I played chess while his father reviewed the auditing books for his sweet shop (the gale candy-floss patisserie that stood apart from the other mundane, grey buildings). I think Youssouef spoke Arabic fluently and so did his father. Even to this day, I remember tasting their Baklava for the first time–the aroma standing testament to their forgotten land, long-left due to communal strife.
Twenty years into the future, toward the end of 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party led government passed a Citizenship Amendment Bill in the lower house of the parliament, where Mr Amit Shah held absolute sway. However, India did not greet his tweaks to citizenship rules with joy. Violent protests ensued that prompted curfews, suspension of internet and train services in many parts of the country. Hundreds of secular intellectuals, thousands of students from prominent universities took to the streets to fight the bill, while in parliament’s upper house speaker after speaker rose to lambast the bill, calling it an attack on India’s constitution that would make the country like Nazi Germany. However, majority of Indians remain loyal to the Hindu nationalist party calling support for the citizenship bill that has language to leave out certain faiths from attaining permanent residency in India.
Youssuef was the first person to teach me cricket. I was not athletic at all–and even to this day, I can’t hold a ball without fear crippling me. I swayed to all sides with a bat that was entirely disproportionate to my body leading to a round of laughter from the rest of the boys in that conveniently situated playground (that was since then given up for a Hindu spiritual community). Youssuef–who was very athletic himself–would shut them up and teach the me the right ways of hitting the ball. It was after one of those sessions, spent and gasping for breath, that Youssuef and I headed back to my home for one my mother’s signature tangy drink when we saw the dhobbi talking to my mother by the side of the stairs. They were drinking their evening milk-tea when Coimbatore was settling down, done and dusted.
The dhobi was the first to talk–she chose to speak to my mother instead of us: “Why are you letting this boy inside?” I know now of many ways I should have said in response to that, but back when it actually happened, I just stood there feeling slightly uncomfortable. I guess I was just new to bigotry and my body didn’t know how to process it. I vaguely remember what happened next: my mother siding with the dhobi, Youssuef running back home, the chill, rusty rails along the stairs that I clung on to as I saw him retreat away and then disappear altogether around the corner of the street. I was then forbidden to fraternize with him. I do not know, to this day (and I don’t intend to ask her), what changed in my mother to go from asking Youssuef to bring some Baklava from his home to banning him from coming to the house at all.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the bomb-blast and I had last seen Youssuef. One night, a couple of months ago, when I was in Coimbatore, I went to the historic clock tower. Heat had steamed up the windows. Fruit-stalls stood proudly under the simmering lights, and along the roads leading to the Ukkadam river is where I got to properly sit down and take a breath. Muslims and Hindus peacefully coexist in this region–Arabic chantings fill the air while the Hindus from all walks of life haphazardly enter the temple premises hoping for their daily spiritual fill. The remnants of the terrorist attack are not but long forgotten–in the vacuous smiles that passers-by belie, whether the person is Muslim or not.
Much of what happened in Coimbatore since the tragedy should be studied in textbooks. The muslims, who were for a brief period time sought out as perpetrators of violence, quietly retreated into communities of their own. A settlement along the foot-hills of Nilgiris, formed the Mettupalayam muslims, that opened up rice-mills and lodges along one side; and another one by the bustling banks of Ukkadam river making a market of their own. People of other communities regularly visit both the areas in search of sweets, food and other delicacies brimming with culture of the Arabic world. Many of their children study in schools led by Hindus–or otherwise the dwindling Christian missionaries. They open up shops long hours for Diwali eve.
It must have been a couple of years ago that I learnt that Youssuef and his family had moved to one of those settlements in Mettupalayam, several hours from where he used to live. A mutual friend said he married a girl from his community and had taken after his father looking after the Patisserie.
In the eve of the news of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, I fear for people like Youssuef. In my mind, I imagine his shop to be still that same vivid pink colour that his father used to own. It takes a while–an understandable time-frame–to separate tragedy from triumph, but we do come around to seeing a community for what it is. They are different in the way they live and speak and worship, but their dreams are the same. They have the same dreams of a once unmoored boat set sailing into the river desperately searching for banks. Life is not always easy here in our Coimbatore, but it is filled with quiet empathy.