True Fiction: The day Wakeel died
In this first instalment of a monthly series of fictional stories based on real events, a young man discovers a terrible truth about his friend from school in the midst of public protests
Sitting on the cold floor, Aman took a moment to look around casually. For the first time since the morning he took a deep breath, and relaxed.
Eighteen people were crammed into the small “lock-up" at the Koramangala police station in Bengaluru. Four people clung to one another, carefully avoiding the dirty walls. Five others were in the far corner, hurriedly speaking amongst themselves. A few more looked out through the iron rods that kept them confined in the cell.
A mixed bag of emotions hung heavy in the air—anger, frustration, defeat and, strangely, excitement. Everyone in that cell knew they would walk free soon. The lawyers were talking to the police outside.
Aman wanted to rush home, take a leisurely shower, jump into clean pyjamas and hold a comforting cuppa in his hands, but he felt that he deserved to be punished. It is only fair that he be kept in the stinking, dingy prison longer. Would that be a step towards redemption? What else did he need to do? He would do anything. Everything.
The previous morning, as Aman Sharma flashed his identity card at the gates of his multinational software company, his mother had called. He clicked his tongue. This was just not the time to receive calls, he had to log in close to 10 hours of work that day.
“Wakeel marr gaya (Wakeel is dead)," his mother said. Her voice was flat, although Aman thought he heard some pain. Aman kept quiet, unsure of how to react. “Suna tune (Did you hear me)?" his mother asked. He told her he had heard her and hung up.
Mohammad Wakeel and Aman grew had grown up in a traditional Lucknow neighbourhood. Both had binged on the comedy films of David Dhawan as children. As teenagers, they had shared cigarettes and talked about their bewitching classmate Bina, while reciting Majaz and Faiz.
Wakeel had called Aman four months ago. He was getting married, Wakeel had said, and would love for his childhood friend to be present. “Gosht khaale, aaja. Kisiko bataunga nahi (Do come eat some meat, I will keep it a secret)," he had joked.
Since his bosses from San Francisco had flown down, Aman could not go for the wedding.
Now Wakeel was dead and Aman suddenly missed him—a lot. His palms began to sweat and he felt numb when he thought of Wakeel’s new bride.
Instead of concentrating on the presentation that was due in a few hours, Aman began calling his friends to find out more —how did he die? Where was he? What was he doing?
Patching pieces of information together, Aman discovered that his friend was out buying vegetables for his family of seven, when a bullet hit him in the stomach. He was brought dead to the King George’s Medical University Trauma Centre, his blue shirt splattered with blood. His white pants soiled. He couldn’t muster the courage to imagine his dead friend’s face.
Aman clenched his fist. Why was Wakeel out when he knew the city was tense? Wakeel went to stock up on vegetables precisely because the city was on the edge, answered a friend. No one knew when they would get supplies if tensions escalated.
For two days before he was shot, Wakeel had demonstrated against the National Population Register and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Ghanta Ghar in Husainabad.
When Aman heard this, his temples began to throb.
When the dark clouds of December 2019 glided into the skies of Lucknow, Aman had no idea that his lazy town would rise above paan-chewing and kebab-eating to challenge the validity of the law. But rise it did.
Sitting in a posh technology park in Bengaluru, Aman felt insulated from the divisive mood in Lucknow. He was secretly grateful he didn’t have to take sides. The newspapers had written a lot about the law, it was too much to read, too much to understand. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act was a waste of his time and resources.
He was happy to concentrate on his promotion, which, he was sure, was due. And, most importantly, he wanted to focus all his energies on ensuring his mother didn’t object to his marriage to Saumya. How to convince his mother that caste was a thing of the past?
In a rather weird way, Wakeel’s death changed it all.
Only one person would know the details of Wakeel’s last minutes.
Aman dialled his father’s number, but hung up before it rang. He and his father never spoke much. Their conversations were limited to the weather, train timings and Lucknow’s changing real estate market.
This time, though, Aman thought, it was time to talk like adults. To talk about uncomfortable things. He took a deep breath, and dialled the number again.
Ten minutes of uneasy conversation later, Aman had gathered that Wakeel was dead because of a misjudgement by a head constable who had seen him earlier at the protest. “He thought Wakeel was a rabble rouser and therefore was aiming for his legs. But ended up shooting him in the stomach," his father had said.
Aman felt as though the bullet hit his stomach. He felt a deep pain in his abdomen, his head was throbbing and his legs were shaking.
His father, inspector Sushil Sharma, was heading an enquiry into the incident.
Aman pointed out that Wakeel was not at the protest site, which was 2km away from where he was killed. Sushil Sharma said that would be taken up during the enquiry. And hung up.
Aman and Wakeel became friends in school because their families shared stories of India’s independence struggle, Partition and severe food shortages of the 1960s. Aman’s grandfather had fought the British alongside Wakeel’s. The friends had heard, what they felt were exaggerated narrations of their grandfathers’ time in jail, many times over.
“In jail, we were denied food for days on end…and you boys don’t value the food on your plate," the grandfathers used to say.
“When waters from the Gomti reached the prison, it would turn brown," they said when they took the boys for a walk along the banks of the river.
“We lived amidst great men, beta," they said. “Those men did nothing but think of how to rid our beautiful land of an authoritarian power that wanted to impose its thoughts, lifestyle and perceptions on us ordinary Indians."
In school, Aman and Wakeel had spoken about how their grandparents had lived in extraordinary times, which had made them extraordinary men.
“Our good deeds will protect future generations," Aman’s grandfather often said. When Aman’s father became a police inspector, the family believed it was good karma passed on through generations. The feeling further heightened when Aman graduated as an engineer from a reputed college, leaving him grateful for his good ancestry.
Although Wakeel’s grandfather had marched alongside Aman’s and gathered his share of good karma, his family’s fortunes were not as bright. Wakeel’s father died of an undetected disease at an early age and the family fell into insurmountable financial troubles.
When Aman enrolled in an engineering college, Wakeel began fending for his younger siblings.
Aman soon moved to Bengaluru and began earning a six-figure salary at a software firm. But every time he visited Lucknow, he went out for a drink at Madhushala with Wakeel.
Walking with Wakeel through the empty streets of Lucknow at night transported Aman to his childhood.
In 1992, when neighbouring Ayodhya was burning, as were other parts of the country, Wakeel had continued his meat business in Lucknow, undaunted. “Ye aag ek din sab ko kha jaayegi," he had remarked. Immediately adding, “par hamari zindagi me toh nahi (These fires will engulf everyone in this country, but at least not in our lifetimes)."
Aman had not said anything. The thought didn’t bother him much.
But now, it bothered him that his friend was so wrong. These flames needed to be doused.
Although he didn’t think of himself as a political person, Aman would never condone violence, discrimination or exploitation.
He got up and briskly walked to the water cooler. He walked back to his desk at double speed. Throwing himself into the chair, he felt an urge to cry. He spent the day reading about the new legislation that had incited unrest across the country.
Looking around, Aman saw people typing furiously on their computers, incessantly ringing phones, people gathered at the coffee machine, perhaps gossiping about colleagues and many hustling between conference rooms. For the first time, he felt an inexplicable disconnect. Did he belong here?
On an impulse, he clicked on a Facebook link that called for a protest in Bengaluru the following day. The organizers requested people not to bring their cars.
Next morning, Aman hopped into a cab.
Town Hall was a stone structure and could have passed off as a palace for an insignificant king. At first, some people gathered on the dozen or so steps leading up to the building, but soon the crowd swelled. He stood gingerly in one corner, feeling out of place.
In the past, Aman had protested in different ways. He had refused to eat if he was not bought his favourite shoes. He had vowed not to go to Lucknow until his parents came to terms with Saumya’s caste. But he had never protested for a “larger cause" before. This felt different. Did he truly believe in secularism? Did he care if thousands of poor Muslims were disenfranchised? Did Islamophobia bother him? Or was he simply angry that his friend died for no fault of his?
After lurking in a corner for a while, Aman contemplated leaving. He had done his bit. Coming out in support of the law is what Wakeel would have wanted him to do. He could go home now.
“We are out here to fight for our secular future," blared the loudspeaker. Aman paused. “We protest against an authoritarian power that wants to impose its thoughts, lifestyle and perceptions on ordinary Indians."
Was Aman indeed living in extraordinary times?
As he was turning around, Aman saw a constable from the corner of his eye. He was disinterested in the speeches, dressed in his khaki uniform, hair combed back, his small, bulging tummy hung out over his big belt. He wielded a long lathi in his hand. The stick, which was about 2ft tall, felt like it was trying to tell Aman something. It was a parenting instrument, something his father used when he felt Aman needed disciplining as a child. The stick reminded Aman of his boundaries, the ones he was not allowed to cross.
In the 5 seconds that he stared at the stick, a realization struck him. Head constables did not have easy access to firearms, inspectors did.
He dialled his father’s number again. It went unanswered. But Aman had his answer.
He dove head first into the crowd and began chanting slogans of freedom—freedom from authoritarianism, freedom from violence, freedom from repression, freedom from injustice.
After 3 hours, the police began rounding up demonstrators. They went for those that appeared to be the leaders, first. Aman and others, who had the loudest of voices, were held by their arms. Taking them to the vans, the police told them they could call their lawyers to the police station. Except they were not told which station they would be taken to.
Once in the station, all 18 people were sent into the “lock-up".
Sitting on the cold floor, Aman could finally experience how his grandfather had felt. He, Aman Sharma, would also pass on a tiny bit of good karma to the future generations.
Raksha Kumar is a multimedia journalist focusing on human rights, politics and social injustices.
FIRST PUBLISHED14.03.2020 | 04:19 PM IST