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A balancing act

For every narrative of cruelty and oppression during Gujarat riots there are untold stories of generosity and kindness of ordinary people, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2006 01:01 IST

Like the sites of all great catastrophes and suffering, Gujarat abounds with thousands of untold stories. But not all these are tales of massacres, of hate, fear, despair and mass graves, of blood congealed on streets and poison in hearts. The stories even less told are those of most extraordinary human compassion and courage surviving intense assaults. For every narrative of cruelty and oppression that people recount of those tempestuous days of 2002, there are at least two or three untold stories of the generosity and kindness of ordinary people, risking their lives and homes to save innocent lives and helping betrayed and shattered people heal and rebuild.

In Koha, a village not far from Ahmedabad, more than 110 women, men and children cowered many hours in fields of standing crops. They were all of Muslim faith, all of working class families -- landless workers, lorry drivers, tailors in readymade shirt factories -- and all mortally terrified. In the wake of rumours that people of their faith had burnt a train compartment of Hindu pilgrims in neighbouring Godhra, armed mobs, including their neighbours, had looted and torched their homes.

As darkness fell, they made their way to the thatch and earth home of Dhuraji and Babuben Thakur at the edge of their small seven-acre farmland. With lowered eyes, they begged for shelter for just one night. Neither Dhuraji nor Babuben hesitated even for a moment and opened their doors and hearts for all 110 of their traumatised, wearied, now homeless neighbours. The next morning they offered to leave for the relief camp, but their hosts would not hear of it. “This is your home,” they assured them. “As long as God has given to us, we will share whatever we have with you.” Their entire stores of rice and bajra for the whole year were opened, and they ensured that all were fed for the full 10 days that they lived in the sanctuary of their home. The women of the family brought out all their clothes, and would form a human wall around their well as the women bathed each day.

Dhuraji gathered his extended family from the village, to mount constant guard for their guests, for 10 nights and days, armed only with their peasant sickles.

The women and children were persuaded to sleep inside the home, while the Thakur women slept in the open fields and the Thakur men kept vigil through the long cold nights. They were unshaken by threats from their Hindu neighbours, who sent them bangles to taunt them, set fire to their haystacks, and one night even stole in through the darkness to set aflame their house, a conflagration they all doused just in time.

Still, Dhuraji and his wife Babuben were perfect hosts, as though these were just normal times. They tried to meet every need of their guests, to make them feel constantly welcome. Dhuraji’s grown sons would set out in their tractors and bring back large stocks of bidis for the men, tea for the women and milk for the children. Years later, those whose lives they saved remembered fondly that seeing them in gloom, Dhuraji even hired a VCR and showed them Hindi films to buoy their spirits!

At the end of 10 days, it was they who insisted that they must finally shift to the relief camp. Their hosts tried to persuade them to stay as long as they could not return to rebuild their own homes. Dhuraji finally organised tractors and a police escort. He safely took them to the camp. He used to visit them regularly at the camp as well, and the women recall that his eyes would often well over with tears when he saw their children lose weight in the austere rigours of the camp and stand in lines for watery tea.

Four years later, when I met Dhuraji and Babuben, they were embarrassed that I thought what they had done was magnificent. When I pressed them about why they did what they did, Dhuraji thought a long time before he replied simply, “How could I bear it that people of my village are treated this way?” He added firmly, “This village belongs to the Muslims as much as it belongs to me.”

I asked if they regretted that they lost their entire year’s stock of grain in 10 days. Dhuraji replied, “God ensured that we get a good harvest after our guests left, and since that day, our grain stocks have never fallen empty.” Babuben added, “Their good wishes and prayers have strengthened us. Don’t you see greenery everywhere?”

I did.

A few hundred kilometres away, in a remote village Nanaposhina in Sabarkantha district, white-haired Walibhai, a stubborn and ageing agricultural worker, was helplessly enraged when his house was looted and burnt by his young neighbours, boys who had grown before his eyes. He fiercely insisted on remaining in the village to guard the shell of scorched walls which was all that was left of his home, although he forced his grown sons, who drive jeep taxis, and his wife Mariam to the safety of a relief camp.

He sat awake weeping the whole night in the shadow of his collapsed home. The next morning, it hit him afresh that overnight he was reduced to a pauper: he owned nothing, not even a lota or water pitcher to go to the fields. A Thakur boy who walked past felt sorry for the old man and quietly gave him his lota and left without a word. Walibhai recalls that it was with this small act of kindness that he was able to begin his life again.

His neighbour, a Patel, called him shortly after to say that there was a phone call for him. His daughter-in-law informed him that she had had a son the night before. “We have lost everything,” he cried to her. She contradicted him firmly, “You are saved. This means we have everything.”

He found a broken piece of an earthen pot on which to make himself some rotis, refusing to hide any more, glowering at people as they threatened him. But the wife of his Patel neighbour insisted that she would feed him, and for eight days she defied the angry opposition of many in her village to openly bring him food and tea as he stood guard at his home. “What has happened is wrong,” she said simply to everyone who protested.

Four years later, when we visited him, the walls of his home were still burnt, but there were shining corrugated sheets screwed on to the roof. “See my good fortune,” he said to me. “Rambhai Adivasi was not even a close friend. We only used to sit and talk together sometimes. But when he saw my burnt house some months later, he cried. Without a word, he went home, bought these sheets for Rs 6,000, hired workers and a tractor to transport these here. The workers told me they had instructions to not heed my objections, and to fix the iron sheets. That is how I have a roof over my head today! Look at my good fortune, my friend.”