A town that lost its identity forever

A town that lost its identity forever

No one quite remembers when this tradition came about, but it was while questioning it as a child once that I was told the story of Lord Ram’s birth in the town. My lasting impression of Ayodhya is of the calm it brought upon us when we drove in from the bustling chowk of Faizabad. Unlike other temple towns, Ayodhya was never commercial. There was a sense of complete freedom, the sort that children treasure above all else, for we could run around unchecked by parental guidance for most part of the stay there.

Nostalgia is what it is and there cannot be much to recommend it but there are times when it must be indulged, especially if it relates to a town that lost its own identity forever when the entire nation’s history took a sharp turn around its quaint corners on the 6th of December 1992.

I don’t know if these memories mean more than others but I find myself looking through them often to make sense of everything that has happened since. I always begin thinking first of the besan ladoos at the foot of Hanuman Garhi, the fear of monkeys snatching them on the steps and the discomfort of the cold temple floor in winter while we raced through our parikramas to beat each other at it.

Healing memories
The day would almost always begin there then lead to the banks of the Saryu, that much sacred river for us Saryupareen Brahmins who derive our identity from it. Finally we would line up and enter the Janmabhoomi temple, a dark morbid chamber under decrepit domes with a tiny idol of Ram Lalla.

There was never the air of importance or festivity inside that I associated with temples and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the King God was born in conditions so averse. But the gloom was dispelled soon enough when we raided the temple shops outside, buying knick-knacks and toys for unbelievably low prices.
My father’s first memory of this structure is very different from mine. He was a student in Kshatriya Hostel in 1949 when word began to spread that the then DM of Faizabad, KKK Nayar was going to throw the doors of the disputed structure open to allow worship inside. He ran to join the very orderly small crown that had gathered around and remembers feeling a sense of electric excitement in the air.
He understood little as a child about the implications of this but couldn’t possibly imagine it could be harmful to anyone. The times were different. For most Muslims living in Ayodhya their livelihood was linked to the pilgrimage sites. My father, who was brought up by his grandfather to understand that Urdu was the only language worth mastering and chided for reading Hindi, didn’t even have a sense of the differences between the communities that were mined by politicians in the 90s to whip up a frenzy that still abides.

Urgency of stories
I was as old as he was in 1949, when the first karsevaks started pouring in. We would let them steal sugarcane from our fields because they were here for a ‘holy task’. That is all we were told. That is all we understood. Propaganda cassettes were all over the town suddenly with Uma Bhartis yelling fanatic slogans like “Ram Lalla hum aayenge, mandir wahin banayenga.” I knew my father disapproved of the ongoings but couldn’t help feel a curious excitement towards what seemed like a revolution in the offing. I saw it as a fight for Ram, but didn’t realise who the enemy was. It was only when I saw them bring it down on TV back in Calcutta that the first horror registered. I realised for the first time I was attached to that structure. In five days winter vacations would begin and we would have head into the hometown. But that winter vacation was spent in a curfewed city instead. I have never since seen the Ayodhya I recount here.

As a writer in my youth it became impossible to talk fondly of the temples in Ayodhya without fearing the judgment of Left liberal colleagues around. It was even more difficult to write about the events critically. All I could come up with was an overwhelming sense of personal loss — the loss of home, that cannot rise to meet the larger communal concerns around the event. "

How does one write of a time in history that one is implicated in? I had no answers until I read Amitav Ghosh’s essay, ‘The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi’. It took him a very long time to write about what he witnessed first hand during the carnage that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi. But write he did. And he explains why quoting Karahasan, “Let us not fool ourselves. The world is written first — the holy books say, that it was created in words — and all that happens in it, happens in language first.” He goes on to say himself, “It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognise the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.”

I couldn’t help think of Ghosh when I sat down to write this. But first I made a call to my father and asked him, “What remains of Ayodhya?” He said, “The Saryu. It has changed its course several times but never leaves Ayodhya.” All that remains with me is these memories from childhood. They have endured the worst blow of history.