Arpan Chatterjee

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

The Subalterns


‘Jai Shri Ram…Bharat mata ki jai,’ echoes the chant as the crowds enter Naim Nagar. Anil runs to the balcony to get a better view, his father already sitting there with his copy of the Sangbad Patrika, two cups of chai, and a plateful of chanachur. They come in vans and trucks by the numbers and swarm the Muslim community. Hundreds arrive on foot holding orange flags bearing the sigil of the Prince of Ayodhya. Their leader can be seen walking within a barricade of bikers who occasionally rev up their engines in unison.

‘Come, sit, watch the drama unfold,’ says Anil’s father, grabbing a handful of chanachur. ‘These idiots have nothing else to do.’

The brigade stops at the centre of the chowk. A tall man in a white kurta steps onto a 4x4 cement slab next to a telegraph pole. People look from their verandas, patios, gardens, foyers, and balconies. Some even peep from the slits in their bathroom windows, but no one ventures out.

‘Who is he, baba?’ asks Anil.

‘Do you even live in this country? You don’t know the famous Sanjay Lodhi?’ asks his father.

‘Why is he famous?’

‘Just shut up and watch.’

The crowd steps aside when a priest is ushered towards the makeshift podium. He walks around the telegraph pole, figuring out the ideal vantage point in case a riot breaks out, lays down his aasan, and starts reciting prayers. A crackle emanates from the horn loudspeaker fitted atop the telegraph pole—the pole itself subjected to holy water of the Ganges sprinkled from the priest’s metal pot. Shutters are being drawn at every shop—the shopkeepers pleading and urging customers to vacate the stools in front of their shops—except at Ashim tea stall, where the proprietor, Ashim Kundu, feeling the tingling of an unannounced business opportunity, lays down two more benches and requests passersby to ‘please come’ and ‘please sit’ while thrusting cups of chai into their hands.

‘Where is the idol? I mean, what are they praying to?’ asks Anil.

‘They pray to whatever serves their purpose,’ says his father.

‘Is he offering prayers to the pole?’

‘They will offer prayers to dog shit if it pushes their agenda.’

An iron gate opens, and a convoy of men step out of a run-down bungalow. Their white skullcaps shine against the dazzling sun as they march towards the podium.

‘Here we go, the Imam is coming,’ says Anil’s father. ‘This will be interesting. Sandhya, come join us.’

‘You guys enjoy your politics. I have bigger fish to fry,’ says Anil’s mother from the kitchen. ‘The masala is not yet cooked.’

Anil moves to the corner of the balcony to get a closer look. Leading the group is a short man in a black robe with a black turban. His scruffy white beard sways against the wind as he walks, gasping for breath. A murmur spreads through the crowd as his followers surround him.

‘All it takes is a slight push, a poke with a stick, a gentle prod, or someone addressing the circumcision, and that should do it,’ says Anil’s father. ‘All hell will break loose. Go make sure the doors are locked.’

Anil rushes to the front door and unlocks and locks the door, all the while imagining how the Imam’s army would fare against such a large crowd. A riot is nowhere on his agenda—he still has to practise the speech for his film. Mehboob Studios is at the other end of the city, and he will have to wake up early to get a head start. Everyone wants a head start in Mumbai.

Anil sits back on his chair as the Imam approaches the podium. A strange excitement can be seen on people’s faces, everyone seems to be on edge.

‘Please come, Imam sahab,’ says Lodhi, positioning the microphone between them.

‘It's time for the azaan to start. What do you want, Lodhi ji?’ asks the old man, the creases on his forehead deepening as he stands bemused watching the priest offer flowers to the pole.

‘I want the same thing as you—peace and progress of my country.’

‘Yes indeed, we will do whatever needs to be done for the betterment of our country.’

‘You don't belong here. Go back to Pakistan,’ comes a voice from the crowd. This causes an uproar: plates are banged, laathis are struck, several claps in approval. A gunshot can be heard in the distance followed by the chanting of ‘Har Har Mahadev’.

Sanjay Lodhi grins as he moves closer to the microphone. ‘Imam sahab, I have come to reiterate the recent laws passed by the government. I just want to speak to the people,’ he says, tapping the microphone twice, ‘you know I hate violence.’

‘This is a democratic country, and you are one of our leaders. We don't want any trouble, that's all,’ says the old man as he recedes to his quarters.

Anil starts livestreaming the event on Facebook. He has recently seen a surge in his online followers which has left his parents overwhelmed and scared. They have always been private people with a stern belief that the internet is where the devil resides, and one should ensure that one’s personal life is kept hidden behind the curtains. But the dopamine hit has been too hard for him to resist, his brain urging him to continue streaming to garner a reputation different from reality. Having thought about the hashtags from his repertoire, he goes ahead with #LoveJihad and #LodhiInNaimNagar.

The priest approaches Lodhi and starts hurling gibberish at his face, the voice reaching its crescendo at regular intervals as if he was born for such occasions. Flowers are thrown at Lodhi’s feet as the priest puts a teeka on his forehead. A thunderous clap reverberates through the crowd. Lodhi motions the priest to move aside as he faces the spectators. Unhooking the microphone from the stand, he clears his throat: ‘Jai Shri Ram.’

The crowd responds by chanting the phrase over and over, each time louder than before as if trying to wake up Lord Ram from his slumber. A few shouts can be heard from the balconies and the gardens while orange flags emerge from the patios and across the rooftops as people step out of their houses and join the gathering.

‘You see beta, this is acting,’ says Anil’s father. ‘Learn from him, see how he sucks in the crowd.’

‘Did maa have a similar effect during her performances?’ asks Anil.

His father smiles. ‘Your mother is one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen. Those Kapoor-shapoors should learn from Sandhya. The way she acted, ah ha ha…’

‘Then why did she stop acting, baba?’

His father stands up and walks to the railing. The police have arrived in their jeeps and surrounded the exit points. Anil watches a constable raising his laathi and ushering the kids back inside their compounds. A group of female constables stand in front of the dhobi’s hut with the dhobi peeping from behind their safety net. The elderly evening-walk comrades, who until now were busy discussing India’s rise as a superpower at Ashim tea stall, turn their stools and face Lodhi, who waves a hand and signals the crowd to settle down.

‘I am sure you have all heard about the new laws passed by the government,’ says Lodhi. No one utters a word. Even the street dogs listen in rapt silence. ‘The new laws restrict unlawful religious conversions through marriage. Simply put, it restricts anyone from a certain community, and I quote, “to forcefully convert a woman's religion solely for the purpose of marriage, or by use of force, coercion or misrepresentation.” Do you understand what it implies?’

‘It means you will stay away from our mothers and sisters,’ says a voice, spitting paan.

‘Thank you, Das, but I think that's too harsh. What this law intends is to ensure that no one is forced to marry outside their community. That's how God intended as well. And it always does good to obey God's will, doesn't it?’

Das spits a long red jet of betel juice as a group of urchins run past him, past the run-down building, past the elderly comrades, past the dhobi’s hut chasing a street dog—the dog ducking its tail as it runs looking for respite. Stones are hurled from the crowd as the dog dives inside a gutter.

‘Rest assured, there is nothing to fear,’ continues Lodhi. ‘We are a secular country, and everyone is free to practise and preach any religion. What we don't want are forceful religious conversions.’

‘This feels just like the ’80s all over again,’ says Anil’s father. ‘They say things like this before the election and once the election is over and they have won, KABOOMMMMMM.’ His baritone makes the KABOOM sound more intense. ‘This is history repeating itself. It will only go downhill from here.’

‘You really believe they are going to come down hard on us?’ asks Anil.

‘Oh no, not on us. We are Hindus.’

Anil looks at his phone. Only two people have joined his livestream. One is his friend Ismail, who asks whether he has nothing else to do. Ismail was one of those philanderers who could be spotted around the university campus whistling at girls and smoking joints but is now a successful lawyer at Kareem & Associates. They had discussed dropping out of university and following their passion, had argued about how engineers sprouted from every crevice of India, and how the system limited people’s choices.

Anil feels enraged. He thinks of blocking Ismail—Ismail, with his unbuttoned shirts and bell-bottom pants, is now a lawyer. He wonders where he fell short; he had read the right books, had followed the chronology as the research suggested, had his share of failures and embarrassments, yet why did it take him so long just to land a role in a short film? Fuck Ismail! He re-shares the livestream link on his timeline with #SanjayLodhi.

We have heard reports of several such people hiding in this neighbourhood. People, who are a shame to your community, and our country. Just help us catch these terrorists.

‘What happened in the ’80s, baba?’ asks Anil.

‘It was a disaster. Once Indira Gandhi was assassinated, it was absolute mayhem. Back then, it was the Sikhs under attack, after which they got to the Muslims in ’92. It's a cycle,’ says his father, eyeing him through his glasses. ‘Don't they teach you all this at school? Maybe you should learn some actual history.’

Anil decides to Google it later. He wonders how he, an adult Indian citizen, is unaware of historical events of such magnitude. He has read about the Gandhi family but has never been taught about the massacres baba mentioned. They were never in the syllabus! He feels cheated, as if they had removed pages from Indian history—pages which feel important, pages which apparently are an accurate reflection of history repeating itself.

Anil watches a bearded man whisper in Lodhi’s ears as Lodhi covers the microphone with his hands. The man shakes Lodhi’s hands and walks away as the crowd makes way for him. He strolls without any urgency, almost leisurely. His bike gurgles to a start, ejecting black fumes as he pushes down the kickstart and exits the chowk.

There is only one member in the livestream. He checks the name—Psychedelic Fratboy. Surely, it’s some random lousy guy, or a druggie off his meds, or an unemployed good-for-nothing living with his parents. He couldn’t care less. The livestream has become a failure. He has to find another way to be relevant. Maybe Twitter?

His mobile phone chimes. It is his sister.

Have you gone mad? Why would you livestream such a thing? Does maa know?

He knows he has to stop; there is no winning against maa. The azaan begins in the backdrop, a dusky voice emanating from the horn loudspeaker. He has grown up listening to the prayers, has wondered what they meant. He remembers the librarian’s raised eyebrows followed by his stern line of questioning when Anil tried borrowing the Quran from the local library—the lanky old man wanted to know why would a Hindu brahmin boy be interested in something so blasphemous.

Anil stands up when he sees someone climbing the pole and unscrewing the loudspeaker. The crowd chants, the engines rev, the cars honk, drums are beaten, slogans are shouted as the man adjusts his body on the pole and cuts the wire to the loudspeaker. The prayer stops. Only a hushed tone can be heard radiating from the mosque.

‘This is just the beginning. Tomorrow they will cut it from inside the mosque,’ says his father. Anil looks around his neighbourhood—Naseer chacha sitting on the balcony with his head between his hands, Javed being pushed inside by his abba, Dr Mukherjee locking his clinic and ushering his family inside while the Imam stared from his doorstep. He knows he has to say something. The urge is irresistible. He tweets:

Is there no end to this bigotry? What have we become? Our secularism is under threat #LoveJihad #LodhiInNaimNagar #Fascism


I wake up to the tap-tap of water dripping from the faucet. I had put Lata’s mug underneath it the night before, but someone must have stolen that. The sun is almost up, and I will have to get up for namaaz, but my body is stiff from yesterday. All that gharar-gharar from the Mumbai local gives me a sore back. The crows arrived before time today. They are singing at the tops of their voices, even when they can see that I am awake. All this tap-tap and caw-caw and bhou-bhou is making me go crazy.

I am fifth in line for the bathroom. I recognise three of them, but not the other one. Maybe she's new? I will try to find out tonight. At last, the BMC made these community bathrooms, I was tired of squatting in the grass; those spiky leaves hurt. Although, I do not understand the logic of five makeshift bathrooms with half-broken partitioned walls for around a thousand women in our area. Are we supposed to shower in groups or shit holding each other? At times I peep through the cracks in the partition and stare—women sitting as if posing for a portrait on Juhu beach, a certain contentment on their faces, like it is their best time of the day, away from their drunk husbands or their nagging families.

I take my bucket and open the tin door. Inside, the light has been stolen, and the showerhead is broken. I place my bucket and hear the water whoosh out of the bent tap as I undress. Once, I had put my kameez on the partitioned wall and within a minute, it was gone. I shouted thief, thief, help! but was only met with roaring laughter. I cursed God that day for making me walk to my room half-naked, as if I was working as a prostitute again. But now, I am smart. I lay down a newspaper on the floor diagonally opposite the shower and put my clothes on it. Then I cover it with the other bucket I found at the ration store waiting in line for kerosene.

I try hearing who is next to me. Sounds like Seema, but I have been wrong before. The water feels chilly, as if they freeze it before sending it our way. The day hasn’t even begun, and my armpits smell like cow-piss. I scrub my body with the two-rupee soap I bought at the temple stall until I feel the faint smell of rose around my shoulders. Someone is banging on the door and asking me to hurry. I pray to Allah for that day when I can be away from all these illiterate people with their loud voices and no manners, somewhere I belong.

Draping the kameez over my half-soaked body, I walk home. The five-minute walk feels like a ramp walk as men and children sit outside their huts staring at me from their charpoys and bamboo stools sipping chai or smoking a beedi. I wonder if they try to find out where my nipples are, or simply appreciate the roundness of my boobs or the curves of my buttocks. I walk with an added spring in my step when I see their wives around. How jealous they must be!

‘We need to fix that tap,’ I tell Seema as I enter our hut. It’s the second day of load shedding in the mohalla.

‘We need to fix the entire plumbing,’ she says, ‘but who will pay for it? I tried calling the plumber, but he never picks up.’

‘What about Lata? I heard she roams around Malabar Hill these days. How’s that working out for her?’

‘Lata has not been home in two days. Maybe it's that England-return client of hers.’

‘Since when is Twinkle amma assigning the high-demand areas to newbies?’

‘I’ve heard that she does some magic with her tongue,’ says Seema, sticking out her tongue and rolling it around. ‘Apparently, the clients seem to enjoy it.’

‘I never understood these tongue-twisters, uff. For us, it was simple—strip and bang-bang,’ I say, trying to imagine Lata doing magic tricks with her rolled-out tongue in a P.C. Sorkar costume. ‘Anyway, I will see if I can get something.’

'Please do, you are the only one amongst us who has a respectable job,’ says Seema. She rests on the charpoy staring at the ceiling and tapping her forefinger on her chest. Her hair is untied and flows across the pillow like a gentle wave. The top two blouse buttons have been undone exposing her white bra. Criss-cross marks appear on her waist from the jute mesh of the charpoy as she rolls over to her side.

‘How is cleaning people’s latrine respectable?’ I ask her.

‘It’s better than selling your soul,’ she says.

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