Published at TheOnlineCitizen.com
8 December 2013
“Can we make a move? Grab dinner and get out of here? I’m exhausted.”
The bride and groom had completed the last of their seven perambulations around the sacred fire. Behind a large red cloth to keep away prying eyes, he marked the parting of her hair with orange sindoor. The couple sought blessings from their elders by touching their feet in the presence of guests and gods at the Lakshmi Narayan temple along Chander Road in Little India.
It had been a long Hindu wedding. The monsoon rain had just let up after 5 hours of steady downpour. The overall mood of marital bliss and cool rainy weather was working its lethargic magic on my limbs.
We piled our plates high with palak paneer, chapatti, creamy raita, chick pea curry and a serving of bhel puri – fried hollow crackers stuffed with potato, sweet sauce and yoghurt, topped with a sprinkling of coriander and finely ground black pepper. Crispy, sweet-sour, juicy and beautifully messy. That bhel puri was a winner. Long after the riot police wrapped up the chaos on its way to the temple’s doorstep, the one thing I remember with longing was that bhel puri.
The fourth floor of Lakshmi Narayan temple was empty except for the servers. As a common room for refreshments, steel tables and plastic chairs had been arranged for guests to sit and have a meal. Wire mesh windows lined the walls.
Pop pop pop pop
Don’t know. Some people having fun. More bhel puri?
Oh yes oh yes.
The party on the ground floor was getting noisy. People started shouting. Silence, then more shouts. We didn’t think too much of it.
I was wiping my mouth of the yoghurt that lost its way when the elevator doors slid open to reveal the aunt and uncle of the groom. The first thing they told us was: “There are riots outside.”
What? (Not a surprised what or even a shocked what because surprise and shock are emotions that imply an understanding, no matter how vague, of the situation. My what was more like request of a definition: What riots? It was the worst sort of what, the one says You might as well be talking to me about quantum physics or neurobiology because I have zero understanding of the word.)
Yes, real riots.
Is there a rooftop?
Two floors up.
What do you mean riots?
Pop pop pop. Again that sound. More distant yelling.
The cameraman for the wedding and a couple of other guests jog towards the stairs, but not before the elevator doors yawn open again and deposit the bride and groom, their faces blanketed with frowns of worry. They are accompanied by the groom’s brother, who everyone calls Bhaiya because he is the oldest.
“We’re locked in,” he announces. The newly married couple find a chair each and sit down. The henna on the bride’s hands is glowing, the tips of her fingers coloured the deep dark brown of earth.
What riots? What happened?
Real riots. (Again, that phrase.) Someone got knocked down by a bus and died on the spot.
Locked in. Real riots.
In the finery of our sarees, sherwanis and Anarkalis, anklets tinkling, bangles jingling, earrings gleaming, we run up the stairs to the rooftop.
It is dark on the sixth floor. Large and empty, except for wedding guests, temple staff and priests gathered at the wire mesh windows. It is impossible to make out anyone’s face here. My eyes adjust slowly to the night, my feet tread carefully. I am paranoid about falling down and breaking my leg.
Pop pop pop. Fweeeeeeee.
In the distance, a car is on fire. On Racecourse Road, a crowd gathers around a police vehicle. Encouraged by cheers and whistles, it is pushed over and (set on?) catches fire.
Above the susurration of our urgent whispers, the jarring whistling and cheering on the streets and the unexplainable popping sound is a dismal wail of a car horn screaming into the night, unstoppable, as though someone’s unconscious hand (head?) was pressing into it.
Is that another staircase?
Hidden in a small corner and obscured by the night is an old-school winding spiral staircase that opened up to an open-air rooftop. There are already at least ten people crowding the high cement stairs. Modesty forgotten, I hitch up the folds of my long dress and climb up into a crowd of friends and guests.
A wave of vertigo rolls over me as the stairs opened up to fresh air and an unrestricted, unhindered view of the chaotic scene. The corrugated roof sheeting is so close that I can leave my purse there as I fix my center of gravity. There is nothing for me to hold on to other than the corrugated roof sheet in front of me and the wedding cameraman beside me, who is recording the footage of the scene, his camera swivelling left to right, right to left, as the rooftop witnesses give real-time updates of the events.
At times, there are pockets of silence when everyone lapses into silence and looks unbelievingly at the mayhem surrounding the temple. The mournful wail of the car horn rises into the night. Again, that pop pop pop.
It was a real riot that was beginning to feel unreal.
The horn stops abruptly. Another vehicle catches fire. Occasionally there is the sound of something breaking, smashing, followed by loud cheers.
No, they’re not Bangladeshi. Most likely Madrasi.
What makes you think they are one or the other?
Because the Bangladeshis don’t come to this corner of Little India.
That’s a far stretch.
No, seriously. This is where the workers from India have a drink on weekends.
Boy, are they pissed.
They’re just drunk.
They’re not all this angry. I know this guy, Suresh, who helps us out all the time. He calls his wife in India every night, without fail.
Everyone needs a catalyst.
10:55pm or thereabouts
The fire on our left has grown bigger, yellow-orange flames leaping, jumping. The cloud of black fumes is indistinguishable from the night sky. Then, a high-pitched sound like a pressure cooker letting off steam. A mechanical, non-human whistle. The music of quickly impending danger.
The first explosion, when it came, erupted in mushroom of smoke and sent a shockwave of heat towards the rooftop. My knees grow weak.
Someone says, What heat? I don’t feel any heat and I’m standing right here.
Someone else says, It’s a shockwave.
I can feel what I feel. Who wants to make up shit like this?
11:15pm or thereabouts
The second explosion comes from the vehicle on our right, further up along Racecourse Road. By this time, I am numb. The fires rage on and on. A group of policemen jogs away in earnest, away from the rioting crowd. More raucous cheering and whistling.
Are they running away, someone asks.
Cowards, someone mutters. (Or maybe no one said that and what I’d heard was the whisper of our hearts.
But I’d run away from this madness, too.)
11:30pm or thereabouts
Flashing lights in the distance, beyond the smouldering embers of the vehicles. Charred mechanical skeletons by this time.
At some point, we received news that it was somewhat safe – or safer, in any case – to make our way home. We cleared from the roof and joined the majority of the guests on the fourth floor. Parched throats (from talking, excitement, heavy breathing) called for water.
Someone led us through a labyrinth of stairwells and dark rooms to the ground floor.
How do you know your way around here so well, asked a French lady from Brittany, one of the guests at the wedding.
I used to play here as a kid.
You play in a temple?
My parents dragged me here every Sunday. It was boring for a kid, so I ran around a lot. It’s nothing new, really.
We passed the mandap, where the bride and groom were making their rounds around a different sort of fire a few hours ago. Where an Indian priest from Uttar Pradesh in north-west India uttered the sacred verses of the Vedas in a language that has remained unchanged for thousands and thousands of years. Jasmine flowers and unidentified flower petals littered the area around the mandap, which guests had thrown onto the bride and groom in a shower of blessing.