“The guard told me you had left,” said Meenakshi Iyer (Konkona Sen Sharma) on finding her travelling companion, photographer Raja (Rahul Bose), sleeping under a tree in the winter sun, just outside a forest guest house where the two, along with Meenakshi’s infant son Santanam, have taken refuge. A few minutes before, the duo — the protagonists of Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) — have an altercation as the guest house has only one usable room that Meenakshi — a married, traditional, Tamil Brahmin woman — does not want to share with Raja. Soon after, she is informed by the guard that Raja had left. “Did you believe him?” Raja asks her.
It is a rhetorical question. The two of them are not only travelling companions or tentative friends but have in some ways protected each other. The film, co-written by director Aparna Sen and Dulal Dey, begins with a voiceover: “At a time when the word was turning more violent, with every passing day, somewhere in India, a country with at least 18 official languages and nearly as many different religions, a little red and white bus was carrying two strangers back to their homes in the plains.” In the course of the journey, they run into a communal riot. Meenakshi protects Raja, who is a Muslim, by giving him her name — something that a husband usually gives a wife.
Meenakshi’s, or Mrs Iyer’s attitude, towards Raja changes with time. When he first reveals his name — Jehangir Chowdhury — and religion to her, she curtly tells him: “Don’t touch me.” Despite being highly educated, she is unable to abjure the rituals of untouchability. When he first offers her water from his bottle, she stares at him with discomfort because he touches the bottle to his mouth. This serves as a delightful leitmotif through the film. Much later, when the intimacy between them increases — as it must even between starkly different strangers when they are thrown together in a crisis — she even drinks by touching the bottle to her mouth.
Finally, in a train compartment, where they are together, they almost kiss each other, but are interrupted when a stranger comes along. (In a Coffee with Karan interview with director Karan Johar, Sen Sharma had said she wanted to have the kiss because Indian actors not kissing on screen was such a cliché, but Bose had apparently resisted it. In all humour, Bose had said: “Do you know who was directing the film? Her mother!”) The kiss might have been a transgression of Mrs Iyer’s marriage vows but in a world filled with hatred, any love — though it may be unsocial — is a reaffirmation of humanity. Mr and Mrs Iyer in the forest guest house are in a rare Eden; the world around them is full of hatred.
In the clip, the Hindu mob asks men to take down their trousers to see if they are circumcised. Hindu mobs out on a rampage in New Delhi last week also asked people to drop their pants. Susheel Manav, a reporter with Hindi news portal Jan Chowk, told The Telegraph, how he and theatre activist Awadhu Azad ran into the mob in northeast Delhi’s Maujpur area on February 24, when anti-Muslim violence had peaked: “[The mob] started hitting us with the rods. One man pressed a pistol to my stomach. I cried out: ‘I am a Hindu, I am a Brahmin.’ They demanded I recite the Hanuman Chalisa. Even after doing so, they asked us to take off our pants.”
The purpose of asking people to take off their pants to ascertain their religions serves the purpose of insulting the victims as well. In the bus Mr and Mrs Iyer are travelling, they have an old Muslim couple (Bhisham Sahni and Surekha Sikri). The Hindu mob that attacks the bus fails to notice them, but are pointed out by another passenger, Cohen (Anjan Dutt). The mob takes them away — and, as we learn later, kills them. “Why did you do this?” asks his horrified friend (Rajatabha Dutta). Cohen replies: “They would have killed me yaar. I am Jewish. I don’t have a foreskin.”
As the international media observed, the orgy of violence which engulfed parts of northeast Delhi last week and has claimed 50 lives till now, was neither spontaneous nor unpreventable. The New York Times, in a report headlined “The Roots of Delhi Riots: A Fiery Speech and an Ultimatum” noted Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra’s hate speeches on February 23 — in the presence of senior Delhi police officers — was one of the reasons the riots spread so quickly. (Mishra is yet to be arrested and, in fact, his security has been beefed up.)
The Guardian, London, minced no words, laying the blamed in an editorial squarely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s door: “Modi stoked this fire.” German weekly Der Spiegel pointed out: “Anti-Muslim rhetoric may harm India’s reputation abroad.” In January, India’s ranking in the democracy index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, fell 10 points. And, in the freedom index compiled by US-based Freedom House, India was placed along with Sudan and Iran, its position declining steadily on account of the abrogation of Article 370, implementation of the National Register of Citizens, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the CAA. Protests against the CAA were the first targets of Mishra’s virulent rhetoric.
The Eden of the forest guest house is also not inviolate—Mr and Mrs Iyer, holed up in their room, look out of the window and observe a mob lynch a man. Overcome with revulsion, Meenakshi mutters: “It is so easy to kill a man.” How easy it is was revealed in an article, “‘I coloured my sword red’”, by Arunabh Saikia, published in Scroll.in on Wednesday. Comprising a series of interviews with different self-proclaimed rioters, the articles unveils a horrific picture of communalism in the national capital. Perhaps the most chilling interview is with a taxi driver, who tells Saika: “The gun in my left hand and the sword in the right one. My aunt said she was reminded of my father… At that time , my father fed the sword with blood, this time I coloured it red.”
As uneasy calm settles on Delhi, there is little hope of love sprouting in our hearts like it did between Mr and Mrs Iyer on that bus ride.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, has been recently published.