“Lakshmi madam, dekhiye chaaro orr sannata hi sannata hai.” Scared and tense I looked around. There was an eerie silence with shutters down and not a soul to be seen except policemen with their rifles drawn. Is this the busy Abids Road? I could not believe my eyes.
The jeep was racing towards old Malakpet. This was my first experience of going out in curfew. Basheer, the driver reassured me, “aap fikar mat karo amma. Khader saab ne aapko bahut ijjat karte hai, isi liye aapko ghar se le aane ke liye mujhe bijaaye the.”
It was in the late eighties, during the chiefministership of Dr. M. Chenna Reddy. Communal riots were common in Hyderabad, especially in the Old City. Often curfew was imposed. I was working as the chief sub editor in an evening news paper Evening Milap, owned by a muslim family. Mr. Khader, the managing editor was my boss.
It was during Ganesh Chathurthi and Moharrum in 1987, communal confrontations flared up with rivalry between Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. Moharrum coincided with Ganesh Immersion procession and the city was taut with tension.
On the 9th day of Ganesh Navrathri, two groups of different communities argued about arrangements for the Ganesh procession and before anyone knew what was happening, all hell broke loose. In the melee that followed, many were injured. The police opened fire to control the situation and curfew was imposed. Somehow, I reached from Malakpet to Secunderabad, where my house was located.
Once I reached my house, there was uproar as everyone was concerned for my safety. My parents-in-law demanded that I should resign my job. Even my parents supported them. Only my husband supported me.
Next morning, I was getting ready to go to work. My mother-in-law was concerned, ”do you have to go today?” she questioned. “How will you reach your office with no transport? The roads are not safe for women to go alone.
I wondered what to do. I wanted to be in the centre of the action to face the challenge of exciting news, and the opportunity to give screaming headlines. I got this opportunity, as my executive editor was on leave and I was in charge. “Curfew Days Are Here Again” was my lead headline yesterday and I was happy that the paper would have sold like hotcakes.
I heard the familiar voice of Basheer bhai. He was telling my father-in-law, “ Khader saab ne, Lakshmi madam ko le aane ke liye gaadi bijaye”. I convinced my parents-in-law that I knew Basheer well and he would drive safely. My father in law agreed after Basheer promised to drop me home.
I reached my office safe. Since curfew was imposed, except for the routine statements of politicians blaming the government for the communal tensions and the failure of law and order situation there was no news. Security arrangements for the simultaneous Ganesh immersion and Moharrum procession was the lead story. No screaming headlines. Just then, I got a call from my boss. He said, there was fresh trouble in Tappa Chabutra area. Three charred bodies were discovered when people went into a mosque to offer namaz after the curfew was relaxed for Friday prayers. Following the incident some miscreants have set fire to shops in Abids and Basheerbagh. He said he was sending his car and that I should go home immediately without bothering about the paper.
Within a few minutes, I ran and sat in the car. The driver fled away. It was not Basheer. He was new. I have not met him before. The driver took a different route through the gullies of old Malakpet. I sat glued to the seat, unable to talk, unable to voice my fears to a total stranger. Where was Basheer?
Suddenly, a group of hooligans started pelting stones shouting “maro sale ko” The driver was driving as fast as he could in the narrow gullies but as fate would have it, something sharp hit the car and the front tyre burst. I was stuck in the strangest part of the city. The driver pulled me out of the car and we were running as fast as we could. We reached a deserted lane and took shelter behind a garbage bin. My heart was beating fast. I could hear footsteps they ran past us and then the driver, who told me his name was Abbas, took me to a house in the lane and knocked on the door, “Ammi jaan, darwaja kolo.”
The door was opened by a middle aged lady, who looked at me shocked. I looked at her and pleaded silently. She let me in and Abbas explained to her that I was working in Khader saab’s office and I should be taken care of till he returned. Just then an announcement came on TV that curfew was imposed for 48 hours and everyone should remain indoors as shoot at sight orders were in force.
I could not inform my family of my whereabouts. I knew very little urdu and could not communicate with the lady. The kindness and hospitality she had shown to me was precious. She could not talk to me but her actions were reassuring. She knew I would need clothes to change. She gave me her mother’s saree and fresh towel etc. I felt awkward but totally safe in their house. Their customs, their daily household rituals were all new to me. She did not ask me if I was vegetarian, but cooked a delicious meal of Dalcha and ghee rice.
When curfew ended, Mr. Khader came along with my husband and I was happy to be reunited with him. Needless to say, I was forced to resign from my job. But the comfort and safety I felt staying with the muslim lady still remains fresh in memory.