The earth was damp and loamy, and the grass wet. It had rained all night. I stood on the pathway edging the cemetery and watched them walk toward the grave, picking their way among tombstones. Bush and nettle had overgrown, colonizing every spare space. The neem and peepal trees loomed large, the mighty sentinels standing guard over the dead. Stirred by the breeze they showered remnants of rainwater.  

Mother, frail and shrunk by age ambled with a stoop; the sorrow of the world on her shoulders. She lifted the legs of her salwar with her left hand to prevent the hems from getting soiled, and with the right, she adjusted the gauzy dupatta on her head, her thinning hennaed hair uncombed. Father walked a few steps ahead of her. In his ill-fitting terry-cotton pants and old checked shirt, the design of a bed sheet, carelessly tucked in, he looked disheveled and walked as if he had lost his way. 

I followed them at a distance wanting to give them space. They have had little time to grieve in peace, especially after the tragedy as public as ours. The media had descended on us like hyenas scenting a meaty quarry. In contrast, at the graveyard, an otherworldly calmness came as a welcome refuge. Beneath the silence, in the ground, all of the life’s struggles and dreams now rested – reduced to bones. Upon reaching the grave Father stood at its head, deep in thought. He had been crying inconsolably, tears flowing from an ancient source.

The grave, freshly filled in, was uneven on the surface. At the edges in little eddies of muddy water, shriveled rose petals floated. The flowers from yesterday had been pelted by the rain. Mother secured her dupatta around her head and squatted on the side of the grave. She shed silent tears, fingering the rose petals as though they were the only tangible clue to the unthinkable that had happened. She touched the loose wet earth and hesitated; she wanted to kiss the grave and say a prayer but was afraid of soiling her face. Father took his crumpled kerchief, which he had been using to dry his tears, and lay it on the wet mud. Mother gingerly put her fingers on the ground for support and lowered her head and rested it on the kerchief, and remained there for a long time, sobbing. 

“Enough Asma, enough,” Father said.

I went up to Mother, held her by the shoulders and gently made her sit up.

I squinted at the sun as it peeked through the moving clouds. A parrot somewhere in the neem tree emitted a shrill cry. 

“Ya Allah, what sins have we committed,” Father lamented. “Why are you punishing us?”

I patted on Father’s back, “Abba, please…” but words got caught in my throat. I wanted to say, have sabr, be patient. But what fortitude could one invoke for a broken man, for a father maddened by sorrow. 

It had all happened so suddenly. The mob of angry men had come armed with sticks and rage. Blood in their eyes. “Who were these people? I’ve never seen them before,” Father said.

Ours is a small, dusty town; it would have fallen off the map in due course out of sheer obscurity and insignificance but for my brother Khalid’s death. I was in Delhi when I heard of his killing on television. A reporter shoving the microphone in my mother’s face was asking in a cheery tone, “How do you feel after this tragic and senseless death of your son.”  Mother just wept. A Muslim man was lynched by a Hindu mob, the report said. It cannot be true, I thought. In our town, Muslims were in a minority but we had lived in peace with our Hindu neighbours for generations. 

Every year on Diwali my father used to decorate his shop with lights and oil lamps. As recently as two years ago the shopkeepers’ association on the street decided to pool funds for Diwali decoration and went from shop to shop collecting donations. My father saw them going around and waited for them to come to him for his share. But they didn’t show up. 

“Are they ignoring me because I’m a Muslim,” he said when he came home that evening. He was angry, his voice unusually sharp. “They think we don’t celebrate Diwali, haan? These are the people I meet and greet every day. Don’t they see the lights I put up every year?”

Father took the betrayal of Hindu neighbours to heart. On the eve of Diwali, he hired two workers and had them build a huge bamboo arch in front of his shop. The arch was draped in multi-coloured saris which were then wrapped with hundreds of light bulbs. Then he lined the shop front with clusters of earthen oil lamps. On Diwali night the shop stood out like a jewel, and word spread quickly. People came and gawked in wonderment at the illumination. When they learned it was a Miya Bhai’s shop, they were pleasantly amazed and congratulated Father. The shopkeepers’ association got the message bright and clear. The next day they came to apologize.

But on Khalid’s tragic killing, nobody came to apologize or show sympathy. So much had changed in such a short time. Last year when I got a job in Delhi I had a hard time renting a room. Decent, middle-class folks would show me their house and discuss rent and other details, but when they heard my name, Aslam Mirza, they would suddenly go cold. Some bluntly told me they didn’t want a Muslim for a tenant. At long last, Surinder Khurana, a Punjabi Hindu widower, had no hesitation in opening his doors to me. A retired army colonel, he had the gift of the gab and a warm, liberal heart to boot. We soon became friends; on weekend evenings over whiskey and roasted peanuts he regaled me with the tales of army officers and their wives and their shenanigans. 

However, I felt uneasy when he tried to impress upon me the loyalty and dedication of Muslim men in uniform. The need to reassure us Muslims of our patriotism galled me. Khurana saheb meant well, I know. I could understand where he was coming from. Under Narendra Modi’s dispensation, it was easy to hate and attack the minorities. With impunity. Modi himself had set a magnificent example for it; his alleged role in the massacre of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots was now all too forgotten. 

“I have a sister in the U.S.,” Khurana saheb told me one evening. “She says President Trump and our Modi are like two peas in a pod. Their hatred for Muslims runs deep in their DNA. Trump wants to ban Muslims and Modi wants to ban beef.” 

Little did I know then that this obsession with the cow would take my brother’s life. When I heard the news on television I rushed home, only to find that Khalid had already been buried. He was ten years older to me, married with two young children. His wife Razia tore at her hair in despair. “Why were you not here to protect your brother?” she wailed.

Father said if I were there they would have killed me, too. Such was their fury. He said that on Eid al-Adha the family had slaughtered a goat like every year. When Khalid went to the garbage dump to dispose of the goat skin somebody saw him and spread the rumour that we had killed a cow. Late that evening a mob gathered outside to avenge the murder of “cow mother”. They came in great numbers, young and old. 

“They hurled stones and called us names and told us to go to Pakistan. For a moment it seemed as if qayamat was at the door,” Father said. “They stormed into the house and attacked us, not even sparing your mother. They dragged Khalid out and pounced on him like wild animals. I saw my son being beaten to death, and I stood there and…,” Father broke down. “Beta, why, why …?”

Razia added, amid sobs, “Now that they have found out that we did not slaughter a cow, can they bring your brother back? How can they just kill a man for no reason?”

I had no words to soothe her. That night I sat outside my house under a starless night, desolate and helpless, a volcano raging in my chest. I wanted to set the world on fire.

The next morning there was a knock on the door. Two men in skull caps and untrammelled beards knocked on the door and called me outside. One of them gave me a firm shake of the hand and said, “The kafirs have killed your brother for practicing his religion. Are you going to do nothing?”

His companion, an intense young man with red hot embers for eyes, and iron in his voice invited me to a meeting. “We gather after juma namaz. We are weak because our faith is weak,” he said. He patted on my shoulder and added, “It’s time to act, brother.”

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