I don't particularly like book readings. I speed-read most books, letting the story and the mood come to me in flashes. Except when I'm telling a bedtime story, the idea of s-l-o-w-l-y reading a book aloud doesn't hold much appeal.
But Robin David's reading held my interest, mainly because it was a first person account of the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. What better way to experience it, than by listening to the author tell it in his own voice?
The book reading at Crossword. Robin David is in the centre, in black
City of Fear is set in Guptanagar, a Hindu area of Ahmedabad. On one side of Guptanagar is the Muslim locality of Juhapura. Robin and his mother live in a house on the border of the two localities. As communal riots erupt, the area is placed under curfew. Robin is Jewish, and therefore an outsider to the Hindu-Muslim conflict, except for one little technicality - he is circumcised.
The fear and anxiety of living in a curfew area come through beautifully in the book. Robin worries about running into a mob, about having his pants pulled down, about being hacked to death. He quarrels with his old friend Jayendrasinh, a staunch Hindu, who refers to Muslims as 'those bandiyas' (referring to their circumcision). His Hindu barber, with whom he has a long-standing relationship, turns hostile after failing to understand the difference between Judaism and Islam. His Parsi friend witnesses the stripping and brutal killing of Geetaben, a Hindu woman with a Muslim husband. Even walking through the neighbourhood is difficult for Robin - groups of people cluster outside houses, eyeing strangers with suspicion. He makes it a point to wave to familiar faces, so that he can pass safely.
In the charged atmosphere of rioting Ahmedabad, Robin is unable to stay secular - he must take sides, just to survive. As relationships fray, and old friendships are betrayed, Robin and his mother leave their home in Guptanagar.
City of Fear is more than just a first-person account of how riots dehumanize people. Robin manages to weave several other threads into the story. He writes about the devastating Gujarat earthquake in 2001, just a year before the riots, and how it damages his house. It is this double-whammy of destruction, one natural and one man-made, that drives him from his Guptanagar home. When he moves with his mother to a small apartment in a 'safe' area, they have to leave behind not just old memories and bric-a-brac, but also their dog Ora. Living in the apartment is particularly difficult for Robin's mother, who develops a fear of heights after the earthquake.
Another recurring thread in the book is the concept of home. Where does Robin belong? Where do the Jews belong, in a country that doesn't even know they exist? Robin tells of their family's repeated migrations to Israel - they come back every time, convinced that they belong in India. Guptanagar is their home, but the riots destroy that sense of belonging. In leaving Guptanagar, they lose more than just a home.
The book also is a painfully honest account of Robin's life, his girlfriends, his relationship with his mother, and his awareness of his body's defects (he is hemiphelgic, one half of his body is not quite in synch with the other). At times, the navel-gazing can be a bit tiresome, but that does not detract from the appeal of this very readable book.
At the book reading, someone asked Robin why he wrote this book. "A lot of people say we should forget the past and move on", he answered. "But some things cannot be forgotten. They should not be forgotten." As someone who lived through similar riots in Bombay, I couldn't agree more.