Amma was killed when she stepped out of the bathroom. It was one sultry June afternoon and her cries, when stabbed by her assailant, cut through the tormenting heat, piercing it with its oppressive shrill. A deathly silence followed for a few brief seconds then another round of cries rung out in the air. Two more people were killed after her. The maid and the cook, who came running at the sound of their mistress’s distress, met a similar ghastly fate. By the time neighbors mustered courage to enter the kothi, the assailant had well disappeared with the weapon of crime.
It has been two years since and even today the mention of that ominous afternoon sends shivers down the spines of Shaheen Bagh residents, more so of those who live in Thokar 8 in the vicinity of that kothi which has long been razed to the ground. In its place now stands a building where about ten families live in separate flats, like all those apartments around it, set upon narrow lanes, glued to each other and jostling for space.
For years, Amma’s kothi was the only building in the area which was huge and sprawling. It had a beautiful garden in front with mango, pomegranate and guava trees acting as the awning to flower beds lined from the gate to the porch. Passers-by would often halt in front of it and spend a few minutes taking in the beauty of the garden and the kothi with jharokas on each floor before going their way again. The kothi turned even more attractive at nights with lights of different shades illuminating the windows, the arches and the jharokas – hues of red, green, yellow and blue. The flower beds glittered too as strings of tiny bulbs wrapped in coloured plastic shapes rose and dropped around them. And for a kothi that stayed relatively calm through the day, it showed heightened enthusiasm at night with sounds of music and merriment filtering into the dawn.
I thought Amma was ugly. She had coarse dark skin, bushy eyebrows and movements too masculine despite, what I perceived as, her forced femininity. The solid gold hanging from every visible part of her body could do nothing to redeem that image. I was afraid of her. I had seen her with her cronies making their rounds in the neighborhood, clapping hands and demanding money in their high-pitched and what sounded like unnatural voices. When my little brother was born, they came over to the one room apartment where I stayed with my parents and five siblings. Mother happened to have just sixty rupees that day and was terrified that she would have to part with it. Amma said that it was a happy occasion and whatever token was offered would be accepted. Mother, trembling in her fright, produced thirty rupees. Amma accepted it, blessed the baby and left with her ululating company.
There were about thirty people who lived in the kothi. One amongst them was Shabana, the beautiful of the lot. She was into the business of providing drinking water in cans for the residents of Shaheen Bagh. Children from the neighborhood were often invited to deliver these cans to customers’ houses against a payment of five rupees for each can. That’s how my friends and I earned pocket money now and then. This money we put to good use by buying ourselves chips, mouth sweeteners and cheap toys.
We chatted with Shabana too. She told us stories of what lay beyond Shaheen Bagh, a Delhi not visited by most of us. She told us that there is somebody called President who lives in a big kothi called Rashtrapati Bhavan somewhere near a place called CP and that President has a beautiful garden left over by somebody called Mughal. The Mughal apparently was like us, a Muslim, but the President is Hindu. So I didn’t quite get what a Hindu was doing in a Muslim’s garden.
But I am sure Amma was a better caretaker of flowers than the President. She was a mother to them, tender, loving and nurturing. She would be seen in her garden throughout the day, watering her plants or talking to them or removing dead tissues from them. She would even meet visitors in the garden and they were all kinds. They came to request her auspicious presence at some function; to seek her help, her benign influence in money or kind. Amma never disappointed. In a way, she was the queen of Shaheen Bagh.
It was in 1996 that Amma moved into the neighborhood, which was not much of a neighborhood really in those days. It was low-lying land by the Yamuna used for cultivation by those living in nearby Jasola. The landscape constituted of tall grasses and fifty houses in all. And there were mosquitoes, swarms of them. Amma filled the land up to 7 feet of earth, like all those before her, and built the magnificent kothi. She managed to set up wire bundles and bamboo poles and sourced electricity illegally from the nearest neighborhood Abul Fazal Enclave Part One. Every time there was a raid, she paid a sum of twelve thousand rupees until electricity was legalized in 2005-6.
It was Amma’s efforts that facilities like drainage, installation of sewers and construction of roads happened around 2009. That was the time when my family moved into the area. With a second-hand furniture market that had sprung up by the Yamuna, the area was already beginning to fill up with people, in hordes. Owing to debts, my barber father had to close down the tiny shop he ran at Chandni Chowk, an old part of old Delhi. So we rehabilitated to Shaheen Bagh and began to stay on rent in a one-room flat in the building close to the shop where father now worked.
Shabana had once told me that the Yamuna used to be visible from Amma’s kothi. Though now the sight of the river was shielded by high rises with faulty foundations. In such haste the buildings were erected that hammering a nail into the wall for whatever purpose would have the cheap materials used crumble off the wall. With such buildings mushrooming all over the place, slowly all traces of land disappeared and one had to climb up to the terrace for a sight of the sky, Shabana said.
I had a chance meeting with Amma once; and it was weird. I was walking back home after my day’s chores at a household in Thokar 7. It was late in the evening. Usually my master or his wife, very good people both, would escort me home but that day the mistress was gravely ill and was being rushed to the hospital. So I had to walk home alone. As I was turning into the narrow gulley, the short cut that I always took, a shadow leapt up from somewhere and started small talk with me. He seemed to know my father, the man at whose house I was a domestic help, the number of siblings I had, etc. etc. and said that I could address him as “uncle”. Uncle offered to walk me home and said that he would show me a route that would take even lesser time to reach home. He also offered me chocolates. Gleefully I went along with him only to be stopped in some time by Amma. “Where are you taking the girl?” she barked. Uncle stuttered and stammered but no words came out of his mouth. Amma held me by the hand and left the stuttering and stammering man to himself. We walked the road in silence and when she shoved me into our room, she raised a finger and said sternly, “If you ever talk to a stranger again on the street, you will hear from me!” And with that, she stormed away. Her words played in my mind as the flesh in my hand, where she had gripped me, slowly turned purple.
That ill-fated June afternoon two years ago changed everything. It wiped off Amma as well as her kothi from the face of the earth. People say that it was Amma’s driver who was behind the murders. The driver did actually disappear. But no one could tell whether it was before or after the murders. The money and gold from the locker in Amma’s bedroom were gone too. So it had to be an insider’s job, people talked, the driver most likely because it was him missing. Then another theory emerged. Some six months ago, Amma and her associates had burnt a woman alive in their garden with the whole of Shaheen Bagh gaping from the gates. The woman was the dhobi’s wife. Amma had made the dhobi and his family stay in a room behind the kothi. The dhobi just had to attend to the needs of the kothi’s residents for which he was remunerated very well. His family had access to the inner quarters of the kothi, including Amma’s bedroom. During one such visit, temptation struck and the dhobi’s wife had the gall to pocket an enormous piece of gold necklace lying at Amma’s dressing table. The maid walked in just then and caught the culprit in the act. That evening, people say, the sky turned red as Amma set the woman on fire. The woman danced to the menacing ululation around her as her husband and three little children looked on, the red in their eyes reflecting upon the sky.
But what my mother told me was totally different. She said that the dhobi’s wife had never stolen any jewelry. She possibly couldn’t because no one had the courage to meddle with Amma like that. What actually had happened was the woman had started running a sex racket thinking Amma would never know about it. She took little children from poor families in the neighborhood to ugly men waiting for them at some corner. The children’s silence was traded with money, chocolates and lots of threats. During one such rendezvous, Amma happened to chance upon the man, the child and the dhobi’s wife at some rundown gulley. She dragged the man and the dhobi’s wife to the kothi, leaving the child to run back home, and set them ablaze in her wrath. So it wasn’t just the dhobi’s wife who was burned to death that day but the man too. It could be the dhobi, yet they discussed, ignoring the man and his kin.
But then the dhobi was, as usual, in the shack behind the kothi ironing the residents’ dresses when the crime happened. It was he who disclosed that a man had come running out of the house and jumped the wall. Though he couldn’t tell what the man looked like or what he was wearing. The news was out on TV half an hour later. Media people and the police came streaming in as eunuchs from all over Delhi accumulated at the kothi. Frightful wails shook the neighborhood. It went on through the afternoon, evening, night and dawn the next day. People living in the area shut themselves in their houses even as the eunuchs gheraoed the policemen. Some of them even went about banging on people’s doors shouting out curses.
The constituency’s political leader arrived late in the evening, after a lot of deliberations on whether he should come or not, whether it would be safe or not to face a raging community of eunuchs. He was car-arrested right at the mouth of Thokar 8 and spent the entire night with his bladder bursting and squirming at the cries in the air. There were rumors that the whole neighborhood would be brought down to ashes by the eunuchs. People crouched in their homes fearing a vengeance, praying fervently to stop what was happening and to keep them safe. For many days thereafter, the shops remained closed in the area. Children stopped going to schools, offices were bunked. And then one day, Amma’s cronies disappeared without a trace and the foundations of a building were laid as bulldozers eliminated all footprints of Amma’s kothi.
kothi = mansion, thokar = lane, jharokas = protruding hanging balconies,dhobi = gulley = street,washerman,gheraoed = encircled as protest.
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