“Diwali Mubarak,” I pack sparklers and rockets in a newspaper bag for a customer sitting astride a motorcycle outside my shop. He gives me 100 rupees. My daughter, Anwari, a fifth-grader, unlatches the moneybox to fetch change. She’s a big help during festival season. I buy her laddoos from the sweet shop; she rewards me with her crooked-teeth smile.
The gentleman kickstarts his motorcycle to leave when we hear chants of “Jai Sri Ram” rising above the din of two-wheelers and holiday shoppers.
“Bhai, you must hurry home,” he whispers. “Today, someone placed a freshly severed cow head at the Sri Ram temple entrance. Cow blood trickled down the holy steps. Hindus are furious at Muslims for desecrating the shrine.”
It’s 1992—a year of Hindu-Muslim communal tension. Yesterday, I heard on radio that the opposition political party is demanding demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhaya. They say it was constructed by Mughal emperor Babur on land which was the birthplace of Lord Ram.
“Allah, help us,” I sigh.
A procession of about eighty men in saffron-colored shirts, Om bandanas around their heads, batons in their hands, enters the market square. Thumb-wide, bright red tilaks rise from between the men’s eyes to their hairlines. They march on like a saffron river gushing through the street.
I hustle Anwari toward the storage room at the back of the shop.
“Hide inside, beti,” I tell her, “and be quiet. I’ll get you.”
“Come soon, Abu,” Anwari says, her words quivering. I kiss her head, lock the door from outside and rush to gather the display of firecrackers at the front.
“Look, a Mussalman,” someone shouts. The air is turgid with hatred and dust. My shirt, soaked with sweat, clings to the skin; my legs go soft as if the bones inside them have melted.
I pull the crocheted skullcap from my head, wish I had listened to other shopkeepers when they advised me to shave off my beard. I’d dismissed them by saying that a beard is Sunnah in Islam.
“Death to cow-eaters!” Someone flings a burning sparkler into my shop. Others follow. I stare at the projectiles coming my way until an arm pulls me out into the street. The stacks of Diwali crackers catch fire causing a thunderous explosion. The mob moves on, gloating in the saffron glow of destruction.
I run towards the flames. Fellow shopkeepers pull me back. I try to tell them my daughter is trapped inside the shop but they can’t hear me. I can’t hear myself. No sound comes out of my mouth. I squirm, claw at the men’s arms but they don’t budge.
Someone pulls a thin hose from the nearby sweet shop to spray the fire. People from nearby neighborhoods throw pots and pails of water on the flames which lose strength slowly and culminate in a cloud of smoke. The men release me. I grab a shawl from a shoulder, dart into the shop.
My eyes water, a bout of cough grips me. I cover my nose and mouth with the shawl and find my way to the back. The storage door is blackened but not burnt. Reciting Ayatul Kursi in my head, I fumble with the keys tied to my pants’ drawstring and open the brass lock, my fingers burning with its heat.
Inside, Anwari is lying still—her lips are parted, revealing her crooked teeth, her cheeks are shining red like the tilaks on the agitators’ faces.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee; her work has been published in MoonPark Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, PidgeonHoles, and also in print anthologies. She can be reached at twitter @PunyFingers.