Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar ~ Saffron

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.