31 October 1984
I was still sleeping. The Ram Nivas Mansion was already bustling with morning ragas of the inmates. The Siruvani water supply will be cut by 8 30 and everyone was filling their quotas from the only tap just outside my room to get their share of India’s best water as it was called. A commotion stirred me up from sleep. Pandemonium was a routine at Ram Nivas Mansion. Outside I heard the voice of Moolchand, the proprietor of this beaten two-storeyed building that housed 14 bachelors in 4 shady rooms. Moolchand had his own pawn brokerage in the ground floor that also operated as his “private” bank and had 3 more petty shops rented out to Selvi Mess, a local goldsmith, watch repairman and a paanwala. My roommates would be arriving soon after their extended Diwali holidays and now I was enjoying the luxury of a single room status. But today I had planned to bunk college, sleep till 10 and roam around Lakshmi Complex and do nothing. It was my day of getting a return proxy attendance from Rajesh.
I used to like the late breakfast at Selvi Mess after the peak breakfast hour. There will be no hurry like normal days and no waiting for 10 minutes between each Dosa as happens during peak hours. Selvi Mess was the busiest eatery in this area. Ganesh Mama ran this joint and was proud of his “home food taste Cuisine” The tile-roofed old house converted to restaurant looked more like a party office than any eatery. The walls were decorated with framed pictures freedom fighters and some candid pictures of famous leaders. His prized possession placed on the cash counter was a picture of him with PM when he visited Delhi with some local party members recently. Ganesh Mama also lived here with his daughter whom I knew as Ammu who doubled up the server cum table cleaner whenever she was not in school.
The phone rang a third time when my second Hot Dosa was being served. Angry at this persistent caller, Ganesh Mama went over to the front desk to pick up the telephone telling no one in particular that it must be that idiot lawyer Subramani Iyer who was handling his divorce case.
But Selvi Mess was one of the important reasons why I wasn’t in a college hostel and preferred to stay outside. The college hostel food tasted between yucky and bland. I finished the filter coffee and wrote my consumption data in the account book. But, where did Ganesh Mama leave abruptly and hoped everything was alright at his end. I bid bye to Ammu as she was also getting ready to go to school, perkily dressed in her green half sari green school uniform.
Ramanna the security guard of this building and my Man Friday was already waiting with my share of pot water which he sold for a fee. He was filing my plastic bucket and at the same time disapproving my idea of using the scarce potable water to delay my receding hairline.
Back in my room, I was undecided whether to hit the sack for yet another morning siesta or dress up to paint Coimbatore Red. I was reclined on the rickety wooden chair reading the sports page of The Hindu when the first explosion hit my door and the vibrations throwing me against the wall. Swearing with my newly learned Tamil Obscenities, I jumped up from the chair. I thought that I became deaf instantly. I could hear nothing, and it was left to my olfactory skills to suddenly comprehend that something is on fire and burning. There was now smoke after sound.
What was safe? Staying In or getting out. Something terrible for sure has happened. I tried to call Ramanna, but the din outside was apparently so much that I couldn’t hear my own voice. Option 2 was better. I struggled out of the smoke and peered out of the balcony as the commotion got wilder below. The next moment I was running down the stairs and on to the street, joining the crowd that was staying a safe distance away from the hanging rusty steel board of Ram Nivas Mansion. People were being asked to steer away from its probable fall zone. Questions were being asked if it a gas cylinder explosion from Selvi Mess or some chemical fire from the goldsmith shop?
It took me three minutes to realize that Moolchand was the target of this attack. He had enemies. He was the wiliest moneylender of Oppanakkara street. He had huge receivables from almost all the traders and bootleggers of the Town Hall area. So? was it a deal gone wrong? How was he now, dead, injured…as these concerns played on my mind, there was another deafening noise followed by a never-ending tinkle of shattered glasses.
We could see from our position people running out of Seema Silks, one of the biggest sari outlets of Coimbatore and few armed people running inside. It became clear that the employees were fleeing while a sudden looting spree unfolded.
Someone just announced PM has been assassinated. Killed by her own Security at her own home. The reverberations of those gunshots at New Delhi that killed one of the greatest Stateswoman of the Twentieth Century are being heard down south at Coimbatore, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Thiruvananthapuram. Just one breaking news at this time worldwide: India’s PM assassinated. But here in Coimbatore, someone thought to add….by North Indian fanatics.
Now it is payback time!
10: 00 AM
It didn’t take more than five minutes to realize that this big national tragedy has triggered large-scale rioting and looting. And the targets were specific, anything North Indian. People, business establishments, vehicles with North Indian number plates. And they were right here. Townhall area of Coimbatore. A hub for traders from the North and their families who have been living for years together. It, therefore, became an epicenter for the mayhem that was getting worse as minutes ticked by. Oppankara Street turned into a war zone where just one group attacked and the other just succumbed with absolutely no chance to defend
I had abandoned all thoughts of going back to my room as I overheard someone saying “Seth gaali” meaning Moolchand is dead. Appalling as it sounds, there were whistles of victory from a section. Humanity also died at this moment!
I somehow found standing amidst the crowd next to Ramanna and Ammu who was trembling and disheveled. Ramanna escaped the petrol bomb that exploded on the face of Moolchand. He had just delivered the flowers for Moolchand’s morning Pooja and had trekked to the side lane for his beedi. Ammu was waiting for her school rickshaw when the explosion took place. She was frantically crying and looking for Ganesh Mama. Ramanna tried to console her telling not to worry, as Ganesh is one of “our” persons and not Hindikaaran. So, he will be safe. This did little to keep the girl quiet
I had made up my mind, that I need to abandon this place. It was not safe anymore. They could still come back hunting for the goldsmith and paanwala both from some northern state. I had no valuables to take, thank goodness for the student life. My wallet always slept with me and that was useful. I didn’t have to go up to pick anything. I had only one logical destination to go where I could be safe. My college. But I had to secure Ammu somewhere. Ramanna did not look innocuous enough to be trusted with a helpless adolescent girl.
My thoughts were broken by a screaming siren that became louder as few vehicles turned into our corner. I prayed to see police reinforcements. But this was not a day when prayers worked. This time it was a fleet of ambulances that came at a breakneck speed. Probably came to take Moolchand and the rest of the injured, deceased to hospital. No. It didn’t stop there. It was parrying the next batch of rioters into the street, using ambulances as a decoy to fool the police who were trying to barricade Townhall. The police were grossly outnumbered. One Maruti Omni ambulance stopped abruptly in front of us. I had a north Indian name. I cursed my parents momentarily. Damnit! did anyone know me! I started to move towards the crowd to get lost in it and dragged Ammu with me. A familiar figure slid open the side door Ambulance and gripped my arm fiercely. I turned about to stare into Ganesh Mama’s menacing eyes and a stern voice “Dei, Take her to her Amma in Sai Baba colony, and remain safe, I will get her back in the evening!”. Ammu’s frantic cries of Appa! Appa!! was the last thing I heard as another blast brought down the adjacent Ameer complex hurtling down a wave of disintegrated bricks and a wave of concrete dust as the ambulances knifed away through this blindly.
The blast at Ameer complex that housed many sari traders from Surat was followed by yet another uneasy calm. Probably the worst is over. Most of the shops have been vandalized in the last 30 minutes and could see looters carrying away whatever their bags could fill. Expensive watches from the Zimson store, tape recorders. Clothes from Seema silks were carted away merrily. The police were torn between containing violence and preventing looting. They decided not to do both. They just didn’t have the numbers and were shielding themselves with whatever objects they could gather from the rubbles, more concerned on their own self-defense. Meanwhile, the looting orgy was escalating to uncontrolled levels. Even the local general merchant shops decided to roll down their shutters and stay inside or flee. No shop was being spared!
They were still trying to break open the Famous Jewellery lock when Ammu called me, looking composed this time after seeing her father. She wanted to go to her Amma. But I had lost my composure after seeing another face of Ganesh Mama. I could never comprehend how this religious master chef could wield the handle of extremism. Not once did he betray his vicious side of his profile ever since the day he reassured my father on my first day at his mess, that he will serve as my local guardian and ensure my wellbeing!
Saibaba colony was 45 minutes by town bus. Which means 3 hours easily by walk. The city transportation has come to a standstill. She was right. We need to abandon this place as swiftly as possible. Which way, but? Rioting was still on! The danger of running into another crossfire was lurking large. We just had two providential escapes. The third time may not be that lucky! I decided to follow the trail of destruction. War stories taught me that a place will not be bombed twice. The attackers generally move in one forward direction. So, I trusted this logic despite reports that more rioters are converging towards Saibaba colony the next big colony of residences of North Indians. Ironically, with Ammu beside me, I felt safer from direct attacks! Most of them around us knew Ganesh Mama and Ammu.
I wondered why Ammu chose Ganesh Mama over her mother to stay with. As if reading my thoughts, Ammu explained that the school she studied from LKG was closer to here than Sai Baba colony. And that Ganesh mama was a much better cook than her mom! She dismissed any thoughts of further queries by saying that she loved both equally.
We had walked incident free for 15 minutes. The narrow Oppankara street ran for about 2 kilometers end to end. I stopped at a familiar place. Geet Radios and Records! The Bollywood music junction of Coimbatore.
Geet Radios and Records was Manu Sharma’s business. From Alam Ara to Tohfa he had a collection of all Bollywood LPs. That was the technology period of cassettes and tape recorders. Manu’s father Sr. Sharma was a collector of Bollywood music. They used to say that his textile business crumpled because of his obsession with Bollywood Music. He wasn’t fond of the cinema as such. It was the music that he fell in love with.
Sr. Sharma used to record on the new generation cassettes, playlists of different genres from various movies. This was given as gifts on special occasions to the Sharma family’s relatives and friends. Eventually, the word spread, and the demand increased. What started as a hobby eventually turned into a prime business for the Sharmas. That is how Geet Radios and Records, the song recording shop evolved.
Early into my days in Coimbatore, Geet was my favorite destination. It was a musical journey by itself to record songs from this shop. I rated Sr Sharma as musically more knowledgeable than even Ameen Sayani. A visit to Geet was never complete without his complementary masala chai and a critical debate on the Top 10 Bollywood songs of the week listed by Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geet Mala. Geet Radios and Records had no signboard. The name used to be in his invoices and the stickers pasted on the cassettes. Sr Sharma said to me once that they didn’t enjoy the publicity. But whoever in Coimbatore district and neighboring Palakkad and from the hilltops of the Nilgiris liked Bollywood music eventually found their way here. Manu used to add that this limited publicity helped to keep the authorities away as most of the recording business was a violation of copyright and no taxes were paid for the income on recordings. Made sense.
10: 50 AM
Made more sense in the present circumstances. We could clearly see the shops with distinct non-south Indian name boards were the prime targets, though some of the locals were also vandalized. It was an opportunity to settle scores for some. I wanted to be reassured that the Sharma’s were safe and the only way to find out was see for oneself. I prayed for a locked door which meant that they have escaped. But I wasn’t hopeful. My fears became stronger as I found a ransacked shop with all cassette racks empty, broken LP records were strewn all over. Ammu was afraid to take another step and was asking her Anna to retreat. Hoping against hope I went inside. Asked Ammu to hide behind the Cash counter for two minutes before I checked on the Sharmas and returned.
10: 52 AM
I had never ventured beyond the veranda of Geet during my visits. The adjoining door opened to a sprawling Chettinad style house with an inside courtyard and 3 rooms on each side, with a Tulasi plant pedestal in the center of the courtyard. Sprawled on the wall of the pedestal of the Tulasi plant was Sr. Sharma. My first visual of an unnatural death. I had not witnessed even a road accident fatality yet! Another figure in Tees and Jeans face down was Manu and blood was still seeping from his left side. I called out Sharmaji hoping at least one torso would move a bit. Nothing moved. Not even the fragile Tulasi leaves.
10: 53 AM
I did not know when Ammu came out of her hideout and came beside me. I was too numb even for tears. She asked if they are dead. I just nodded. She hinted there may be someone needing help in other rooms. For a 15-year-old she was too brave not to be shaken by the sight of butchered bodies and blood. She was the first to run to open the left-wing door. But this time there was a scream followed by a convulsion of her frame and a lot of vomit splattering on the walls. I rushed to her wondering what could be ghastly than the frame we just witnessed in the courtyard.
I struggled to maintain the composure at the sightings that caused Ammu to throw up. I could sense the bile rising and decided it was better to throw up than try to retain. I found a hand-wash sink and expelled every bit of my ingestions. I aimed the water to my face and hair to keep me steady from nausea that replaced my fear. This wasn’t just cold-blooded murder. Strange I have not met any of the Sharma ladies during my few visits to Geet. Going by the pictures on the counter the youngest would have been younger than Ammu. The strewn undergarments and exposed body parts betrayed licentious depravity before the beheading. Our baptism with live crime situations was getting no better.
11: 00 AM
I pulled out Ammu and literally dragged her out of the alley. Ammu let go of my hand forcefully and went inside the room that now housed the mutilated bodies of the women. I called her out shouting that she was crazy. She came back running, clutching a white towel that had an embroidered OM on it. Crazy girl, collecting souvenirs from the place of crime?
One hour of frenzy seemed too short and fast but within such time I had at least 6 people I knew slaughtered to avenge the assassination of a leader whom they as much revered as their fanatic killers idolized.
11: 30 AM
We were past flower market bus stand running wherever there was free space amidst the ruins of the mad revelry of the rioters. People were out on the streets trying to reach home by foot. Schools and colleges were asked to close. Curfew was to be imposed with shoot at sight orders before 2 PM.
We were more than halfway to Ammu’s mother’s house at Saibaba colony. We had to take this break, out of exhaustion opposite to the Central Theatre. A big hoarding of the movie Tohfa in front of the cinema took me back to Geet. Manu Sharma was boasting about the cassette sales of Tohfa breaking a new record in his shop. People said it was 13 dead in that one hour. The AIR news from a transistor was reporting 3 deaths. What nonsense, we saw at least 6 dead bodies, ourselves. Food was the last thing on the mind, but we could do with water. The day was hot even for a Coimbatorean October!
Coimbatore used to be quite organized infrastructure wise. The residential areas of the locals were generally located away from commercial hubs. This part of North Coimbatore was one such area where it was more residential and less commercial. We sensed a “feel safe” ambiance here for the first time after the frenzy of the last few hours.
There was no burning vehicles or gutted shops here. We went to the first house. The name board said, Sundaram Iyer. (BA). Well, it was comforting that we bumped into an educated conservative Brahmin household. Maybe they would provide us with some breathing space for a while. Ammu took the lead and knocked. The bell wasn’t working. Power was shut off! We could hear instructions from a senior lady inside not to respond. Ammu persisted. She knocked and again asked for water or at least if there was a water tap around. Silence was the reply.
A city known for its friendly citizens and warm hospitality was closing the doors on its own citizens in distress. There was a trust deficit all around suddenly. We went around the side of the house crouching below the expansive hibiscus garden. We found a hand pump in their backyard. Despite abuses hurled at us for trespassing, I went about pumping the hand borewell till the gush of air was replaced by the squeal of water jetting out in spurts which Ammu was gulping endlessly. We switched our roles and got away before the matriarch of the house executed their warning of letting loose her caged Doberman.
It took few more stops and few more questioning en route, by police, hunting rioters and some commoners before we reached the welcome arch before Saibaba colony. Our appearance was a giveaway. We presented ourselves as the moving mannequins of a rampage. Ammu took the responsibility of answering on behalf of us. She changed my name temporarily to Sreenivasan as it was more Southern than the way my original name sounded. I was her cousin brother who picked her up from school because of the curfew and walked to her home from Townhall. In the melee, we got caught in the explosion at Ameer palace building and we were lucky to escape. That answered the prying eyes on our soiled clothes and fresh bruises on the exposed skin. She did her part like a pro in chaste Coimbatorean Tamil.
3: 13 PM
We finally reached the upscale residential hub at Sai Baba colony. This is where Ammu’s Amma lived. Thankfully there was no action here. People, mostly housewives, and maids were at corners in small groups, despite the curfew. They looked at us with uncertainty. Few recognized Ammu but did not speak anything.
It appeared as if Ammu’s mother was waiting for her. She was at the gate of the sprawling Villa named “Ambujam Illam” displayed on an embossed granite stone nameplate. But she was more shocked than surprised seeing Ammu.
There were no filmy hugs and tears as I imagined. There were only direct questions. In 10 minutes she narrated the 5-hour journey from Townhall to this house. Ammu’s Amma now looked at me less suspiciously than when she first saw me.
Ammu’s Amma was strangely concerned about her husband’s whereabouts. Even though they are to be formally divorced, it appeared to me that the change of circumstances in this city and Ammu could bring about a reversal of their decision to separate. Later, I realized that all my assumptions fell flat on this day. My thoughts were interrupted by a squeal from a fragile boy with a Diwali toy gun in his hand. He tried to shoot his Ammu Akka. Sadly, the gun wouldn’t fire.
I had a quick shower but had to wear my T-shirt inside out which was cleaner. What followed was a quickly prepared lunch and Ammu was right about her mom’s culinary skills. Meanwhile, news from AIR reported that the situation is under control and curfew will be lifted for two hours till 6 PM. I had to leave soon, it was going to be another long walk or run.
Ammu’s Amma applied customary vermillion on my forehead as a token of gratitude for bringing Ammu home safely. Ammu was not to be seen after the lunch. Ammu’s brother followed me to the gate. His Diwali gun was totally broken now. He held the ammunition roll loosely hanging as we walked.
Involuntarily I was scraping my hands over the embossed nameplate when Ammu appeared out of nowhere and said in a stern voice, “if you meet that terrorist, my father, give this back to him and tell him not to see me again ever.”
I was confounded when she handed me the towel containing the embroidered OM. This is your bloody Ganesh Mama’s. He ceased to be my father three hours ago and hope he gets punished. Without looking back, Ammu dragged her brother in and shut the gate.
Ganesh Iyer was arrested from his Multi cuisine restaurant after being convicted with seven others for the rape and murder of the Sharma family and cases of arson during the riots that plagued Coimbatore on the day of the assassination of the then PM. The prime witness was a lady called Ambujam, aka AMMU, who was the daughter of Ganesh Iyer. The 14-year long case came to its logical conclusion
I was surprised to receive an invitation to a wedding in Jaipur. I did not know anyone in that part of the country. Well, the bride’s name on the card Ambujam rang a bell. The groom was Gaurav Sharma.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.