Birds home in on Babri Masjid
With history and beliefs, law and politics, all muddled together, Ayodhya had become so complex that one could not distinguish between fact and fiction. When rathyatras proceeded, spawning communal riots in their wake, academics felt that their knowledge was a burden. Historians, social scientists and researchers were reaching the realization that the only thing to be done politically is to convey to the people what they had learned, searched for and discovered.
The evening of the 30th of May, 2019, Professor Romilla Thapar’s cell phone rang. She was in the middle of reading a book then. Peter Francopan’s The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of The World, the sequel to his The Silk Roads: A New History of The World. She marvelled at young people’s approaches to history.
“Romilechi, I’m starting from here. By the time I reach there, won’t you be in Faizabad?” (“Echi” is the shortened form of the Malayalam word “Chechi,” meaning elder sister. It is in vogue mostly in Kasargod and Kannur districts of Northern Kerala.)
“Yes, Athira, I’ll be there. You come quickly.”
After putting the phone down, the professor wore her glasses again and returned to the book; but she had lost her concentration. She couldn’t help thinking of Athira. Starting from Kanhangad by train, arriving first in Delhi, going to Lucknow from there, and then travelling to Faisabad by bus, she is certain to take more than two days to reach. It will be a hard journey, especially in the intolerable heat. But, what can be done? She was intent on making that journey. No matter who tries to stop her, she was sure to come. Since it was a decision taken after long thought, even Romilla Thapar couldn’t prevent her.
One day, the previous summer, was the first time Athira had called.
“Hello, is this Professor Romilla Thapar?”
“Yes, who are you? Tell me.”
“I’m Athira. Athira P. M. Twin sister of Arathi P. M. I’m calling from Kanhangad in Kasargod.“ (Kasargod is the northern-most district of Kerala.)
“Oh! How do you do, Athira?”
“Fine, teacher. I am calling because I wanted to clear a doubt.”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Is it true that Babri Masjid is still there undemolished?”
Even now, that question echoes in Romilla Thapar’s ears. Though shocked at first, exercising a lot of restraint she went through that question once again in her mind. Is it true that Babri Masjid is still there undemolished? The professor could not immediately decide how to reply to that question. Helpless, she cut the line. Then, going to the kitchen, she made a cup of strong tea, put five or six mint leaves into it, went and sat on the easy chair outside, and slowly started to sip the tea.
“What did Athira mean by that question?” The professor decided to call her back and ask.
It was after the phone rang for a while that the call was answered.
“I thought, on hearing my dumb question you became angry, cut the call, and went away,” Athira laughed aloud.
“Athira, what did you mean by that question?”
“No, if Babri Masjid is still there, I just wanted to see it once.”
By God, is this girl crazy? In anguish, Romilla Thapar remained silent for some more time.
“You’re wondering if I’m crazy, aren’t you?”
“No.” The professor lied. “Who told you that the mosque has not been demolished?”
“Some time back, someone had written so in a magazine. ‘The Undemolished Babri Masjid’ was the title. I was not in a position to read the article. So, I only saw the title.”
“You come up with this question just on seeing the title of an article? Without even looking at what the content of that article was?” Romilla Thapar thought it was very childish.
“No, teacher. I had a dream afterward. That the two of us were going to Ayodhya together and seeing the Babri Masjid.”
Again, for a moment, Romilla Thapar was at a loss for words. The thin drapes of the night had descended on Delhi. Promising to call again, she cut the line.
Later that night, both Romilla Thapar, as she smoked a cigarette while resting after a dinner ordered on Zomato, and Athira P. M., as she lay on the sofa at her home in Kanhangad after a meal of rice and prawn curry flavoured with fresh, green mangoes, made by her mother, thought of the same thing. Can history be overcome through imagination?
From then on, Athira kept on calling Romilla Thapar on the phone. Why don’t we go to Ayodhya and take a look, was the essence of those calls. On the strength of that, as well as the freedom she got to talk about a lot of other things, one day she started calling the Professor, ‘Romilechi.’
“Hey, I’m old enough to be your grandmother,” the professor said.
“That’s no issue. It’s such fun calling you Romilechi. Mind you, after some time, I may even call you Romu.”
“Romu?” Romilla Thapar burst out laughing. Athira laughed with her.
To tell the truth, it was amid several busy engagements that Romilla Thapar found the time to talk to Athira. Once a book is opened, her greatest virtue was the patience and concentration of a bird hatching its eggs. (Even otherwise Romilechi has the looks of a beautiful bird, Athira would say later. A bird that lays rectangular eggs called books, she said with a chuckle.) Quite often, when sitting with her head buried in several primary historical sources and secondary pieces of evidence, her forehead gets etched with crease-hordes of doubt. When, far from the world of historiography all too familiar to her, information emerges from the world of imagination and fictional stories, it leads her to fresh doubts. Never does she dismiss a single thought. At such times, her recourse is to bury her head in the pages of books and search for new evidence. Even the most trivial of doubts have a place in history, (Athira’s) ‘Romilla-bird’ thought. The birds of history fly in front of and after centuries. It is with the material of evidence that their beaks pick up that new histories make their nests.
Athira, who swooped in and seized the professor’s attention and thoughts in a trice, actually made her doubtful once again. Is history made up of pure facts alone? Aren’t there convictions that grow and dwarf such facts, or inner certainties that defeat history?
It is going to be a year since then.
When Athira reached the railway station at Kanhangad, it was fifteen minutes after six in the evening. The Mangala-Lakshadweep Express should arrive at 6.41. She had brought in her bag, along with her clothes, enough food, and water to last one night. She had no idea how the trip would turn out to be. She knew that she would pass through the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Beyond that, she did not know anything. After all, what was the point in knowing? It was not Athira’s way to go on a trip after finding out and coming to know everything about it. Just start. And, when it is time, everything will fall into place. All you need to do is to get into the train and sit, it will move on its own. We don’t need to push it, she always thought. For her, it was the same approach when it came to travelling to any part of the world, however far or remote it may be. Needs were her guides in travel.
On the train, Athira’s fellow traveller was a nurse from Kottayam. She worked in a multi-speciality hospital in Udupi. Till she got off the train at Udupi at 8.30, she gave Athira company in eating dinner and making her bed.
“Chechi, are you going to Lucknow just for fun? Or...?” she asked as she got acquainted with Athira.
“Dona-kutti, will anyone go to Lucknow just for fun? From there, I need to go to Ayodhya, kunji.” (Kutti and kunji, both meaning ‘child’ in Malayalam are terms of endearment used with people younger in age, especially girls.)
“Why are you going there, chechi? You have any relatives there?”
“No one in particular. Just like that.”
Dona smiled, reminding Athira that this was what she had asked at the beginning.
“But then, Ayodhya is very special for you Hindus, isn’t it?”
Athira looked at her intently. What an innocent question!
“It is to see the Babri Masjid that I’m going there.”
“What is that, chechi?”
“That... that is the world’s eighth wonder.”
When she got off the train at Udupi, Athira held her hand through the window and told her, “Go carefully.”
When she disappeared into the light and darkness of the platform, and the people milling about on it, Athira felt sad. Later, that night, most of the people who boarded the compartment were gods. They had reserved many berths on that Third AC coach. Athira went and shook hands with each of them. Krishna, Rama, Ganesh, Siva, Devi, they were all in their usual attire and adornments. Without letting go of their serene demeanours, they all exchanged pleasantries with Athira. She asked them where they were bound. And she got her reply from the announcement on the PA system, “Lucknow station aap ka swagath karta hai.” Through all this, two nights passed and she changed trains at Hazrat Nizamuddin station, leaving her to wonder if all this had happened in the company of the gods. A laugh bubbled up in her. Till this point in her life, she had never known them or lighted a lamp for them. Still, they treated her with so much love. Thampachi! (Thampachi, a word of endearment as well as admiration, is a corruption of the Malayalam word, thampuratti, meaning ‘noble lady.’) She laughed again.
From Lucknow, Athira proceeded to Faizabad on a Mahalakshmi Travels bus. The day had just started to break. The roadside marked by woods, desert patches, and huts, all brought back to Athira the same smell of school time when she used to hear of Uttar Pradesh, as a name on the map. (“What is the name of the largest state in India?” She heard that question being asked in 1987 in the fourth class of Bellikkoth School. In the voice of Ambika teacher.) In those days she knew of Uttar Pradesh as a land of illiterate people burdened by hunger, disease, and the anxieties of life. Later, it was corrected in political classes as the land that taught democracy to Indira Gandhi. Even then, she never got an answer to the question of why the ideology of the oppressed never became an inspiration for these people. And today, she could not understand what lesson of democracy they were following.
Athira did not know how Romilechi would travel from Delhi or when she would reach Faizabad. At seven o’clock she got off the bus in Faizabad city. She had tea from a small shop nearby.
Reaching Lucknow by flight from Delhi, Professor Romilla Thapar took a cab to Faizabad. She was in a hurry to meet Athira. As promised on the phone, she was waiting in front of the SBI ATM on the eastern side of the bus stand. Stopping the cab close to the young lady standing there in a pure white churidar, with a bag on her shoulder, and her arms crossed nonchalantly across her chest, Romilla Thapar got off.
Athira hugged her tightly. The chill on her arms passed to Athira’s hands. The professor was wearing a glimmering dark green sari with a checked design. On her neck was a string of blood-red beads. Athira touched her milky white hair.
“Was the travel comfortable?” the professor asked.
“It was good,” Athira couldn’t take her eyes off her. (Athira kept on looking at her as if she could never see enough of her.) Flushed with happiness, her face resembled a bunch of flowers.
Later, as they continued on the journey, Athira sat in the car with her head resting on the professor’s shoulder. It was only half an hour from Faizabad to Ayodhya. It was dry weather, and they went forward on a road on which several vehicles passed them raising dust all around. Clutches of bamboo, small huts, and little shops could be seen on the sides. Bharat Tea Stall, Rana Diary... some name boards idly touched Athira’s eyes as they passed. A land with hardly any beauty to look at. Is this the way to the Ayodhya of Ramayana? Athira couldn’t help asking herself.
“There is no certainty that this Ayodhya is the same Ayodhya of the Ramayana.”
No. That was not spoken by Romilla Thapar. The owner of that commanding voice was Dr. K. N. Panikker.
“In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sri Rama is born in the Thretha Yuga. That is, at least 3100 years before the start of the Christian era. However, the earliest inhabitation of present-day Ayodhya dates back only to the 7th century BC. And, urbanization started only by the 5th century BC.”
The voice arose from Athira’s bag. To be more precise, it came from page 24 of the book in that bag. Could Romilla Thapar also have heard that voice?
“Romilechi, are you still in contact with Panikker sir?”
“Of course. Isn’t he beloved to us?”
“Who is senior?”
“He is my contemporary. By age, I’m elder.”
The car reached the entrance gate to Ayodhya. Professor Romilla Thapar got out of the car. Athira followed.
“The writing of history is a political activity. Panikker and me and Irfan and Sumit, all of us came together to do that during the same period; that’s what I meant. We may have had our agreements and differences in matters of evidence. But, we did not argue about the systematic methods of writing history,” Romilla Thapar said, as she crossed the road holding Athira’s hand. They went to the nearest shop and had a glass of lemon juice. The professor lighted a cigarette.
The sun had started to grow strong. They stood under the wide arch of the gateway on which was inscribed, ‘Pavan nagari Ayodhya agaman par apka hardik swagath hai.’ With its feet planted on both sides, the concrete arch spanned across the wide road.
As they were getting into the car, Athira asked again.
“Karan Thapar is your cousin, isn’t he?”
“Why all these questions, Athu?” the professor pulled her ear.
Then, quickly passing the Shanidev temple, Sri Anand Bakers, and Saketh PG College, they reached the city of Ayodhya. Ayodhya is a one-street town suffocating with an abundance of people. The car found it difficult to go forward on the road packed with rikshaws, auto-rikshaws, and bicycles. Athira felt that the pilgrimage town chock-full with hundreds of temples and masjids is actually getting suffocated by those doing spine-breaking work for a single meal.
“Shall we ask the way, Romilechi?”
“To Babri Masjid.”
“Ok, ask,” the professor showed the green signal to her eagerness.
“Ji, Babri Masjid jane ka rastha kaunsa hai?” Athira asked a shopkeeper. He had the face of a rabbit.
He sprang at her in fury.
“Kaunsa masjid? Tum kaun ho?”
He looked Athira over from head to toe. Without a word, she returned to the car and got in.
“Romilechi, could Modi have come back to power?”
“Yes Athira, he has. You didn’t know that?”
“Yes, I know. But, isn’t it the thought that what we know may be wrong that has brought us here? If that thought has that kind of strength, can we just dismiss it, Romilechi?”
Athira’s question put the professor in a dilemma. She had never seen dissent coming so gracefully to anyone before. It is an alternative political reality that is guiding Athira P.M., she thought.
After having enquired the way to Ram Mandir, the driver turned left at the Post Office. It would seem that no one even gave a second glance at that age-old tapal office with its pale walls and faded boards. It was generally a less crowded road. Once in a while, a bicycle or a rickshaw passed by. In the fields, cows grazed. Monkeys fooled around among the remnants of crumbled buildings.
When they reached a building on which was written, ‘Sri Ram ki Rajgaddi’, a security guard came and told them that the car could not go any farther. Professor Romilla Thapar and Athira got out and started walking. You’ll have to walk about a kilometre, he said. Three hundred yards in front of the Mandir there is a CISF outpost. You can take permission from them and see the Mandir, he told them. Winding through old, mostly decayed buildings with cracked walls, lay the crumbling single track. On the sides, dirt and waste material lay in heaps. Crows, rats and stray dogs rummaged among them with glee.
After turning a couple of bends in the path, Athira stopped abruptly. “Is there any possibility, Romu?”
Professor Romilla Thapar was a step ahead then. She turned back and took her hand.
“Didn’t we see the Bari Masjid being demolished, Athu? Wasn’t an entire country witness to it? Sight is a powerful sensory experience. It is an irrefutable part of evidence in the making of history.”
“Then why did you start out with me?”
The professor did not say anything. Seeing is a historical process. History is not complete merely with material facts; its completeness is ideological too, the professor thought. Those who stand outside and defy may reject that knowledge and deny history. What if it is an entire people who do that? For a moment even Romilla Thapar thought, maybe the Babri Masjid has not been demolished.
They continued to walk. The path ended in the middle of another narrow road. If they walk another four hundred metres to the right, they could reach the security post at the entrance to Ram Janmabhoomi, a bhakt told them.
This Romilachechi, doesn’t she know any of these ways, Athira asked. Noorani is the expert in such things, the professor said.
The 94th page of the book in Athira’s bag suddenly chirped. On it, at the end of Noorani’s article, was an illustration of Babri Masjid.
Illustrated drawing of the Babri Masjid site taken from A G Noorani's article in the book Anatomy of a Confrontation.
Once you enter through the main gate, on the left there is the platform called Ram Chabutra. At its eastern corner are the small idols of Nandi, Parvati, Ganesh, and Panchamukhi. From that courtyard open the two small gates to Babri Masjid. To its right is Sita ki rasoy.
“When you look at the picture it appears like a temple, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what they are saying?” Athira didn’t hesitate to ask.
From the 58th page of the book in her bag, Noorani replied.
“It was at midnight on December 22, 1949, that the idol of Sri Rama was surreptitiously brought inside and installed, turning the Babri Masjid into the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. Of the three domes of the Babri Masjid, it was in the middle one that the idol was placed. That was the beginning of the Ayodhya dispute that sabotaged the legal system of the country.”
They were both walking down slowly. Athira felt that K. N. Panikker and A. G. Noorani were also walking with them. There is no evidence in any medieval historical document that a temple was demolished to build a mosque, K. N. Panikker walked. In all of the 134 years of legal battle on the Ayodhya dispute, not even once has any document been produced in court that proved that a temple was demolished there, Noorani also walked. At the same time, Romilla Thapar walked another walk. Which Rama are they speaking of? The Rama of Valmiki’s Ramayana? Or of Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas? Or of the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka? Or of the Jaina Paumachariya? Or of the Malaya Ramayana? Or of the Lankan Ramayana? Or of the Indonesian Ramayana? Ayodhya is there in thousands of Ramayanas. Which Rama’s birthplace do they talk of? Athira felt that it was the 80s of Kerala walking with her.
There were four CISF soldiers at the security post. Two were armed and standing outside and the other two were inside. The officers searched them and let them go.
As they were about to enter, Athira suddenly grabbed the Professor’s hand. They looked at each other.
“Let’s not go there, Romilechi.”
Professor Thapar stopped in her stride. Athira’s hands were cold.
“It is not there that you will find the Babri Masjid. Come.”
She walked back with Romilla Thapar. As an elderly mother would obey her daughter, the professor followed her.
Just before one reaches the security post, there is a huge ground on the left. Both sat there in the shade of a tree. A big group of para-military personnel were training on the eastern side of the ground.
Sitting there, pointing at the western horizon, Romilla Thapar said.
“Athu, that was where stood the three domes that we have seen so often in pictures.
The sun was getting stronger. Romilla Thapar thought of the loss that the sun was sure to experience in that space of the sky with each passing day.
“It was in 1991 that Anatomy of a Confrontation was published. Sarvepilli Gopal was the editor.” In her firm voice, Professor Romilla Thapar described that endeavour. “It was a time when the Ramjanmabhoomi movement had reached a bloody phase. With history and beliefs, law and politics, all muddled together, Ayodhya had become so complex that one could not distinguish between fact and fiction. When rath yatras proceeded, spawning communal riots in their wake, academics felt that their knowledge was a burden. Historians, social scientists, and researchers were reaching the realization that the only thing to be done politically is to convey to the people what they had learned, searched for and discovered. That book contained the articles of people like K.N.Paniker, Susheel Srivastava, A.G.Noorani, Mushirul Hassan, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Romilla Thapar, Aditya Mukherjee, Asghar Ali Engineer, and Amiya Kumar Bagchi. In an attempt to reveal the anatomy of that confrontation, each one of them wrote about one or the other organ. Within a year of the book’s publication, kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid. Whatever it was that we aimed to protect by the writing of the book, it was no more. But the next edition of the book also came out, with a new foreword by S. Gopal, “she said.
From her bag, Sarveppilli Gopal’s voice rose.
“The siege to the basic concepts on which free India has striven to build herself has become more intense. It is hoped that the whole work will enable a proper understanding of this threat and to the survival of a modern democratic India.”
Taking the book from the bag, Athira kissed it.
“No one can destroy the Babri Masjid, Romilechi. Not as long as this book is in our hands. Babri Masjid is the name of that journey we undertake for truth. It is the name of the hope that we can defeat what has happened.”
As she said this, Athira’s throat burned as if licked by a flame. Cracks appeared in her voice. Professor Romilla Thapar held her close.
On the way back, Athira invited into the car a girl of around ten, walking in the sun by the fields. She was very pleased. She was on her way to her elder brother who was a merchant in town. Athira, for no particular reason, asked her name and her address.
(Note: Professor Romilla Thapar and Adv. Athira P. M. are both living people. The story makes use of the political insights of both. The events are imagined.)
Translated from Malayalam by Mundoli Narayanan
Illustrations by Devaprakash