26, Nov 2017 | Rahul Dholakia
For generations our family has been an integral part of Gujarat. My grandfather not only played a pivotal role in the independence of Gujarat from Bombay State, but also chaired the Hindu Maha Sabha Chapter of Ahmedabad. He often was host to leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherji as well as musicians like Bismillah Khan. My father was a prominent activist in the Student Movement against the British Raj in 1942. My uncle’s father was the eminent author Ramanlal Vasantlal Desai, who captured the ethos of Gujarat through literature. Most of my family has contributed to the history of Gujarat – socially, culturally or politically. So when an incident shakes Gujarat, it concerns us on a different level. “Even though Ahmedabad was the hub of the Muslim league” my father recalls, “there was never hatred; Political ideologies never affected Social lives”. Today I feel, the times have changed, people have changed, and their values have changed.
Ahmedabad, to me was a place which brought great joy in bringing families together each vacation for celebrating festivals and marriages. After shifting to America, our visits to this city were fewer, but no matter where we were and what we were doing we celebrated Utran in Ahmedabad. We did the same on January 14th 2002. My friend Dara Mody, was also there with his wife Rupa and two children. We flew kites and Tukkals from six that morning to late that night, enjoying the great joy of being together- little did I know that this was to be the last time we saw Dara happy.
On February 27th the horrendous Godhra incident happened. Sitting in America, I had no clue of either the impact or the repercussions this were to have. We passed it off as a sad tragedy committed by barbaric and uncivilized people. Next day February 28th, my friend Piraan, Dara’s cousin in New Jersey, called me and broke the news of the Riots.
In Ahmedabad riots normally started after breakfast and ended before dinner. This was not unusual, but when we learnt that this time they continued for three days, we were worried. Stories of gruesome violence started trickling in. We were scared. We made phone calls to and learnt that all our friends and families were safe, save one. Dara’s. His family was attacked- and son was missing! Almost a week gone by and Azar was still missing.
The memories of the Bhiwandi Riots flashed before my eyes. In the thick of those riots, I had to go to Delhi for a scholarship interview. The unreserved third class coach of the train I was in was packed with Muslims. The tension was obvious. As we passed Vapi station, an elderly Muslim gentleman offered me some parathas. He sensed my reluctance and smiled, “they are home made” and with equal subtlety, he offered the same to his wife and children. The ice was broken, and for the next 24 hours, we discussed everything from Burkhas to Turkhman gate; from Pakistan and Kashmir to Bhiwandi and Aurangzeb. The initial fear, apprehension and bias had developed into one of trust. It’s then that I realized that non prejudicial dialogue can clear so many misconceptions. You stop believing in what you are taught and start believing in what you learn. This philosophy laid the foundations of Parzania.
In April of 2002, I went to India and began writing Parzania. In the process of writing the first draft, I was pretty sure the film had to be told with truth and without sensationalizing the issue. I had no political agenda and this was not a propaganda film. This belief was reinstated when I went to Ahmedabad and met Dara and his wife. This was the first time we were meeting after the riots and I had no courage to face my friend who was so devastated and shattered. I remember hugging Dara as both of us wept profusely. All he said was, ”My son…”
He had hope in his eyes and tears on his face.
Later that evening, Dara took me to his home. The major discussion was obviously about Azar- His son was missing, not dead. He had to come back. Dara was never angry with the Hindus or the Muslims, which would have been the most natural reaction. He was disturbed and sad. He failed to realize why and how this happened. I had no answer.
My first draft took a new turn. I had to find the “why” and “how”. It was not possible for me to visit Babur’s India, but I could most certainly visit Modi’s Godhra. Next day, I skipped my nephews wedding engagement, and drove off to Godhra. On reaching the city, I could very easily sense the tension in the air. In Godhra, the railway tracks divide the Hindu houses from the Muslim dwellings. The scars were still fresh, and I felt like an insensitive tourist when I pulled out my DV Cam and started asking questions. The burnt coach was parked on the tracks and I walked hesitantly towards it. Entering the bogie was not what I had planned, but then this was where it all supposedly started.
My visit to Godhra left me with more unanswered questions. What happened on 27th? Why vendors were allowed that day when they had stopped them the night before? In such a sensitive spot, how did they mastermind the burning of the train? Why was the material evidence destroyed? Was the fire an accident or an act of planned terror? Whatever were the case- innocent people had died, and some one was responsible. To know the “How” and “Why” of Ahmedabad, it was important to know the “How” and “Why” of Godhra. Parzania was no longer an easy film. It needed extensive research, and my first draft went straight into the garbage can.
Back in my home in Los Angeles, I saw a documentary on South Africa, and how the whites had confessed their crimes in an open forum and the blacks in a magnanimous gesture had pardoned them for the genocide. If the Afrikaans can attempt to resolve their age old problem with maturity, so should we. I believed that an open dialogue was very necessary if these tragedies are to be prevented. As a Hindu Gujarati, I felt an urge and desire to ask for forgiveness for Ahmedabad from the affected communities. Making Parzania was no more a moral responsibility; it was a social one too.
9-11 had occurred 6 months prior to the Gujarat riots. Islam was a “bad” word in America. Bush had seized the opportunity and attacked Afghanistan and Iraq in his “war against terror”. The media was all supportive and so were many citizens. A situation that was some what similar to Gujarat. However angry they may have been, the Americans did not go on a killing spree. They did not take the streets for more violence, instead organized anti –war marches and peace rallies. You cannot fight Talibanism with Talibanism. Such profound wisdom from a civilization we dismiss as an ignorant 200 years old! The people of Gujarat should have known better, and if they reacted that way, why didn’t the government stop them?
My faith in Indian secularism was endorsed when I learnt that the riots did not spread beyond Gujarat. Bombay is an equally volatile city, but hats off to the police, public and politicians to have controlled the situation. I was now certain that Parzania would have an audience who would see the film in totality and not in parts. People would see the whole picture and over look petty issues.
The war on Terror had created so many Daras. There was a Dara in New York, Darfur, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq- the whole world. The premise of Parzania was no more a Gujarat issue- it was a global issue. How right Gandhi was, when he said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The film was larger than I thought and Gandhi’s ideology had to be pulled out from dusty library books and weaved into the film. Parzania got a new direction.
Back on the research table, I found that Godhra had more grey than appeared initially. If my film was to be believable I had to be politically correct. I was not to be the Michael Moore of India but follow my natural instinct and go with Dara’s story, which was so much more relevant and necessary if I were to answer the “Why” he had questioned me.
I went back to Ahmedabad, this time with a tape recorder. Rupa who had witnessed the massacre and lived the traumatic experience narrated it to me. If sitting in their drawing room and hearing the story unfold was unnerving and emotionally draining, imagine what they must have gone through. Their daughter, who had also witnessed the atrocities, was dying every day with the memories and staying alive only to see her brother come back. While Dara traveled to every priest, pundit, temple and mosque in search of his son, the mother was living with guilt of having separated from her Azar for no fault of hers.
Life can be so ironic. Here I was sitting and talking to a family who was shaken from their roots. Their home was destroyed; their family estranged, their faith shattered and most importantly lost their son. The only purpose that remained in their life was to find a reason for existence. Without a doubt, this was the story I had to tell in Parzania.
Almost 15 years after the tragedy, Dara still continues to wait for his missing son to return home. My guilt has lessened to a certain extent but Rupa’s guilt remains. I am not sure if in the film I have answered the ‘how’ and ‘why’ which Dara asked me. But like him all I can do is hope this film makes a difference in some ones life and helps him find his son.
“Never in my life did I imagine that religion can be both the cause and solution of the problem “ – a line in Parzania.
Rahul Dholakia is a filmmaker and screenwriter, best known for his National Award winning film Parzania.