Sara Afreen prays every night. And just about every night, as the namaz winds down, Sara begins to mutter, “Allah, send my Abbu back to me.” Her muttering segues into a gush of tears. Her father has not returned to her ever since he was lodged, two years ago, in Delhi’s Mandoli Jail. At times, she complains to her mother Fehmida, “Allah just does not listen to me.”
Sara is seven years old.
She reminisces every morning, without fail, how Abbu would gently lift her up from bed, cradle her in his arms, and dress her up for school. She turns morose as she sees other fathers drop their children at school. She occasionally dreams of Abbu bringing her gifts. On such occasions she asks, “Why doesn’t Allah listen to me?”
Stoic is 13-year-old Zaki Ahmed, Sara’s brother. Yet, on three or four nights every month, Fehmida finds Zaki tossing and turning in bed. She asks what he is thinking of. “About Abbu,” he admits.
Tears and sleeplessness are the state’s gifts to the children.
Their father is Tasleem Ahmed, who went to Jaffrabad one evening in January 2020, to witness, at the invitation of his friends, the sit-in the women had organised against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
The energy there was irresistible. And so, every evening, after shuttering the coaching centre for students he ran at Sangam Vihar, a labyrinthine colony in South Delhi, he would ride to Jaffrabad, 35 km away.
From being just a participant, Tasleem graduated to delivering speeches. But he made it a point to return to his family in Sangam Vihar every night, the reason he was not at Jaffrabad as mobs disrupted protests—and rioting broke out.
His absence did not matter, for a police posse, in civvies, arrived at their house on April 8, at 5.30 pm. Fehmida was still on the prayer mat, having just completed her namaz. Some of them barged into her room. Kicking the mat, their boss said, with certainty, that she was Gulfisha, the leader of the Jaffrabad protest.
No, she said, fishing out her ID to prove she was Fehmida Khatoon, wife of Tasleem, mother of his two children, who were then, mercifully, playing on the terrace. The cop said the photograph did not match her face. She said IDs fade with time—a mismatch between the face and its photo is inevitable. Putting a revolver to her head, he said, “You speak too much.” He sent men to the terrace to verify her claim.
They tossed around household stuff in search of weapons they believed had been concealed. They said they were arresting Tasleem. Why, she shot back, he was not at Jaffrabad during the rioting. “Stop arguing or we will take you away too,” the boss said, adding, “You will now see his face ten years after.” The children, meanwhile, had come down from the terrace. They started crying, as she too did. And they cried through the night, sensing, as does every citizen caught in the state’s crosshairs, that sorrow and tears would now be their fate.
Fleetingly, hope seduced them, as Tasleem was released on April 29. They rented another accommodation. But this symbolic new beginning was aborted as Tasleem was arrested on June 26, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for fomenting the 2020 Delhi riots in order to bring India into disrepute. Such an ignoble deed blamed on such pathetically powerless people, for whom the faith in the divine is the only resource they can depend on during their troubled days!
Early October, she and the children met Tasleem in jail, with a glass wall separating them. All four began crying. It was a lament for the death of freedom, for the ripping apart of the familial knots tying them together. Consider also this: during one of Tasleem’s court appearances, Sara ran to Tasleem, who swooped her into his arms. “This is not allowed,” the constable admonished.
UAPA seeks to kill love, even the love of a seven-year-old for her father.
Initially, in Tasleem’s absence, Fehmida says tears would just keep flowing; her head would spin, making her fear a fainting spell. She steadied herself after meeting the relatives of those who, like Tasleem, had been booked under UAPA. She realised there were many trapped in this Kafkaesque world. Their pep talk bolstered her spirit to endure.
Yet, living on meagre means has been tough for Fehmida. For instance, she and the children could meet Tasleem in jail more frequently than just once in two months, as they do, but she cannot afford the Rs 600 required to travel there. They make do with a 10-minute video call every week. Whether then or in jail, Tasleem tries to distract Sara from her woes. He asks her to recite multiplication tables, which she does in a voice muffled by tears she struggles to hold back.
Then, too, she asks: “Why does not Allah listen to me?” Fehmida says, “Be patient.”
A road in Delhi has been named as Kartavya Marg. Fehmida waits, as does Zaki, and Sara cries. There ain’t no road in the Capital called Adhikaar Marg.
The writer is a senior journalist.
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