Once upon a time in Muzaffarnagar

It has been almost a year since the western UP riots. I visited Muzaffarnagar in March this year when preparations for the upcoming general elections had just begun. I spoke to many riot survivors, especially women and children, who were still languishing in large numbers in both officially designated and unofficial camps. I wrote my observations in a long-form piece, which was published in Himal Southasian earlier this week.

A shrill cry rends the air. Children stop their play and elders their work. Without a moment’s notice, a motley crowd gathers to watch the spectacle being played out at Harsauli. “That’s Zubeida beating her son,” says one as we look in the direction of the hollering. He’s watching the scene with the vague enthusiasm of a television-serial viewer – not overtly excited at what is clearly a regular phenomenon and yet interested in witnessing a possible twist in this episode of a long-running family soap.

Zubeida is hitting her child with a narrow plank of wood, probably yanked out of a discarded charpoy. A momentary loosening of her grip sets the eight- or nine-year-old scurrying off. She then gets hold of the younger four- or five-year-old. As her new target lets off a wail, the recently liberated one laughs at his mother from a distance. Her attention diverted, she hurls the plank, stones and other objects in the direction of her elder son with the desperation of the vanquished. The little one is let go of, but not without a slap or two.

“How many children does Zubeida have?” I asked one of the onlookers.

“One, two, three,” someone begins to count on his fingers. “I think it’s seven, or eight,” he adds with a shrug.

“She had left a hen and its newborn chicks in the care of her children and had gone to work in the nearby brick kiln,” says another. “She came back to find that all the nine chicks were missing. Possibly, some cat ate them up. The children are now being punished.”

“What will she do? When her husband will return home in the evening, she will be the one to get all the beating. It’s not one or two, but nine, well, nine chicks!” adds a woman in the crowd with empathy.

Camp life is telling on the dwellers, as is evident with someone like Zubeida, but they are in no mood to go back home yet.

Read more of the story published in Himal Southasian here .

Also, well, even though I’m not any much of a photographer, I had taken some pictures with my puny point-and-shoot camera. You may want to check out some of them below.

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