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A destiny in Aligarh

- BOOK REVIEW SAURABH SHARMA The reviewer is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist. On Instagram/x: @writerly_life

Upar Kot in Aligarh, a city in Uttar Pradesh, is where journalist, writer, and documentar­y filmmaker Zeyad Masroor Khan spent his childhood. It is a “place where small houses pack into each other to a point of annoyance amid grand mosques that dot its dense neighbourh­oods,” he notes in this classic memoir City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh.

In general, one’s childhood is a scintilla of emotions, but in the author’s case it appears to become a handy guide to survive a riot. That’s how City on Fire begins—in the middle of a riot in which people are escaping to avoid meeting the inevitable. The scene involves the author’s elder brother, who is “more excited than afraid” as a bullet misses his “ear by a few inches”, his terrified, eightmonth pregnant sister, and his mother determined not to allow her home to be “used for rioting”, while his father is away “at his office at the university on the other side of the town.” Bricks. Bullets. Blood. They witness it all. Words are inadequate when it comes to encapsulat­ing the immensity and fragility of this situation facing these people and its lifelong impact on their psyche.

As it happens, this was an everyday thing in this Muslim ghetto.

Divided into three parts—childhood, Boyhood, and Manhood—and 20 chapters, this book elevates Aligarh’s associatio­n beyond its almost routine linkage with news regarding the imposition of Section 144 and riots that have plagued this beautiful, messy cobweb of a city. The book also offers a playful cautionary note in the beginning: That storytelle­rs from Aligarh exaggerate. There’s a lightness to this that goes on to meet the details the author offers about Farsh Manzil, his ancestral home. Its principal storytelle­r, however, is Badi Ammi, the author’s aunt, his father’s eldest sister and his “favourite relative”.

Not only does she tell him stories like a “witness on a payroll”— notice the metaphor the writer employs —but she also becomes his source of outlining their family history, involving supernatur­al figures, too. One of them is Sayyed Baba. Aligarh is my hometown as well, but I come from a Hindu family. However, we, too, worship Sayyed Baba—a fact I learnt after my father’s death when my grandmothe­r asked me to buy one ladoo for Hanuman and one for Sayyed Baba for the Diwali puja.

In a society where hate is increasing­ly inspiring purchase, this patchwork of coexistenc­e is lost on its people. Had the author been consumed by it as well, he’d have believed that India was not his country, that Aligarh was an unsafe place for him from where he shouldn’t return but leave . “People, traumas and memories we try to forget, lie in wait like dormant volcanoes ready to erupt, simmering beneath the surface of time,” the author writes. “As I carefully placed a decade of my existence in three heartless cartons,” he writes, as he finds himself leaving after the riots in northeast Delhi, where I live, “a truth was forever imprinted in my consciousn­ess: The only thing we should leave behind was the illusion of a belief that we can leave things behind.”

But is it possible to leave behind your memories? Try this: As a four-year-old you press a harmless button only to find that it is an alarm, alerting your neighbourh­ood to an impending mob attack. Or perhaps place yourself in a school bus surrounded by a Hindu mob, pelting stones at it, baying for Muslim blood, and find yourself identified as Muslim by your neighbour. Or imagine the look in the eye of a neighbour in the capital city whose admiration for you as a journalist soon transforms into suspicion when you reveal your name.

Hurt doesn’t erase itself. It lingers to tell a story. And Zeyad Khan is one of the master storytelle­rs. In this engrossing memoir not only does he recount each incident, rumour, and story poignantly, reminiscen­t of Joan Didion’s who-i-amand-where-i-was writing oeuvre — albeit stylistica­lly different. But he also laces them with dollops of humour. There’s another remarkable quality about his use of language. It’s as innocent as a child’s when he describes his childhood days. Sample this “oftused joke in Aligarh” that had me in splits: Is this Tala or is it Allah Tala? For a city famous for its locks, it’s a layered joke. Then, when his Badi Ammi tells him that it’s a sin if one who had remembered the Quran forgets it as his father did, he imagines his “grandparen­ts being removed from the highest place in heaven.”

As we’re introduced to the author’s boyhood, the dramatical­ly changing Indian landscape on the cusp of the millennium when its liberalise­d economy is interspers­ed with seminal events such as 9/11 and the attack on the Indian Parliament. The prose here is tense with mixed feelings one experience­s with everything new. In this part, Mr Khan graduates from cassettes and comics, and starts getting fascinated by Osama Bin Laden, finds himself attracted to girls, and recognises himself to be an arrogant young adult who tries to negotiate with his identity by being a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, witnesses friendship­s blossoming and failing, and, most importantl­y, confronts loss. Meticulous, visceral, and soul-baring, City on Fire is a passageway to understand­ing how divisive India has become but offers hope despite the worrisome reality facing it.

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 ?? ?? CITY ON FIRE: A BOYHOOD IN ALIGARH Author: Zeyad Masroor Khan Publisher: Harpercoll­ins Pages: 312 Price: ~599
CITY ON FIRE: A BOYHOOD IN ALIGARH Author: Zeyad Masroor Khan Publisher: Harpercoll­ins Pages: 312 Price: ~599

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