He was sitting at the balcony that night. Lanky legs that seemed too long for his body fitting through the bars of the balcony pillars and hanging out, swinging merrily. The dull evening air , limp and heavy with the stench of a whole days breaths of an overcrowding of humans didn’t seem to bother him. Young free mind only registered the echo of excited voices, various aromas and array of colours that covered the street below him.
For him it was the usual evening. The vendor selling the savoury pani puri had set his shop already. He was readying his fare and serving a few early birds all at once. His young apprentice, a boy almost of the same age as him, sat smashing and mixing the potato filling and chopping onions. He wondered whether the boy got to eat the snack every day, all day. It was his favourite thing, and his mother hardly allowed him to eat it once a month. He was envious, and kept looking ardently.
To his young mind, nothing seemed different. And the quite warmth pulled him to sleep.
Yet there stifling feeling to that evening’s air. It was a feeling off the roads below. Somehow the bustle of activity was strained, not as happening, not as natural.
The man selling the balloons was absent today. The man with the clips and clutches wasn’t shouting his wares. There were strange men on the roads that day. Men who kept looking here and there, never in one place. Unusual in itself.
As the evening progressed, the roads seemed to empty instead of fill. Air filled with tension, fear on everyone’s minds. The air slowly becoming cooler, but the evening heavier.
Later, he described having opened his eyes suddenly, and sitting up straight. No, he hadn’t been startled awake. Just like his sleep had broken and didn’t come back. He’d sleepily rubbed his eyes and looked across through a yawn. Blinking awake, he wondered where the Sharma’s that lived opposite were that night, as their house wasn’t lit up as it was always by this time.
It wasn’t until 10 mins later that he saw them. Men in orange (saffron, but what did the little boy know) headbands, sinister looking and fishy, milled around. Seemed like they’d come out of nowhere. Calls were being made, the streets slowly emptied more.
The roar of their oncoming voices reached him earlier than the sight of them. It was the loud shouting, almost screaming of a huge number of people. They came in soon after, torches burning bright. Something told him to stay out of sight. So he pulled in his legs and peeped from behind the balcony railings. They had vicious looking long curved knives, and were filled with so much hate, shouting slogans, blood in their eyes.
Lost in the melee, he hadn’t heard his mother screaming for him, wanting to huddle up to safety.
Later, he’d be at once grateful, and at the same time in tears that he hadn’t heard and gone in.
He never saw them enter the building opposite to him, he saw them burn his neighbour’s house down, he saw them behead his friend’s father. All he did was sit in shock, cowering in a corner, making sure he didn’t scream because that would get them here, to his house, to where his mother and father and baby sister were.
It was his mother’s scream that jolted him out of his shock. He’d peeped through the balcony window inside the room .
She was looking at him, calling out to him. They were throwing her around like a doll, climbing on her, tearing her apart literally. And all he did was stare. No scream, no sound at all. He didn’t go to her help. Just stayed safe. Finally her screams stopped.
They left. An hour. He didn’t move. Some returned.
He knew the men this time. It was that friendly pandit from the temple down the road. They were counting bodies, looking for his. The pundit knew he was missing, called out for him, searched the whole house. On one moment, dulled by a false sense of security, he almost called out to him. Yet, he knew, by some guardian instinct , he wasn’t a friend.
For years later, he dreaded nights. They always came to him in his dreams. His mother, calling, begging for him to come save her. His little sister, wailing till they smashed her head with the butt of their gun. He knew there was nothing he could have done, yet that guilt of having survived when they didn’t was as great as they guilt of feeling relieved at having survived. He had lost everything that night.
They said they hadn’t seen a more determined young man. His version of the events had been clear, unwavering. His memory of the event almost photogenic, his willpower never failing. He picked out the faces with clear confidence, gave his statements with utmost surety. He was a journalist’s dream. The police had been of a mind to give the case a miss. But this young boy, so sure of everything he saw, was obviously a liability. Even the powers that be couldn’t erase it all. He was a sensation now, all over the media. In the age of the internet, his video viral, watched and downloaded by thousands, support pouring in from everywhere.
They called him a hero. All he felt was a failure.