This is a memoir, a political novel, a coming-of-age story. In his debut work, journalist Zeyad Khan casts a largely dispassionate eye at his hometown Aligarh; the gaze kindling to warmth and affection as the book progresses.
Look at the way he introduces us to Aligarh, a city of a million people in western UP, lying in the fertile land between the two holiest rivers of north India—Ganga and Yamuna—known mostly for its university (the AMU), its lock industry, and for being the place where the idea of Pakistan is said to have been born. As an afterthought, he adds that Aligarh is where Chandrachur Singh, the actor who got to woo Aishwarya Rai in Josh, comes from. Later, we learn that the music composer Ravindra Jain is also from Aligarh.
Khan tells us of the mohallas of the city and we want to say, don’t tell us more. Because we soon learn these are the neighbourhoods, which witness repeated violence expressed on different levels, starting with taunts, loud aggressive protests, stone-throwing, arson, physical attacks, and ending with acts of murder. These are the neighbourhoods where people keep packing their valuables, preparing to run to safer grounds the moment a riot starts.
The book gives us a close look at the psyche of a mob and a riot, and the frightening power of rumours. It also shows how easily and quickly conflagrations start up, with the kindling seemingly always at hand, and never allowed to become cold ashes. It tells of survival techniques that border on the surreal; how everyone helps themselves to bricks lying around when a riot happens, sometimes demolishing an old wall for more arsenal to attack the ‘marauding enemy’.
The author introduces us to his neighbours, takes us on a walkthrough of his large rambling house, Farsh Manzil, with many members of the extended family staying in separate quarters. The Manzil exists in a space between a glorious past and a harsh present, where plants sprout from corners or slither from centuries-old walls; domed minarets befriend TV antennas and on the inside are motifs, crafted pillars and expertly cut arches. We get to know Khan’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
The little boy is initially quite happy when there are riots because it meant skipping school. There is a passage where he tells us of a switch hanging from his front room at the Manzil, with a button, which the curious little boy presses. The button is actually an alarm wherein a bulb lights up in the neighbourhood warning of rioters moving across the “unofficial line of control” between the Hindu-majority Kanwari Ganj and Muslim-majority Upar Kot. He tells us how he’d go visiting his Hindu friend Hemant; fear and prejudice in his heart. He learns how to read the air for signs of an impending confrontation. He also learns the leitmotif of their existence: the earth doesn’t stop spinning after these riots. The culprits are never caught. Justice is never served. The victims’ trauma is never resolved. He grows up and recognises that Hindus have a binary perception of Muslims: the fundamentalist and the modern Muslim. The last part of the book sees Khan in Delhi, a Muslim watching yet another communal riot happen.
The political becomes the personal here, as the author introduces the hapless victims and dangerously volatile aggressors of the town, showing how the known neighbour can suddenly attack you, how the normalisation of these frequent cycles is the only way for Aligarh to move on. These are not politicians. These are balloon- sellers, shopkeepers, tobacconists, locksmiths, men and women on the street. The two communities dislike and distrust each other with a passion that reminds the author of blazing forest fires. They kind of tolerate each other because it is good for business, says Khan. Every now and then, Hindus and Muslims found themselves locked in heated battles over inconsequential issues, curfew is declared and businesses would suffer, after which they got tired… but did it again after the next quarrel. All of this is overseen by a largely absent state.
The author’s closing argument is that Aligarh still retains its pockets of amity, but after all the reader has read, it is unlikely there will be many buyers of the theory. His calls for forgiveness, co-existence, empathy cannot but fail to move readers, though. City on Fire is a disturbing read, but then the reader knows what to expect with a title like that. The book could have profited with some careful editing, especially the last part, but the story Khan has to tell rises above the occasional incoherence of language.