The Capital

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"Genocide is a process. The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech"Adama Dieng, UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide.

***

Over 60 days since I last heard her say, 'Take care.' I wait for her call every day. I keep checking my phone, WhatsApp, emails, Facebook and Instagram if I have missed her message. The government blocked the Internet following the riots that shook the national capital.

The pre-planned pogroms started with hate speech. And the timing was just perfect; the rioters attacked minorities when our country hosted the leader of a superpower western nation to sign trade deals. But instead, the leaders sold their arrogance as the capital bled amidst religious chants that thundered the night sky.

I remember the fear that gripped our hearts as we ran for our lives. I remember the voice of the woman who saved my life. I remember the first time I met her. She is a photographer working for a local newspaper. I am a journalist working for a news network from a city down south. I was assigned to cover the protest of a controversial bill that offered immigrants citizenship based on religion but excluded one minority religion.

I saw her at the vast Bagh, amidst the happy chaos of women singing and dancing patriotic songs. But then came a group of men holding pitchforks, saffron flags and chanting 'traitors'. The rage in their eyes glistened red like the eyes of the devil. In moments, the whole scene changed. Hate shattered the quiet. The stone-pelting rioters barged while the cops aided them with whips of lathi and tear gas.

Fear glued my feet to the ground. That was when she came out of nowhere and pulled me away from the raging mob of men in khaki. I remember running with her, through the maze of streets, up and down narrow alleys, through shuttered stores and pothole lanes, until we reached a spot that overlooked the large Bagh where the protesters had pitched their tents of defiance.

The cloth roof which was painted in tricolour and graffiti of freedom fighters now burnt with fire and claw marks. Tongues of flame and thick black smoke rose above the sky as cars and shuttered shops burnt. It was scary and stunning - the gates of hell - opened right into the heart of the capital.

'What's happening?' I said.

She didn't say anything but gasped and heaved with rapid strings of short breaths. I pulled a water bottle out of my bag and offered it. She gulped it down and whispered a, 'Thank you'.Soon we started speaking. I realized that she was a minority - a woman belonging to other religion. The religion which off late had suffered immense backlash by the ruling party from lynches to economic discrimination. 

She was wearing a black scarf. Anti-minority chants echoed around us. I could see the fear in her eyes. I said, let's run. And so, we did, heaving with sweat running down the back of our necks, fear keeping us on edge. As we ran through the ghost city of dark streets, we started speaking.

She told me her name. I told her mine. We exchanged personal details: our family, job, school life, everything, and everything. Talking to each other kept us going because the eerie silence made us tremble. We walked among shadows of buildings through the narrow lanes of terror. The internet stopped working. Little did we know that it was the beginning of a communication nightmare that would engulf over 30 million souls.

Soon we found refuge in an abandoned building. We locked the doors with makeshift barricades and made our way to the terrace. The capital's skyline brunt with turrets of black smoke and flames that reached for the dull glowing stars. The twilight sky cried with shrieks of fear and mayhem. As night crept into the capital, the moonlit the carcass of hate with a dull hue of white. We sat and started speaking in soft whispers.

She is 29. I am 27. She is an ardent photographer, fan of cricket, loved capturing nature. She loves reading. I spend most of my time reading magazines or getting lost on Netflix, I said. She travels a lot. I do my best to travel every six months alone. She moved away from her home in the valley after losing her parents in a terror attack, she said. 

My heart skipped a beat. She is from the valley - a dark geographic blot in the map of our democracy. I live with my parents whose favorite pastime is to ask me when I will get married, I managed to say.

Her face lit with a smile and I realized for the first time how beautiful she looked. Despite the evil that flooded the cold capital air, I smiled. As minutes passed, we talked about everything there is to talk about in moments of fear. Eventually, I cried in frustration: 'How did this happen?! How did we end up electing a fascist?!'

She smiled a knowing smile. It didn't happen overnight, she said. It happened every day. She gave a short monologue that will forever be etched to memories.

It began when we started forwarding unverified fake news on WhatsApp, she said. It started when the media failed to do its job and stopped asking questions to those in power and peddled the government's propaganda. It started when that fake news fueled hate, pitting against each other based on caste, creed, and religion.

It started when we lost our sanity amidst the billion memes and trolls that flood social media. It started when honest journalists, government workers, judges, lawyers or cops were fired or transferred for 'constant interference', whereas godmen were given a platform to speak ridiculous pseudoscience and spread their morbid misogynistic belief.

It started when we were asked to prove our nationality if we couldn't stand for the national anthem in theatres. It started when sporting a beard or a bindi or a scarf or a turban, meant proving our loyalty to the nation. It started when religion was used as a tool to debate and hate rather than progress with peace. It started when criticizing leaders meant being called 'anti-national'.

I was stunned by her truth. Every single word. Silence cloaked the city and so did our conversation. We found it hard to keep our eyes open as fatigue pushed away from the fear that tugged our body and heart. When we woke up, the early crack of dawn stole its way among the shadows of buildings and carcass of burnt cars.

As we explored the dystopian capital of hate, I learned more about her and even found myself. I liked the way she waved her hands while snapping photographs. I admired how she paused, took a deep breath and pressed the button to snap her subject. We went about doing our job: she captured photos, I wrote articles on my notes. But the Internet shutdown had left as in the dark ages and we couldn't file our work to our respective newsrooms.

'It's okay,' she said. 'We will find another way.'

I liked it when she said, 'We'. We will do this. We can go together. We will finish this article. We can interview this person. We will meet the deadline. To have someone you trust at divisive times was a miracle and magic. For two weeks, we traveled far and beyond across the dark capital, through barren roads and deserted commercial hubs. We found refuge in homes of great humans who offered shelter. We heard about their fears, anger and doubtful future.

When it was time for me to leave the capital, I had to bid her goodbye. I had fallen in love with her by then. I knew she felt the same, but I could tell she was waiting for the right time to confess. I kissed her goodbye. We exchanged numbers. Words choked our throats when it mattered the most. But my dozen news report and her photos rippled across the globe.

Finally, on the 63rd day since the riots, the Internet shutdown was lifted. I tried calling her, but she wouldn't pick up. I booked a flight to reach the capital yet again and visit her home.

I hope that she is waiting. Waiting for me to give a kiss and hold my hands at the Bagh of women singing songs.

I hope that she tells me that she loves me before it's too late before fascism kills our relationship.

I hope we talk about our feelings before one of us gets caught in the crossfire of protests and curfews, stones, or guns.

I hope to tell her that I love her.

As I knock her door rehearsing the words I want to say, for the first time in a very long time, I feel hopeful.

And it feels so good.

The End.

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