“When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favor. And if they pull that knife which they stuck in my back all the way out they still have not done me any favor. They should not have stabbed me in the back in the first place.” – (Malcolm X, The End Of White World Supremacy, 150)
‘These giant gates, here in your university, remind me of prison.’
We two were entering Victoria Gate after he had captured its pictures from several angles.
‘Don’t know why I am remembering the jail days this much today.’ He said while giving a cutting look at the gate keeper who was smoking a beedi.
‘This is why our country is corrupt to this level. See, he is smoking immediately under the ‘No Smoking’ poster.’
I was tired of telling him stories and history of AMU buildings since I went to catch him up from his guesthouse room at 5 pm. He was asleep. I had to knock several times but it was only after I shouted my identity that he opened the door.
‘I am sorry, I slept too much. Actually I didn’t sleep last night and early morning we started for here.’ He said while getting ready to have a look of the university campus. He had requested the organizers of the convention in which he has spoken as the chief guest in the morning to arrange this for him. He told them he longed to come to AMU, ‘among his people’. He was also complaining that it took us this much time to invite him here.
Naturally, he has to be surprised. For fourteen long years he was behind the bars over false charges of terror and even after his acquittal and declaration of his innocence it took six more years for ‘his own people’ to invite him home and give him a bit of solidarity.
Mohammad Aamir Khan, whom I first came to know by his book ‘Framed as a Terrorist’ and since then I had been waiting to see this brave man, was invited to deliver a lecture in a convention on ‘State Targeting Minorities: From Wrongful Incarceration to Extrajudicial Killing’ organized by Students Union of AMU. It was only my eagerness to see this man closely that I offered myself as volunteer and then as a guide in the evening to escort him through AMU campus.
The first impression about him was brutally against my imagination. I had imagined him a kind of movie character; absent, broken, melancholic and silent. This was what I could have thought about a person who has spent 14 years of his most precious young life in prison and that without any crime. Surprisingly, I found him more cheering and lively than myself. He is sharp, he listens attentively, gets to the point immediately and responds carefully. Although he flows in his thoughts sometimes, his brain works faster.
And he talks, a plenty.
When he arrived in the morning in a cab I surprised him with a tight Aligarian hug. Now it was his turn. The very first question he asked me was about the direction. ‘In which direction of the city this university is situated?’ Damn! Why would I know? Why even would I care about the direction? But as I walked with him I noticed he always makes a calculation of direction with everything.
‘You know most of my prison time I spent in solitary confinement.’ He would keep on talking. ‘I don’t have so many friends.’ And then with childish curiosity he would ask, ‘what is that building?’
‘Maulana Azad Library, we call it MAL, it was once the biggest library in Asia. Now the Chinese own a bigger one.’ And then we would go inside and he would take the pictures in and around it. In between I would try to be personal so as to know him closely. ‘In your book, I read about your wife. I think she is a great personality.’ A homely color of relaxation and respect turned his face bright. ‘She is really a great lady. One cannot imagine how difficult it is to wait for fourteen years for someone. She believed in me when world ignored me.’
‘One day some filmmakers came to see me. After we had talked at length I told them about my wife and they said a film should exclusively be made on her.’
‘Yes, for sure.’
‘But she does not like this. She does not like to come in media or anywhere at front. She says we have to come out of old memories and start a new life.’
And I knew this man does not agree with her.
As I ‘framed’ his personality bit by bit in my mind I knew he lives back and forth. Half of his conscious and unconscious life remains in the past. This might simply be due to his awareness activism for innocent victims. He has to talk almost every day about his prison days. And so the trauma remains fresh in his memory.
‘Shahid (Azmi) was with me for two years in Tihad. We were friends. He was a good man. You know, Usman….’
I corrected him.
‘Sorry. You know there are good people also in jails. Or, I would say everyone in jail is not a bad person. I always remember the words of my father when he came to see me last time in jail before his untimely death. He told me to seek company of good people. If you are seeing me today in this condition it is only because I spent my time either with good books or with relatively good people otherwise it is very easy to destroy yourself in jail.’
‘Were you in contact with Shahid Azmi after he was released?’
‘No, I only learned in news paper about his Shahadat, after a decade.’
‘This is Sir Syed House’. He did not understand.
‘Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the university lived here. It is a museum now and unfortunately closed in evening.’
He took pictures.
‘What is in the museum?’
‘I think they preserved it in the condition as Sir Syed was to keep this; his furniture, study utensils and things like that.’ I did not tell him that I haven’t myself visited it more than once in a decade.
‘And what is that mosque, behind? Is it the same they say the largest in the university?’
‘No, that is different; Jama Masjid, we are going there next to the Bab-e-Syed, the main gate you see in every picture of the university. This mosque is a new one.’
And when we arrived there at the end of venture, he did not enter the mosque. ‘We are already late for the evening meeting we had to attend. They might be waiting for us. I will take pictures from here itself.’ We were standing at historic Strachey hall.
Dusk was falling. Birds were returning to nests. Evening, as always in AMU, was beautiful.
‘I am sorry; I took your too much time.’
‘Please, rather I thank you that you accepted our invitation. And this, this personal meeting, I would never forget. It was my dream to meet you.’ We walked towards Shamshad Market via Aftab hall.
‘I think you organized this program in haste. If there was time, I had thought to talk to you to change the title of the convention. You know Usman bhai…’
I corrected him again.
‘I am sorry, I am still going through therapy, I am weak in remembering names and such things. That torture has still some effect on me. I get night mares, often and when the winter arrives I get ache in my muscles and joints.’
‘I am sorry’
‘It’s all right. I was saying this title of yours was not wise, you see, directly going against the state, is not wise.’
I didn’t say anything. I could see he was not speaking of himself.
‘And you should also have called some fellow justice loving countrymen.’
‘Yes, that we tried but could not get one on time, we sent invitation to many and they all excused for some other business.’ I said. I looked on his face and something came in mind, about a Hollywood movie ‘The Shutter Island’ and a phrase ‘defense mechanism’.
‘Do you smoke?’ he asked as he saw a paan-vendor.
‘No thanks. I don’t. You want? I will buy one for you.’ He refused and paid for himself.
‘Actually I also don’t smoke but only occasionally. People smoke when they are stressed or sad, I smoke when I am happy, in enjoying mood. I came here today, I saw all this, these students, I feel as if I am one of them. I might have been here, for a degree or two, if this all wouldn’t have happened.’ He gave an innocent smile while lighting a match and his cigarette got flame, he laughed, ‘see, such a naïve’.
‘In life, you go by yourself if you need something, in jail things come to you.’ He said while blowing small puffs slowly.
‘That is why, as I said, it is very easy to spoil yourself in jails.’
I received a call, people were waiting for us.
‘It was only my father’s last words that…are they calling? Let us hurry.’ And we moved swiftly.
‘Now when I miss abbu, I go to graveyard to offer fatiha. I say it from the gate and return. I don’t know in which grave he sleeps.’
(Mohammad Aamir Khan, recently received an amount of five lakhs from Delhi police as compensation money after he has spent fourteen years in jail without any crime and after six more years since honorable court declared him innocent.)
Image credits: Author