Saturday 2 March 2024

City on Fire - A Boyhood in Aligarh by Zayed Masroor Khan


‘I will never have the courage to completely abandon my home , Aligarh- a beautiful curse’


I assume for many people, especially from urban areas, reading Zeyad Masroor Khan’s poignant coming of age memoir, City on Fire (Harper Collins, 2023) would be like entering a parallel universe where you never know when your neighborhood will turn on you or your family and a riot can break out at the drop of a hat. Having experienced this from close quarters once, I can assure you that it can be a horrible experience.  For others who have grown up in similar and small communally sensitive towns like Meerut or Moradabad will be able to identify more with his story which is based in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh.

Aligarh is normally in the news because of AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) or due to the recent news of request for its name change to ‘Hari’garh from ‘Ali’garh by a section of the right-wing. Only a few kilometers away from the University, are located densely populated colonies with crisscrossing narrow roads (‘How can a lane be this narrow?’) which have often been ravaged by deadly riots in the past and are sharply divided on communal lines namely Hindu areas and Muslim areas. The author grew up in one such colony (Uber Kot) in his ancestral home (Farsh Manzil) in a joint family. The author tracks his journey from growing up in this Muslim ghetto to going to school and university, first in Aligarh and then in Delhi to working in Delhi and finally being back to Aligarh to focus on his writing. It is quite interesting to realize that even though there’s always an underlying animosity between the two neighborhoods, they also cannot do without each other because of the commercial inter-dependence on each other. At another level it is frightening to imagine that the person whom you’ve know for a long time and been talking normally all this time might just take your life the next moment! The author also interweaves in this journey, the personal happening in his life as the joint family grew and the tensions it created within. I think he has nicely balanced this internal personal narrative along with the external.

While in Delhi he realizes that the hatred and animosity he thought he had left behind in Aligarh had followed him to the big city as he is forced to abandon his home in Delhi during the peak of the anti-CAA protest which lead to riots in parts of the capital city. As they say the more you try to run from something, the more you may be nearing it.

However, the author ends on a reconciliatory and hopeful note in spite of what we have witnessed in the last decade, which I guess is a testament to  his love for his ‘home’.

-  Amir Bashir

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