Rohit is a 27 year old writer from India. He is a thinker by nature and believes that words have an extremely specific purpose - to impact lives. He writes in multiple genres and likes to experiment with his writing style frequently. Works of Fraz Kafka, Cormac Mccarthy and George Orwell have always inspired him. He has written his first fiction novel and it will be published in India this year.
Beneath the Shadows of Stars
“You’ve got to choose a side, mate.”
“I choose the side of this world.”
“That’s no choice.”
“No. I think that was the original choice. Before any of it, any of this shit, happened. Before all the self-righteous choice-makers pushed one of their choices down my throat. I think it is still the choice most people crave, only to be suppressed. You know what? I think there should be a country with people like me, all those who want to choose the side of this world; a country with no religion, no race, only people.”
“Yeah? And what would that country be called?”
“Simple. It will be called the Earth.” I paused. “At least till someone divides it.”
I think I understood that day for the first time in my life why Azhar never talked to any of us for days each time Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Indian Mujahideen, or any other Muslim terrorist organization bombed any part of the world. He didn’t feel scared for himself or his people; he didn’t support them but he didn’t feel shamed by their actions; he simply felt divided, disconnected from this world and its atrocities and barbarism. I understood it because I was feeling the same that day.
The war, as they called it, those who fought and died in it, was not something I wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t my choice and it wasn’t what I needed to protect my rights, not that day at least. And yet, wanting it or not, I was being made a part of it, forced by the leaders of my world, who every day came out in public calling for support, calling their people to come out, to pressurize governments and citizens, to come back, to shell out money, lives, families, to shell out freedom of choice.
It wasn’t the first time this world was seeing a world war, when more than just a handful of countries were fighting for the fate of all, but maybe it was still unique, because never before had every square foot of land been so diverse and yet so similar. There was a part of each country in every country; all living in all.
It was in 2006 that I moved from India to the European Union, what is now, thirty three years later, the European Alliance for Protection and Sovereignty. I moved to that part of it still known as France, to be precise; it sounds strange now but the countries of the Alliance were known by their individual names. I went there as a young man in search of money, reputation and growth for someone with my skills. The country was smaller than I had imagined, stranger as well, but the people were nicer too. They accepted me with much more ease than I would’ve accepted any of them had they travelled to my home.
The world was still recovering from the recession. Recession is bad for economies but it had been good for souls, for it had done an amazing job in creating a unifying disparity in the world. There were those who had it easy, even during the toughest days, and there were those who were trying to hang on to whatever they could get, but everyone appeared to feel compassion for their own people. The race to defeat the rest and climb to the top was still prevalent, but those who succeeded in getting on the ladder now respected the groundsmen more. They were more helpful and a little less forgetful. I was one of them, I believe, for I had accepted that if not for a lucky night with my friends in a bar close to my college, I would have, I must have, ended up in the category of those people trying hard to get anything.
In 2003, exactly six months before I landed my first job, four of us, drunk to our throats in our favourite bar, had decided to enrol for the French classes on offer during the final semester of our engineering degree studies. German and French had suddenly become the new trend in India, for reasons that are still unknown to me. People who could speak them, even a little, had suddenly started considering themselves a notch above anyone who could only speak their native tongue and English. But our reason for joining the classes was not professional or social; it was rather hormonal I would say. The instructor was hot, very beautiful and in her twenties. Almost the entire college had been talking about her for two years.
Just for the record, now that I reflect on it, I find that an extremely crass reason to join a class. But it was after joining the French classes that I found the language actually interested me much more than the sleek, fair-haired instructor. I picked it up faster than anyone else in the class and never gave up on it. I didn’t know that two and a half years down the line not only I would be better with French than with English, but it would keep me in work and provide me with options which hardly anyone would dream of during that dreadful three year recession.
My company sent me to France for only a year at first, but my relationship with Europe was destined to be a long and stable one. I had gone there with a plan and stuck to it no matter how hard my manager, or his manager, or any other manager, tried to break through. I made myself indispensable.
Less than a month after my return our prestigious clients in France started missing me and my expertise. They had no one capable of replacing me; they needed me, and they made that very clear to my managers. Soon after, I was sent back to France and that time I did not return.
After staying in France for three years and working on two different projects, I finally decided to pull the plug on my now not-so-lucrative job. The world had started recovering from the recession and businesses were forecasted, at least on paper, to perform better. I knew it was the right time to start something of my own, because when buildings drown, billboards drown with them. Industries and markets were, more than ever, looking for value, which meant opportunities for newcomers to bring extras to the table. That’s what I did. I removed the fancy jargon from my presentations and talked the language my clients understood better — the language of money.
I don’t really remember why but I chose not to start my company in the beautiful city that had shaped me; I decided to move to England. At that time, I didn’t know I would fall in love with that country. I was just moving with the wind, enjoying every second of my ride, but as it turned out England suited me as much I suited it; we both found comfort in each other. That comfort lasted for a long, long time, almost twenty three years. Just when I had started to think that I would peacefully see my days end in the closed boundaries of a Hindu crematorium there on the loving, caring - but once despised by all Indians - soil of England, life proved yet again that someday all luxuries end and all loves die. The war broke out.
Everything was fine at first, as India did not become a part of it, but for some godforsaken reason, just a few months back, they decided to fight against the United Kingdom - actually against the European Alliance for Protection and Sovereignty if I go verbatim by India’s declaration - and extended their support, though merely on paper, to the alliances of Russia, Japan and South Korea. Maybe their decision wasn’t going to change the course of the war but it was going to change my world for sure. I knew it.
When the war first broke out I didn’t think it would affect me much. An unfortunate characteristic of wars and riots, though, is that they spread, and when they spread they touch even those who are not remotely interested in them. This war, though originally started between the USA and Russia, spread throughout the world. I don’t even remember how England, or any part of Europe for that matter, became a part of it. Someone attacked someone for hideous reasons and suddenly all that the morning news hours carried were speculations of a world war.
In the early days, people rejected the idea of a world war for many reasons: almost every country had nuclear power, the world was a global workplace, human rights, NATO. Needless to say, they all turned out to be nothing more than optimistic theories. Then there were the intellectuals who argued that the war would end in less than a month because some government or other would resort to nuclear weapons; that would force all countries to do the same and suddenly - bang, we had doomsday. I have to say that this particular theory was much more believable and lasted on people’s lips, if I can recount properly, for at least three years. Every common man, politician and General was living each day like his last, in the fear of nuclear war. I gave up on this notion sometime before the end of the second year; a few others worried for longer and a very few others, like my wife, still live with it five years into the war.
Though most of the people were awestruck by the gore and the violence, I wasn’t much since I had seen a lot in my native town. I do not say that the two could be compared in any degree or manner but it’s just that I never differentiated between two murders. For me, blood is blood, no matter why someone is bathing in it. I cannot recall a single day of my life when I wanted to murder someone and maybe that’s why the war had a different level of impact on me than on anyone else. It hadn’t broken me but it had left me disappointed and disheartened.
I despised it, for many reasons; one of them - not the strongest but definitely the most intriguing one - was the economy. While news of fresh bombings and old fires kept rolling across the TV screens, the world fighting blindly on, trade continued apace. I found it a little hypocritical. Goods were being exchanged, business was being done, as though there was nothing wrong with the smell of blood in air.
Every country knew that they needed each other. The interdependency of economies had increased to such a level that an economic war could only bring the entire world down. Technology had made it possible for people to exchange information and conduct business across borders without really affecting the flow of the war. It amused me to know that men were more afraid of losing money than of losing their lives. The only way they could find to settle their scores was to kill each other, for they knew that a gentleman’s battle, one settled on the business front, would kill them all. I laughed at it sometimes.
The biggest impact of the war on my life was that it had changed the outlook of people around me. It was an impact no one could have understood, no one but Azhar maybe.
Azhar wasn’t a good friend of mine. He could never be; there was no possibility of it, ever. I remember the days when Jack and I used to sit at a table in the east corner of the Sunlight Cafe. Steven liked the music to play incessantly in his small coffee house, so we always chose that corner where the music was the lowest and the most soothing. I’d been best friends with Jack for years and we enjoyed discussing all the large and trivial matters of life, those which affected us and those which didn’t: the economy, politics, crime, police, industries, philosophy and many others. Often the centre of our passionate but mostly professional discussions was terrorism, especially on those days when Azhar occupied a seat right across from us.
Azhar had shifted from his native Iran to my neighbourhood a few years after me. He was a technical architect and used to work in a US-based company’s UK office; globalization at its peak. How did I know so much about him? Well, he was my neighbour and we used to talk occasionally. At first I thought we would gel well, and was even thinking of inviting him to the cafe with me and Jack, but then, just a few days later, a series of bombs rocked London and everything changed.
Azhar was a devout Muslim, one who refused to let go of a few things he believed in for reasons that were beyond people like me. Jack and I didn’t see him outside his house for days after those blasts and when we did he was still the same, with his long beard, scarf and Jubbah. That was the first time Jack and I discussed Islamic terrorists spotting him, and soon it became a ritual I am ashamed of now. We used to discuss how Islam made people zealots, how keeping a beard and wearing a Jubbah was a sign of that, and how no other religion produced fanatics of the same level. I had, by then, or during those conversations at least, forgotten about the Indians who wore Chandan Tilak on their foreheads or hung lockets round their necks. Jack had forgotten about his friends who invariably carried bibles in their briefcases wherever they went. We had forgotten because there was no need for us to remember; life was good and I had never thought I would soon be made to realise my mistakes. I had never thought I would ever have a conversation like the one I had a few months back with Jack but, as I said, things were changing around me.
It all started with that stupid decision by the Indian government to choose a side in the war.
Suddenly the UK and India had become enemies, at least if one went by the newspapers. Pretty soon the internet was filled with gossiping about it and someone, some intellectual writer from south London, wrote a piece in the Metro; it was about how the large number of Indians living in England could give India an advantage in the war against them. It’s not like he had made a discovery or written something people hadn’t thought of, but as you know, the land remains barren till people think about farming it. He had said something which was in every mind and now they all had a reason to make it public, to discuss it.
Everywhere, British and Indian friends were discussing the implications. Jack and I were no different, but what had started as a general discussion turned ugly within days. I was trying my best not to take any particular country’s side, trying to remain a neutral, but he was continually trying to force me to choose between England and India. How could I do that?
It’s a classic, age-old problem that people have been facing ever since the dawn of societies; if you had to choose between your mother and your partner, who would it be? India is my mother, the country I was born in, studied in, which nurtured me, but eventually I left her to find a better life with someone else. England is the love of my life, my fiancee, my wife. England had given me a new life, or rather, reshaped it. She had accepted me during my struggle for success, had taught me new things and now supported me as I grew old. How was I supposed to make a choice between the two?
I didn’t want this war. I wanted India and England to be together, at least until I died.
Many of the Indians living in England, especially those who had flown in for short assignments, were returning home in flocks. Their communities, stronger than ever, were holding everyone close, trying to keep everyone safe. The move was welcomed by the English. But there were quite a number of us who decided to not leave our land. Then everything changed, and it all happened so quickly that I didn’t get the chance to realise what had happened to the world I was living in.
It was a Saturday, if I am recollecting it correctly. I am not sure because I usually talked to my family in India on Sundays. My dad had died three years earlier, but my blood ties to my mother, my brother and the rest of my family were important; the Sunday phone calls had become a tradition we had been following for years. It’s not like I didn’t want them to come to England - I have always been a family man - but they loved India far too much to be lured by the charms of any other country.
My brother ran an NGO and often asked me to come back home and serve mother India. I think he considered me a traitor, even though I frequently sent home considerable amounts of money, donations for him to continue his patriotic work back home. That day it didn’t suffice. They didn’t blackmail me or call me a traitor, but they didn’t leave any stone unturned either. My mother asked me to come back home - she didn’t know I was at home already - and my brother reminded me why India needed its children, all of them, more than ever. She was more concerned about my safety in England, since the two countries were now enemies; he was more concerned about my allegiance, since I was on the wrong side of the border. He said I should be in my motherland, giving away my life for it.
I won’t say I was affected by their prodding much; I am a strong person on the emotional front and besides, I was expecting a conversation like that with them. I gave them arguments that day which varied from my being indebted to England to my lack of belief in the reasons for the war. Also, I was a British citizen; there was no way the Indian government would renew my Indian citizenship during the war. For all I knew, or pretended to know, they would see me as an English spy and keep me under long hours of surveillance, or just ship me back to England as early as possible.
They were finally persuaded, and I was saved. But only for a day.
Call it coincidence, or a test by the Almighty, but the very next day something happened which shook me to my heart. I realised immediately it was the first instance of what would become a routine. On my way back from the grocery store two blocks from my house, a youngish man noticed the paper bag in my hands and changed his route to walk over to me. I don’t know why, but that day I’d kept my eye on him as well, since I first spotted him on the road.
“Hey,” he called.
I chose to ignore him.
“Hey, Indian, I’m talking to you,” he shouted, his voice filled with contempt.
The rest of the conversation, his questions about my business with his country, is neither relevant nor a strong part of my memory. The relevant part was I being seen as an Indian, not a citizen. Many people would ask me the same question in the ensuing days and each time I would answer with the same zeal, “This is my place, my country, too.”
To be honest, there are days, though very few, when I feel that they are right; not only those who call me Indian, but those who are fighting this war. I think that maybe God did want us all to fight; what other reason could there have been to make each race look different? I mean, I have lived in England for twenty three years and I don't look even half English. But given a choice would I want to look like them? No.
There were days when I did wish for that but they didn’t last long. I don’t think I need to look a certain way to prove my love for someone. I am what I am and I can’t change it; I don’t want to, especially not because someone’s doubts are based purely on the colour of my skin and hair. That was when I realised why Azhar had refused to let go of the beard and Jubbah. They were a part of who he was and he simply didn’t want to change. He couldn’t change it without losing part of himself and he shouldn’t need to.
On 14th September 2039, almost three months after the grocery store incident, I started questioning my stand seriously. It was then that I first really evaluated my options. I decided to sleep on the terrace of my office that night. I lay with my head resting on my cupped hands, listening to the melancholic voice of nature, feeling the chill of its breath in my bones.
I saw the clouds hiking across the sky and thousands of stars staring deep down from behind them at me. I tried to see how our Earth might look to them. Would they see a neighbour? Maybe a distant one, just like the Indians to the English.
I saw an entire universe, one huge home created for us by the Almighty. Does He truly know everything or is He, too, unaware that humans haven’t learnt to live like that? We divide our world into countries, states and provinces; this is my place, that is yours. There are races, castes, religions, languages, professions, wealth and poverty, men and women.
I wondered if the stars thought all humans were one family, sharing one home. Earth, a home with many rooms indeed, and each room separate. And you enter a room to find it, too, is a home, and that home has many rooms, and so the divisions continue, for division is in the nature of humans.
You know what the saddest part of my story is? That it’s been three months since I returned to India and so far I have only been heralded as a hero in my town. People from all over the world are returning to India; suddenly the government is accepting them all with open arms. Back here, people from far - my friends, relatives, their friends and relatives - they all say that I have come back to pay my dues to my country. Now that’s not a truth I want to accept because that would simply mean I do not love the UK, but unfortunately that doesn’t matter to the rest of the world. People say I am an Indian again and I realize what Azhar must have felt every time someone reminded him he was a Muslim.
I envy the birds right now. I envy the stars shining high above our heads. They don’t belong to a place, society or man; they are of all, to all. I often think of a time in the future when the war will be over; everyone left alive could start the country of my dreams. But then I feel we would soon divide it again. I know that is true because I would be the first one trying to secure a place in it called England.