Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony released in 1977, the year Indira Gandhi lost the general election and ended the Emergency imposed in 1975. It was a time when the trains ran on time as they say, the prisons were full of dissidents and men were rounded up in large numbers for 'nasbandi' (sterilisation). Although the population control drive was meant for everyone, several reporters, researchers and documentarians have noted that it was Muslim men who were targeted wholesale. The story of three brothers brought up as Hindu, Muslim and Christian who meet when they donate blood for their blind mother, was the top box office hit the year the Emergency ended. It is the touchstone for Bollywood masala entertainment. Yet its commentary on India's stunning experiment in nation-building is precise and sublime. In an India shaped by the incandescent protests at Shaheen Bagh and the Delhi border, can there be a better story for our times?
The Park Circus maidan was deserted in the morning. It started to fill out after 5 pm, but Inspector Amrita Biswas liked to look in around 8 am. That way, she could see how many were sleeping through the night at the grounds. The police station had given her the responsibility for overseeing the protest against the new citizenship law, probably because she was the only woman of inspector rank in the thhana, but she was quite pleased. She was curious about Shaheen Bagh: were mothers and grandmothers and daughters and daughters-in-law really sitting in protest day and night? Now the CAA protest had come to her city, and she could see for herself. She hadn't thought of Muslim women as the political sort. Was she biased? In the two years she had been posted in the Park Circus, she had rarely encountered them in her work. For all the talk about a "Muslim area", it was okay really. Not different from her previous thhana — the usual fights between landlords and tenants, traffic offences, threats from loan sharks.
The old woman was at the corner of the ground. Her flower basket was empty. She really had to tell her to get her game up. How would people believe that she was a flower seller if she had no flowers in the morning?
Dr Aquilah Qureshi thought the old woman's eyes looked yellow. She had been noticing her over the past week since the protest began. The woman, whom everyone seemed to call Maa ji, was always there. At least when Aquilah visited in the morning and evenings around 10 pm, before and after her rounds in the hospital.
"Maa ji," she said, "no flowers today?"
"All is god's will, he looks after everything," the old woman replied, turning her gaze to her. Her eyes were sickly yellow.
Was it an act or was she senile?
"Are you ok, ammi?" Aquilah asked. How strange! She hadn't meant to call her ammi, how did it slip out? This was the first time she had spoken with the old woman.
A child pressed a packet of cake in Aquilah's hands. "Apa, they're calling you."
Everyone called her apa here, no one said doctor. The previous week an elderly woman had passed away due to a sudden drop in sugar. Aquilah had then shared her number with them. The women who stayed overnight were mostly middle-aged and elderly, not exactly fit. What was remarkable was their determination to stay put until the government took back the law. Where did they get this conviction from? 'When our children ask us where we were when our India was being destroyed, what will we say?' a woman had told Aquilah. How filmy, she thought, how filmy this country is.
Antonia Gonsalves had handed in her resignation that week. "Awaaz do… hum ek hai (Raise your voice, we are all equal here)," the crowd was chanting when she walked in the first time at the Park Circus protest, and she had felt her throat fill. "Hum ek hai," she chanted back in response, with the crowd. What a sense of release it was.
GreenPlease should join in, she told her boss but he disagreed. "Why should GreenPlease get involved in a protest on secularism? It's not an environmental issue!"
How is it not, Antonia asked. Who are the first to be affected by climate change—refugees, people without citizenship, people without rights, isn't it? She hesitated and decided to quote that classic MLK line anyway: "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere."
Her boss smirked. "Well, I don't want our funds to get frozen. Don't you want your salary?"
So, Antonia resigned. This was the good thing about being orphaned, nothing to explain anything to anyone. Now she spent her waking hours at the protest, helping the volunteers with food, water for the portable toilets, whatever needed doing.
She began her day buying flowers from Maa ji, everyday she gifted flowers to her protest friends and visiting journalists. Maa ji was at the other end of the ground, but what a strange slouched position! Antonia hurried over, put her hand on the old woman's shoulder and Maa ji slumped over.
Fortuitously, Dr Aquilah was delayed at the ground that day. The doctor and the activist knew each other by face, they were regulars at the protest. Together, they moved the old woman to the hospital Aquilah worked in. The tests confirmed Aquilah's suspicion: hepatic encephalopathy. That's why Maa ji had sounded so… off. Her mind was in a miasma caused by liver failure. She needed a transplant, but her blood group was a worry. Hopefully, the police would contact her family soon.
"There's no one," Amrita said.
The doctor had called the inspector to inform her. "Shouldn't we wait a bit longer?" Aquilah asked. She liked this woman, she was nothing like the Delhi cops she saw on TV. But wasn't this too hasty?
"I know," Amrita said. "She works for me as a khabri." Then she corrected herself. "Worked, I mean."
"Well," said Aquilah, "She has a rare blood group."
"I'm a rare blood group!" Antonia said.
Despite herself, Aquilah smiled. Antonia was an enthusiastic puppy. "I need AB –ve," she told her kindly.
"I knew it!" Antonia said, with an air of triumph.
"You're an AB-negative?" Amrita asked sharply.
"Yes inspector!" Antonia said.
"Odd," Amrita frowned. "Are you sure?" Antonia was an oddball, friendly but… how seriously could she be taken?
"No, you're right, I don't know my blood group," Antonia said. Amrita smiled.
"Three AB-negatives in one room, wow," Aquilah said. "Or, four."
The other two looked at her. "I am AB-negative too," said Aquilah, shrugging.
But more co-incidences were in store. It turned out that both Amrita and Antonia were adopted kids like Aquilah. Three orphans with the same rare negative blood group. How was this possible?
Amrita and Antonia insisted on undergoing the work-up tests to check if they could be liver donors. Aquilah let them. The only chance Ammi had was an immediate transplant. Ammi! There she went again.
Bharati felt ridiculously, miraculously better. What a surgery it was! 15 hours long. Antonia had donated a part of her liver to her, Aquilah was on the team of doctors supervising her, and Amrita had facilitated the paperwork that made the legal donation of the organ possible. The law of the land made it possible to donate an organ to any Indian, related or unrelated, as long as it was not for money. How beautiful that was! To think that citizens could be bound by literal ties of flesh and blood like this. It gave the term body politic a whole new meaning.
But more than anything else, she had clarity. She remembered. She could see the mistakes she had made. The aborting of the foetus that had changed everything. Why did she allow herself to be shamed by a legal procedure? The law permitted a married couple to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. India's policy actually encouraged it: "hum do, hamare do" (two of us and our two children). Why did Kishan ask the doctor for the sex of the foetus?
The thing is, he wanted a son though he was embarrassed to say it aloud. But she was tired, three children under five years old with the youngest still at her breast. The law forbade sex-selective abortions, and his question had made them instantly culpable. It was the sort of thing his colleague Dr Robert had been waiting for. He disliked "activist" doctors. And Kishan killed himself in shame. The family splintered.
The thing is, her activist husband was a hypocrite. The feminist doctor wanted a son. This was the reality she had struggled to see.
Meet Amrita, Aquilah and Antonia. These three women met at the CAA protests in Park Circus in Kolkata, and through their friendship with an old lady selling flowers at the site, discovered that they are sisters separated in their childhood. As filmy as this sounds, there is in fact medical proof for this. The old woman needed a liver transplant and the women found they all share the same AB-negative blood group. In the course of doing the paperwork for the transplant, they also found they shared amorphous memories of a house with a red cement floor, high ceilings and old Calcutta-style jalousie windows. What was not amorphous, though, was their keenness to save Maa ji, and the India they believe in—a secular, democratic federal republic. A nation that is less angry, less judgemental, less suspicious, particularly of protests.
Amrita, a police officer, said she was present her personal capacity to support the farmers' right to dissent, but declined to comment on the Delhi police's handling of the situation. Aquilah said she was offering her medical services at the health camp. Antonia, who was detained for sharing a protest document titled "toolkit" last week said her sister, the inspector, has told her to lie low so she would keep it brief. "Protest is the kumbh mela of democracy. It's where we come together as a family."