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Ansari pleads for anonymity

By Marcus Dam

Qutubuddin Ansari

Kolkata Dec. 5 . The hands that trembled in March 2002 fold once again, the tears that had dried up return. But this time around, Qutubuddin Ansari is not pleading for his life with the riot police of Gujarat, snared in the communal strife that left his neighbourhood in Rehmatnagar, Ahmedabad, smouldering. "Let this be my last interview to the media," he says, sitting on the bed in a third-floor room on Tiljala Road in Kolkata. "I am tired of being pursued. All I want is a return to anonymity, and a normal life."

Ever since the photograph of the 31-year-old was flashed on the front pages of newspapers and magazines all over the country — indeed parts of the world — to become synonymous with the Gujarat riots, Mr. Ansari has been a man on the run, a fugitive from his own image frozen in the ice-slabs of recent history. "Rescue me from a life-time of fears, one last time, through the columns of your newspaper. I want to be left alone," he requests The Hindu.

Yes, the shudder still runs down his spine occasionally. As it did just a week ago, getting Mr. Ansari to wake up in cold sweat, startled out of sleep by the sound of merry-making as neighbours celebrated Id. "It took me a few moments to realise that the din downstairs was far away [in context and time] from the fury of mobs screaming murder," sounds that seem to have splintered irredeemably the recesses of his mind.

The scars will remain for long after the wounds have healed. The festering sores seared afresh that evening of August 9 as Mr. Ansari stood rooted at the doorway of the compartment of the train that brought him to the Howrah station from where a new journey to Kolkata and rehabilitation was about to begin. "The clicking of cameras that greeted me has been pursuing me wherever I have been. Whether at the camp for riot-victims at Sundaramnagar, in Mumbai where I worked at a garment factory for a while before my presence got too conspicuous for my employer's comfort and I was asked to leave or at my own locality in Rehmatanagar where I suffered silently the traumas of being a security risk for my neighbours." "All this because of a single photograph that I got much later to know had been shot at all. Which thrust on me a legacy I find hard shrugging away. Robbed me of the privacy I am no longer entitled to," says a despairing Mr. Ansari. He recalls being recognised at a shop in New Market here he had visited to buy his five-year-old daughter and one-year-old son clothes for Id. "The man at the counter paused on spotting me, then walked gingerly up to me to say, `I know you. You are from Gujarat,' even though I was being confronted by a total stranger."

Mr. Ansari would like to get back to the life of a stranger from one of a recluse. "Get back to being lost in a crowd or left to do my work as a tailor [in a shop recently set-up]." The question, however, remains. "Can one run away from one's own photograph and the image it has inscribed in the collective psyche?'' With folded hands Mr. Ansari asks, once again, to be left alone.

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