Gulab Ali has been staying for the past four months at a relief camp in Sanjhak village of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. While most riot victims living in camps have been struggling to meet basic necessities like food and protection from the biting cold, Gulab has been missing his books the most.
On the first week of the new year, when schools reopen after the winter break, the 14-year-old will be going back to school again, becoming the only child from across relief camps housing the Muzaffarnagar riot victims to be headed to school. “Abba has promised to get me the new textbooks and notebooks. I don’t care about the uniform. It’s so cold now, no one will know I am not wearing a uniform under my razai (quilt),” he giggles.
Gulab is the son of a brick kiln labourer from Kharad village, 50 km from the relief camp. When riots broke out in the twin districts of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in the first week of September, Gulab’s family — including his parents and two brothers — escaped to Sanjhak. “We have an aunt here, but her husband didn’t like us staying with her, so we moved to this camp,” he says.
From a two-room house “with an open courtyard where I read my books”, Gulab moved to a tarpaulin tent held up by four poles, with graves surrounding it. “My mother said that we have become the living dead, as the camps have been erected on a graveyard. But if I was the living dead, why would I feel hungry?” asks Gulab, adding he is “not scared of graves”.
After a month adjusting to life in the camp — which included “feeling hungry” and “wondering whether my village friends would make me the captain of the football team again” — Gulab started thinking of school. “I have stood first in all my classes except Class VI, when I came second. My first-term results had been due in the end of September, and I hadn’t done my Maths paper well,” he says, adding that this started weighing on his mind.