How to see a riot

The afternoon of the riots, we were standing outside of the security barrier near our apartment when someone dropped a very wet steak on the ground.  

At least, that’s what it sounded like. When I looked over, a pigeon was flapping around in the dirt on the side of the road, one wing healthy, one wing almost completely severed by an eagle’s attack. It paused to look at us with wide-eyed wonder and fear, and then started flapping again.  

“What should we do?” Alice asked me.  

“There’s nothing we can do,” I said. India can be a hard, cruel country, where some people can barely look after themselves; we, as foreigners and tourists, staying in an AirBNB that was really an abandoned penthouse, trying to avoid the warring gangs of communists and conservatives and the lecherous gazes of older men, didn’t know if there were animal control officers in the town. We didn’t speak Hindi, or the local dialect, with which we might tell authorities about an injured pigeon, and we absolutely weren’t going to attempt to nurse it back to health over the first week of a 26-week trip.  

The security guard came out of his hutch, and we watched the pigeon flapping. He smiled at us. “Eagle,” he said, and pointed up, and made claw motions with his hands. Then we were all silent again. In Kannur, eagles are as common as rats in New York, and are treated as pests.  His commitment to inactivity simply supported the raging arguments in my head.  

Then a man walking down the street stopped to look. A scooter, with two men riding it, slowed down and stopped, and another pedestrian crossed the street to see what was going on. They all talked in hushed tones, looked up at the sky, and then one of the pedestrians knelt down, hands outstretched. His first attempt to pin the pigeon’s wings to its body failed, and the pigeon flapped harder for a brief second before the man’s second attempt gently held the wings in place; so immobilised, he flipped the pigeon over – perhaps all birds, like chickens, are calmed by being inverted. They the men resumed their hushed conversation, and, a moment later, parted. We didn’t know if the pigeon was going to be fed or become food; the former would have exemplified the tremendous Indian hospitality and kindness we had experienced, and the latter the tremendous Indian pragmatism that we’d also seen.  


Our timing couldn’t have been worse.  

We’d arrived around 9 p.m. in Kannur, Kerala, India, at the train station. Too exhausted from the journey to consider dinner, we went straight to our AirBNB and crawled into bed. Two hours after our arrival, a local BJP official was home, alone, when a gang of men broke down his door and hacked him to death with machetes. The BJP party – conservative, nationalist, and currently the majority party in the national government – immediately blamed the Communist party, and put out a call for a dawn-to-dusk “Hartal,” or day of remembrance. No shop, restaurant, gas station, stationer, sari slinger, sweets salesman, or any other business could open its doors. You need drinking water, cooking oil, baby formula? You’d better have some in storage.  

But we were completely ignorant of all this.  When we woke up, our AirBNB host had been frantically texting us for hours.  She said we should eat all of the cookies that were in the apartment, and the cereal, and drink boiled water, and she’d come over later with eggs and bread, once she could drive through the streets without her car being attacked.  

As an American and a Brit, we were incredulous. I mean, really, nobody could expect EVERY shop to stay closed, could they? That’s a lot of income lost in the middle of the week, and a lot of productivity thrown down the drain. Besides, I’m trying to maintain my Tim Ferriss Slow Carb Diet, even while traveling, and Alice is a vegetarian, and neither of us wanted to stay in an abandoned apartment all day, even if it was a penthouse with glorious views of the Indian Ocean. By Jove, this could not be happening to us!  We decided to go into town to explore.  

The streets were almost deserted. I’ve read the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and it felt a lot like some of the towns the Ka-Tet passes through – dusty streets, eyes peering from behind closed blinds at the strangers in strange clothes, even stray dogs knowing that the world is not quite right. We passed the first shuttered shops, and I turned to Alice, who is English. “I can imagine an English colonial officer, faced with Hartal, getting very frustrated and trying to explain to the locals why this sort of thing just won’t work in a civil society,” I said.  

“Also, maybe why they shouldn’t hack people to death with machetes,” she replied.  

When we got closer to the center of town, we saw about 200 men at an intersection. When I lived in Ohio, every spring, wasps used to set up hives in a gutter at my house, and I would spray them with insecticide. They would seethe and surge and buzz and attack the foam, then fall to the ground, fighting not the foam but their own mortality.  The crowd moved like those dying wasps, angry, yet somehow impotent. By the time we got to the intersection, it had moved down the streets, and only small groups of men – perhaps merchants – stood outside the metal security curtains protecting the shops. Everything really WAS closed. The only shops that were open were the pharmacies; there seemed to be an exemption for medical care. We stopped to confer; should we go on, with the chance of getting water and food but also the risk of running into a mob of angry men and becoming an international incident, or should we go back, not really starving but instead ingesting sugar and carbs as our only sustenance for the next ten hours?  

We decided to go further in.  


“Men use thoughts to justify their actions, and words to conceal their thoughts.” It’s true of America now, and my actions during the Hartal. I wanted food, I said, but really, secretly, my desire to get closer to the danger was because I wanted to see what was happening, and to have a story to tell later. For weeks, months, maybe years into the future, whenever we spoke to backpackers in hostels or hotels or resorts who regaled us with their own tales of going off the beaten track and exploring something that had only just come out in Lonely Planet that year, my conversational skills could steer the conversation to India, and I’d be able to say, “Oh, yes, we were caught in the middle of the political riots in Kannur.” “The what?” they’d ask, and I would have won the off-the-beaten-track contest, because what’s a better story, learning to make curry from a family that doesn’t speak English OR surviving the riots? Hiking to the top of some forgotten peak in the dark with a local guide who brings along breakfast supplies to cook on an open fire at the summit OR watching young men tear apart a building because their political comrade had been murdered the night before? Oh, you discovered a lost civilisation? That’s nice, but I…wait, where was its capital city? How fascinating.  

See? Short of making an historic discovery, everyone who fancies themselves a “traveler” loses the unannounced “I’m adventurous” contest, because I saw the riots. Even better, I could just be vague about the details, and, like Hemingway, let them fill in the rest.  I’ll leave it to them to imagine the smoke, the Molotov cocktails, the distribution of automatic weapons to every person over the age of eight, and how I left eighteen armed attackers unconscious in a dark alleyway.  

“All, all is vanity!” 


We got closer. At the main roundabout, we turned right, toward the train station. The gas station was closed, attendants frantically waving cars away. There was a tension in the air, an electricity, as if everything was connected by invisible but very real forces we could not control. Then, we heard the shouting. The street filled with young men, a guttural ten-syllable chant, fists in the air, and the animal part of my brain took over and focused solely on them.  

We walked quickly back to the roundabout. “We can go across the street, toward the bridge, and wait there; they probably won’t march across the narrow bridge, so if we have to, we can run. We can go down one of the main streets, then run down a side street if they follow us. Or we can stay put.” Given the options, the bridge seemed best. The men were almost to the roundabout; we heard the sound of wood straining, then breaking. We walked across quickly, trying to avoid attention and eye contact, and found a place we could stand with our backs to the narrow pedestrian bridge over the train tracks. A few men stood near us, all seeming to be unsure as to what to do, which made me feel better.  

I reached into my bag. “No pictures, we don’t know how they will react,” Alice said. Why did I bring my DSLR with the extra telephoto lens?  I thought about what I should have brought. A knife. The heavy chain we bought to secure our backpacks to the train racks.  A mouth guard. Mace. A Tommy Gun. 

Then the men filled the intersection. I remember a few things as my observant brain wrestled against my survival-is-the-only-thing-that-matters brain. There weren’t that many men, really – perhaps 150 – but they were loud, and angry, and the largest, most focused group anywhere, so in a fight, they’d win. Police officers drove and marched in front and behind in a sort of escort, which gave the illusion that this was a sanctioned protest and the constabulary had everything under control, but no reasonable observer could imagine they had any power. The protesters’ legs all marched at the same rhythm, their flip flops beating out a rhythmic left, right, left, right, moving forward like a single unit, a centipede; I don’t think it was military precision as much as some sort of physical groupthink. Then, a few of them jumped forward, breaking ranks, and tore down some signs in the middle of the roundabout, ripping, kicking. In my mind, I can still see the forearm muscles of one rioter gleaming in the sun as he revelled in the destruction. The ten-syllable chant that had been filling our heads was replaced by animal shrieks. Then, another part of the group saw something and rushed around the corner, out of our sight; all eyes were drawn to them. More cheers, and the mass of men followed, and we could hear snapping, tearing, breaking, and primal moans, but we didn’t know if the target was human or not. The screams were inconclusive. 

Then they moved on. The street suddenly seemed calm, almost normal. Walking across the roundabout to go home, we had to dodge cars and scooters, not rabid young men; shops were still closed, but we found a little corner store with half-open shutters that sold us four bottles of water, two bottles of juice, and a box of chocolate cookies. So much for slow carb.  A few women ventured out into the street; neighbors were visiting each other quietly. We only later learned of the fights, the tear gas, the burning. Back at the penthouse, we ate the cookies, drank tea and coffee, and read our Kindles on the balcony, looking down at the eagles circling above the palm trees.  

Later, as the sun went down and the Hartal lifted, we went to Sahib’s, a western restaurant. We were hungry, and so, apparently, were a lot of other people. The waiter explained what they didn’t have on the menu that day.  After he left, I mentioned that it was odd that they had so few things to serve. Alice said: “Remember, they probably couldn’t get deliveries today.”  

Ah. Of course.  


The next day, we took a tuk-tuk to a remote beach, where we were followed down the sand by teenage boys, who don’t see women in swimsuits very much.  They tagged along behind us for miles, until we walked past a European woman sunbathing topless, which threw them off our scent.  Then, later, we took a taxi to a shrine, several miles out of town.  As we passed regional BJP and Communist party offices, we saw masses of men and women standing outside each building, waiting to defend against attacks that we hoped, for their sake, never came.  

The following day, we got an early train back south, toward Cochin.  The town was completely different; swarms of people in restaurants and cafes, buying flowers, on construction sites.  Except for the torn banners, still lying in the street, one might be excused for thinking it had all been a terrible dream.  

Before we left, I wanted to get Indian pastries for the train, so we stopped by a sweet shop.  One of the workers smiled broadly, shook my hand, and gave me a bag full of treats for less than a dollar.  As we walked out, he called us back, “WAIT!”  He had a handful of candied almonds that he wanted us to try.  “The best in Kannur!” he claimed, and I believe him.  He waved after us and shouted, “I hope to see you again! Come back soon!”  

And as we waited on the station, a police officer walked up to us.  I expected to have to show him my passport, but he wanted to shake our hands and talk, to see if we enjoyed his city.  “I think your job was harder than our vacation,” I said, and his lips pulled tight against his teeth in a half-smile.  “Egos,” he said. “It is all egos.  One man in a party is insulted, they insult another party, and then they kill.  It is peaceful for a week or two, and then it happens again.  And Kannur is the only city like this!  Not any other city in India.”

“This happens every two weeks?”

“Every two weeks.  And nobody minds because they take the day off, they go to the beach, they watch television, nobody has to work.”  

He made it sound as if the dead party workers were a human sacrifice so everyone else would have a day to relax.  

He said goodbye at the window and we shook hands again.  The train started rolling, slowly, and the wind started coming in through the windows.  I noticed that they had bars over them, and was reminded of the stories of Hindus and Muslms, after partition, who were dragged off of trains and murdered.  I wondered if the bars were to prevent such mass killings from happening again. I wondered if the officer was exaggerating the frequency of killing, and, even if he wasn’t, how many more Hartals would be called, how many more people would die for their political beliefs.

And as the train took us south, out of town, we both sunk into our seats, relieved to be out safely, and with stories to tell.  


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