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Things you ought to remember

They called a special assembly. We trooped in idly, wondering what was up. As we stood there, the wooden hall filled with the sound of clattering feet, then jostling and joking and the odd fart noise (both real and faked), then silence as we realised from the teachers' faces that it was something serious.

"There was an incident", said the headmaster, and he paused, reluctant to continue.

Rohit Duggal, a couple of years above me. One of the cool kids, a bit mouthy, but generally well-liked (being a bod, I was intimidated by him).

He'd gone with a mate to the chippy on Well Hall Road in Eltham; there'd been some kind of fracas with some other boys and they'd chased and attacked him. And now he was dead.

Some of the pupils burst into tears; all of us were shocked. People our age didn't get killed in fights. Hell, up till then, the worst injury I'd come across was a dislocated shoulder from an over-enthusiastic rugby tackle.

We filed out slowly and the whispers began.

"I heard it was a bunch of white lads - blatantly a racist attack".... "I heard it was a gang thing".... "What, Rohit wasn't in a gang!"... "Reckon it was the same lads that'd been hassling him before"... "Racists, I f*cking tell you"... "Bastards, I hope they get nicked"... "I bet the police will cover it up".

The internet didn't really exist in those days - I think there was a report in the Newsshopper, but then I never knew what happened afterwards, and I was a feckless teenager with other things on my mind.

So life went on for the rest of us, but Eltham became one of those places you didn't want to dawdle, least not if you possessed a brown face. Whether it deserved this reputation or not, it was cemented eight months later when Stephen Lawrence was killed (on my birthday, as it happens).

In the sixth form, I moved to a new school, and my bus home went right through Eltham. At first, I'd stare at each stop suspiciously, wondering if that was the bus stop and I'd feel a frisson of fear. But then I forgot, because I had A-Levels and boys and acne to think about.

It's a long time since I left school, and I hadn't thought about Rohit in ages, but when I heard about the verdict in the Stephen Lawrence case today, I googled Rohit's name.

I didn't expect to find anything, but there was a raft of mentions.

They mainly said the same thing:

"Gang attack. Not recorded as racially motivated by police but CPS made some reference to racial motivation during trial. Peter Thompson given life sentence for murder" (The Guardian)

After a bit more trawling, I also found this:

Message 40 - An Extract from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, February 1999

I'm glad that there has been some justice for Stephen Lawrence, and I am sad it has come 18 years after the event. I am sad that he, and others like him, were taken before their time. And I am sad that I forgot.

RIP Stephen and Rohit.

See also: BBC News - Stephen Lawrence murder: How Eltham was affected


Kavey said…
The human capacity to remember tiny details often amazes me. Sometimes things pop into my head, things I wouldn't even have thought significant at the time, let alone three decades or more later. Sometimes it's someone else's memory skills that impress.

And yet, the human capacity to forget is also immense. And sometimes, it's just as well, because if we remembered all the horrible things, all the risks, all the ways in which we might fail or get hurt or be humiliated, based on past experiences of our own or those of others... we might be paralysed with fear or sadness or anger. Sometimes, it's helpful to forget.

And yet, sometimes it's also healthy to remember.
It's really brave of you to write this, forgetting doesn't make you uncaring. But you remember now, and you still have respect and sadness. That above all makes you human.
Matt Inwood said…
What a moving piece. Like Kavey said, memory lapse and recall is amazing. Either can completely destabilise. I regularly rue not knowing more about aspects of my early life, things which I am wary of talking to mum about now.

I also remember the fear of living in fairly hostile places as a child (more hostile in my mind than in my experiences of them). The view from the bus to the world outside is one that resonates particularly.

Lovely bit of writing.
Food Urchin said…
Thought provoking and timely piece of writing there MiMi.

Let's hope that your story jolts the public memory too.
Anonymous said…
I remember Rohit Duggal. I cannot believe it is 21 years since he died. He could be endearing and sometime exasperating, but I will never forget him. I was his form teacher. It's just nice that he is remembered.

Ian Wessels

meemalee said…
Hello Mr Wessels! You were my History teacher too!
Unknown said…
I was in the same form as Rowitt , I actually sat behind him. I often think about him and wonder how David is. David was with Rohitt that night and I wonder how it has effected him over the years. Rohitt could be a bit of a clown like Mr Wessels has said (hi sir) but he was always funny and certainly entertained us at registration.