When my wife shook me out of some kind of a nightmare I couldn’t quite recollect, it was 1:30 in the morning, the first of November, 1984.
“Satnam is on the phone,” she said. “Karnail-ji has not come home.”
Satnam Kaur was the wife of Karnail Singh Ahluwalia, whom I had nicknamed the Saint Sardar, a great friend, neighbour and an honest dealer whose friendship I valued. He owned a shop in the flourishing electronic market and sold, among other things, the rather popular brands of cassette tape recorders, radio-tape recorders and car radios – all cutting edge those days – I manufactured in a small 1000-footworkshop in an industrial complex mostly occupied by Sikhs.
On the other end of the line, Satnam Kaur was crying.
“Bhai-sa’ab,” (respected brother) she said, “Gudia’s Papa has not come home. At seven this evening he called me and said the market is closing because there is violence in the streets, and he would come home early. He told me not to open the door for anyone, he’s got the key to the house.”
Gudia was her first daughter, a five-year old girl. Her pet name meant doll. . After she was born, Karnail became Gudia-ka-papa in her lexicon.
Her sobs turned into a soft wail, and soon there were wails from her two children who probably didn’t know what their mother was crying for.
” I’m coming,” I said. “No, I won’t come there. You don’t need to open the door. Instead, I’ll call the neighbours and put a search. Maybe he had a car breakdown. Don’t worry, Karnail won’t come to any harm.”
“Wahe Guru,” which meant something like praise the Lord, she said and hung up. For a moment I too laid my trust in the Guru whom the Sikhs expected to look after the world and bestow his special favour on the Sikh – Panth, the people of their religion. Guru meant a holy preceptor, Sikh meant his disciple, the learner. For Sikhs, Guru also meant God, or at least the pathway to God. I said a silent prayer to the image of Guru Nanak, picturing in my mind his old peaceful face under a white turban, the noble head slightly leaning to the right, his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing, his long white beard flowing down till beneath the edge of the frame. A large painting of Guru Nanak– which Satnam called photo of Babaji – was what greeted a visitor to Karnail’s beautiful house.
When I came out of my house, there was a small crowd of people at the corner of the street. Northerners in their pyjamas, South Indians like myself in lungis – a wrap-around ankle-length cloth, secured with a tuck in the waist. Dr. George Varkey, the thick-set paediatrician who permanently wore a serious visage, carried a hunting rifle in his hand.
“Ahluwalia has not got home. Sandeep heard someone crying inside his house; his car is not parked outside. There has been trouble all along the way from Red Fort. Someone spread a rumour that Sardars were holding a party in Connaught place to celebrate Indira Gandhi’s murder. It seems they intend to punish the Sikhs for the killing and for the celebration, “said Kunju, the cartoonist.
The Sikh family was very popular with the neighbours. Though a Sikh, Satnam often joined the Hindu ladies in singing hymns praising Hindu deities.
“Let’s move to Ahluwalia’s house,” said someone. “I think theyare setting fire to Sikh houses in the village across the road. Some of them would know that there is a Sikh living in this colony, in our street.”
I said: “If that’s true, to crowd around his house would be agive-away. We’ll wait and watch from here, not particularly looking at his house. Dr. Varkey, you better put away that gun. It’d be no use against a mob.We’ll have to use tactics, not try and fight the mob.”
Varkey saw sense in my suggestion and went home to put away his rifle that probably could kill an elephant, but was not good enough for dispersing a violent mob. Uncock-load-cock-fire-uncock-load routine only got the first gangster before the rest of them got you.
At least seven of us stood in the junction of the street where one road went to the community shopping centre, another went around the football-field-sized children’s park of the colony surrounded by our middle-class villas, and the third led to the main road across which lay a sprawling village.
The village, tactfully named Indira Nagar, was a former farmland illegally converted into a residential place; its owners waiting for the next elections to have their plots and houses legalised. In India, most promises by legislators were soon forgotten after the elections, a few others were fulfilled just before election in the hope that the bounteousness would translate into votes. It usually did. “One carrot every five years is enough to earn the gratitude of the donkey called the public,” a cynic once wrote in his popular column.
At least a thousand brick-and-lime houses sat at arm’s length from each other in the village with narrow streets between rows of houses. Some small, some big, some even two orthree stories. There was a Shiva temple, with a giant-sized, garishly painted and snake-garlanded God in all his fineries marking its location. Not far away from it stood the Gurudwara, shrine of the Sikhs. Whoever visited the temple, I suppose, rang its bells to wake up the God from his reverie and pass a blessing; in Gurudwara they sang Kirtans (hymns) or read from the Granth Sahib – the sacred Sikh scripture– into a loudspeaker. I never got to see the make-shift mosque, but there surely was one; every morning and night you could hear a faint Muezzin’s call. At other times the calls to the faithful were drowned in the suburban noises. Perhaps the Muslim houses in the village were few and were hustled together, or, being a small minority, they did not dare to put up a loudspeaker in the midst of a lot many Hindus and Sikhs. An undercurrent of tension, despite trade and friendly greetings, was part of the social setup.
Among the occupants of the village was Ex-Subedar-Major Ram Kishore Singh – not a Sikh, but in the North, almost anyone who did not have a caste-name to pass off for his surname called himself Singh. The word meant lion. This Singh was from far-away Ranchi in Bihar; he chose to settle in Delhi after retirement with his wife, married sons and daughters-in-law. Singh was an impressive man with an up-turned bushy moustache above a bulky frame. Before retiring from the army, he told me, his job was maintaining discipline among nearly 1500 men of all ranks other than officers – among them Bengalis, Madrasis, Sikhs and Muslims. He kindled a sense of unity among all, he said, teaching them that all Indians were one family. His eminent record in service won him a commendation and a VSM – Exemplary Service Medal. Yet, his current monthly pension did not amount to much, he told me, that was why he sought the job I advertised.
He hinted that it would be good if I let him be known as Major Saa’b; after all, he was a Subedar-Major. I readily agreed, having a Major, albeit a half-baked one, on our roll would enhance the prestige of the Company.
It was well past 2 AM, and you could hear screams from the village. Above the foliage beyond the main road, one noticed a flame leaping up– and it soon appeared to be spreading. The noise kept rising in decibels.
“I’m afraid they are burning Sikh houses There are quite a few Sardars there. My carpenter Gyan Singh lives there,” said Kunju, known for his keen observation as portrayed in his daily cartoons in a popular newspaper.
I said: “Maybe there would be accusations and arguments, even threats, but little more. The people there are neighbours, not a mob of strangers. What do those Sikhs in the village have anything to do with the assassination? There are a couple of army men there, too. A retired Subedar-Major there works for me. A sensible man. if he’s awake, he would soon bring order in that place.”
An hour after we set up guard, it didn’t appear as though the Major Saa’b had brought order into the tumultuous village.
We noticed movement outside Karnail Singh’s house. Under the faint streetlights we saw someone open the gate gingerly and walk past the front yard that doubled as Karnail’s car park. The unsteady gait wasn’t that of Karnail Singh, his brand-new latest model Maruti-Suzuki was not in sight. The figure walked uncertainly with a crouch and seemed more like an old hag with a patch of hair spread out behind.
We moved cautiously towards the house, looking around for any gang of intruders following the figure. While the person was fumbling with the keys, we reached the place.
Karnail Singh turned around to face us with a muffled alarm. He wore no turban, which he had always worn like a square crown; no comb in his hair which lay loose and partly burnt. Much of his facial hair on the left side had burned and curled up, blackening his fair skin. His clothes were torn and stank of urine or worse, sleeves shredded, round ugly slits around his knees with bloodstains and black clumps of filth on his trousers. Karnail Singh Ahluwalia, the Saint Sardar, who was always nattily dressed, his safari suit ironed stiff in summer and a crisp business suit with tie in winter, shoes polished like that of a Colonel on ceremonial parade, his turban gloriously worn like a crown, his beard gathered together and secured flat to his cheeks, now looked worse than a tramp who ran out from a burning slum.
Karnail surveyed the small crowd with squinted his eyes.
When he recognized me, he twitched his mouth painfully for a forced smile and sighed. “They set fire to my car, yaar, with me inside near the Bengali Sweet House.”
Yaar meant a close friend.
His voice came in broken hisses, yet he drawled on like wanting to get his awful experience out of his chest. His left hand was bent and hung limp, right hand making feeble attempts to open the door.
“They stopped me and made me park towards the wrong side of the road. On the left was a huge crowd – maybe forty or fifty of them with sticks and stones. They didn’t let me get out of the car after setting it on fire, shouting Blood for Blood, Indira Gandhi will live for ever. Then a bus came by, maybe they saw that a Sardar was its driver, and chased after it like a pack of wolves. When the last man by my side of the car was gone, I opened the door and rolled off to the edge of the road and lay like dead. Soon the heat from the burning car was scorching my skin, my body was like burning all over. I tried to roll away before the petrol tank burst, but fell into the storm-drain. Guru is very kind, there was no water in the drain, only wet mud and slush. For some time, I didn’t know what was happening. I came to with the pain on my arm and the burning smell of my hair. I waited till all was quiet and dark, except flashes of light from the flames leaping out of the burning bus at some distance. My car must have burnt down, there was one loud bust, bits and pieces kept falling into the drain. This hand was painful and useless, my leg was in horrible pain, yet I walked, crouching, in the drain, crawling through drain pipes, for God knows how many hours. My watch had fallen off, I didn’t know where I was going. Then my legs struck what must have been a man’s body. If it was of a man, he was surely dead. I said, brother, forgive me, and stepped on the body to climb onto the street. I swear on the One above, I would never do that if I was in my senses. There I got my bearings. I was in P-Town. I walked through side-streets, avoiding a couple of crowds shouting Long live Indira Gandhi. I heard someone shouting Ek Sardar ko maaro, Ek hazaar kamao – Kill a Sikh, earn a thousand. Frightened, by God, I crouched in the shade and began to crawl again. Around the corner towards N-Town, I saw a house burning on the other side. I continued to crawl on my knees, hiding in the shadows till that corner over there. I never hoped to reach home. Kindness of the one above.”
He spoke haltingly; his breathing was heavy. The narration took time while he continued to fiddle with the keys.
“That’s enough, you shouldn’t be talking at all, you need a clean-up or you’ll die.” said Varkey who was till then engrossed in the halting and painful description of Karnal’s adventure, as we all were. He grabbed the keys from Karnail, tried out a couple of them, found the right one and opened the door.
Satnam Kaur stood behind the door, not daring to open it herself though she must have heard her husband’s voice.
“Bahut shukriya, Thank very much, Bhai Saa’bs. Now everything is all right,” she told us. Then she noticed the state of her husband and, her hands to her cheeks, screamed.
“Nothing is all right, but screaming won’t help,” said Dr. Varkey in his atrocious Hindi. “Don’t close the door. I need to take a look at your husband. And he needs a cold shower. It’s going to hurt. Can’t help that. Where is the phone?”
Varkey phoned his wife who took some time to answer. When she apparently did, he asked her to wake their son and send him to Sardarji’s house with his medical bag and some bandages.
Sardar, literally headman, was a common tag for all Sikhs – probably earned when Sikhs led guerrilla wars against the Mughals. The appendix ji was a common honorific that fitted all – males, females, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, gods, goddesses and Gurus. When you liked a Sikh, you called him Sardarji. If you were indifferent, or didn’t like him, you referred to him as Sardar.
Soon enough Varkey’s teenaged son came with the medical things. The doctor took it and got hold of Karnail, skirting a frightened and wailing Satnam Kaur and beckoning me to accompany him.
I told her not to worry. Karnail was in good hands. I didn’t add that, given the circumstances, a child-specialist is good enough.
Karnail slipped from the doctor’s hand and slumped on the floor. Satnam howled and tried to hold him. He was tall, but lightly built. The three of us lifted him easily enough and put him in bed. Satnam didn’t flinch when we put her filthy and stinking husband on the bed neatly made with pristine white linen.
“We can’t take him to the bath. That might not be good. Let’s strip him of the dirty clothes.” While we stripped the hairy body, except what I believed to be a mandatory kachha in place of an ordinary underwear, his wife politely looked away. Removing the part of his shirt on his left side took some painful time – the burnt skin and the fabric had merged.
As Dr. Varkey worked on him, and I swabbed the dirt away from his body, Karnail Singh tried to raise his back now and then, howled in pain, and fell back. Satnam first brought cold water and then warm water as the doctor ordered, her hands shaking and spilling some of it on the floor.
Their daughters, five and three, barged into the room.
“Mama, stop those uncles. They’re killing Papa,” bellowed Gudia, the older girl.
Satnam gathered both, whispered consolation in their ears and led them to the next room, closing the door.
Dr. Varkey took more than an hour swabbing the wounds and bandaging his arm and knees, giving him an injection. Finally, we dressed him, with quite some effort, in loose muslin pyjamas that Satnam dug out from the cupboard.
“He’ll sleep for several hours. Don’t wake him up. I gave him an anti-tetanus and a pain killer. Give him these tablets, three times after food, if he eats anything tomorrow. If he’s too much in pain, give him this tablet, only one at a time. If he develops fever, call me.”
Varkey fished out a card from his bag and gave her.
He turned towards me. “That’s a bloody brave Sardar, I tell you. Is he in the army?”
“No,” I said, “he runs an electronics shop. One of my dealers. The best.”
Satnam Kaur, beaming through tears, asked: “Doctor Sahib, what fees can I pay you?”
“Nothing for now. When he’s better, you can give me this house instead of money. It’s a nice house. I’ll take it.”
Alarmed, Satnam raised her eyebrows and looked askance at me. When I chuckled, she relaxed. Varkey winked. I saw him smile for the first time.
When we came out and closed the gate, Varkey paused, closed his eyes and looked up as if in prayer.
“This wouldn’t do. I gave him a strong opiate which I normally wouldn’t. That Sardar would die if we don’t take him to a hospital. I’ll call them from home.”
The rest of the crowd were in the street corner, waiting for news.
“Will he live?” asked Kunju in Malayalam.
“Jesus, that Sardar is a marvel,” said Varkey, in English. “Can’t imagine how he crawled, avoiding being seen – let’s see how many kilometres? 15? 20 from Bengali Sweet House near Connaught place? His left hand is burnt to the bones. Can you imagine crawling on all fours in a dirty drain? I hope tomorrow an orthopaedic could do something about his elbow. He’ll also need skin grafting, hoping that would help. He has many burn marks all over the left side of his back. His knees are in terrible shape after all that crawling. Can’t understand how he did it. Surprisingly, his pulse and pressure are normal. Mr. Panicker and I had a tough time cleaning him up and treating his burns. Was a torture that I couldn’t help, but he bore up, howling rarely. Pardon me, I need to go home and make a phone call.”
The good doctor hurried home to call the hospital.
Sidhu, the shortest and the thinnest man in the crowd, grabbed an imaginary beard under his chin and said, “He’s a Sardar, you know. “
When everyone laughed, he said: “I’m a Sardar too, a modified Sikh. My father shaved off his beard; he said beard and kirpan are for Pinch Pyaras – five beloved Sikhs, favourites of Guru Gobind Singh-ji, the last Guru. That was his logic. But we’re Sikhs.”
He showed his Kada – a stiff steel strap around his right wrist worn like a bangle – part of a Sikh’s five mandatory wear.
“If you’re a Sardar, Sidhu, then don’t tell that to anyone. Hide that kada or some bigot is going to get you.”
I said: “Not to worry. Tomorrow police will order a curfew. There will be no attacks on Sikhs. The Government won’t allow a few hooligans run amuck and burn houses as they seem to be doing in the village. Even the Punjab Government arrests Sikh terrorists and prevents much mayhem against Hindus. This is India, not Congo.”
We could hear men shouting and screaming, calls of Blood-for-Blood and Victory to Bharat Mata, forgetting that thousands of Sikhs had given their lives for the victory of Bharat Mata – Mother India.
Kunju raised a finger above his head. “Listen. Khoon ka badla khoon – Blood to avenge Blood – is a sure call for lynching. When men get worked up like that, they can be beasts.”
I guessed Varkey tried all three hospitals where he worked and requested an ambulance. None came.
It was nearly five in the morning. We decided that there was no immediate danger to Karnail Singh and his family, so we’d catch some sleep. Surely the day will be one of mourning for Indira Gandhi, so no work in the offices, no school for the children and no lectures for Varkey’s college-going son.
At seven in the morning of November 1, the air was eerily quiet. Rajiv Gandhi, the new Prime Minister, was on television.
“It is a moment of profound grief. The foremost thing to do is to maintain one’s balance. We can and must face the tragedy with fortitude and wisdom. We should remain calm and exercise maximum restraint.”
Television made no mention of riots or killings.
My wife suggested that we go to the factory and see that everything was safe there. Our children, both adolescents who were assigned the responsibility of helping out in the arrangements for the inauguration and setting up the office where the Minister would be received, were still fast asleep, instinctively knowing that there would be no school, and unaware of all that happened at night or the condition of ‘Karnail-uncle.’ My son was a favourite of Karnail Singh who had no son, only two lovely little daughters.
We didn’t wake the children. Twelve and ten, they were grown up enough to look after themselves for a few hours. There was no reason to be worried; all was quiet but for the arson that happened in the next village. The expected attacks on Sikhs, it seemed, had blown off like a bad breeze after what appeared to be the foreboding of a tornado. On television, the face of a newly inducted minister Buta Singh, a Sikh, was on frequent display. It was President Zail Singh, another prominent Sikh, who swore in the new Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. After his speech, there were no frequent calls for the Nation to stay calm. It meant that the Nation was calm.
Let’s take the scooter, said my wife. She believed that my ancient Lambretta scooter was more appropriate than the Fiat car we had bought four years before in the black market. To get a new Fiat by advance booking, it would take eight years if one was lucky. The new Maruti Suzuki, much cheaper if you had a booking, was even more expensive than a Fiat in the black market. I had no booking for either, so it was a Fiat that we bought. My wife reasoned that Karnail got into trouble when he was in a closed car, so an open scooter seemed safer.
November had just begun, yet there was a nip in the morning air. She wrapped herself in a light shawl, covering her head with it, and plumped cross-saddle on the pillion. We sailed in the morning breeze along the main road, noticing the wisps of smoke that hung in the air. In the village to our right, it was all quiet but for a swirling pall of smoke. You could hear women bawling, probably because their houses had been burnt down – which accounted for the smoke. As we shuddered across the open railway track, my wife said she noticed trouble in the normally deserted rail station to our left below. She said a crowd was chasing a man, a howling woman was chasing after them. Was the running man a Sikh? She couldn’t tell. Did he wear a turban? She couldn’t tell either, his head was not visible with a crowd chasing behind him. Fights and lynching were not unusual hereabouts, I told her and rolled the accelerator to get away from any sight of violence.
We rode on the road skirting the runway, which my children called Laburnum Road. A long row of laburnum trees stood on either side of the narrow driveway. Summer had gone; although Delhi had no real autumn, the laburnums had shredded their huge bunches of hanging yellow-and-gold flowers. Further up the empty road, I saw a Sikh riding a scooter towards us. When he came closer, I first recognized his brand-new Bajaj scooter and then him.
“Namaste, Panicker Saa’b,” greeted Guddu, raising one hand. “Is there trouble ahead?”
We stopped, facing each other.
“Sat-Shri-Akal, Guddu, all well? was the scare unnecessary?”
“No,” said Guddu. His voice was serious. The young and normally ebullient Sikh worked as a handyman-cum-bill-collector for Chadda Engineering, the company that made tape-deck mechanism. He looked flustered.
“Veeerji sent me to check if everything is all right in the new factory under construction. Half a kilometre from Cotton-town junction, I could hear shouts of Blood to avenge Blood. Something – probably a car – was on fire. I thought I heard the scream of a child. I turned around and fled back. Maybe Veeerji will get mad at me. But I feared I might get killed.”
His knees, visible behind the scooter’s forward frame, shook violently.
Veerji meant big brother. Guddu was no brother of Balbir Singh Chadda, but the word meant big brother, spoken with respect.
How inconsiderate and reckless of Balbir Singh Chadda, I thought, to send this young man on a recce mission alone at a time like this. Chadda, the richest in the trade – at least in terms of unaccounted money was all courtesy to customers, but hard on his employees.
“Take care, Guddu. We saw nothing dangerous on the road. Avoid the villages. Take only the main road.”
As he said a gloomy thank you and rode away, I felt queasy in the pit of my stomach.
“I hope nothing happens to that young Sardarji. I don’t think they are killing Sikhs the way they tried to kill Satnam’s husband,” said my wife.
I wasn’t sure. I could see smoke ahead of me.
At Cotton-town junction, something of a small square with a barrier-boom to check traffic, a crowd of young men had been eyeing us from distance. They signalled me to stop. On our right, on the road that led to the farm houses of the rich and famous, a heap of metal that must have been a car an hour ago, was smouldering. The three-pronged star, logo of Mercedes Benz, shone through the smoking heap. Cars like that were owned by few among the richest those days, they came with a huge import tax – something like twice the actual cost.
“Don’t look,” I said to my wife. Having known how Karnail Singh escaped only by sheer luck, I suspected that the occupants were not allowed to get out of the car. Were there children inside? Did they cry and plead ‘uncle-ji, let us go, please don’t kill us’ while the crowd stood outside and shouted Bharat Mata ki Jai (victory to Mother India), Indira Gandhi Amar Rahe (Long live Indira Gandhi) and khoon-ka-badla-khoon (Blood in vengeance for blood)?
A young man moved towards us and asked my wife to remove the shawl from over her head. I told her not to resist, this was not the time. He yanked off the shawl himself, dragging her forward in the process. Any other time I would have smashed his teeth in. She held on to my waist tightly and resisted a fall.
“The man is a Madrasi, the woman looks like a Sikhni,” announced the young man of stunted growth, arrogant by the privilege of the situation.
Sikhni meant a lady Sikh. All South Indians, whether they had ever been to Madras or not, were summarily known as Madrasis in the North. Few North Indians believed that the Madrasis could have light skin. Against my Sub-Saharan skin, my wife’s Aryan complexion contrasted dangerously.
An older man moved forward to take a look and judge for himself. I knew the man. He was a carpenter from a town beyond the river, come looking for work in the new industrial complex. We had negotiated his making wooden cabinets for the televisions I would make in the upcoming factory.
“Hum Madrasi hai,” pleaded my wife, shaken and defensive, in the South-Indian version of Hindi where words like am, is and are all merged into an is.
“Arre Bhai, this is Panicker Saa’b. Don’t stop them. Sorry, Panicker Saa’b. But I’d advise you: don’t go further. Madam could be mistaken for a Punjaban.”
So, they were not even sparing Sikh women. What about Punjabi Hindu women?
Probably to make amends, he turned around and said with unnecessary loudness: “You idiot, every Gori is not Punjabi.”
The description Gori– white girl – would tickle the heart of any Indian woman – light-skinned or dark.
He returned the shawl. “Go carefully. Take care of Bahen-ji.” Respected sister.
I kicked the starter pedal and moved a couple of metres, then stopped and looked back. The carpenter came up to meet me.
“How many people in that car?”
He frowned. “Not people, Sardars. Does how many Sardars matter to you?”
Maybe it mattered. Karnail Singh had heard someone offering a thousand rupees for every Sikh killed.
“Any child inside?”
“Panicker Saa’b, you mind your business and go away from here.” His tone had become aggressive.
As we moved on avoiding an argument, my wife asked: “He has become rude. Could this man be among those who set fire to that car?”
“He led the mob, a General directing the battle against the helpless and the unarmed.”
I accelerated to get away quickly.
As we approached the state’s border, the scene was one of a bombed-out market. On the right used to be a number of make-shift wooden kiosks where sales tax inspectors, Octroi collectors and, quite logically, butchers held shop most of twenty-four hours a day. Inspectors collected some tax and a lot of bribe. The two butchers in their respective shops killed goats and chicken through the day and kept a steady stream of supply to the lone dhabba across the road. They were all closed; apparently the government had decided this was not the right day for tax collection. Ranjit Singh, a Hindu Jhat who owned Ranjit Ka dhabba which served sizzling mutton chops, curried lambs and chicken roasted on charcoal fire, apparently decided there would be no business today. Ranjit himself sold no booze because his dhabba was on the Delhi side of the border. Customers had to buy it from another hut which sold cheap rum and brandy in quarter-bottles across the fence. There was prohibition in Delhi, not on the other side. I noticed that the booze shop across the fence had been smashed in; but there was no sign of liquor bottles broken or liquor flowing on the floor. Apparently, all stolen. I guessed the shop was owned by a Sikh. His religion prohibited use of tobacco, but the Gurus had forgotten to include alcohol in the banned list.
A mob holding sticks, cutlasses and sickles in their hands sat on wooden benches and bamboo cots lying about outside the closed dhabba. Many, for want of seats, simply stood around shuffling their legs and swinging their crude weapons. Their necks were strained towards the border, anticipating trucks and cars coming in from other states – Punjab, Haryana or U.P, the Northern Province. A visitor with a turban and a beard meant an exciting hunt and easy kill.
My wife was right; if we were in a car, those men would not have ignored us the way they did after one look.
Ahead, men were unloading cooking-gas cylinders from a truck. A woman, whom I knew as Neelu who used to carry bricks on the construction site, stood hurriedly stacking gas cylinders in a handcart. More cylinders were being handed down by her son over the tailboard of the truck.
“That’s enough, you get down. Now I will take some,” said an older man.
My wife gave out a howl, “Look,” and then, on afterthought, a muffled scream in my ears: “please don’t look.”
As I turned left towards the Industrial complex, I stopped and looked. From the broken window of the driver’s side, limply hung a bearded man’s head. His turban had come unravelled and rolled down in a long stretch of blue cloth. Blood kept dripping from his mouth. Surely his neck had been broken.
Neelu’s son hopped down from the truck and came towards me, wringing his hands in glee.
“Jai Hind, Saa’b,” he greeted me pleasantly. The phrase meant victory to India, one of the many patriotic or pious forms of greeting.
“When we tried to stop that prick of a Sardar, the mother-fucker showed his kirpan, challenged us to get near him, calling us sister-fuckers.We battered him in his seat so much that his neck broke. The Sardar howled like mad dog and died.” There was no regret, only pride in his voice.
A new truck was coming up from behind. Neelu began to pull away her cart; her son joined her by pushing it. Perhaps they would empty the cart in her hut in the open ground behind my factory and come back for something else. Cooking gas was much in demand in middle-class houses that were lucky to have gas ovens. Neelu almost certainly had no gas oven, she would hope to sell all those cylinders in the black market.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” urged my wife. I could sense that she was more distraught from the sight of the dead man’s suspended head than frightened.
We moved a few metres ahead. On our left, the brickwork of the large unfinished building that Balbir Singh Chadda was getting built for his plastic moulding factory lay in scattered heaps. Broken bricks lay around like piles of debris. Two of the concrete columns had been smashed, their steel reinforcements sticking out like bare elbow bones of some giant. What must have been bamboo scaffoldings lay submerged in black and grey ash. Nobody was around. I noticed a trail of grey cement dust leading to the right side of the road. Some of it piled on the pavement between two large wheel marks. It was clear that they stole cement bags and other building materials and drove them away before smashing the building and starting the fire.
“This is the construction that Balbir Singh Chadda sent Guddu to check,” I told my wife.
“God, lucky he got away, poor man.”
As we moved on, not many damages were in sight. There were few Sikh factories ahead. Sikhs did not trust Haryana government after the state partition between Haryana and Punjab. The relation got worse when Sant Bhinderwale’s organization first demanded autonomy for Punjab, and then a separate nation like Pakistan, which they fancied as Khalistan – Nation of Khalsa, the Sikh faith. Sikh terrorists pulled out Hindus from buses and trains and shot them, hijacked airliners and took one to Pakistan, hoping for help, but the hijackers were jailed by Pakistan, and passengers were released. They had not anticipated that Pakistan’s international obligations would not allow it to openly side with airplane hijackers. However, sophisticated weapons were known to be smuggled in through Pakistan.
Perhaps the Haryana government did not like allotting too many plots to Sikhs after the Khalistan terror movement began. The fraternal enmity between the Jhats of Haryana and the Sikhs of Punjab had grown worse during the past few years. Not long ago they were a single state in relative prosperity, sharing the same irrigation facilities and fertile land amidst the many deprived states of India. The trouble began not just over religion – but also over language. Sikhs said their language was Gurumukhi or Punjabi. Most Hindus of the state claimed, rather dishonestly, that their mother tongue was Hindi. Actually, both spoke the same language with minor regional variations, normally written in Urdu script. After the brutally violent separation of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu-majority rest of India, Urdu script became repugnant to many, but older Punjabis gloated in their knowledge of the lyrical language and its Arabic-like right-to-left calligraphic script. Others revived the Gurumukhi script, much different from the Sanskrit (Devanagari) script chosen by Hindi speakers. Religion and tribalism built not one, but many walls.
My wife noticed that the road to our factory had been spruced up, that they had placed colourful potted crotons along both sides.
“So nice to see the government beautifying the industrial area,” she said. The site of plants and trees always cheered the woman who hailed from a farming family. Perhaps red-and-green croton leaves temporarily erased the horrifying vision of crimson blood pouring out from a half-disconnected human head and forming a puddle on the bitumen pavement below.
“These plants are for the pleasure of the minister who would come to inaugurate our factory. When she goes back, the same plants would go to please some other VIP.”
We turned left at the sprawling and walled-up plot of a politician who was close to Indira Gandhi.
Then I turned right and was overcome with the urge to flee. The large pandal, a marquee being put up for the inauguration stood burning. As fabrics and poles collapsed, flames crackled and hissed, rising high. I could feel the heat a hundred metres away.
Since my factory building did not have a hall big enough for the inauguration ceremony, a friend who owned the plot across the road allowed me to make arrangements on his open plot. Gujral Tent House, owned by an ageing but a sprightly Sikh – Kartar Singh Gujral – had taken the contract to make arrangements for the platform and the podium. long and wide white canvas roofing, colourful fabric festoons, carpets, flower arrangements, chairs, a front row of sofas for the VIPs (since the Very Insolent Persons considered it an insult to be made to sit at the same level as the hoi-polloi audience), microphones and speakers, the works. I had shelled out an advance of Rupees 200,000 for the setup. Kartar Singh also brought in large cauldrons, glasses, crockery and cutlery for serving snacks– as sumptuous as a lunch – for the invitees. For food and service, I was to pay later according to the number of plates passed around.
I gasped at the site of a guard in Gujral’s employ, a middle-aged Sikh with greying and blood-stained beard, lying sprawled on the sand at the make-shift gate. Blood that flowed down from his mouth had congealed like a thick string which flattened on the sand. His body lay twisted, his long white shirt had marks of blows. His turban lay, torn and flattened, a foot away from his dishevelled hair; around the round patch of his bald pate outlined by bloody scratch-like hairlines, thin bunches of hair were glued together in congealed blood. The side of his face bore a deep cut, blood clotted like jelly around it.
I closed my eyes. “Killed last night,” I whispered.
My wife didn’t get down from the scooter.
“Let’s go back. I am going to faint,” she mourned, her voice a soft shiver.
I felt a nausea coming up my throat.
On the opposite side of the road, a crowd of men jostled outside the door of my factory building. Some were bringing out and sharing among each other the blankets and transistor radios I had purchased on credit. Two youngsters stood aside, with some of the stuff safely between their legs lying on the ground, one ready with a cannister of what I imagined to be petrol or kerosene. The other one had in his hand a rod with its ends wrapped in a bundle of cloth, obviously to torch the building after all the booties were taken out. He kept swinging it up and down in excited anticipation. From inside the workplace behind the office, I heard sounds of hectic activity and hammering. It was a well-orchestrated raid, planned to rob all that they could and finish in arson.
Among the marauders was the Gurkha guard I paid for guarding the building. He held a transistor radio in his hand and a rolled-up blanket in his armpit, urging others to hurry up,
“Gosh, what are you doing? Why are you doing this to us?” screamed my wife, her feeling of faint suddenly gone. Not mindful of the risk in her frenzy, she rushed in through the crowd.
“Madam, keep away. This is Gurucharan Singh Rekhi’s factory, not yours. We are setting fire to the haramzada Sardar’s building.”
Haramzada meant ill-begotten, a bastard.
I recognized the man who said that. He was Ramcharan who owned and drove the pickup van that carried bundles of the same blankets and transistors for me from Delhi.
A case of Hindu Ramcharan versus Sikh Gurucharan. I am in the crossfire.
“Ramcharan, this is my factory. Rekhi was my contractor. I fired him for stealing the scaffoldings he hired on my account and using them on another contract.”
“That’s not what he told me. He said he owned the factory and that you were his manager,” said Ramcharan.
Rekhi often borrowed my car supposedly for bringing in building supplies. One saved sales tax scrutiny and the need to bribe at the border by bringing in small things like electrical fittings in a private car. I always used my scooter to save some cost of petrol. So, I guessed, the impression had stuck that Rekhi who drove the car was the boss, I on my old scooter his humble manager.
There rose a series of sounds of smashing of glasses and bursts of implosions from inside the workplace. Of broken glasses showering down on the hard floor.
“My picture tubes and testing instruments are being smashed. I imported them on letters-of-credit with the banks,” I cried: “I’d have to run away or go into hiding.”
“Stop it, you mother-fuckers,” shouted Ramcharan, straining his neck towards the workplace door beyond the office.
The last piece of glass fell and there was utter silence inside. A couple of young men emerged from inside, swinging long iron rods in their hands.
“What happened, is the sardar haramzada dead?”
Quite a few of those who got one or more transistor radios and blankets dispersed hurriedly.
“Sahib, I told them that you are a Hindu, that you are the owner, to these people when they came. I told them that it was you who paid me for my rice and lentil – my salary. They wouldn’t believe me.” Pleaded the Gurkha.
Rice and lentil were the Hindi equivalent of bread and butter.
“So, you began to steal with them. Thapa, I had believed that Gurkhas are honest and brave. You should be ashamed.”
All Gurkhas were summarily known as Thapa but apparently not all of them trustworthy. Times had changed.
Ramcharan ordered his gang to stop the plunder and put away the can and the unlit torch.
“Everybody brings the radios and blankets back,” he shouted.
He raised hands in the direction of those who were running away and called out to stop, but the loud command made no impact. Those who gained some distance speeded their pace, blankets in plastic packs, transistor radios in cardboard boxes held tight in their hands and under their arms. Many held more than one set.
“Don’t bother, Ramcharan. There’s going to be no inauguration, no distribution of gifts to poor war-widows. I do not want those things back. The vendors won’t take them back; if I keep them, they will keep reminding me of that poor Sardar lying out there, killed like a mad dog.”
A few more men who were standing around walked away with what they got. Ramcharan didn’t insist that they return the stuff.
“Panicker Saa’b. forgive us. We believed Rekhi, that son-of-a-bitch Sardar. Now we will protect your factory.”
He made my name sound like panic-ker. But that was what I felt. Helpless, cowardly and panicked.
My wife walked in beyond the office and into the work place.
“Come, look,” she screamed.
I didn’t go in to look. I didn’t want to witness the scene, the graveyard of my dreams, my relentless hard work, the sacrifices she and the kids went through.
Instead I turned around and pointed at the ground across the road, the white plastic poster screen-printed with Gujral Tent House still in flames and crackling.
“Do you know how much it cost me to get that pandal put up?”
“We are sorry. We made a mistake. But we do not feel sorry for that sister-fucker Sardar Gujral for his loss.”
“You don’t need to feel sorry for Kartar Singh Gujral. I have paid most of the cost. Things will cool soon enough. Sikhs are like cats, trust me, they have seven lives. Fight is in their blood, don’t you worry. So is money, black or white. You cowards gather into mobs and lynch lone or sleeping Sardars- that wouldn’t be the end. When blood-for-blood is complete, there will be no blood left. Gujral will come and collect the balance from me some day. If somebody like you kills him, then his son or brother or nephew – someone would find me and collect. Unless I commit suicide in the meanwhile.”
I realized I had been sobbing shamelessly. My wife, traumatised by what she saw in the workplace, stood stoic, touching me lightly on my shoulders, trying hard not to give in to grief and lose her feminine dignity before the crude strangers.
I pointed across the road.
“Who killed that Sardar lying there?”
“Who knows? He tried to resist my boys, so they battered him with hockey sticks. A Sala Sardar dying is not the same as our Mother Indira Gandhi dying.”
As if his words were a cue, “Khoon ka badla khoon,” intoned one of his underlings who still stood around. Blood to avenge blood. A few others pumped the air with their fists and repeated it after him aloud as a slogan. Perhaps, I wished, there was a micron of humanity left in the human heart, the stupid slogan was an attempt to hide their feeling of guilt. An eye for an eye. Indira Gandhi must get her revenge even in death. Let the whole world go blind.
“Indira Gandhi Amar Rahe”. Long live Indira Gandhi, shouted the slogan-leader. The few others who remained repeated after him.
“That Sardar lying there did not kill Indira Gandhi. Two mad bigoted Sikhs did, cheating on their duty. So, you killed a helpless Sardar who was honestly doing his duty. The Gurkha who abandoned his duty and joined the looting spree got a blanket and a radio for reward.”
My newly installed telephone rang inside the office. I went in and picked it up, refraining from looking in through the open door to the workplace. Prasad, the faithful supervisor in my Delhi workshop, had the new number. While getting a normal phone connection took several years, this one was installed within a week after I filed the application – the magic of a minister’s expected visit.
‘Sir, they killed our Harkishen,” said Prasad, choking through his words.
The news struck me like a bolt of lightning.
Harkishen Singh, maybe in his early thirties but looking no more than a sprightly 18, employed as a wireman on the recommendation of Mr. Shastri, Member of Parliament. Harkishen had scanty hair on his chin which he embellished by pulling down bunches of hair from under his turban and sticking them with glue on his cheeks and under his chin. The Sardar didn’t disappoint me. Though he kept entertaining the girls with constant prattle, his productivity was amazing. Most of the work on the assembly line was repetitive, so his chatter didn’t affect work. He had a huge store of Sardar jokes to regale the girls with. This didn’t surprise me; I had heard Milkha Singh the Great reeling out Sardar jokes – somewhat like Irish and Scottish jokes in English – in the Golf Club of Chandigarh – even a couple of them about himself. Khushwant Singh, an agnostic writer who wrote the History of Sikhs and an emotion-packed Train To Pakistan also wrote Sardar jokes.
As the jovial and almost adolescent face of Harkishen Singh Bedi flitted through my mind, I gripped the handset hard.
“Harkishen? No! How?”
“We were travelling together in a bus to Phoolvali junction. On top of the new bridge, a gang of men stopped the bus. A kindly woman who knew what could happen told Harkishen to crouch under her seat. She sat with her legs over him, her sari spread out to hide him. She motioned me to sit beside her to avoid attention.
Any refugee bastards in the bus, asked one while some twenty of them barged into the bus with knives and sticks. The driver, the idiot, first nodded yes, and then no. They combed the bus seat by seat – not for refugees, but for Sikhs. One of them looked beyond me and noticed the bulge under the fat woman’s clothes. They pulled me out, kicked her aside and dragged out Harkishen. One of them slapped the old lady for trying to save him. Poor Harkishen kept screaming and pleading for mercy while they dragged him along the floor of the bus and carried him to the parapet of the bridge. I kept telling them that he was not a refugee, but a citizen. I tried to run after them, but they didn’t let me get down from the bus. As we watched them in horror, four of them held his four limbs as if they were playing a game, swinging him in the air like a fishing net. Then they let go, flinging him over the rail. His cries were chilling, sir, you can’t imagine how. I got down at the next stop and ran back. When I reached below the bridge, I saw his face smashed against the rail track. He was dead. There were many people standing around, but only one old man helped me get him out of the track. He is still there “
Prasad began to sob. I waited without urging him on. I could hear the pounding of my own heart.
“I ran looking for any shop with a telephone, but all were closed. I’m making this call from the police station. I first tried your house, and then this phone.”
Prasad lowered his voice, I could picture him masking his mouth with a hand. He spoke in Tamil: “I reported Harkishen’s murder to the Havildar at the desk. I said I could recognize the killers. I knew at least two of them – both from P-Town. The Havildar asked me if I was the keeper for all Sardars in Delhi. Another one said the Sardars killed Indira Gandhi; now they will have to face the consequences.”
“What buck-buck are you saying in Madrasi? Get out, you Sardaron ka Gandu.”
That was a voice from behind Prasad. Gandu meant a willing victim of sodomy. There followed a sharp crack which I felt sure was a slap on Prasad’s cheek. The phone was banged down. Not by Prasad. He would never bang down a phone on me.
Prasad could not understand why the killers called Sikhs as refugees. During the 1947 Hindu-Muslim bloodbath, the Sikhs as well as Hindus who lived in many cities of what became West Pakistan after partition – Lahore, Sialkot, Multan, Rawalpindi even Peshawar and other places in the North-West Frontier were either killed or escaped to Indian side while Muslims – those who were lucky to survive – went over to Pakistan. They were mostly farmers and businessmen who lost their everything and many of their relations during their flight to India, the enterprising Sikhs and other Punjabis took advantage of government munificence. New industrial towns and residential areas were allotted for a pittance to the lucky ones. The Bhakra Nangal dam, over Sulej river, completed soon after independence, helped in the irrigation of thousands of hectares of farms and prosper.
Sikhs who chose to live in Delhi took to trading, shop-keeping and building small-scale industries, apart from the military, much of which they monopolised with their courage and readiness for battle. Within a few years, the refugees became affluent land owners, farmers and businessmen, officers and men. Yet many of them took pride in declaring “I’m from Pakistan,” reminiscing over their lives in the cities and towns where they hailed from. On the other hand, the Hindu refugees in the East who were driven out from East Pakistan had no such luck. They lived for years as destitutes, some never recovered. Many women fled from the Bhadra Lok – secure Hindu community –status in the Muslim Bengal became prostitutes in Calcutta streets to support their families. Punjabis attributed their prosperity to their inherent industriousness; others believed that they got undue favours from successive governments. When in anger, envy surfaced – people from further East – Uttar Pradesh –and Bihar called them refugees. The word amounted to something despicable, an abuse.
I put down the phone, wishing, without much hope, that the constables who slapped him didn’t give Prasad the standard police treatment of punching with folded elbows on the small of his back and knee to his testicles. Feeling crushed, I sat on my haunches on the floor since chairs had been flung around during the loot. MY wife stood beside me, not asking who was on the phone. She knew it would be bad news, and didn’t want a share in it.
I hoped Prasad, if he was well enough, will have the good sense to inform Harkishen’s wife or parents, if he could find them alive.
We came out on the road, not bothering to look for the lock to shut the building door, not caring to look at the small crowd of killers at the gate still holding the gifts that would have heartened some poor war-widows. I hoped none of those widows would come here two days later, trusting the invitation letter I had sent them, only to return disappointed. It had taken Subedar Major Ram Kishore Singh quite some effort and his military strategy getting their names and addresses from the Ex-Army men’s Association and the local pension office.
The thought of the Subedar major, the responsible and efficient manager, made me wonder why it never occurred to him to come and check if the factory he was supposed to be managing was safe. At least he could call me.
As we sat on the scooter, the horizon ahead of us appeared to be in flames and black smoke. I didn’t want to ride ahead and risk her life, but my wife prodded me on. “Think of our children,” she said.
Three trucks and a jeep stood burning at the border. The truck with the suspended human head still was there, but not on fire yet. Behind it, a truck on dying fire. Below its driver’s window lay a half -burnt body of a man, one of his legs sticking up stiffly in the air. Another couple of trucks that had evidently tried to turn back some distance away from the border after sighting the danger also were burning. Five or six men, not a huge crowd, but with iron rods in hand, ran after a short, stocky man who jumped out from the truck and ran. I couldn’t see his face, but it was clear that he wore a turban. That Sardar had no chance, I said to myself, every strand of hair on my forearm standing on their ends.
After a few moments, as I was clearing the last of the kiosks on my left, there rose an agonizing scream. I knew they got him.
Past Cotton-Town junction, and the narrow boulevard that was Delhi Road, one breathed kerosene smoke and smelled death. As we came up in line with the runway, An Air India Jumbo was descending so low that my wife feared it would hit her head. I explained that the runway was just a few dozen metres ahead; its touch-down point may be a couple of hundred metres.
The sight of the aircraft made me recall that at least twice before, Sikh terrorists had hijacked Indian Airline flights involving hundreds of passengers. Not by good luck, but more by the tact of the handlers and good sense of the government of Pakistan, none was killed. I was no clairvoyant to anticipate that in seven months yet to come, Sikh immigrants in Canada would time-bomb an Air India Jumbo mid-flight that bore 329 innocents – most of them Canadians Hindus, some Sikhs and many foreigners who had nothing to do with the pogrom on Sikhs. That their bodies would burst and scatter in mid-air in the stratosphere over Ireland. Or that only 24 of them would be Indians, 35 of them Sikhs.
We turned right on to the airport road and spotted a body that lay, head and torso dangling down towards the low ground some two feel below, legs spread on the sidewalk. I slowed down and noticed that one of his legs was twisted, broken. His one hand lay limp by his side, gripping a tuft of grass. The steel kada on his wrist shone in the bright sun.
“My God. Please move on. It’s not your friend Guddu,” whispered my wife in my ears. “There’s no scooter near him.”
“If it is Guddu, they would have taken away his scooter,” I shouted back into the wind. “Behind every murder there’s a loot.”
I didn’t tell her that it indeed was Guddu, that I recognized his trousers, that they broke his leg to prevent him from running, that I noticed a long and bloody tear in his trouser where he was struck probably with a twisted steel rod, breaking his shank before they killed him. Did it really matter who was killed? A man with a wife and a baby waiting anxiously for him to get back home was killed brutally and in cold blood. Only a month ago Guddu had distributed sweets when his first child was born.
The children greeted us at the gate.
“Where did you go? Did you hear that you must not drink water? Sardarjis have poisoned all the water tanks in Delhi.” That was my twelve-year-old son,
“Who told you this nonsense? At least a fourth of Delhi’s population are Sikhs. Won’t they have to drink water too?”
“I don’t know. They are going around and announcing it over the loudhailer.”
“Making one more excuse to kill Sikhs.”
“Dad, why are we killing Sikhs? Isn’t Karnail Uncle a Sikh?”
“Yes, they tried to kill him too, not we, not all Hindus, a few blood-thirsty idiots prodded on by their leaders. My last conversation with Prasad makes me suspect that the police – even the government – might be in league with the killers. One excuse is that two of her Sikh guards killed Indira Gandhi. Another that the Sikhs celebrated her death somewhere in Connaught Place. Now they lie to us that Sikhs are poisoning drinking water. These are triggers, not causes. There were Sikhs killing of Hindus before – not the ordinary Sikh, but those goaded on by a man named Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale, maybe for the last ten years, Sikh extremists pulling out Hindus from trains and buses and killing in cold blood; Hindu-Sikh riots in places. The mutual hatred has been building up in Punjab and Haryana after they separated. Delhi has become the battleground after Indira Gandhi’s death. Like you can’t fight a flood, Sikhs are overwhelmed by the sheer number of the killers, the government has not come to their rescue, Sikhs in Delhi and everywhere other than Punjab live in isolated clusters. So, there is no fight, only killing. Like Ghori and Ghasni on Hindus so many centuries ago.”
My ten-year-old daughter stared at me with her mouth wide open.
“That couldn’t be,” she exclaimed. “My classmate Kulbir is a Sardarji with long hair, chota-turban, kada and all. His parents are Hindus. They took a vow after they had three daughters that if they get a son, they would make him a Sikh. Can his parents kill him now because he’s a Sikh?”
They will not, I told her, but they might hide him or cut his hair, giving in to defeat. Many families are a mix of bearded Sikhs and beardless Sikhs who worshipped the same Guru, and prayed at the same Gurudwaras but the beardless were considered Hindus. Many Sikhs were not averse to worshiping in Hindu temples. Many of them bore the names of Hindu deities – Ram Singh, Kishen Singh, Gopal Singh and so on. Harkishen had a twin-Hindu name – Hari and Kishen. Their sacred book had verses written by Hindu saints and poet Kabir – the ancient social reformer who tried to bridge Hindu-Muslim differences with his verses. You couldn’t tell who was who, so for now the beard and long hair has become the marker for the target of hate.
Somebody had to be informed where Guddu’s body lay. Not Chadda, I decided with bitterness.
I called Balwant Singh, president of Electronics Manufacturers’ Association, and told him of my meeting with Guddu from Chadda Engineering, and how on my return I found that he had been killed, and the location where his body lay. I couldn’t pick him up, I said apologetically, I was on scooter and my wife was with me.
The Association had all Sikhs except for a Sindhi Hindu – Jagdish Mithawani and myself among its members.
“Chadda, the bastard, worms will eat him in hell,” growled Balwant and rang off.
It just struck me, I didn’t know Guddu’s real name. Guddu was a child’s pet name he was known by in the small trade circle.
On television, Rajiv Gandhi was speaking, as stoic and emotionless as before.
“Disgraceful incidents of loot arsons and murder have taken place. This must stop further forthwith. The government will ensure the safety of life and property irrespective of caste, creed or religion. As Prime Minister of India I cannot and will not allow…”
Must stop further forthwith? So, it was all right till now, now that the message of revenge has gone home to Sikh community after innocents like Guddu were killed brutally? Why didn’t he say that the murderers will be punished according to law?
The phone rang. It was Dr. Varkey.
“Panicker, too many killings outside. I keep getting calls all the time, but feel helpless. Last night the hospital couldn’t spare any ambulance. I think we need to take that Sardar to a hospital without delay. His wounds could get infected. He may lose his left arm if he survives at all. “
I had always imagined Dr. Varkey as a kindly doctor but a distant man, never overtly friendly. His teasing Satnam Kaur about taking her house as doctor’s fee showed another side of the man, a new persona. He was a child-specialist who practised in several hospitals by turn. In the evening he ran something of a general clinic in his modified garage. A very busy doctor.
“Yes, doctor. I’ll see that Karnail is ready. It would be easier for you than me to get an ambulance.”
“Not to worry, leave that to me. I have an idea. I don’t want his wife and children accompanying him. It could be a dangerous trip. Men are roaming the streets, stopping vehicles and pulling out anyone with a beard, even people whose tan on the face shows that they were Sardars who hurriedly modified. This afternoon, they say, some thousand men barged into that big Gurudwara –what’s its name – and killed the Sikhs there.”
“You mean Gurudwara Rakab Ganj or Bangla Sahib. That’s terrible. I’ll go with Karnail.”
“My plan is this. Don’t be shocked. I will hail a hearse, not an ambulance. That would be safer. Sounds horrible, but that could save the Sardar’s life. I’ll wait for you in J- hospital. Come straight to the casualty. But wait. The attendants know the extent of danger. They will cover him with a shroud even though he would be secure inside the vehicle. The casualty people would know when you arrive. They won’t send the Sardar to mortuary, don’t worry.”
I hesitated, but agreed. The ride could cost me my life if they discovered a living Sikh under the shroud. There was no other way.
It took quite some knocking before Satnam Kaur opened the door a little ajar, saw me, and let me in. Evaporated tears had marked greylines below her eyes. Her nose dripped a thin liquid which she wiped with the back of her hand, a gesture that would have shocked me at another time.
“How’s he? “
“Still sleeping. Doctor Saa’b sedated him too much, I think.”
“When he wakes up and begins to howl from pain, you’d think he should have sedated him much more. Satnam, I’ve come to tell you that we’re taking him to hospital. He needs much more attention that we can give him here.”
“I will come with you. Children can stay with Aunty and your children.”
My wife called the younger Satnam by name after she said she preferred it to the formal Mrs. Ahluwalia. She called my wife Aunty and me Uncle-ji. Salt-and-pepper hair gets extra respect.
“No, you won’t. Even those traveling in an ambulance are being searched. And you look too much of a Sikh lady. We’ll be taking him…. never mind how we will take him. He’ll be safe. The children and you could stay with aunty Panicker and children. You don’t seem to have eaten anything. She will make iddli-sambar for you.”
Punjabis mocked South Indians as Iddli-sambar people. Yet all of them loved the delicious combination of soft and grainy fermented rice-buns and lentil curried with assorted vegetables.
She plonked down, her hands on her face. Her body heaved in long spasms.
“Uncle, what has my poor Gudia-da-Papa done? Did we kill Indira Gandhi? Why are they doing this to us? Are we not Indians, just like Hindus? Didn’t our Guru Tej Bahadur die to save Hindus? You know my two brothers are modified Hindus. If they know what happened to Karnail-ji, they would come running.”
She gave me the phone numbers of her brothers from memory. Mohinder and Maninder Makhija. I phoned Mohinder and as briefly as I could, explained the situation to him. The man was shocked that nobody, not even Satnam, had told him.
“Mohinder Saa’b, your sister was not in a state of mind to call anyone. We’re taking Karnail to J-hospital. He will be under good care. Satnam and children will stay in my house till things clear up. I will give your phone number to the hospital. You could call them and keep checking on his progress. If there’s something you could do, they will call you. You can even visit him sometime later.”
“Please tell Maninder, my younger brother. I won’t have the heart to tell him myself. His brother-in-law in T-Town has been killed. Tomorrow was to be the wedding of his daughter to Rajan Malhotra, a Hindu.”
When he began to sob, I put down the phone. I didn’t have the heart to call Maninder Makhija.
A moment later, Satnam’s phone rang. I picked it up. It was Mohinder. Under the impression that his sister was on the line, he spoke in Punjabi.
“Please tell your neighbour that I’ll pick you up and children. We don’t want to risk their safety.”
I told him it was an unnecessary concern, but it was OK if that’s what Satnam wished.
A van, with a morose and loud HEARSE written on its sides arrived. Two men who came with it brought out a stretcher and picked up Karnail Singh, who only grunted. Not wanting to let his wife or children know the type of vehicle he was going to ride, I made sure that neither she nor her children came out of the house. They covered the stretcher with a shroud as if the one under it was dead, and closed the door. I sat with the driver and we drove off.
Dr. Varkey received us at the Casualty gate. He shooed me off after he took over the injured patient.
“Your wife has been calling my home. She fears you might get into some kind of trouble.”
When I returned, her two brothers had already taken Satnam and her children away. Their door and the gate were locked.
Back home, rumours came trickling in from neighbours, the vegetable man with his handcart, the colony gossip, Mr. Sharma.
Sikhs were being pulled out of trains, buses, even houses. The gossip said there was not a single Sikh left in M-town and K-Nagar. T-Pura, he said, was looted, ravaged and set ablaze. Killer mobs were being brought in from Rohtak, Karnal and Ghaziabad and supplied with Kerosene cannisters and hockey sticks. They pulled out men at night from their beds, broke their legs, and then killed them. Women who tried to fend off the attack on their husbands or brothers were molested, a few were raped. A young bride, being made up by a beautician for her wedding, was carried away while her father and grandfather were beaten and set on fire. In the Indira Nagar village across the road, all Sardars were looted and killed, their houses set on fire, their newly built Gurudwara was gutted.
It was difficult to believe what was true and what was not. I had seen enough brutality for a lifetime that morning, yet things couldn’t be all that brutal as Sharma described. Gossips like Sharma found satisfaction in making up gruesome tales.
Balwant Singh called.
“Panicker Saa’b, we are meeting the Station House Officer Inspector Bawa tomorrow. Would you like to come, or are you on the other side?”
I noted that the Saa’b part marked some distance between us, which did not exist before. He always called me by my first name, Madhav, or Panicker. Never with a Saa’b.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Balwant. I’ll come. Tell me when.”
“We’re only one percent Sikhs in India. Would they want us all to be wiped out?”
“Balwant, don’t lose heart. Sikhs cannot be wiped out. You guys are forged from hardened steel.”
If the compliment impressed him, it didn’t show in his response.
“You know how we campaigned for Shastri, the mother-fucker who said he was not a leader, but a servant of Indira Gandhi? Every Sikh in our association had donated thousands to his election campaign. Chadda also paid for his vehicles, campaign posters and leaflets. Four years ago, we had believed that Indira Gandhi was our saviour. She attacked our Harmandir Sahib and got hundreds killed. Now her ghost is killing us. The son-of-a-bitch Shastri, who was proud to be her eunuch servant is directing the killing. That man with an English name, the mother-fucker’s own mother is a Sikh. He’s in it too”
“Balwant, these are rumours. This is mob fury. Not an organized crime. Shastri cannot be in it. My Harkishen, who was killed this morning, was recommended to me by Shastri.”
“The political bastards will recommend any stranger if there is a chance of a vote or two. What did he lose?”
He had a point.
“Not an organized crime? It is a war on us Sikhs, not mob fury. Kerosene is on ration. But freely given away to arsonists. Who gave them so many kerosene cannisters, batons, hockey sticks, even guns? They issue twisted steel rods from construction sites, cut to size”
I remembered the gash on Guddu’s broken leg.
The industrial complex where most of the electronics manufacturers had their small-scale factories was a virtual Punjab where Sikhs had their workplace below and houses above, had not been attacked. At least not yet. Station House Officer Ramesh Kumar Bawa had his police station right at the edge of the complex.
Balwant Singh said he would meet me in Bawa’s office at 10:30 in the morning. Bawa had promised to be there.
I said I would pick him up.
“No need. If hundreds of Sikhs can die in one night, I am not a coward to be traveling by hiding in your car. I’ll be there at 10:30. So will other Sardars be.”
That evening, it was decided that there will be no night-watch since Karnail and family, the only Sikhs in the street, were safe and away.
We were wrong. At slightly before midnight, a mob with rods and crowbars broke open Karnail’s house, not bothered about the noise they made. When I heard the commotion and came out, they were picking up the refrigerator, washing machine, stereo, safe and all that was worth looting from the house and stacking them into a mini-van. The fancy stereo was a gift I made on Gudia’s fifth birthday.
Instinctively, but stupidly, I shouted at them to stop.
“Don’t come near, you Sardaron-ka-gandu. You will die the death of a dog.”
To prove that I was an assole for Sardars and deserved to die like a dog, one of the looters flung a heavy stone in my direction. It fell a dozen metres away from me. Perhaps he had instructions only to frighten, not to kill Sardars’ Hindu assoles.
I went inside the house to alert the neighbours; the looters drove away after setting fire to the house. I called the fire station. Quite some time passed before a voice emerged from the ear piece. Sorry, all fire tenders were away on duty. Give the address, the voice said, if one of the fire tenders came back, it would be sent it your place. Sorry, too many fires in Delhi tonight.
I wasted half an hour on the futile call. The fire had spread.
I woke my son who readily sprang up and joined me to collect buckets of water. He went out shouting fire, fire! and ran around the street. Good boy. Soon most of the men of the colony were out, running in with buckets of water. Sandeep Joshi, who had the nearest house to Karnail’s kept his bathrooms and kitchen open for replenishing the buckets. A couple of bold women, one of them Sandeep’s wife, stood at the turnings, looking out for danger. It turned out to be a useless exercise against Karnail’s magnificent two-storey house. After a couple of hours of struggle, attention was turned to preventing the fire spreading to Sandeep’s own house and Swaminathan’s house on the other side. We kept working all through the night; by morning Karnail’s two-storey house, fitted out with much woodwork, had collapsed into a heap of debris, brickwork collapsed over burnt-out windows and doors. Columns, supporting caved-in slabs stood sticking out like memorials to our wasted effort. The solitary neem tree in his small garden stood with a few remaining black and brown leaves. The yard was slushy with drenched ash.
Nine-thirty television showed a sombre Rajiv Gandhi leading the pall bearers who were bringing out his mother’s flower-decked body. My daughter observed that even in death Indira Gandhi seemed to hold her dignity and that her aquiline nose towered over the flower-outlined face. Many women who were following the stretcher were crying. My wife had tears in her eyes. I had lost respect for the woman after she declared emergency instead of honourably giving up the chair when a court ordered her election void. My wife argued that the stifling emergency brought about a semblance of order in the Country.
It was Indira Gandhi and her party that nurtured the Sikh bigot Bhinderwale to begin with – she used him as a counter-poise for the powerful Sikh political party, Akali Dal. Bhinderwale turned out to be a Frankenstein’s monster within a short while. He was a gripping orator in his native Punjabi. Sikhs, young and old, loved him reeling out the greatness of the Sikhs and how they had been betrayed by Hindu India. Some did know that he meant trouble for the community, but youngsters were energised and indoctrinated. As he grew bolder, he gathered a horde of men whom he brainwashed with the idea of terrorism. He extolled Sikhs to kill 30 Hindus each, and caused the death of a well-known editor and attacked a break-away cult of Sikhism. When Indira’s Government got hot on his heals, he holed up in Sikh’s sacred shrine, the Golden temple, with a few hundred accomplices. Money poured in from Canada and England, war-like weapons from Pakistan. His men carried out attacks on ordinary Hindus and assassinated senior politicians and a senior police officer. As the menace grew, an exasperated Indira Gandhi ordered the army to surround the temple to terrorise the terrorists and smoke them out. When it didn’t work; on a day auspicious to Sikhs and hundreds of worshippers had gathered in the temple, the army chose to launch a direct attack with armoured vehicles and machine guns. What followed was a full-scale battle, resulting in the death of Bhinderwale and 300 of his henchmen, but also of several worshippers – many say several hundred – in the temple. Army claimed that it lost 83 soldiers and that some 200 were injured, but Sikhs boasted that hundreds of soldiers were among the dead.
Sikhs were furious at the daring attack on their sacred shrine, even those who were admirers of Indira Gandhi and members of the Congress Party – except those who enjoyed high power under her patronage, among them the President Zail Singh and sports minister Buta Singh. Many Sikh soldiers deserted their posts. On the fateful 31st October, Beant Singh, a junior police officer who often boasted of his ten-year-long closeness to the Prime Minister and Satwant Singh, a young entrant to her security setup, shot her dead in her garden while she was on her way for an interview with Peter Ustinov, the famous English writer, artist and film maker. Most Sikhs exulted that she had it coming and were pleased at the killing of the woman who entrusted her personal security to the killers. Hindus thought it was an unforgivable treachery, some of them decided to take revenge on the Sikh in the street. He was a sitting duck, an easier prey.
When I started out for the meeting with the police officer, the television was showing the hunched figure of Mother Teresa walking sombrely among the jostling crowd towards Indira Gandhi’s funeral. Four years ago, while she was being awarded India’s highest award, Bharat Ratna – Gem of India – Indira Gandhi had shed tears reminiscing her services to the downtrodden. None of our services would measure up to the Mother’s, she had said. The Mother hadn’t forgotten.
Ten Sikh businessmen, French-bearded Jagdish Mithawani the Sindhi and the beardless me were escorted by courteous constables into the office of the Station House Officer – Ramesh Kumar Bawa, no doubt a Punjabi Delhiite. Nearly all ten Sikhs defiantly wore over their shirts Kirpan, the dagger Sikhs were authorised to wear as a religious symbol, but normally worn inside their shirts by a few, and not at all by most. One Sikh, whom I couldn’t place, chose to stay away. Surprisingly, their beards uncharacteristically let to hang untied below their chin. I noticed the bulge of what I believed to be a revolver in Balwant Singh’s pocket. Perhaps a couple of others carried their revolvers – licensed or illegal – in their pockets too.
Inspector Bawa, the commanding officer of the police personnel in the area assigned to him, greeted the Sikhs with a Sat-sri-akal. God is Eternal Truth. He looked at Jagdish and me with a frown. Only a couple of the Sikhs returned the greeting with a low murmur. They stood opposite his desk, their fists resting on its top. Defiance stressed the room. Bawa gestured all to sit down on the chairs precisely arranged for 13. Balwant and Chadda sat in the middle, other Sikhs on both their sides. Only one chair remained empty. Mithawani and I sat together at one end.
“Why are you here, Mr. Panicker?”
I felt slighted. The idiot knew I was a manufacturer and a member of the association. He had collected at least two expensive radio-tape recorders and a car-radio from me in the name of local magistrates. He never paid for them. Policemen never pay. Perhaps magistrates don’t pay either.
“Did you expect me to be in the mob killing our Sikh brothers?”
Bawa frowned, but didn’t come up with a wisecrack. Perhaps he too thought I was a gandu for Sikhs. Sikhs and Sindhis described each other as more dangerous than snakes, but Ramesh, a genial man, was popular with the Sikhs in the business circle.
Bawa opened the discussion with: “Look, I am trying my best to see that no murder takes place in my zone. None of you has been attacked, and God willing, none will be. I know there has been a couple of attacks in M-Town. I have increased the beat in that area. And there has been no incident after that.”
“Not just attacks, but murders. But you didn’t catch the killers. They are still roaming around, looking for more Sardars to kill and their houses to loot. It could be some of us tomorrow, even today.” Balwant Singh’s voice was hoarse from unconcealed anger.
Almost every evening SHO Bawa would visit Balwant and share pegs of the duty-free Johnny Walker whisky of which Balwant always held a stock. His brother-in-law was a frequent visitor from Toronto, Balwant himself often flew to Hong Kong or Japan for negotiating imports.
Balwant continued in his agitated voice: “Who gave you the order not to interfere with the killings in your area, Bawa? Bhagat? Shastri the ingrate? Kumar? That half-caste Tailor? Or right from the top – RajivGandhi?” As he reeled out names, his decibel rose.
Inspector Bawa, accustomed to shouting at and beating up visitors to his office and not being shouted at, appeared strained while trying to control his temper. Perhaps Johnny Walker whisky generated a feeling of obligation. He sat drumming the table and rubbing his well-shaven chin. Under the table his feet kept tapping the floor.
Balwant hadn’t finished. “You say you have put extra beat constables in M-Town. There’s not a single constable anywhere in M-Town, I tellyou. You say you’re taking care of this part of the town. I don’t see any constable on the beat in any part of this town either. Why isn’t the army instead of spineless policemen be protecting us? OK, if the army is not allowed to fight with civilians, why aren’t the reserve police force be called in? Tell us, SHO Saa’b, place your hand on yourheart and tell me, were you ordered to send all your constables on leave? I know that you have at least two Sardar policemen here in your station. Where are they? Have they been killed?”
Bawa’s voice was calm and dejected when he said, “Balwant-ji, matter of fact one of them, Hari Singh, was killed. Not here, not in my area, but in Pathankot Express. By 31st night, we knew that things were getting dangerous for Sikhs. Hari Singh was scared, he was newly married. He put a leave application on my table at night and went to catch a train to Jalandhar assuming he would be safe in Punjab where he had his family. He was stabbed and thrown on out of the train just before Karnal. He wore his uniform hoping that no one would harm a policeman. The beasts didn’t care. We are making a collection among ourselves for his family.”
The Sikhs offered five hundred rupees each. So did Mithawani and I. Rupees six thousand was a lot of money in 1984.
Everyone sat silent, the tragedy of one more young man, a policeman, cast a deadly gloom.
Balbir Singh Chadda spoke up. “Balwant, Bawa Saa’b, there’s no point in our blaming each other. We’re sorry about Hari Singh’s death. May Babaji take care of him and give him peace. On the morning after the Indira-killing, they killed my Guddu. He’s not my son, but dear to me like my own son. Killed like a dog on the airport road. Panicker Saa’b here informed you, Balwant, not me, because, he told you, that he was mad at me for having sent the young man to the border at a time like this. Honestly, by God, I did not know how dangerous the situation was.”
Kuldeep Singh Sony, the man to whom I owed the cost of a hundred transistor radios, said: “Chadda Sa’ab, I am surprised you did not know. President Zail Singh-ji’s car was stoned in the afternoon. They started the killing and dacoity even as Rajiv Gandhi was taking oath. At 8 PM that very same night, they set fire to Karnail Ahluwalia’s car and killed him. My man Sunder watched the happening in horror, but there was nothing he could do. They burnt Karnail alive in his new Maruti car. That Sardarji died without a whimper. Then they stopped a Punjab Roadways bus coming in from Patiala and set fire to it too. They allowed the passengers to get down, but not the Sardar driver and another two or three Sardar passengers, broke their legs and threw them in the burning fire.”
I chipped in: “That was terrible, but I have some good news for you on that incident. I didn’t know about the massacre in the bus though Karnail told me how his would-be killers ran after a bus after setting fire to his Maruti. That was what saved him. Karnail is not dead and, God willing, will be fine. Sunder did not see his escape because he rolled away after opening the door of the car. Fortunately, they had made him park the car on the wrong side of the road, and there was a drain on that side, and a wall beyond it. He fell into the drain and crawled in it most of the way home. He is badly, but in a hospital under a Christian doctor’s care. His wife and children have gone to Punjab with her Hindu brother Mohinder Singh.”
I didn’t want to spoil the good effect by telling them that Karnail’s dream house was burnt down the next night. For a moment, the faces lit up. Jagdish Mithawani clapped hands briefly.
My fury on Chadda had not abated, I knew that he was lying; Every Sikh in Delhi anticipated trouble after the assassination and knew that it had started soon after the attack on K-Town. There was no point asking Chadda if he would have sent his own son on that morning on the same mission.
Balwant Singh’s voice was calm when he said what he had told me before: “We’re only a few million, you all may be seven hundred million. Though less than two percent, Bawa, you can’t kill all of us. At least some of us will live and remember the happenings of these days.”
Perhaps he felt what he said hurt me. “Panicker Saa’b, I did not mean good people like you and Mithawani Saa’b. Most of the Hindus are good people. My brother’s son-in-law is a Hindu. The Sikhs in the South are safe and sound. I mean the killers. Bhagat or Phatak, Tailor or cobbler, we will track them down. Bawa, we are businessmen with licensed guns. If those guns are not enough, we will get smuggled ones. You try to stop us although you couldn’t stop the killers. For every Sikh who dies in this area, we will kill ten.”
Looking back, I feel grateful that such a threat did not happen to materialize.
The police officer didn’t warn Balwant Singh that he was making a cognizable offence with such a blatant threat. Instead, he kept drumming on the table with his fingers. The Sikhs got up and walked out. There was no formal closure to the meeting, no summing up, no good-byes.
Bawa motioned me to stop and sit down.
“Tell them not to bring out their guns or display their kirpans like this. What do they have, air rifles, point two-two or double-barrels? Old army-auctioned Colts? Those toys wouldn’t help against a huge mob. Killers are moving in thousands. In Gurudwara Rakab Ganj, the Sikhs had guns, swords and kirpans. Yet a father and a son were set ablaze right in front of their eyes. The manager’s office was ransacked and burnt, the old man was killed. Tell them to keep to themselves for a couple of days more. Things will quiet down and there will be peace unless the Sikhs start it again.”
He sounded as if there was a definite plan for the number of days the killings would be allowed.
When I came out, the Sikhs were waiting.
“What did the mother-fucking inspector tell you? Not to be with us?”
“Bhai Saa’bs, I am not a Sardar, but I lost more than any one of you. More than all my life’s earnings ever.”
‘We have heard,” said Chadda. Others nodded in sympathy.
I didn’t pass Bawa’s piece of good advice to them. That turned out to be a terrible mistake.
The same evening Chadda’s office and factory were ransacked. Of the two guards, one a Sikh and the other a Hindu, the Sikh was killed and the Hindu brutally tortured. The Sikh, who had a double-barrel gun fired in their as he was probably instructed and was killed; the gun was snatched away. The Hindu was battered, his teeth smashed in, his one arm fractured. Currency notes stacked in jute bags and hidden among mountains of corrugated carton folds – all black money, no doubt – were brought out. The mob fought among each other for the bundles of money, witnesses watched from their windows in houses at a distance. As usual, there were no policemen in sight.
When I returned home and parked my car, children did not come out to greet me. I found them glued to the TV. There were no Hi-Dads and no smiles of welcome.
On television, the flame had died out. The pyre had flattened, the body inside had turned to ashes. Rajiv Gandhi stood with a long stick in his hand, still being guided by a priest, at the edge of the platform where his mother had been reduced to ashes. My wife wiped her nose, hissing softly.
“Was Zail Singh there?” I asked.
“Yes,” said my son. “He added a stick to the funeral pyre. Dad, you won’t believe it. One of those in the row of foreign leaders was Zia-ul-Huq, Prime minister of Pakistan.”
“Not Prime Minister, President of Pakistan. He probably came to relish the sight of the funeral of the woman who broke up Pakistan and created Bangladesh. Zia is a cutter Muslim. Religious scriptures bask in stories of revenge and murder.”
I was no astrologer; had no way to foresee that Zia himself would be assassinated along with many of his generals and the US Ambassador some five years later. Five years before Indira’s death, Zia had engineered the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister who appointed him as the chief of Pakistan Army. Governments are mafias, I had read somewhere, and in a mafia, members felt no gratitude, didn’t argue and debate rights and wrongs. They arranged each other’s execution.
It struck me that the entire selective killing was part of a well-executed plan. It seemed probable that Rajiv Gandhi and those close to his mother decided that her death had to be avenged. Beyond that, the pogrom would give a warning to the arrogant Sikh rebels that this was what could happen to those who wanted to break away.
On the fourth of November, as if on an order, all was quiet. Policemen reappeared and roamed the streets, announcing over loudhailers that those who had taken away things from Sikh houses should deposit them at specified places, or the consequence would be serious.
There was no call for the murderers to surrender or that they would be dealt with seriously.
That evening, a beaming Ex-Subedar Major RK Singh landed up in my house.
“How did you like it,” he asked me.
“Like what? The killing of Sardarjis?”
“Not killing, but sabakh sikhaya – taught them a lesson. Now the Sardars will know that we Hindus can do what they have been doing. That if they are sawah lakh, we are dhai lakh.” He said.
Sikhs’ tenth and the last Guru, Gobind Singh, had once told his soldiers that a single Sikh can defeat 125,000 – sawah lakh – of his opponents. Such an encouragement, I suppose, was needed in the face of the odds that the Sikh soldiers of his time had to face in the battle field. This made many modern Sikhs fantasize that they were equal to 125,000, or at least a lot many others. I knew a Sikh in Jammu whose name was Sawalakh Singh. There were names such as Hazara (thousand) Singh, and Lakhon (100,000) Singh. Sikh peasants aspired their children to fight in the army. They named them Jarnail (General) Singh, Karnail (Colonel) Singh, Major Singh, even Sepahi (ordinary soldier) Singh.
The Ex- Subedar’s Dhai lakh stood for 250,000; he meant that Hindus were twice as strong as Sikhs. They had the numbers.
“Major-Saa’b, I expected you to save the Sikhs in your village across the road. They had nothing to do with the assassination. I am shocked to hear that every Sikh in your village – some eleven of them were killed; that one of their women was raped. You had once told me that you cultivated brotherly fraternity among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in your army station. You could have done something like that to stop the carnage.”
“Why would I save the Sikhs, the bastards who killed their own Prime Minister? My sons killed two of them – his clients – with their own hands. Actually, all Sikhs in the village were his clients. You know, my older son has an Ayurvedic shop where he sells bottles of Sanjivni, an Ayurvedic medicine – no medicine, really, but some root juices mixed with pure alcohol passing off for medicine to hoodwink the excise. Sanjivni is much in demand in the evenings because of prohibition; most of the Sardars came to our shops to buy the stuff. Officers on the beat love the stuff; they closed their eyes for free Sanjivnis and a hafta of a couple of thousand rupees every month.”
“Yet at the first opportunity your sons killed two Sikhs in cold blood?”
“Of course, they were not alone. It was a Dharam yudh – battle of righteousness. My sons are the offspring of a soldier, you know. Shoot to kill is a soldier’s motto. “
“Do soldiers shoot to kill innocent civilians? Do they kill without an order to kill? Or did they kill on your command? Do soldiers enter an innocent man’s house, kill the men, rape the women and set fire to their houses? Did your sons also loot refrigerators, televisions, radios and all such things?”
The old man chuckled. “They are not so stupid. There already was a talk that police would search every Hindu house for looted stuff. Now they are doing it. While other fools were busy taking away all those things, my older son decided that they look for title deeds of properties of the dead Sikhs. They got three documents, and a fourth one of the Gurudwara plot, which they threw into fire. They looked for more, but most were burnt in the fire. Three are enough for my two sons and a daughter – two of them more than 3000 square feet, the one of 2200 feet which will go to my daughter. If we manage to get more, we will sell them.”
“Don’t you feel a tinge of guilt?”
“Why would I? They are all unauthorised plots, don’t know if those bearded bastards even paid for them. We will fudge the names and get them regularized in my children’s name before next year’s election. Did the Sikhs feel a tinge of guilt when they pulled out six Hindus from a bus and shot them? Did they stop Bhinderwale from building a huge armoury in their so-called sacred Harmandir Sahib? Who but two ungrateful Sardars would shoot the person they were paid to guard? Would you celebrate and open champagne bottles even if your enemy was dead? My cousin in London phoned and said the Sardars there distributed sweets in celebration. Maybe they do it in Canada, America, wherever.”
“Did the Sikhs who paid money to your sons and binged on your bootleg did any of that?”
“Does that matter? If they had the chance, they would do that too. If you know history, Panicker – what does a Madrasi know about our history? – you would know that our first freedom movement – 1857 – was defeated not by the Goras, but by Sikhs.”
It didn’t escape me that he had never before addressed me without the honorific of Saa’b. And never with the derisive Madrasi
“You forget that every war that India fought with Pakistan, and the one with China, Sikhs gave their lives. You are from the army, you know about the Sikh Regiment, and so many Sikhs in the other regiments and services.”
There was no use reminding him, if he knew, that when the Sikhs fought the British twice before, it was the same Northern and Eastern Hindus who sided with the British to defeat the Sikhs.
“So, you and your sons, aided no doubt by a few more thugs, killed a dozen Sikhs who had nothing to do with Bhinderwale except maybe listening to his audio cassettes, and nothing to do with the bus killings, or the airplane hijacks. While many of those incidents happened, your sons were selling bootleg to them and sharing jokes with them. You were telling me about the need for friendly fraternity among Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. You killed those innocents Sikhs – all eleven of them in the village. Killed them like mad dogs with sticks and kitchen knives in cold blood while they were begging to be spared, probably reminding you of their friendship. You let your blood-thirsty lackeys take away fridges and televisions and gas cylinders which you knew will be confiscated by the police, but your sons were so smart that you got a few title deeds of housing plots worth hundreds of thousands, of which nobody will know, and which belonged to your neighbours whom you killed. Terrific, Subedar Major, terrific. What a military strategy.”
Anger flared in his eyes. He got up and pointed a finger at me. “Why are you talking like a boot-lick of Sardars, you Madrasi? Who wants your two-paisa job? I warn you, if you tell anyone about the title deeds, of which I told you in good faith, you will get the same treatment as those Sardars. Mark my words. My boys will know who told the police if they come searching for those documents though they will never find them.”
“If I tell your killer neighbours that you and your sons made an ass of them by letting them take away the things that would be confiscated, but kept the real booty to yourself, they would deal with you, not me.”
He got up and walked out, not omitting to clear his throat and spit, Indian way of displaying utter disgust. At the gate, he paused and turned around.
“Panicker Saa’b, that story about title deeds was a bluff. We didn’t pick up anything from those Sardars’ houses.” His voice had taken a low, humble pitch.
“Don’t worry,” I said. You don’t have to try and go back on what you told me. I am not going to tell anyone. If I do, the properties will not go back to the real owners. In your world, killers are takers. Two days ago, I gave away the blankets and radios meant for the war-widows whose names you collected. The goons got them for destroying my dreams, all my life’s earnings and bank loans.”
Thus reassured, his aggressiveness returned,
“Serves you right. I heard Rekhi made an ass of you and cheated you of a lot of money. Ramcharan is looking for him. Go save Rekhi. He’s a Sardar too.”
He cleared his throat and spat again.
A new thought occurred to me like a flash.
“One more thing, RK Singh. The news of killing in your village will spread. They might not know about the title deeds, but about the decimation of a whole population of Sikhs in Indiranagar. Did it occur to you that Sikhs can be reckless when they are furious, that shoot-to-kill is their motto as well, that a horde of them – maybe a revolting fraction from the Punjab Regiment – could descend on your village one day and kill every one of you – and take your house and all those precious 3000-foot and 2000-foot plots? That your wife and your daughters-in-law would be begging at their feet that their husbands be spared?”
A shadow of Terror passed over the old man’s visage. He appeared rattled. “Did you have to say such a terrible thing with your black tongue, you mother–fucker?”
I watched him walk away, shaking his head, probably reassuring himself that such a retaliation by the Sikhs on him and his sons would never come to pass, yet afraid it could.
I never saw him again. Whether it was a bad conscience or the fear of Sikh reprisal that drove him back to Ranchi, his native town, I never learnt.