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1984

1984 & I:
We Were Armed With
Mom's Blessings

by SANMEET KAUR

 

This year, 2009, marks the 25th Anniversary of 1984, when horrendous crimes were committed against the Sikhs in the very land of their origin. To commemorate this sad milestone, we at sikhchic.com have asked our regular columnists, as well as our contributors and readers, to share with us the impact 1984 has had on their lives. We have requested personal stories and anecdotes, as well as an attempt to capture their inner thoughts and deepest ruminations on what 1984 means to each one of them and their loved ones - without going into a litany of facts and figures or a listing of the injustices to date, all of which will invariably be covered with due diligence elsewhere. We intend to present these personal perspectives to you throughout the twelve months of 2009. The following is the 25th in the series entitled "1984 & I".  

 

 

I still remember the feeling of getting into bed with my socks and shoes on.

It was over 25 years ago. I was ten years old.

I remember bending over to tie my shoelaces, while Mom gave my cupboard a quick fix. That was her habit; she would tidy it up each time she took something out or kept something in.

My mom is meticulous and proficient in everything she does. And it was with her accustomed matter-of-fact efficiency that she would take out a nice outfit for me, do my braids, and check if my shoelaces were tied properly each night before she tucked me into bed.

She would then remind me about the blue handbag sitting in the corner of my cupboard. That blue handbag held my younger brother's and my passports, a local address of a close friend - the only one who had volunteered to help - addresses of my grandparents abroad and some of her gold, all plain solid gold.

"Take it to a jeweller, make sure you get the rate of the day, it's in every newspaper and if you can't find Malti masi's house, head straight for the airport, you can buy the airline tickets at the counter. Take Preet (my younger brother) and get out if something happens!"

Every night, she would tell me pretty much the same thing. Then, as always, she would recite Kirtan Sohila in her clear, melodious voice.

My six-year-old brother lay across the room. I'm wondering now, did he find it strange that Mom braided his hair in two braids like a girl each night? I don't remember him asking.

But then, I had many of my own things to sort out.

Each night, I lay waiting for something to happen with dread and excitement.

At that point, my literary diet consisted of mostly adventure books and I wondered if Preet and I would pull through like the Bobbsey Twins or the clever Five Find-outers.

I imagined many scenarios, but one realistic challenge would not let me sleep. If our home was attacked, how would Preet and I sneak out? There was just one entrance and all the windows had iron grilles.

This was Bombay in 1984. The premises of the Golden Temple had been infiltrated and ravaged, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated, and Sikhs in northern India were being murdered, brutalized and mutilated.

And I, all of ten years old, lay in my bed wondering how I would manage to get out of the house if we were attacked.

Chances of an attack in Bombay were not high.

Rumor was that the Sikhs had got together and paid off the heads of the Maharashtra State government. (Many years later, I asked Dad about it - he looked at me and never said a word.)

The result - apart from a lone stabbing of a Sikh youth at a bus stop - there had been no other "incident" of anti-Sikh violence. It seemed we had bought our safety. Yet we could not afford to feel secure.

I don't recall much as far as the sequence of events and how they unfolded throughout the country and in my own backyard.

However, some memories remain surprisingly vivid and, even after all these years, not far from the heart.

It's as though I never left the threshold of my parents' room.

Mom's clear voice, clearly angry, rang through the air - "Sikh girls and women were mass-raped in Indore. Made to stand in a line, watched their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons murdered and then humiliated, mutilated, girls as young as thirteen..."

Not much older than me, I thought.

Who was Mom talking to? I don't know. But even now, almost a lifetime later, I have goose bumps as I type this.

I am now a mother myself and after so much more living I still cannot imagine such horror.

I'm as stumped as I was at ten.

Just as confused.

Just as lost.

In the months that followed, I learnt that many Sikh youths and families went out of their way to find brides from Indore - from amongst the girls and women who had been brutalized in 1984. I am forever proud and grateful for this profound humanity that the Sikh panth is blessed with.

I grew up in a joint family. My grandfather, my father's elder brother, his family and ours, all lived in an open airy house with a garden in the front.

I recall my 16-17-year-old cousin boasting about his homemade gasoline bombs in Coke bottles.

I shook my head disbelievingly; Dad would never have allowed it.

"Don't be silly, they're in the balcony behind the house," he replied. But he never showed them to us.

"Too risky," he said, and we were too young anyway.

Just in case we were attacked, they would be lit and thrown from over the balcony in the front of the house.

Those days, it was hard to figure out what to believe in.

Everything being so fantastic, so out of the ordinary and out of context of what was everyday life till then.

It was equally hard to figure out how you felt; especially if you were ten, so you just swallowed the pain of a lousy joke, shrugged off a barb and pretended you got the joke when someone called you a terrorist.

Hard to explain to friends in school why "the Sikhs had turned against their motherland" - when all I gathered at home was that people with the authority to protect all us Indian citizens were discriminating, terminating in the most inhumane manner one community - ours!

Everything was topsy-turvy.

Ma always maintained her equilibrium on the home front, which is not to say that she never lost her infamous temper. Just that life at home went on (pretty much) as usual for us - school and homework, books and play.

Our milk was on the dining table when we got home from school at 4 p.m., just as dinner was ready by 6 p.m., since Dad would be hungry even before he walked in from work. I remember Mom would take her "Sukhmani Sahib" gutka in hand a little after five and pace the front balcony's floor till she saw Dad walk through the gate.

Many years passed before she let go of this habit.

I remember the pain in Dad's eyes when his friend told him she had cut her son's hair. Gaver Aunty was a single mom, scared for her family. Letting go of the turban, this Sardari that our ancestors had earned from the Guru was the biggest casualty 1984  made me face.

1984 became very real and very tragic.

The Ardaas took on a new meaning and I remember wondering what all those who had sacrificed would think of it. I thought their pain would rise anew, their wounds become fresh again. They were better off gone and not knowing ...

What would you tell a Sardar who had been burnt with a tyre around his neck if his son had voluntarily taken off his turban? Some answers were tough to come by and still are.

I remember the Diwali of 1986.

Two years had gone by. After returning from the gurdwara, we went down to the driveway to light off a few firecrackers. Our gaiety came to an abrupt and chilling stop when we noticed a patrolling police jeep stop right outside our iron gate. An officer and two constables stepped out.

I felt Dad's taut nerves, our blatant fear, our frailty.

I wondered if my cousin had some of his bottled bombs on hand.

Was there any way we could sneak off and get them?

What did these policemen want?

Was my Dad going to be okay?

Where and how could we run...?

The officer walked up to Dad. Dad met him halfway and enquired if all was well.

The officer replied, "Just wanted to wish you all a Happy Diwali;" the constables echoed his wishes. Greetings were happily exchanged.

A wave of relief that swept across our small Diwali party revelers, most of whom were yet kids, could not be matched by the mightiest ocean. We broke into simultaneous grins; I thought I heard Dad say "Son of a gun."

I never confirmed it though.

Just as I never asked him how he felt when the police jeep stopped at our gate that night.

I never asked him why it hurt so much when Gaver Aunty cut her son's hair.

Or whether he actually allowed my cousin to make and keep those gasoline bombs.

Or simply how he made it to work and back each day.

I didn't ask Mom how Preet and I would get out or what made her think a couple of kids could keep a bagful of gold and themselves safe from thugs, nor did I ask why she dressed us up so nicely each night - why would anyone bother with what we were wearing or if our hair was neat in those circumstances?

I never asked ... we were just kids and that's all our parents insisted we be.

We weren't entitled to answers at that age.

When I grew older, I didn't have questions any more. I was relieved that 1984 had become the past. I tucked it away in some corner of my mental attic. I guess I didn't want it to reoccur, not even it my head.

There was nothing to remember. Nothing happened to us. We were part of the lucky few. I maintained that since no "incident" actually happened to us, we remained untouched by '84.

I couldn't be farther from the truth.

 

"If I agree (to forget),

Then

In my silence

Lies my guilt

As long as I draw breath,

As long as there is strength within me,

I will write,

I will speak.

For I (do) remember..." [Inni Kaur]

 

May 21, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Pritam Singh (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), May 21, 2009, 2:22 PM.

Blessed are the mothers in Sikhi - all the way from those who witnessed their children massacred during the Ghallugharas, to those who gave so much in 1984. Your mother, Sanmeet, embodies all that is good and pure and godly in Sikh womanhood. I can't think of any greater example of love and courage.

2: Ajmer Singh (Buffalo, NY, U.S.A.), May 21, 2009, 3:40 PM.

Every few decades, the Sikh Nation is put through fire, and we emerge purer and stronger, like diamonds. There is a method to this madness, this madness of the 'gods' - that is why Sikhs are no ordinary people. But you have to have gone through the fire to understand this. As Sanmeet does, and has described in such powerful words. Thank you ... please write more often! You have a gift.

3: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), May 21, 2009, 5:20 PM.

Sanmeet, your article is soul touching. I was one of the more fortunate Indore girls who escaped the hand of the plunderers (although barely)... just a bit older than you at the time. We the girls of 1984 ... Bidar, Indore, Bombay, Kanpur, Delhi, Punjab ... we are now the mothers of the Sikh nation. It is in our hands to keep the torch alive, pass the memories and passion for Sikhi that 1984 created. I am glad you wrote about it ... and so beautifully!

4: Harman Singh (Philadelphia, U.S.A.), May 22, 2009, 9:28 AM.

I am so glad that sikhchic.com is hosting this "1984" series. All the voices represented here make that part of my history come alive for me. Each and every recollection, like Sanmeet's, reminds me how 1984 changed the Sikh psyche forever. These are memories that are too valuable to be forgotten! I hope the editors of sikhchic.com will compile these recollections and publish them in the form of a book. That would truly be something for posterity to cherish.

5: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), May 24, 2009, 12:41 PM.

Thank you for your touching, yet powerful reminder of how history is made. Personal diaries are invaluable. You captured the feeling, the time and the moment, as does your rendition of the poem by Inni Kaur.

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We Were Armed With
Mom's Blessings"









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