Kids Corner

1984

The Survivor

A Short Story by SARBPREET SINGH

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rani puts her arms around him and says it’s all right, it’s only a bad dream and everything is going to be fine. Her regular heartbeat against his cheek comforts him and he goes back to sleep. She shuts her eyes but can't sleep; his demons invade her mind too and she is tense, expectant.

She clutches him tighter, runs her hand through his long hair as if soothing him would somehow calm her down too. She looks at Lalli's face, softened by the light of the full moon that creeps in through a crack in the curtains. Such an innocent tender face and so serene with no hint of the terrible memories and the anguish.

Her eyes brim; in a rush Lalli's pain flows through her mind, almost in a motion-picture like series of frames. She shudders; she can't shut out his memories from her mind. Once again she asks herself the question that nobody has an answer to: Why, O why?

*   *   *   *  *

She gasps at the sight of the ragged bloody forms lying unattended on the floor of the Second Class Waiting Room at the New Delhi Railway station. The CRPF Lance Naik vaguely points at one section of the room and mumbles, “Tinsukhia Mail“.

Seven years of reporting for the Indian Express have not prepared her for this. There is a strange, stale nauseating smell in the room; she staggers, retching, into the ladies washroom.

*   *   *   *   *

Rani rubs her sleepy eyes to see Lalli dressing before the large mirror. His beard has grown to its full length now and he slaps on a liberal dose of Fixxo before brushing. He ties on his thhatha and begins to wrap his turban around his head.

Once he had confided in her that he had often thought of cutting his hair off, before. Now he would never do it; he wears the sign of his faith proudly as a badge of honor, a challenge to the world. Neat fold rests upon fold and he is done; a regal saffron turban adorns his head and he gives his moustache a jaunty twist.

Rani is slow and lazy in the morning; she did take the vows of Sikhi before their wedding, but she can't bring herself to wake up at five in the morning and go to Bangla Sahib to listen to the Asa di Var.

A thrill of pride passes through her as she looks at her handsome husband. He is a regal figure in his saffron turban and his flowing baana. She thinks of the respect he enjoys in the Delhi Sikh community and feels a warm glow.

He leaves the room quietly and she drifts off into her dreams again. She dreams of a large, low, white bungalow on Ashoka Road. She is supervising the gardener and a white Ambassador drives up to the porch. A uniformed security man opens the door and Lalli, dressed not in his usual baana, but in white khaadi, steps out. An aide with a black file-folder follows him in and the security man salutes.

She wakes up with a start; she has overslept again; she remembers a ten o’clock appointment and rushes to get dressed.

*   *   *   *   *

“Are you okay, Madam?”

She swims back to consciousness and can feel a painful bump at the back of her head. She is lying in a pool of her vomit and the jamadaarni (cleaning maid) helps her up. She looks at an ashen ghostly face in the mirror and tries to clean herself. She steels herself and enters the waiting room again.

The smell hits her again, the smell of blood and infection and burnt flesh and naked fear. She winces, gathers courage and looks around. Women and young children huddle in a corner, terror in their eyes. A cordon of CRPF soldiers separates them from two neat rows covered with white bed-sheets.

*   *   *   *   *

She gets up from her desk and opens her filing cabinet.

“SIKHS MASSACRED ON TINSUKHIA MAIL”, the headline screams. Terrified children stare out at her from the newspaper clipping and the white-sheeted rows bear silent testimony to the orgy of violence that swept through the ill-fated train. Rani's words, unsoftened by journalistic niceties, spell out the story in graphic gruesome anguished detail. The single adult male Sikh to survive the massacre looks completely stupefied, his beard is burnt on one side of his face and his hair, untidily chopped, hangs down in dirty tangled locks.

*   *   *   *   *

They're all dead, Lalli sobs. They killed them all, my brothers my bhaabis (sisters-in-law), the children, Biji. Why didn't they kill me too?

His left eye is shut, caked with blood and his arm dangles limply. His beard and his eyebrows, singed, are an impossible dirty brown. Rani looks closely at him and under the mask of blood and burnt hair sees a handsome, if slightly fleshy face. His forehead is high and he has a fine nose, but his mouth appears to be a little weak. There is a child-like innocent quality to him and her heart goes out to him instantly.

She wants the whole world to know what has happened to him, she wants the nation to be ashamed; she wants to make sure that such a thing can never happen again.

*   *   *   *   *

“Have you gone mad,” Rani, Kumar asks, “if I publish this article and these photographs, they'll have my head and yours too. This is India, you know, not the United States of America. Have you ever seen such pictures in a newspaper before. Young children will see them, what kind of effect will they have on them. Besides, the situation is very tense, God knows what will happen if this story is published. The Sikhs are quiet now and numb, but who knows how things will be tomorrow? Do you know what kind of violence a story like this may provoke in Punjab?”

But Rani is adamant. She doesn't care if she loses her job, she wants the country to know Samsher Singh's story.

She threatens to take her story somewhere else. Finally, Kumar agrees.

Lalli's first person account is the lead story in the Indian Express.

*   *   *   *   *

My name is Samsher Singh. I am called Lalli by my family and my friends. I am twenty-four years old and am a graduate of North Point College in Darjeeling. My family runs a small construction business in Gauhati, which was started by my father five years ago, when he retired from the army.

Every year in October - November, our family visits Kot Issa Khan, a small village near Patiala, where Sant Fauja Singh ji conducts a samagam. This year too we left Gauhati on October 30th for Delhi on Tinsukhia Mail.

There were eleven of us traveling by second class: Biji, Channi Veerji and Manju Bhaabhi ji and their two children, Jeeta Veerji and Guddi Bhaabiji and their two sons, my sister Babli and myself. Biji, my Bhaabis, Babli and the children were all in the ladies compartment, which has a door that can be locked.

*   *   *   *   *

Rani shuts the file and puts it back on the table.

It has been three years, but she knows the story by heart; she wrote it with Lalli.

She sits down and wonders at how the mere thought of the massacre can unsettle her even after so much time has passed. Poor Lalli, he saw it all happen before his eyes, and his own dear ones, and God, the children! So many sleepless nights filled with anguished nightmares. Lalli in his dreams howls like an animal in agony. How bravely he tries to cope with the tragedy; anybody else would have probably gone mad, but not Lalli.

He has selflessly spent the last three years working for the relief and rehabilitation of the widows and the orphans of the Delhi massacres. He is not a human being, but a saint. A true Sikh who has truly understood the spirit of Bhai Kanhaiyya.

Other hotheads talk of revenge and of punishing the guilty, he talks of healing and forgiving the criminals. In the last three years he has become a man, a pillar of strength. Each day of his life is devoted to seeking out the victims and helping them get on with their lives.

*   *   *   *   *

Lali refuses to be taken to a hospital. He is afraid, mortally afraid, that the mobs will return. Rani asks a colleague, Bishan, whose wife is a good friend of hers, to take him in until he recovers. She is the only one Lalli trusts and each day she spends hours with him, soothing, gently drawing out the story of the carnage.

Lalli, traumatized, does not want to talk about it. Each word he utters is accompanied by terrible contractions of pain and memories that refuse to dull or fade. She dreads her task because she knows how much pain it causes him, but she has to do it. The world has to know and perhaps it will heal him too.

She can't understand his guilt, his terrible death wish, his insistence that he has somehow betrayed his loved ones by surviving.

*   *   *   *   *

My name is Samsher Singh. I am called Lalli by my family and my friends. I am twenty-four years old and am a graduate of North Point College in Darjeeling. They're all dead. [Lalli sobs.] They killed them all: my brothers, my bhaabhis, the children, Biji. Why didn't they kill me too?

There were eleven of us traveling by second class, Biji, Channi Veerji and Manju Bhaabhi ji and their two children, Jeeta Veerji and Guddi Bhabiji and their two sons, my sister Babli and myself. Sab chalay gaye (all are gone).

He won't say more. She begs, pleads, asks him to speak in the name of justice. He opens his mouth but all that emerges out is an intense howl of agony in the language that nightmares are written in.

*   *   *   *   *
 
Rani reaches home to find Kohli, secretary to the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, waiting for Singh Sahib. The Congress party is observing Sadbhavna Divas in memory of the victims of the 1984 pogrom, in order to ‘foster communal harmony’ in the capital.

The Leader himself will be there and the ceremony will start with a havan, a namaaz, shabad kirtan, a Catholic service and chants by Tibetan lamas. Several speeches will be made and the government will announce new loan packages for the 1984 Widows for setting up cottage industries.

Lalli has been asked to make a speech too. The only male survivor of the Tinsukhia Mail carnage is a living model of communal harmony. One who has suffered so much and has filled his heart with compassion. He will also be involved in the loan scheme and will be the liaison between the loan office and the applicants.

The pot bellied Kohli, who has a pockmarked face and wears dark glasses like his master, delivers the invitation and leaves.

*   *   *   *   *

Rani wants to leave Tinsukhia Mail behind and get on with their life, but the ghosts of the train will not leave them alone. Whenever they go to a party, the conversation invariably turns to the massacre and Lalli now has no hesitation at all in talking about it.

It irks her sometimes that his story is always a little different; sometimes graphic and sometimes a little restrained as if the gory details, in their nakedness, might injure the sensibilities of their sensitive friends.

She remembers everything, Lalli's first hesitant telling of his story, in bits and in pieces, emerging slowly like a grotesquely deformed baby that a mother knows is hers, but does not want to acknowledge.

*   *   *   *   *

My name is Samsher Singh. I am called Lalli by my family and my friends. Every year in October - November our family visits Kot Issa Khan, a small village near Patiala, where Sant Fauja Singh ji conducts a samagam. This year too we left Gauhati on October 30th for Delhi on Tinsukhia Mail. Biji, my Bhaabis, Babli and the children are all in the ladies compartment, which has a door that can be locked. The train is running very late and we reach Patna in the afternoon. There we hear that Indira ji has been hit by bullets. Guddi Bhaabi is glad but Biji is very angry and rebukes her. Bhaapa ji had been decorated in the Bangladesh war and had received his medal from the hands of Indira ji herself. Biji loves and admires her tremendously.

Guddi Bhaabi is very angry due to Operation Blue Star, but we don't care much. Punjab is another country, we have never lived there, we are busy with our business. The lalla (Punjabi Hindu) sitting in our compartment with his family says: “Veer ji Sardar ji, I have heard that it was done by three Sardars. Everybody in our bogie is talking about the shooting.”

As I get off to get some water, the Bengali family sitting near the door looks at me strangely. The Babu says something to his wife in an undertone and she silently nods.

I get a strange feeling as I stroll about on the platform, everybody seems to be staring at me. Having lived in Gauhati and Darjeeling, I am used to people staring at my puggri, but today the stares are different. It almost seems as if people are suddenly afraid of me.

Our train pulls into Danapur. The lalla comes back with news that Indira ji is dead. The Babu's wife quietly weeps in the corner of her compartment. The lalla solemnly says that this is a bad thing that the Sikhs have done. Channi Veer ji agrees.

It’s almost as if we are in a passenger train instead of Tinsukhia Mail. We stop at almost every station and the train gets even more delayed. We reach Mughal Sarai very late at night. Our diesel engine is switched to an electric engine. Everybody in the coach is awake, unsettled by the tumultuous news from Delhi. The night-time tea sellers at the Mughal Aarai station do good business.

Jeeta Veer ji and I get down to buy tea and puries. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think that the stares are no longer fearful, but hostile. We go into the ladies’ compartment and all of us eat puries and drink chai.

There is another Sikh family of five in our coach. Harnam Singh and his wife Bibi Bachhan Kaur are travelling to Ludhiana with their three grandchildren.

Harnam Singh comes to the compartment looking very worried. He has heard disturbing news from the guard. Ever since yesterday evening there have been mass murders in Delhi. Several Sikhs have been killed by the mobs.

There are rumors that mobs of armed men are roaming the streets of Delhi pulling Sikhs out of their houses and killing them. All hell has broken loose in Punjab too.

An old man says that the Howrah Mail has come back from Punjab laden with Hindu corpses and Sikhs have poisoned the drinking water supply in Delhi.

Channi Veer ji tries to comfort the old man, tells him that in times like these, rumors are sure to fly. Nothing like this can ever happen in Delhi, at worst there must have been a few clashes. Trains will be running late and we will probably be delayed a few hours in Delhi, but there is nothing to worry about.

Harnam Singh goes back, not entirely convinced and we see a frown of worry on Biji's forehead.

We are awakened by a loud banging on the bogie door.

I look out of the window. We are at some small station that is not even a Junction. Nervously, the lalla gets up to open the door. A uniformed havildar of the Railway Police climbs into our coach.

“Are there any Sardars here?” he asks. He sees me and Jeeta Veer ji and sits down on my berth. He has come to warn us. The violence has spread to many cities in the North. There has been a terrible bloodbath in Delhi. In Rourkela several Sikhs have been burnt alive. The rumor of the trainload of corpses from Punjab has spread everywhere. In every city Sikhs are being pulled out of buses and trains; they are being beaten, and even killed.

The Railway authorities have stopped the train outside Kanpur so that all the Sikhs inside can be warned to hide and not show their faces before the train reaches Delhi. Channi Veer ji says, “Havildar ji, why are you scaring people unnecessarily? Who has given you this news? Is it official or just a rumor?

The havildar says that he is warning us for our own good and it is up to us to believe him or not.

Harnam Singh is terrified. He begs Biji to let his wife and grandchildren into the ladies’ compartment, because at least it has a door. Biji thinks that the old man is paranoid, but takes pity on him and lets his family in. It’s already crowded inside with four adults and four children and now it gets worse.

Harnam Singh sits down on my berth, closes his eyes and begins to pray. Jeeta Veer ji nudges Channi Veer ji. We look at the frightened old man and all of us smile. The lalla looks worried too and rebukes us and says: “Sardar ji, this is not a joke. Anything can happen. There are ladies with you and small children, do not take this lightly.”

Jeeta Veer ji says: “Lalla ji, we have had Hindu-Muslim riots, even Sikh-Muslim riots, but have you ever heard of violence between Hindus and Sikhs?”
 
The Lala gets up and walks around the coach. Most of the steel shutters are already down and he shuts any windows that are not. He finds that only one family is getting down at Kanpur. He asks them to sit by the door and says that they must get off as soon as the train arrives at the station.

He goes to each compartment, tells everyone what the havildar had said, and warns them not to get down at Kanpur and says that whatever happens, we will not open the door.

Channi and Jeeta Veer ji are extremely amused at the lalla's war-like preparations. Bhaapa ji should have been here, Jeeta Veerji says, then he and Lalla ji could have planned the defence together.

I am a little afraid, but I smile too and laugh at their jokes. The entire coach is fully awake now and I can hear a buzz of conversation. Indira ji, katal, Sardar, dangey phased, are the words I hear again and again. I too feel that nothing will happen, but I have never been as brave as my brothers. I am afraid.

It is quite bright outside by now. Our shutters are all down but some light comes in through the chinks. Somebody has switched on All India Radio. Vande Mataram has just finished playing and some shastriya singer is doing an alaap in some raag. Our train is slowing down - we must be nearing a station.

The train comes to a halt and my ears prick for the tell-tale sounds of a railway station, but there is complete silence. The lalla opens his window a crack, pads barefoot to the door and swiftly escorts out the family that is getting down. He quickly shuts and locks the door and returns to his seat.

It is seven in the morning, but Kanpur station is unnaturally silent. There are no shouts selling tea or puries or magazines or beerries. There are no coolies lining the platform and there are no passengers.

Several minutes have passed. The same eerie silence. The train does not move. We are restless, the coach is turning into an oven with the shutters down. We begin to hear footsteps on the platform and faint murmurs. It is too hot and stuffy, the fans have stopped and slowly in defiance of the lalla's orders, windows start opening.

Kanpur is a ghost station today. There are a few railway officials in their blue uniforms and a few policemen from the Provincial Armed Constabulary. The babu shouts out to a passing TTE, “Saab, why is the train not moving.”

“There is trouble ahead, we have orders to halt here until the line is cleared,” the official replies. He adds that there has been violence in Kanpur city too. Several buses have been burnt and shops have been looted. There is curfew and that’s why the station is deserted.

To Be Continued Tomorrow …


October 31, 2015

 

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