Kids Corner

Fiction

The Perished and The Saved

A Short Story by JASPREET SINGH

 

 

 

I, Raj Kumar, first encountered him in 1984, not in a classroom, but in the student residence.

My mother had accompanied me to the red-brick residence with two items of luggage (a black trunk and a roll of bedding) and she had ventured beyond the visitor’s lounge. She wanted to test the quality of food in the hostel canteen, and there Professor Singh, the Boys’ hostel warden, spotted her.

To this day, for some unknown reason, I am unable to forget his accent and choice of words, which conveyed three or four crucial years spent abroad. British, American, Indian English, strands no longer distinct, fuzzy, like a superposition of sine and cosine waves. Even his majestic turban looked westernized.

Slowly he walked up towards mother; his yellow tie fluttering in the wind. May I be of assistance? Gently, he reassured her and joked If your boy doesn’t like the ‘spartan’ food here, he could always eat at my place.

A few months after joining the engineering college in Delhi, the exact day I topped the class, Dr Singh extended an invitation: If you are free this evening you are most welcome to dine at Nelly and my place. 

The family lived in Munirka, only a kilometer outside the college. Those days there were fewer houses and shops and people in the area and it was possible to walk real fast. Their front garden was filled with voluptuous bougainvillea and purple-blossomed jacarandas.

I got delayed by a full hour, apologized. I could not reveal the real reason for delay. Accompanied by a bunch of class-mates I had gone to Chanakya to watch my first adult film. Plus, the campus gift shop was closed to mark an optional religious holiday, and I felt embarrassed arriving empty handed. Hesitantly, I rang the bell. The bookshelves and other objects in the house suggested this family was steeped in deep knowledge about the world.

Nelly was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever encountered -- a serene Sikh beauty, and the most refined. She would call him ‘Mn’ with a sense of ease that Indian wives of that generation didn’t normally possess. (Mn or ‘em en’ stood for Mohan and was the best chemical tease.)

She greeted me with a sardonic smile. In fact, both Nelly and Prof Singh had the same smile.

She had studied literature at a state college in Punjab, and was much younger, only eight or nine years older than me; they had married after he returned from Cornell University in the US. When I arrived at the house she was playing a musical instrument, a rabab. Her two children, both boys with long hair, were asleep in the bedroom.

In our class she was known as Mrs. Singh, everybody fancied the ‘khubsurat sardarni’ (the beautiful Sardarni). Until that evening I had only seen the enigmatic Nelly from a distance, I will never forget the bread pakoras she fried, not with dhaniya and tamarind but with what she called cranberry chutney. That was the first time I tasted cranberries. There was a layer of spicy potatoes in the pakoras. She served channa-kulcha as well and cashew burfi and chiki as dessert.

The professor seemed more relaxed that night, he unfolded his beard, and loosened his navy blue turban. Two or three strands of grey in his robust beard. Nelly had on Ella Fitzgerald songs and now and then she would step out of the house, and this seemed to annoy him but he didn’t express his annoyance properly. After dinner Prof. Singh did something unusual. He washed the dishes.

Nelly retired to her room without wishing us goodnight, and I ended up discussing ‘dimensionless numbers’ all night long with my teacher. By the time I departed, both of us sensed a new layer of relationship sprouting, the layer commonly known as friendship. Before departing he also showed me his study. The walls had developed cracks and the electrical wiring was visible. The left side was covered with awards and commendations and important citations. On the right wall hung a huge black-and-white photo of the so-called great leader. She had imposed Emergency in my unfortunate country only six or seven years earlier.

***

These days the Times often runs profiles of highly qualified immigrants returning to India. Better jobs, better quality of life. Good life in Bangalore or the Los-Angeles-style Millennium City, Gurgaon. To me these returns are not even half as interesting as Dr Singh’s decision to return when it was really hard to return.

“Why did you?” I asked him that day.

“Perhaps you know the answer. When I hear the national anthem, an electric current goes through me.”

***

All these years I have reflected, and tried hard to pay attention to the crime from a pacified state. But, each attempt a failure. Perhaps this is the most complicated and painful part of the story. My only hope is that I am able to narrate the facts with the precision they demand. The task, I am sadly aware, is nearly impossible. So let me just focus on the only truth I know … 

A week later our class was divided into two groups for factory visits. The chairman accepted my request to join the second, relatively small group. Not Bombay or ONGC but a two-day visit to factories up north in the mountains, this group was guided and led by Prof Singh. We left on Oct 30th.

Because I was unwell my father drove me to the station that day. He insisted on shaking hands with my teacher, and Nelly was there too on the platform. Although it was the onset of autumn, her light cotton sari exuded the feel of summer. (Her two boys with long hair were at school). The train was to depart at seven in the morning.

‘Is your father an IPS?’ Prof Singh took me aside. I remember his soft voice.

Father’s uniform made it obvious that he was an elite Indian Police Service officer. However, civilians found it difficult to decode the meaning of stars and ribbons and medals and other signs. Father was a supercop in Delhi Police, and took orders directly from the central government.

***

On October 30th we visited the pharmaceutical plant in Kasauli (in the colonial times the building served as a TB sanatorium). On October 31st we visited the Mohan Meakin Brewery in Solan hills (in colonial times it was called Dyer-Meakin Brewery. (Dyer was the father of General Dyer who ordered colonial India’s most brutal killings of defenseless ‘natives’, the Amritsar massacre in 1919).

I remember still the enzymes, the smell of fermentation reactors and the hum of giant crushers, centrifuges, and heat exchangers. Stage-3 washing with excess CO2 to remove harmful gases from the liquid, the Bengali quality control officer (a ‘teetotaler’ and a Brahmin) who tasted ‘the thing’ after it ‘matured’. Alcohol was pumped like water from a muddy brown river to the Bottling Zone of the plant. In my ears I still carry an echo of the strange music the pasteurized glass bottles produced on the conveyor belt. Fifty thousand bottles a day.

During our return journey Dr Singh regaled us with chemical stories, catalysts, and runaway reactions. Bubbles, drops, and particles… He had a smile. To this day I cannot forget his special smile. The catering-wallah passed by and we ordered twenty-one lunches, eight veg and thirteen non-veg, daal and chaawal and dahi and oily parathas with achaar. Non-veg thaalis had fish curry or mutton with gravy. I ordered fish and this detail for some reason is stuck. The fish is stuck inside me. Some chootiya mentioned surrogate mothers and then a bad joke about female mannequins and Prof Singh stared at our silliness and there was a stunned silence. Then someone suggested intakshari and we sang old film songs and Michael Jackson and Prince and even David Bowie until someone played the radio, first All India Radio, and immediately afterwards the short-wave BBC Radio, which confirmed that Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated by her own bodyguards.

Good, a class fellow said, and Prof Singh stood up and raised his voice. You should not talk like this, he scolded the student.

The slow moving train got more and more delayed, and perhaps it was one of the most difficult nights for the entire country.

Early in the morning we saw people defecating by the railways tracks, Subzi Mandi passed by, and then New Delhi station. Even before it came to a complete halt we saw traces of violence on the platform, but there were cops stationed there, and because the cops were armed with guns and lathis we thought the situation was under control. We spontaneously formed a circle around Prof Singh (for he was the only Sikh in our group) and stepped out of the bogie.

I wish my father had been there to receive us, then there would have been no need to worry, but in those days cell phones didn’t exist.

Suddenly an angry mob, armed with the most elementary weapons (metallic rods and rubber tyres), crossed the railway line and climbed up the platform. ‘Khoon ka badla khoon say’… ‘Give us that traitor sardar.’ We started to run. ‘Blood for blood.’ What broke the circle was a vespa scooter on the platform. Sudden screeching of breaks, tyre marks, rubber smell. A photojournalist in a yellow windcheater started snapping pictures of the mob, which had fished out our professor. ‘Stop taking pictures’, said one of the thugs, ‘otherwise we kill you.’

‘This traitor Sikh is going to take pictures’, the thug pointed at Prof Singh. ‘Those who want to save him, we kill you.’ He kicks the ‘sister-fucker’ journalist in the balls, snatches the camera, destroys the roll. I remained paralyzed on my spot. He snatches our professor’s suitcase. ‘Sardarji, our mother is dead and you are not crying? Cry, behnchod. Gadar kay londay beat your chest.’ He unzips the suitcase, rummages through the contents, old and new, pulls out something that looks like a souvenir for Nelly, and a pahari doll (most likely for his daughter) and a Himachali achkan (most likely for his son). ‘Nice wrist watch.’  Then the thug gestures for other lumpens to go ahead, the lumpens spray gasoline from the journalists scooter on our teacher, slip a rubber tyre around his neck. ‘Let me go. What have I done?’ I can hear Professor Singh shout.  The tyre constrains his arms. ‘Sardar, you sister fucker, you killed our mother’ ‘Gadar, now we kill you.’ 

‘Stop it,’ I say, ‘you can’t do this, he is our teacher.’ ‘Khoon ka badla khoon se’… ‘saala sardar ki aulad… gadar ki aulad’. Although it is early morning, his breath stinks of rum. Half of my class fellows disappear, others repeat the same thing over and over. ‘This is madness.’ I urge the cops to take immediate action, I tell them that I happen to be the son of the police chief. At this point the chief lumpen laughs and spits on Prof Singh’s face, douses the tyre with more hydrocarbons and strikes a match. A senior Congress leader, his Nehru Gandhi khadi clothes fluttering in the wind, is standing close to the Station Master’s office on the platform guiding the mob like the conductor of a big orchestra. Khatam kar do sab sardaron ko. Khatam kar do saanp kay bacchon ko. Finish them, children of snakes. Destroy them all. He is not very tall and wears black glasses. I will never forget that Congress wallah’s black glasses. I feel like confronting him, but stand paralyzed on my spot. “This is the way to teach the Sikhs a lesson,” says a bystander.

I take a deep breath, the black glasses are gone. The photojournalist is still trembling, they spare his vespa, and we keep hearing the screams. I still hear those screams. I can’t hear enough. We couldn’t do a thing. I could do nothing. The only thing I was able to save was a shoe and that too was lost in the commotion that followed.

It was sickening, you had to see the horror to believe the horror and it was so unreal I almost didn’t believe my own sense organs. But the fire and the smoke were so absolutely real, different from the way it is done in the movies. During combustion I could not use my knowledge of chemistry and physics to extinguish the flames. How fast they engulfed his entire body. I could do nothing. I was a mere onlooker. In the end all that remained along the ashes were a few bones and a steel bracelet. Black like a griddle.

My father had sent an official jeep to pick me up at the station and drop me at the engineering campus. Two of my classmates accompanied me.

As the jeep passed Tolstoy Marg I saw dozens of Sikh bodies on fire. Smell of burning wool and books (Adi Granth) and rubber tyres and human flesh. I saw taxis being smashed. And the black cloud of smoke touched the sky. This was our Eiffel Tower. This was our carnival. Our periodic table of hate.

We passed by the Church. The Bishop was standing by the giant black-painted cast iron gates, preventing the mob to enter the church. Thousands of children, women and men had taken refuge inside.

It was a Thursday. The jeep driver was in tears, he had seen horrible things. The skinny man trembled on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He said he didn’t want to come, but it was Sahib’s order and his duty. Those days my parents lived in a mansion on the posh Amrita Sher-Gil Marg (the road named after the ‘mother of modern Indian art’), and I lived in the hostel in the engineering campus.

After this there are lapses in my memory. And moisture in my eyes. There was too much going on. Too many exams. What conversations I had with my fellow classmates I have little recall.

***

I do recall though my thoughts brittle and numb, as if deep inside a Zero Kelvin Dewar flask, and then drifting as fast as the speed of light towards Prof Singh’s family. Were they safe? The police jeep was still parked outside the hostel. Instead of going into my room I asked the driver to take me to Prof Singh’s residence in Munirka just outside the engineering campus. The driver urged me to check with Sahib first. So I called Father from the hostel common room using a land-line. After three attempts and literally begging his junior officer father took hold of the receiver. 

What are you doing to stop the madness? 

Incoherently I told him about the railway platform scene. Father didn’t express any shock. Father only said that I must send the driver back. Abruptly he hung up.

Because the place was not far I literally ran towards Munirka. There were smouldering ash particles floating around in the air. Punjab Woolens garment store was being eaten up by orange flames, dark and dense clouds ascending. Sikh shops, schools, houses and places of worship were on fire. I tried to help a man who lay on the street, but he was dead near his freshly cut long hair. Near the market I saw groups of women fleeing with voluminous loot bags. I particularly recall the red colored bag. Near the park I saw a body being torn apart, people playing tug of war with legs on one side and hands on the other side. All along I did not feel unsafe, because one simple rule or law was clear in that hell – all the violence was directed against the Sikh citizens. These were not ‘riots’, for not a single Hindu was harmed or killed.

Prof Singh’s house looked like a scene right out of Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. Brando inside. Heavily guarded. Not by the cops. But by lumpen youths. One of them had a Bombay filmstar hair-cut. A few other replicas were sitting inside a white Fiat car, drinking. Others near the car held tridents and iron bars and glass bottles. For some unknown reason the courage that had left me at the railway platform returned.

“Where are you going?”

“My Professor’s family lives here.”

“They are safe,” said the self-appointed lumpen chief. “We are guarding them.”

“We the bodyguards.”

I avoided a direct eye-contact.

She was either inside or not. Were the boys safe? I had no idea.

“Go see for yourself. Everything okay here.”  

There were ten or twenty of them. Or twenty or thirty. It was hard to estimate. All of a sudden I was able to breath again, and slowly I tried to walk.

The jacarandas and bougainvillea stared at me and so did the Semal tree as I knocked several times, and announced my name. Several times.

All the doors were locked. The windows were all curtained.

“Go home.”

It was Nelly’s voice. Choked a bit.

“It is me.”

“I know. Go back to your hostel. Right away.”

She didn’t ask about Prof Singh. I was the one who knew the exact details, what really had happened to him. She, it was clear then, didn’t want to talk.

Realizing this I turned as if all that mattered in the world was to obey her voice. Soon my feet started dragging me towards my room in the engineering hostel.

“Told you they are alright.”

The lumpens laughed.

Most of them had alcohol in them. And they were loud getting louder. Nothing about these guards was reassuring. They inspired little confidence. It was certain Nelly and the kids were not safe.

The cops were missing. I did see two or three men in khaki, mingling with the lumpens, but really it was hard to tell who was a cop and who a lumpen. Then the film star hair-cut stared at me piercingly.

Perhaps that is why I returned.

Back to Nelly.

Once again no resistance was offered.

I knocked again. Several times.

“Nelly, please open.”

She didn’t wait long this time. I heard near instant movement inside. “Please, Nelly, shall I ask my father to rescue you from here.” The fact is that I had lost all hope of getting help from Father. But this way I knew there was a possibility of getting a response from her, and she did respond.

I heard her walk close to the door. She didn’t unlock. Again she begged me to go home.

Unable to tear myself away from the house, I was utterly unable to assist.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

“What do you mean? Don’t worry?”

Don’t worry, she says.

This is the situation. The chief lumpen is staring at me all over again. Threatening my body to leave. I ignore him and his buddies, the men in khaki and bright unmourning primary colors. My feet for some unknown reason drag me around the house. The mob on the other side, close to the kitchen, is as big as the mob on this side and both sides are getting noisier and noisier. I tap on the kitchen window.

And stand there waiting.

I knew she would return.

Finally a hand swishes open the curtain made of beads.

“Don’t worry,” she says. Her face looks like a phase-diagram plotted between fear and shame.

“I have already done what the men asked me to do,” she explains.

“You did not.” On their own her two boys, the twins, appeared close to the window.

At first I do not recognize them. The boys have no maroon patkas on. Their long, curly hair is freshly cut. Hurriedly, brutally cut. It shows.

“I have already done what the men asked me to do. Now go home,” she repeats. “We are safe.”

 

Jaspreet Singh’s most recent novel, Helium, is published by Bloomsbury.

 

March 4, 2014

 

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 04, 2014, 3:34 PM.

What a chilling graphic description of the extremely shameful events of 1984. Jaspreet ji's pen, mightier than any sword, shall forever add to the indictment of the 1984 genocide better than any black hole of Calcutta.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), March 07, 2014, 11:50 PM.

We as a community need to be aware that this is not the last time this has happened. The perpetrators will never be brought to justice and this has emboldened them, they are under State protection as they did the dirty work of the state. Also, the general Indian population supports the massacre of minorities and the perpetrators reap political rewards. So many massacres have taken place after 1984 and this will not stop. Sikhs living in this sad land should stick together and avoid living in isolation where they are sitting ducks. Sikhs should be vigilant and organize themselves to face a similar situation again, bearing in mind that no police, army, Govt. will come to their aid. Next time, we should not be taken by surprise and give these guys a response as Sikhs in places where able to to. It's only when we have the capability to exact a price, we will have some sense of security. I know of people who fought the mobs bravely and either survived or died an honourable death, those who pleaded for mercy were mercilessly killed.

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), March 08, 2014, 12:48 AM.

Another thought I want to share as a person who has first-hand experience of those times. All this should be seen in the context of the socio-economic situation in this nation. This is a highly overpopulated country which does not have the resources to support such a huge population, 80% of whom live in abject misery and have to struggle for even the basic things of life and thus have no sense of humanity. They are like hungry beasts in a jungle, ready to kill and plunder to satisfy their hunger. Is it any wonder then that all the killing and looting in Nov 1984 in Delhi and thereafter in Punjab were done by illiterate, impoverished and dehumanized segments -- albeit hired by the rich and powerful goondas in the Congress Party. With an ever growing number of such miserable people, these massacres and looting will never stop. Anybody can pay them some money and get the job done ... to further their personal and private agendas. Can you imagine such incidents happening in civilized countries like Canada where everybody is well fed and has all the basic necessities fulfilled?

Comment on "The Perished and The Saved"









To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.