Kids Corner


The Night of The Restless Spirits
Part I





This short story is the sixth of a new series of works on by the author to mark the 30th anniversary of the Indian Army’s desecration of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

He lies with his face down in the dust, his white beard matted and his last few strands of hair sticky with blood. Flies buzz around the red blotches on his chest and belly. His once proud turban is now a shapeless rag, dyed a new color.

He can't feel the pain anymore, just a dull throbbing sensation and the sticky wetness. He wishes that his last thoughts could be different; he would like to say the Sodar once again, but he can't collect his thoughts. Each time he tries to mouth the first verse, his thoughts disintegrate into visions of violence and anger and discord. His frail old body gathers strength only to tremble in rage and lie still again.

What is left of Hukam Singh lies by him, between him and the marble wall richly adorned in red. His hands are tied behind his back with his saffron keski. The last of the grand raagis of the old school, he lives and breathes raags and bani.

His voice is old and cracked when he sings and it trembles, but every note is crystal-clear alive and touches the basest heart.

But Hukam Singh's last performance is over. And what a performance! His joridaar has fled but the Light Machine Guns (LMGs) that the Jawans carry sound like a perfectly tuned tabla. How sweetly the guns sound the Keherwa: dhi na ka ti na ka dhi na dhi na ka ... that fool of a joridaar could never play the Keherwa right. He should have been here to listen to the soldiers.

Hukam Singh's last performance is unusual. There is no bandhana and no alaap today; there is no time spent tuning the tanpuras and the tabla. Instead of sitting down and whispering in undertones before he begins, the sangat is deathly-quiet calm.

Their heads are bare. Such disrespect! Their hands are folded, tightly folded, but oddly behind their backs and they look scared. So scared. The perfectly timed Keherwa begins on the guns and in an unbecoming and ungainly display the sangat twitches and jerkily dances to the beat.

Hukam Singh's voice joins in joyous celebration of the rhythm. His voice soars to the sky in a wonderful new raag, rising and falling in ornate gamak-embellished taans, effortlessly spanning tens of octaves and expanding until the gurdwara and then the village and then the entire Punjab echoes the sound of the furious melody crafted so carefully by the widow and her gleeful Keherwa-pounding divisions.

Now, like a Sufi, dancing … dancing in agony and unholy ecstasy, as each beat pierces his enormous body. His body is a magnet that sucks in their molten lead and the raag comes out stronger louder through every new mouth.

It stops as suddenly as it begins. The last few notes bubble out of Hukam Singh's body and drip down on the old man's face. The sangat has stopped its undignified jerky dance and is silent sated sleeping. The Widow's musicians have taken their music and have left searching for another audience.

Baba Fateh Singh wipes the pool from before his eyes, but there is still a haze before him and he squints. He groans as he somehow manages to raise his head a few inches above the ground.

Hukam Singh's lifeless face has a grimace frozen on it as if he died in the middle of a particularly intricate movement in the raag.

All the three young sevadars who lie in a tangled heap have an expression that is a mixture of fear and disbelief.

The family from Udhampur, which makes a trip to Dukh Nivaran Sahib every year, has found a final resting place in one corner. The aged parents are worried no more about their unemployed son's future and the unemployed son doesn't care any more about their nagging either.

Fateh Singh’s head slips back to the cold marble floor and the satanic beat, lurking somewhere in the gurdwara, invades his head again.

The bolt-action rifles play a different taal. The tempo, for one thing, is slower and more deliberate. The heat in the lead bullets is the same but the bullets are imported, Made in England, not in the one hundred percent indigenous ordnance factory in Madhya Pradesh.

"Golee se chittar bittar dega," they have been announcing the past few days but the crowd collects nevertheless, completely disregarding the deadly threat, mistaking it to be yet another bluff. The drummers have slit-like Mongolian eyes, broad flat noses and smooth hairless faces. Their khaki puttee clad bow legs disappear into incongruously large regulation boots and they clip clop like well trained horses cantering in a show. Their ustaad has beautiful blond hair and deep blue eyes and shining swords and stars on his shoulders.

Fateh Singh’s father yells `Phokiaan! Phokiaan!' when he hears the first loud crack, but the bullet that leaves a gaping hole in the back of his head declares that they do not fire blanks.

The drummers swoop down upon them without warning. It is a lazy summer night and the breeze pierces the heavy pall of the summer heat. He lies immobile on the munji savoring each fleeting wisp of the wind that like a flirting nymphet disappears even as he begins to enjoy its coolness. The mountain of flesh on the cot next to him snores, but even his snores are musical set perhaps to Marubihag or some other raag of the night.

Through the open door he hears muted sounds as the family from Udhampur continues its endless quarreling and nagging in an undertone, perhaps out of respect for its sacred surroundings.

Dukh Nivaran Sahib, a shimmering vision in white marble; an infinite pool of blessings and fulfilled dreams; a magical sponge for the sufferings of the wretched who have no place left on earth to go to. They come here from all over the Punjab and from Delhi and the Terai and Bidar and Gujarat and Shillong and Kathmandu and New York and Southall and Albequerque and Botswana and Wollongong and everywhere else that Sikhs live. They come here flushed with the fever of their sufferings and from the minute their burning foreheads touch the cool marble of the first step they begin to heal.

They come here to pray and unburden themselves of their fears and their desires. They are enchanted by the power of old Hukam Singh's voice which melts the cold hard lumps of lies, deceit and suffering that flow through their veins with their blood. They go back elated, purified, ready to face their lives again.

The affluent Sikhs of Patiala come here too, the shop owners and the hoteliers and the businessmen and the farmers with their huge farms and their tractors. Their daughters and their daughters-in-law outdo each other in sweeping the floor and kneading dough and cooking chapattis and they reverently hold each pair of dusty shoes to their foreheads, as they receive them in the cloakroom, before cleaning them in a show of humility.

They come in the mornings and in the evenings and the gurudwara buzzes with activity. After they have gone, everything is silent again and the only people left there are Hukam Singh, the sevadars, a few stray pilgrims and other old men and women like him who have no place else to go or cannot stomach the daily petty humiliations they have to face in the households of their grown children.

And Fateh Singh lies on his cot half asleep flirting with the faint breeze and listening to the sounds of the summer night and the musical snores. The rumble of heavy trucks is one of the sounds of the night and he continues to drift somewhere midway between the blood soaked dreams of his boyhood and the bloodier realities of his beloved Punjab today.

Even the whoosh of heavy hydraulic brakes does not sound any alarm bells in his brain. They don't make any effort at all at stealth. Their loud metal-soled army boots crunching on the gravel outside belie the administration's claims of a covert operation. They are not slit eyed and bow legged and they wear olive green fatigues. They quickly form a single file and enter the courtyard on the double, the sten guns hanging from their shoulders, marking time on the sides of their torsos as they slap back and forth.

There is no hatred in their eyes, and no compassion; they are dumb mute automatons out to do their job.

Hukam Singh swings off the cot with an oath, showing agility that only extremely fat people can have, and a rifle butt comes crashing down on the back of his unprotected head.

Fateh Singh is too old to fight and he continues to lie on the cot until he is jerked roughly to his feet. The three sevadars huddle together like Siamese twins mumbling incoherently in their fear, but their protestations of innocence crumble before their eyes after bouncing off the inscrutable masks that are the soldiers' faces. Their lips are silent now, but their eyes dart around looking for a savior or an escape route.

Their keskis, which Hukam Singh insists every man woman and child must wear at all times inside the gurdwara, are rudely snatched from their heads and are used to tie their hands behind their backs.

The old woman from Udhampur is prostrate on the ground begging for her husband's or at least her son's life, who cowers against the south wall with his hands tied behind his head with his turban.

Fateh Singh looks around and sees that there must be at least a couple of dozen Sikhs in the courtyard. There are old men and women and little children. There are young men with hard expressions and sullen faces who stare back proudly and fearlessly at death clad in olive green and black shiny metal.

There is Hukam Singh groaning with pain and muttering the foulest curses that even truck drivers don't know. The woman on the floor is wailing now and her mournful dirge is interrupted by gut-wrenching sobs that can see what is about to happen even as her eyes cannot. The mouths of the sten guns look as large as cannons as the white marble wall behind their backs begins to push them slowly and relentlessly towards the shiny black circles of death. Their eyes can only see rows upon rows of neat geometric circles getting larger and larger until they look as big as railway tunnels and blacker.

Fateh Singh forces himself to look away and blinks and shakes his head and rubs his eyes hard.

He tries to jerk his feeble mind back to sanity but the vision refuses to go away. The few figures he had seen only a few seconds ago, have now grown into a crowd, swelling by the moment. 

His eyes wide with disbelief take in a scene not unlike one of the rustic cultural melas organized by the government in which villagers are asked to dress up in ethnic costumes and do so enthusiastically, forming a colorful mélange wearing every kind of folk dress imaginable.

There are noble Harrappans dressed in their solemn white robes patiently awaiting their deaths at the hands of the conquering northern tribes. He sees the ancient people of Punjab who fell fighting to Alexander's hordes. Their bodies are covered with sword wounds and there is terror in their eyes. He sees common people, traders and farmers lying helpless in the dust lamenting the loss of their women to the pillaging Mongol armies. He sees herdsmen and villagers groaning under the tyranny of Mughal rule. He sees the first martyrs with their bodies scalded by hot sand and boiling in cauldrons and having their bodies chopped limb by limb, with an ecstatic smile on their faces. He sees two little children being bricked into the white marble wall. He sees thousands upon thousands of peasants proudly wearing the symbols of their new faith lying in heaps that reach the sky, laid waste by Ahmed Shah Abdali and his rampaging Afghans.

Then he begins to see more familiar faces. His father, young fearless and bold, and their neighbors and their friends from his childhood in Amritsar.

Continued tomorrow …
June 14, 2014

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Part I"

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