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Image: detail from painting by Inni Kaur.


The Night of The Restless Spirits
Part II





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.

Continued …


The crowd is growing every second, miraculously fitting into the tiny courtyard, squeezing in between the slowly creeping wall and the terrible hive of perfect circles.

The soldiers do not multiply like the crowd but their faces are kaleidoscopes that change form and color every second. One instant they are the jewel in the Widow's helmeted head and the next they are Taimur's bloodthirsty soldiers. Suddenly they become Greeks with plumed helmets and then they are thin lipped cruel Pathans. Now they have slit eyes and puttee-clad bow legs that disappear into incongruously large regulation boots and their modern sten guns are bolt action rifles.

The strange multi-racial crowd now has familiar faces as it fills the courtyard and he sees the important men of Amritsar as they rub shoulders with the ne'er do wells and the layabouts and the street urchins. All the local leaders are there as are the boisterous college students who announced the meeting even before the dire pronouncement, `golee se chittar bittar dega' had died down.

The courtyard by some magical act of sorcery is now a walled-in maidan, overrun with weeds, with a small platform on one end and a well on the other.

Fateh Singh clutches his father's hand who, strangely enough, does not have a hole in his head.

There is an air of festivity in the maidan as if the crowd is here to celebrate a holiday. The ominous words of the lackeys of the British have had no effect on the crowd. They are all drunk, high on nationalism, it is a wonderful wonderful time that gives men opportunities to rise above the mean drudgeries of their daily lives and feel that they are doing something great and selfless.

Passionate pleas for sacrifices mingle with empty rhetoric as speaker upon speaker takes the stage, raising the crowds to even higher peaks of nationalistic ecstasy. There is romance in this mad rebellion and the sensation borders on the sensuous as they find themselves inflamed and excited but not quite ready to die.

And at that moment the bow legged khaki clad Gurkhas trot in with their bolt action rifles and their blond blue-eyed commander. The crowd sees visions of glorious arrest and canonizing incarceration and trembles with joyous anticipation of the about to be born epic tale, about to be created for the purpose of regaling proud and free generations of Indians in the future, their children and their grandchildren. The crowd looks at them defiantly, almost mockingly, and the cries of ‘aa gaye, aa gaye’ slowly die down.

Like little clockwork figures they train their rifles on the mob and a white-gloved hand comes down rapidly in a flash. The crowd hasn't lost its bravado and as the first crack sounds, Fateh Singh’s father is the first one to loudly proclaim “Phokian! Phokian!

Until the hole in the back of his head settles the issue.

The little boy cowers under his lifeless father who even in death protects him from the flying bullets and the stampeding feet. A surreal vision unfolds before his eyes, a vision that he is to carry in his head through the next sixty-five years, sixty-five long years of dazzling peaks of deification and euphoria and the respect reserved only for the living martyrs of a proud new nation and sixty-five years of haunting nightmares and betrayal and disillusionment and bitterness.

He cannot understand where the strange hordes that have suddenly descended onto Jallianwala Bagh have come from. They are screaming louder than the dying citizens of Amritsar as they receive their fair share of the thick hail of British bullets. They are oddly dressed and they shout in exotic languages, their words sound like gibberish but he cannot mistake the pain in their impotent laments.

Later, many years later, when he remembers the strange vision, his mother and his uncles and even his wife do not believe him. You were a child, they say, and petrified, these are hallucinations, Fateh Singh. There are hundreds who survived the massacre; nobody else saw them; surely the violence and the anguish of your father's death must have turned your head.

They keep on firing until they run out of bullets and the crowd is dense no more. The white glove signals and like well-trained horses they clip clop out just as they had come in, their faces inscrutable, their eyes unblinking, leaving behind them Punjab riddled with bullets, bleeding, hurting, lying unattended among the weeds and the dust of Jallianwala Bagh.

The well is choked with the cold corpses of those who jumped in to escape the bullets and drowned under the incessant crush above. The bare feet of the crowd as it stampeded, chappals and juttis and leather shoes discarded in their haste to find a way to escape, have claimed as many lives as the bullets, mostly little children.

Fateh’ Singh’s uncle loads his father's lifeless body in a cart and carries him home.

The drummers don't stop because they‘ve run out of bullets; but because there is nobody to shoot at anymore, because unlike Fateh Singh they cannot see that the courtyard of the gurdwara is densely packed with the tormented lost souls of Punjab, who are summoned back each time tyranny returns and innocents are butchered.

Again and again as the centuries pass they return, sick to their guts with anxiety trying to shield their children and their children's children from the pain that they have endured. Vainly they throw themselves in the paths of flashing swords, but the swords pass unchallenged through them and always unerringly find their marks and their ranks swell as they mournfully wait for the next act of violent oppression.

Fateh Singh can see them as he lies on the ground while they, ever hopeful, form a dense ghostly wall around the groggy Hukam Singh. He sees their expressions of dismay as bullet after bullet passes through them and plunges into the massive frame until he Hukam Singh too joins the ranks of the would be protectors and makes ludicrous attempts at trying to save the young sevadars, kicking and pummeling the soldiers and weeping bitter tears of frustration, unable to stop the slaughter.

It is quiet and the soldiers have gone away. Hukam Singh and his motley congregation have left too; tonight is going to be a very busy night in the Punjab, and the spirits never rest, the fools.

The centuries of frustration haven't taught them better. Even as they lie down to rest for a moment they are needed again and again and they always heed the call hoping against hope that this time they might prevail.

So Baba Fateh Singh lies with his face down in the dust, his white beard matted and his last few strands of hair sticky with blood. As his life ebbs away slowly, he is sad, because he does not want to die, but he is glad that he understands what he saw sixty-five years ago, when he was luckier and the bullets of the Raj did not find his little body.

He was right, his family was wrong.

He wasn't hallucinating, he muses, as he prepares for the restless existence ahead.

June 16, 2014

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Part II"

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