The Survivor: A Short Story by SARBPREET SINGH
Continued from yesterday …
We are all hungry and hot and sweaty and irritated.
We want to go out onto the railway station platform and buy some chai and some breakfast, but the laala won't let us. Jeeta Veer ji says that we will surely miss our connecting train in Delhi. Biji says that it is just as well and we can stay the night at Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib.
The dull lazy morning somehow makes me lose my fear. My palms are no longer sweaty and my mouth is dry no more. I feel that familiar impotent irritation that one feels while standing in never moving queues or when your bus gets stuck in traffic. I had never wanted to go on this stupid trip anyway... but Biji, she never listens.
Suddenly we hear a strange sound in the distance, but getting closer, made louder still by the tomb-like silence of Kanpur station. The sound, nearer now, is a babel of voices, not sharp or high pitched but modulated, not unlike the humming of a horde of bees.
The sound gets louder and closer. It invades our ears and mutes our tongues as we all silently strain to discover its source. It’s still a hum but horribly loud now, it enters the coach through every door window and crack. It is now heavy and gelatinous and it settles in our coach now like quicksand and it completely paralyzes us all.
All that my eyes can see now is its mucous-like consistency as it shudders and vibrates around us. It enters my nose and my lungs and it enters every pore of my body. I am terrified, I want to scream but it chokes me.
Through the haze of the noise I see a ragged band floating into the station through every entrance. The Sound is a fast river now and it sweeps mostly men, but a few women too, onto the platform.
They cling together in knots and begin a bizarre dance; the knots expand and shrink and from their mouths raised to the sky, flow shouts that flow into The Sound. They are all tall hellishly tall with thin skinny legs and their faces are long with bloodshot eyes and snarling lips. The streams that gush from their mouths are blood red, they flow back into their heads and come out again stronger and bloodier.
The Sound gets even louder and now the platform is packed with the apparitions. They have a conductor, a dark khaadi clad man with a scar above his left eye. He signals and the dance changes; the dancers have wolf-like faces now and they are on their hands and knees sniffing, searching looking. Suddenly a wolf almost comical in a uniform points his laathi towards our coach. The wolves turn and raise their heads to the sky and The Sound is no longer a vibrating hum but a terrible howl. A drum begins to beat and with slow, deliberate jerky steps they creep towards us.
The Sound is momentarily shadowed by a loud pounding and thumping, but as the coach door is opened it surges back in, even louder than before and sweeps everything, including the poor laala from its path. Harnam Singh's puggri is blown off his head by The Sound. The wolves have changed this time into a motley collection of raging beasts and men. Harnam Singh is thrown high into the air and not a shred of his tattered flesh reaches the ground.
The beasts have tasted blood and want more. Channi Veer ji's kirpan flies from his hand; it buzzes around him as if possessed and finally finds a resting place in his belly. All three of us are dragged by our hair, out of the coach and we are taken to a courthouse on the platform. The Conductor sits in a high backed judge’s chair with a powdered wig on his head. He is flanked by two wolves who are his bailiffs. Merciless justice is swiftly handed out.
One swipe of a butcher's knife takes off our joorras and Jeeta Veer ji's scalp; everything looks bright red. The packed courthouse galleries scream for more and Channi Veer ji is garlanded with a rubber tire. He is adorned in festive red too, lying motionless on the platform, but when the tire bursts into flames he gets up and dances like a darvesh and sings out loud, but he slips on himself and falls and gets up again and dances until he is red no more but black.
It is my turn.
They dance around me in a circle and wave their laathis in the air. Each time the drum beats the laathis trace sensuous curvy paths and come crashing down. The dance goes on until eternity and I am made of jelly. There is no pain, only anticipation. Suddenly it stops and I feel a cool wetness on my face. I open my dry mouth to drink but it is bitter and I choke. Far, far away, a torch is lit, but suddenly I am alone. The axe thuds against the door, again and again and again until it gives. High pitched wails and screams and the baying of human hounds.
The courthouse is a butcher's shop. Six lambs with human faces writhe on meathooks hung high up on the bloodstained walls. There is a sea of the hungry fighting jostling each other for the best cuts. The Conductor squats before a giant cutting board with an enormous cleaver. His bailiffs are by his side with a pair of scales and weights. His cleaver flies possessed; his assistants like clockwork sort out little fingers and toes and tongues and weigh them for the ravenous mob.
I watch fascinated, forgotten. Warm blood drips down the sides of their mouths as they feast.
* * * * *
She wakes up drenched in her own sweat. She picks up the file, which has fallen to the floor and shuts it. She switches off her reading light and tries to go back to sleep. It is eleven and Laali hasn't returned yet. The Sadbhavna Divas organizing committee meeting must be going on longer than expected. She wishes that he was home.
* * * * *
It’s a cool crisp Delhi October morning. Kohli arrives promptly at nine in the morning to pick them up. The Sunday morning traffic is light and they quickly reach Chanakyapuri. They pick up the Congress MP from Sikkim, a personal friend and admirer of Lali's from Sikkim House and head for the Boat Club. The grand spectacle of Rashtrapati Bhawan towers on their left and down Rajpath she can see the bold outline of India Gate.
This is her favorite part of Delhi. Ever since she's been a young reporter, she's been covering each cliché-ridden Boat Club political rally. She cannot help feeling uplifted whenever she drives past Rashtrapati Bhavan. Their car pulls into the makeshift VIP parking lot and the Leader's chief aide comes forward to greet them. Good you are on time, he says, but Kohl iji is with you, how could you be late!
Most of the ministers and MPs have already arrived and several of them are already sitting on their throne-like red velvet seats on the dais with enormous flowers made of blue and red satin ribbons pinned on the lapels of their khaadi jackets.
In the maidan sprawling in front of the stage, the crowd is swelling. Three hundred truckloads of farmers have been specially brought from Uttar Pradesh for the rally. The previous rally had very few people and the press did not let the Party hear the last of that for months. Sadbhavna Divas is important and the Leader wants to make sure that the fiasco is not repeated.
A separate enclosure has been reserved for the 1984 widows and orphans. The press is busy clicking photographs of hundreds of bored looking women in salwar kameezes and little boys wearing colorful patkas. Seva Dal volunteers, in crisp khaadi patrol the maidan, carrying laathis and controlling the crowd. There is heavy Police and CRPF bandobast and hundreds of jawans in riot gear wait at a discreet distance.
The Leader arrives in a wail of sirens and flashing lights. A single file of Black Cat commandos quickly climbs to the dais and takes up positions around the bullet-proof shield surrounding the speaker's podium. The Leader with his sumptuously dressed wooden wife in tow slowly walks to the dais, surrounded by more Black Cats. He ignores the velvet sofa at the center of the stage and humbly squats on the floor, at the feet of the strange mélange of holy men sitting in one corner. An excruciatingly long multi-religious service begins with each priest or officiant performing with great gusto. The Leader seems to be moved by each segment. He bows with folded hands to each contingent and finally takes the podium.
The afternoon air is rent with cries of Long Live Our Great Leader. He is quite brilliant today. He begins by launching a scathing attack on the Opposition, which is fanning communal fires around the country for political gains. He then solemnly describes the threat to the Unity And Integrity of the Country from the Forces Of Destabilization and The Foreign Hand. Tears stream down his face as he remembers the terrible massacres of 1984 -- he calls them ‘riots’! -- which took so many lives. He deplores communal violence and beseeches the Opposition to give up its nefarious designs in the National Interest. He announces a massive loan package for the 1984 Widows and Orphans to resounding cheers and cries of Long Live Our Great Leader from the crowd.
The lone Sikh minister in the Cabinet then strongly attacks militancy in Punjab and reiterates how Sikhs are parts of the mainstream and shall always remain so. He condemns violence and pleads that militant groups lay down their arms and come to the negotiating table. He introduces Laali to the crowd and grimly recounts his story.
Laali is in devastating form. His earnest forehead glistening with sweat, regal in saffron and white, he downplays his own ordeal and focuses on relief efforts for the 1984 Widows and Orphans.
Exhausted by all of this, Rani is quite glad when it is all over.
* * * * *
The strike at the textile factory is big news again; a senior manager was beaten up last night and the union members are being blamed. Today's paper has a report on Sadbhavna Divas. The Leader's photograph is on the front page and his speech is faithfully reported. Laali is not even mentioned in the story.
She marvels at the fickleness of the public, she can remember the yet unhealed Laali hounded by reporters at every step, hoping to extract a gory detail that had been missed. Today the Tinsukhia Mail and 1984 are in dusty files that come out of their cabinets every now and then, powered by painful memories or expectations of political gains.
The telephone rings. it is Suresh, the reporter trainee she had hired a few months ago. He is on assignment in Kanpur covering the sale of a minor girl into prostitution. He is excited, undeniably excited, jubilant and yet hesitant at the same time. He wants her to come to Kanpur immediately and she asks him if he has gone crazy. He says that she has to come in person, immediately and that it is about the Tinsukhia Massacre.
She catches the afternoon flight to Lucknow and drives to Kanpur city.
* * * * *
My name is Mangat Ram, son of Bagicha Ram. I am also known as Mangtu Kaka. Three years ago I retired from the Railways. I served as head peon in the Stationmaster's office at Kanpur railway station for twenty-seven years. I was on duty at the station on November 1, 1984. We got news of Indira Mai's death and by there evening there were mobs roaming in Kanpur. The city was under curfew and I was unable to go home that evening.
Since the railway station is always a safe place whenever there are communal riots, I went to sleep on the platform. Because of the curfew the station was deserted. All the coolies and vendors had gone home and we could not get any tea. It was a very cold at night and the security personnel who were on duty at the station broke some crates and started a fire on the platform. We sat around the fire the whole night and the havildar had three bottles of rum. Since I was sitting there too, they gave me two pegs and I went to sleep.
All the passenger trains had been cancelled, and the express and mail trains were running very late. Only two trains passed through the station the whole night. There might have been one or two more, but I was asleep. When I got up in the morning, the Tinsukhia Mail to Delhi was standing at the platform.
Dharam Pal told me that it had already been standing there for more than an hour waiting for clearance. It was quite bright, but strangely most of the windows were shuttered down. The platform was still quite empty. There were a few security personnel and Ticket Collectors walking about and a few people had got down from the train and were standing on the platform, smoking beerries and cigarettes. A young policeman was talking to a Bengali babu, sitting in the coach in front of me, through his open window.
I could hear a few words of their conversation; they were talking about Indira Mai's death and of the wretched Sikhs who had killed her.
At about nine o clock in the morning, some people started coming to the platform. They were mostly young men from the city, who seemed to be loitering around, looking inside coaches and aimlessly wandering on the platform. Slowly more and more people started coming and soon I could hear a buzz of voices as they started collecting in groups on the platform and talking. At about ten o clock different kinds of people started coming into the station. I could see several city scoundrels in the crowd and many of them were carrying laathis and short iron rods.
The babble had by now turned into a roar, there must have been at least seven hundred people on the platform by now. It was then that Ghanshyam Das, the ex Congress MLA came to the station. The crowd cheered for him and he began to give a speech.
He started talking about Indira Mai's tragic death and how her ungrateful Sikh bodyguards had riddled her old body with three hundred bullets. Tears streamed down his face as he told the story and his eyes were blazing with anger. He said that the Sikhs had to be taught a lesson. Too long they had held the country to ransom with their headstrong ways. This time they had gone too far and had to be punished.
He told the crowd of how patriots in Delhi had taught Sikhs who were celebrating the Mother's death, a lesson. He wept again, expressing horror, saying that Sikhs in Punjab had retaliated by massacring Hindus by the thousands and sending train loads of corpses to Delhi. He asked the mob what more fitting reply could there be than killing every Sikh who dared to show his face outside Punjab and sending his corpse home.
The crowd cheered wildly, enthusiastically, and his followers brandished their laathis and iron-rods.
The crowd was in a sullen, angry mood, but not yet angry enough to do anything. Ghanshyam Das took the Havildar aside and they conferred for several minutes after which he called all the policemen and talked to them. In the meantime, some of Ghanshyam Das's henchmen entered the station building and began searching the rooms.
The Babu on duty at the ticket window was Ujjagar Singh, a Sikh, who had spent all his life working at Kanpur station. They brought him to the platform kicking him as they dragged him along and shouting abuses at him. A big crowd gathered around him and they started to beat him up. It was as if all of them had gone mad. They beat the old man so mercilessly that his skull cracked. Fortunately he did not die, though he was in hospital for many months.
They were all shouting ‘Khoon ka Badla Khoon‘, and ‘Maro Maro’ and slowly they turned their attention to the train. They entered whatever coaches were unlocked and started dragging out anyone who was a Sikh or who they thought was Sikh. They did not spare anyone with a long beard. I prayed to Ram to stop this sight, but it only got worse. They dragged the men out and beat them without any mercy till they were all covered with blood. Then suddenly the young policeman who had been talking to the Babu pointed with his stick to the coach in front of me and said something to the goondas. They immediately rushed to the door and started banging on it.
For a few minutes nothing happened, but when they threatened to pour petrol on the coach and burn everyone inside, a terrified passenger opened the door. What happened after that I cannot forget for the rest of my life.
Screaming like hungry animals they charged into the coach which they knew was carrying Sikh passengers. I could hear horrible sounds from inside and fearsome screams. Later I heard that they found an old Sikh man inside who they literally tore from limb to limb with their bare hands. There were also some young Sikhs inside who tried to resist, but they were overpowered quickly and dragged to the platform.
With my own eyes, I saw three young men being dragged out of the coach by their hair. They were all bleeding and had been beaten badly. One of them was totally covered with blood and had a long knife sticking out of his stomach. It was the most horrible sight I had ever seen in my life, but I could not look away.
Khoon ka Badla Khoon! Maro Maro ! they screamed. One of them pulled out a long knife and I thought that they were going to be killed there and then. But they used the knife to chop off their long hair. One of the young men was lucky and died almost instantly when the knife cut into his head instead of his hair.
Animals, they were animals, they brought a tire and put it around the head of the one who was struggling the most. They poured petrol on the tire and set it on fire. Even now I have not been able to rid my nose of the horrible smell of rubber, hair and flesh. The poor man writhed and screamed in agony, but this only drove the crowd crazier.
After he was dead, they turned their attention to the third one. Oh God, how did they beat the poor boy. He was surrounded on all sides by savages with laathis and they rained blow upon blow on his head and body. It is a wonder that he did not die right away. When they tired of beating him, they poured petrol on him to burn him too. They kicked him, he tried to clasp his hands together, but his arms were broken. Somebody lit a match and he screamed. I was surprised, I did not think that he had any life left in him.
Sahib, I lost my faith in Bhagwan Ram that day. I could not blame the poor boy he was in pain, and suffering so much, after all he was only human. Later I found out that the women and children that left behind in the carriage in an attempt to defend them, were his mother, his sister, his sisters-in-law, his little nieces and nephews. He was a frightened child himself, but he could have saved them all by staying hidden. The passengers in the coach did not betray them; he did, but I do not blame him, I blame Bhagwan for robbing men of their reason for committing acts that beasts would be ashamed of.
He must have loved his mother and the little children and his sisters, like we all love our mothers and children and sisters, perhaps if we are faced with what he faced ... martyrs live only in history books, Sahib. I am an old man and considered wise in my family, but that day I learned of the true nature of human beings, Sahib. You see, he was in pain ... terrible unimaginable pain.
Hey Ram, how can I forget ... somebody brought a huge axe and they broke down the door of the ladies compartment. There were two old women who they set on fire there and then in front of the children. The children, my God the children; they were screaming, they could not understand what was happening.
One by one they were snatched from the remaining women who clung to them, desperately. They tore off every shred of clothing from the women's bodies, I looked down in shame, prayed to God to stop this somehow, but he was not listening. They fought with each other, the animals, and the strongest ones carried the women away, high above their heads, like shining trophies. What became of the poor women nobody knows until today.
The children, one by one, were hacked to pieces on the platform. What kind of butchers were these, their lust for blood just would not be sated. I learned that they had killed every male Sikh on the train and loaded their corpses back on it before it left Kanpur.
I could never go back to work at the station after that.
* * * * *
Rani puts down Mangat Ram's statement and looks at Suresh. Her brow is furrowed.
The Express Diwali party is a great success. It is yet another feather in the cap of Suresh, the rising young head of the Urban news desk. Rani gracefully accepts everyone's congratulations on the behalf of her protégé. In a corner, a wide eyed audience listens to Laali's story ...
November 2, 2015
Conversation about this article
1: Harpreet Singh (Delhi, India ), November 02, 2015, 9:20 PM.
Waheguru. So painful, not just because it happened with our community but the scale of the savagery. Shame on the perpetrators of such crimes and their collaborators.
2: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), November 02, 2015, 11:00 PM.
I honestly hope from deep down in my soul that something horrible happens to India. A calamity so devastating that it would take a thousand years for those monsters to recover. What a disgusting mass of people.