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Three Decades Later:
Coda To An Extraordinary Journey

SARBPREET SINGH

 

 

 



co·da, noun: the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure; the concluding section of a dance, especially of a pas de deux, or the finale of a ballet in which the dancers parade before the audience; a concluding event, remark, or section. [Dictionary]






What is it that I hope to find?
In these dusty alleys,
Forbidden, unkind

My own words, written more than twenty-five years ago, haunt me as Mehr Kaur and I walk the narrow and filthy streets of Tilak Vihar, also known as New Delhi’s Widow Colony.

The tale -- “Kultar’s Mime” -- has been told 34 times already. They have all listened rapt. The mighty and the weak. The famous and the anonymous. Scholars and illiterates. Rich and poor. Most with writhing hearts and salty cheeks.

Why? Because at the end of the day, this could be anyone’s story. Many a time have they asked. ‘Did you go there?’ ‘Did you meet them?’

Our answer until now has always been a shake of the head, followed by a torrent of words, explaining why. We don’t want to be disrespectful of the victims. We don’t want to reopen their wounds. We don’t want to exploit their pain, which is ever present, unending, in any way.

But the pull of Tilak Vihar is too strong. We can’t stay away and yet I am at a loss to find the right way to do it.

Once again, Dr. Uma Chakravarti comes to the rescue.

A few weeks earlier, on the phone, leading up to the second India tour of ‘Kultar’s Mime‘, Dr. Charkravarti had said something that felt not unlike a stinging slap on my face.

‘You Sikhs have abandoned the survivors of 1984’, were her exact words, delivered in her trademark straightforward manner. Flushed with the recent success of ‘Kultar’s Mime‘, I remember feeling a little indignant, before acknowledging that as much as the play had helped restart the conversation about 1984, it was quite irrelevant to the survivors who continue to scratch out a miserable existence in Tilak Vihar.

Dr. Chakravarti told a desolate tale of three generations; the first devastated by the horrific violence; the second by drugs and alcohol as hundreds of young men grew up with no authority figures or male role models in their lives as their widowed, mostly illiterate mothers were singularly focused on providing for the tattered remnants of their families. The third generation, she said, was now in jeopardy as nothing of note had been done in the thirty years that had passed since the carnage.

She encouraged me to go to Tilak Vihar and to see for myself and she offered to introduce me to social workers and human rights activists who had won the survivors’ trust by tirelessly working with them as they struggled to survive.

This is how Mehr and I end up walking the inhospitably miserable streets of Tilak Vihar.

And miserable they are! More miserable than I had ever imagined them to be. Everywhere are the unmistakable signs of poverty and neglect. Crumbling buildings. Peeling paint. Piles of refuse everywhere. Narrow alleys piled with rubble.

Our guide is Amar Nijhawan, a young Canadian woman and recent college graduate, who has chosen to serve the survivors of Tilak Vihar working with a non-profit called ‘Aman Biradari‘. It is a busy day for Amar; the next day a community center for the survivors is being inaugurated and she has brought with her a young artist who will paint murals on the walls of the room that will serve as a library in the community center.

We briefly look into the new library, which is a tiny room in a ground floor apartment, its walls painted in bright colors. We pass clusters of young girls with their hair in plaits. They break into shy smiles when they see Amar and some of them run up to her to hug her.

We climb several flights of stairs to enter a tiny apartment, which is Baby Kaur’s world.

Baby Kaur is a short, light skinned woman, probably in her mid to early forties. She greets us cordially and invites us to sit in her tiny parlor. Mehr looks a little nonplussed when she is offered water but I politely and somewhat embarrassedly decline on everyone’s behalf.

Amar briefly explains that we only drink bottled water as we are from ‘abroad’. Already uncomfortable at our imposition, I feel terrible having to refuse the water; at suggesting to Baby Kaur that her water is not good enough for us to drink, but she takes it in stride and does not appear offended.

How do you talk to a survivor of something as horrible as 1984?

You struggle for an opening as you try to find something meaningful to say. Something compassionate. Something humanizing. Something that won’t make your interest seem superficial, or even worse, voyeuristic.

Somehow we stumble into those dark days thirty years ago and Baby Kaur’s narrative slowly emerges, almost of its own accord. It is of course heart wrenching. As horrifying as her recollections of 1984 is her story of the struggle to survive as a poor, neglected and orphaned teen, desperately trying to hold her family together as one set of vague promises of help and rehabilitation fades, yielding to others equally lacking in substance.

The tears are lurking somewhere very close beneath her calm and cheerful exterior and they emerge of their own accord as she relives the horrors of the last thirty years. As I commiserate with her, I want to share with her the love and compassion of thousands of strangers from all around the world who have wept upon embracing the stories of Baby Kaur and her siblings in sorrow.

I find myself talking about the play and its journey in an attempt to convey some of that to her and then, very hesitatingly, I find myself asking if she by any chance knows a young man called Avatar, who would probably be in his mid-thirties; who was deaf and mute; who had suffered the terrible pain of watching his father being lynched before his own eyes.

I am dumbfounded when she says, yes!

I must confess that the thought has been in the back of my mind but I am not quite sure of how to process the fact that this young man, who was until this moment a character in a story, is alive and present and indeed nearby. I am of course happy and yet at the same time inexplicably fearful. How will he take it, when he learns that his pain has been shared with thousands of strangers? Will this knowledge rip the scabs off the wounds that are not quite healed?

For an instant the ‘Kultar’s Mime’ journey becomes an impossibly heavy burden that crushes me but after a short silence I ask if we can visit him.

Baby Kaur explains that he lives nearby but is most likely at work; he is one of the fortunate few in the colony who have a ‘government job’. We are terribly disappointed because we know that we will not have time to return to Tilak Vihar and on a whim, I ask Baby Kaur if we can visit his home at least, even if there is a very slim chance of finding him there.

Baby Kaur and Seema Kaur, another survivor, lead our little procession through the alleyways of Tilak Vihar. We pass a small park, desolate and overrun with trash where a ragtag band of young street urchins is gathered, looking at us with great curiosity. Hardly a unique sight in a poor Delhi neighborhood, with the exception that the boys here are Sikh.

They wear ragged clothes and most of them sport joorras (top knots) on their heads. A young Sikh, in his mid-twenties, sits in their midst. As I walk up to the little band, all of them rise to their feet and greet me with shy smiles.

These are the grandchildren of Tilak Vihar; the third generation of survivors. The young man tells me that he is a volunteer, who teaches the children Punjabi.

As we walk through the trash-filled streets, I find many conflicting emotions coursing through me. There is nothing in Tilak Vihar to feel good about. It is a sad, miserable place suffused with the pain of the survivors, whose palpable grief hangs like a pall upon its shattered neighborhoods. The shy smiles of the young children who greet us are a testimonial to the resiliency of human life, but I cannot help despairing at the bleak existence that almost inevitably seems to be their future, bereft as it is of resources and support, thirty years after the unspeakable calamity that turned the lives of their families upside down.

And yet, as I look into the eyes of the young Punjabi teacher, I see not despair, but a quiet determination. Amar Nijhawan walks ahead of me, her shoulders straight, unbowed by the burden that she has chosen to carry willingly and cheerfully.

After walking for what seems like forever, assailed by the misery of Tilak Vihar, we climb a narrow flight of stairs to an apartment block that is indistinguishable from its neighbors.

We are at Avatar’s apartment and a heavy lock swings from the door.

Deeply disappointed, we head back to the street, but the ever resourceful Baby Kaur, who has decided to knock on neighboring doors, excitedly beckons, asking us to return. In the landing stands a young woman, carrying an infant, an older child in tow, looking somewhat suspiciously at our little group.

Seema Kaur talks to her rapidly in a language that sounds quite unfamiliar and she opens the door, inviting us into her parlor, which is as tiny as Baby Kaur’s. All of us squeeze in, accompanied by a few curious neighbors and an assortment of children.

The woman’s name is Gurmeet Kaur. She is from Rajasthan and is of Sindhi origin. She has been married to Avatar for eight years. She pulls out a smartphone and starts texting.

A few minutes later, a very handsome young man in his mid-thirties stands at the door, perhaps a bit nonplussed at the sight of so many strangers crowded into his little parlor. Everyone starts talking all at once and I learn about the journey of the child who used his little body to tell the heartbreaking tale of his father’s brutal murder.

Like many other survivors of Trilokpuri and other ‘Trans Yamuna’ neighborhoods where the worst carnage took place, the shattered remnants of Avatar’s family were brought to Tilak Vihar to be ‘resettled’. Each family was given a tiny one-room apartment and was promised a coveted government job, which would give them some form of subsistence. Avatar was one of the lucky ones, as his mother was given a job at the Tihar Prison in Delhi.

It was probably a miracle wrought by the character of his late mother, that this young boy, who suffered such unspeakable trauma in 1984, grew up in Tilak Vihar, avoiding the ever present lure of drugs and alcohol that most of his peers had succumbed to.

As I learn of the impossible story of how Avatar survived and thrived, I feel the burden lifting. This young man, against all odds, living in the desolate confines of Tilak Vihar, has impossibly carved out a life for himself. A life that includes a wife who is clearly proud of his accomplishments, two beautiful children, a job and a home. It is also remarkable that through all this, he has stayed connected to his faith and his identity.

The faith of the Sikhs of Delhi has been tested many times. As I look at this proud young Sikh in his impeccably wound turban, my thoughts drift back to the time, almost 350 years ago, when the Sikhs of Delhi were devastated by the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadar, the Ninth Master. The Guru’s body and severed head lying unclaimed in Chandni Chowk, I am sure, must have forced many Sikhs to re-examine their personal commitment to their faith and its consequences.

In the dark days of 1984, and since, many Sikhs in Delhi were similarly forced to reflect upon the implications of being a Sikh. It is impossible for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who saw their entire life go up in flames and it is absolutely unconscionable to judge any Sikh who made the difficult choice of effacing his very visible identity in the face of such savagery.

It is a well-known fact that many did! Yet, I cannot help but feel tremendous admiration for this young man who could so easily have slipped into despair. He could have sought the embrace of drugs or alcohol to blunt his pain, as many of his peers did. He could have shed the identity which had brought him and his family so much suffering.

But he didn’t.

The story of Avatar’s survival is almost miraculous in itself. The story of his surviving and thriving with his identity intact is heroic. It is a slap on the face of every bigot and every tyrant who has attempted to do harm to someone else, driven by pure hatred.

Avatar is not alone.

Just as he has survived and thrived, there are millions all over the world who continue to rise, phoenix like, from the ashes of destruction wrought by hatred, affirming with their resilience that no matter how difficult the circumstances, the human spirit will endure.

This is what gives me hope, no matter how many fires continue to burn all over the world.

Gurmeet Kaur, Avatar’s wife, has an animated conversation in sign language with her husband. She is telling him about our journey, the places where his story has been told and the countless strangers who send him their love and goodwill.

He glances at me and Mehr several times, nodding and when she is done, he reaches for a pen and scribbles on his hand.

His outstretched palm, which he holds up for us to see, simply says: ‘Thank You!’


November 3, 2015
 

Conversation about this article

1: Sarvjit Singh (Millis, Massachusetts, USA), November 03, 2015, 8:27 AM.

Sarbpreet Veer ji, this is touching. Tragic as well as redeeming in your play's finality. Perhaps invite him to watch your play and come to Boston. You are doing an amazing seva. Kudos!

2: Harman Singh (California, USA), November 03, 2015, 8:28 AM.

A true story of chardi kalaa! Thank You for sharing Avatar's story with the world, Sarbpreet veer ji. Please also share if you found some credible charities during your visit who are truly vested in the interests of our community. It is every Sikh's moral obligation to stand with our brothers and sisters.

3: Amrinder Kaur (St. Louis, Michigan, USA), November 03, 2015, 4:08 PM.

A touching reality of the victims of 1984. Thank you for bringing the stories of those who cannot. These brothers and sisters are an inspiration in their fight for survival despite the horrific suffering they have endured. We continue to pray for justice for them and all who died at the hands of evil. May Waheguru bless them and keep them in chardi kalaa. Please share the details of any organizations that directly give our donations to those in need.

4: Satinder Pal Singh (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada), November 03, 2015, 11:08 PM.

What an amazing story of fortitude amidst immense pain and suffering through all these years. It acts as a soothing balm. Thank you.

5: Pammi Suri (Cranston, Rhode Island, /USA), November 03, 2015, 11:08 PM.

Dear Sarabpreet Veer ji, I am speechless. May God bless you all for this project. You are such a kind compassionate soul, May Waheguru bless you with a long healthy life. Is there anything we can do to help these survivors of the 1984 pogroms?? It is highly emotional and moving, one cannot help but cry. I would really like to do more than just crying.

6: Gurpreet Singh (Mumbai, India), November 04, 2015, 6:29 AM.

Sarabpreet veer ji, i am writing with tears in my eyes. This account of yours has really moved me. In fact on introspection, I realize that not only I but our community has failed in its duty to help rehabilitate and compensate at least the financial losses of the survivors of 1984. We as a community are busy in other big pojects, personal and civic, but have not looked into this aspect where we could at least contribute something worthwhile. Thank you once again for such a powerful article on the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984.

7: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), November 05, 2015, 9:44 PM.

I must ditto all what is expressed above. I watched again “Kultar’s Mime” at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. It seems that the world needs to be continually awakened to the lingering after-effects of 1984. We need many Sarbpreet’s clones to do so. I cannot even imagine what was in the minds of those who caused such unbearable pains to an innocent and highly religious and peace-loving community. The guilty need to seek forgiveness from their deities and from those who were made to suffer. Twice I went to visit Tilak Vihar but soon after I reached there I turned around, making excuses to my hosts. It was too painful to bear. Responding to Pammi ji’s inquiry, you can help through Nishkam. For information: http://www.nishkamusa.org/

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Coda To An Extraordinary Journey"









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