Kids Corner


My 1984






Every summer during school holidays my mother would take us from Indian-administered Kashmir to Ludhiana in Punjab to visit our grandparents. The address still resides within me: ‘30 Civil Street. Near Ghumar Mandi.’

Summers are extremely hot there, especially the kiln-fire month of June, but we managed with ceiling fans and a "desert cooler." Each one of the rooms in that partially plastered, red-brick house was unique, as if it belonged to a slightly different imponderable epoch. My grandfather didn't have enough money to build the house all at once, so he kept adding a room every five years or so.

I would insist on sleeping in his room. Most cousins didn't want to sleep there.

Grandfather slept with the lights on, and he woke up very early in the morning. He suffered from chronic bronchitis (after a long ago trip to a hill-station) and occasionally lapsed into yoga-inspired breathing exercises. Plus the room carried the mild odour of a chemical laboratory. In the corner cupboard there were four or five dark­brown bottles of chemicals, a Bunsen burner, and an optical microscope.

My scientific grandfather would wake up at 4:30 sharp, recite the Japji, and soon afterwards hold dialogues between God and Darwin. Halfway into the dialogues he would slip into a Sufi-style swoon.

Nanak nadari nadar nihal. Nanak nadari nadar nihal.

God would win the argument in the end, but the next day Darwin would challenge God once again.

We called him Bhapa ji, and so did everyone else. Even our grandmother called him Bhapa ji. After reciting bani for two or three hours, Bhapa ji would step out, do a neem datum (brush teeth with a neem twig) by the guava tree in the courtyard. More breathing exercises would follow, and he would hurriedly scan through the Tribune.

At times he would ask me to read the paper out loud. For a few minutes I would gladly become his highly underqualified reader -- often stumbling over strange sesquipedalian words. Bhapa ji would correct me gently, my mispronounced ‘Pandemonium in the Parliament’. He would explain ‘Emergency’ and ‘Riparian’ to me in a language I was able to comprehend. 

After news, he would eat a light breakfast of milk with honey, toast, and fruit, and feeling more relaxed he would tell us about Partition. (These tellings are the ‘enchanting’ fairy tales of my childhood, and to this day, some 30 years later, some 7000 miles away, on an entirely different continent, possess power to cause real and unreal disturbances in my daily routines and equilibriums.)

Bhapa ji was a partition survivor. Both his parents died in the year 1947.

Like millions of others, the division left him shocked, bewildered and transformed into a refugee in his own land. Several years had passed by. He had retired now as the headmaster of a high school in Ludhiana, the so-called Manchester of Punjab. Those days I neither possessed the knowledge nor the psychic apparatus to comprehend his loss. I don’t think I will ever grasp it fully.

Evenings I would walk with him, and it was during those long walks I found out that before Partition he taught the sciences on the wrong side of the border. The story that moved me the most was how chemistry had in fact saved his life during mass violence.

One of his student’s war-hero brother had rescued him from a wretched camp in 1947. Teaching the Periodic Table, and how to charge an Electroscope had positive consequences at least for this family.

Grandfather would always take along a walking stick or a black umbrella. His beard was grey, and eyes kind and intelligent. Dignified. Starched turban. Black shoes. Whenever the story was narrated, while walking, one particular detail would stand out.

During that moment of crisis, when people around him had given up hope, Bhapa ji, unable to think about India or Pakistan, had only thought about the Golden Temple. At that moment all vectors, tracks, roads, and great circles pointed towards the shimmering waters of Amritsar.

*   *   *   *   *

I have little recall now where and when and on which wall of my childhood I saw my first Golden Temple photograph. What was my first real long-exposure visit like? Was it my maternal grandfather who first encouraged me to take those tiny exploratory steps into the waters of amrit sarovar?

Who told me that the ‘temple’ (Harmandar Sahib) was not ‘golden’ until the 1830’s?  Growing up I would hear discontinuous ‘sakhis’ about its foundation stone and the chief-architect.  Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, it is said, designed the original building towards the end of the 16 century. Guru Arjan also oversaw the construction of the city of Amritsar, and compiled the Sikh scripture.

However, this creative moment (in Punjab’s history) of book-making and spiritual-center making was marred by a huge tragedy. Guru Arjan was arrested and tortured (Circa 1606) by officials on orders of the Emperor. Visual representations of the stoic Guru’s last few days are perhaps some of the most heartbreaking, and in those pre-internet days (in post-partition, post-colonial India) the paintings would appear regularly in Sikh calendars.

Because of those Punjab & Sind Bank calendars hung over the walls of my childhood, I discovered the Punjabi word ‘taseeha’ before the English word ‘torture’.

*   *   *   *   *

Now that I think about it, Harmandar Sahib (or the Golden Temple) was much more than a site of pilgrimage for my family members. This ‘constructed and socially produced’ place contributed to the psychic healing of millions of dismembered people. As there were no Partition memorials, the Darbar Sahib complex served (among other things) as an unofficial memorial to the dead and the displaced. 

I imagine my maternal grandparents walking bare feet along the parikarma, I see them circumambulating the shimmering waters, working through their grief and loss.

Each spot in the complex is a storied spot, a link to ancestors, and a link to remembered glories, sacrifices, traumas and disasters. There are memories and mythologies around big and small holocausts there – the Ghallugharas.

But, especially for Partition survivors, there were recent wounds and memories more intimate and fresh: this is where a father or mother or an uncle were reunited, this is where one searched forever for a brother or an aunt, who never arrived. In the Golden Temple complex in that serene and beautiful space, surrounded by the hum of near infinite music it is hard for the living not to mingle with the dead.

The Golden Temple (both in its ‘material’ and ‘psychic’ forms) absorbed a lot of felt-and-unfelt thought (also a lot of felt unthought) and in its own way provided my grandparents with hope to continue on. Beyond breaking point.

By the sarovar waters there is a tree of healing: a Zizyphus jujube. Over 400-years old now the Dukh Bhanjani Beri is visibly fragile, and wrinkled and vulnerable to insects, but its leaves are mostly green and branches flare out in all directions.

For Sikh people all over the world (no matter how tenuous their relationship) did the entire complex become an unofficial memorial to loss?

Also a monument to survival against all odds.

Vamik Volkan, whose work focuses on large group trauma, suggests: “Sometimes a monument as a linking object absorbs unfinished elements of incomplete mourning and helps the group to adjust to its current situation without re-experiencing the impact of the past trauma and its disturbing emotions.”

*   *   *   *   *

The room where he slept and stored his little laboratory was the first room my grandfather built in the newly created India after losing an entire house to Partition. Before moving to Ludhiana, some 84 miles from Amritsar, and before building that perennially ‘unfinished house’, the family wandered from city to city in divided Punjab …

Many years later my mother told me a bit about growing up by the railway fields and about her father’s traumatic condition after Partition. Bhapa ji’s brother would ask him to apply for a job. Bhapa ji would join a school. Only to quit a few days later.

It doesn’t surprise me, but ends up stirring a strange benumbing response. My grandfather felt paralyzed and was unable to teach for an entire year after the cataclysmic event.

To this day I know more about the chemical odors in his room and the deep purple rhombic crystals in a petri-dish; I know more about the way he would tie his starched mint-colored turbans, the glow of his safety pins, and the way he would apply Simco and fix his beard; I know more about the tapping sounds made by his walking stick, his black BATA ‘gurgabi’ shoes, and the crackling of his short wave transistor radio than I know about his inner life.

"Do you know the name of these crystals?” he asked in Punjabi and English.

Crystals, he said in English.

Before me, in a petri-dish, there is a little pile of dark purple crystals.

Then in an Erlenmeyer flask, half-filled with water, he dropped a few crystals, and I saw a confluence of science and magic.

Soon that clear, transparent water in the flask started becoming a garden of pink and randomly purple trees.

“Potassium permanganate.”

In my mind, Potassium permanganate is not just a fond crystal of a memory connected to my grandfather, Potassium is also indelibly linked to the martyrdom day of the chief architect of The Golden Temple. On that ‘oscillating’day, every year, my grandfather would open his cabinet and make large volumes of KMnO4 solution.

I say ‘oscillating’ because of the lunisolar calendar. Guru Arjan’s martyrdom day (or shahidi gurpurab) arrived guided by the moon. My grandfather, like several others, relied on an almanac (Jantri) to determine the corresponding date on the solar Gregorian calendar.

Like others he would ‘remember’ and ‘celebrate’ the day of mourning by distributing a special drink to the passers by. ‘Kacchi lassi’  or ‘unfinished lassi’. The main ingredients of the concoction (which brims with Proustian possibilities for me in faraway Canada) are water, milk, sugar, chunks of ice, and rose extract (rooh-afza).

Kacchi lassi: Not to be confused with yoghurt based lassi.

Also, KMnO4 crystals are not an ingredient; potassium permanganate is not a part of the drink. It is only used to disinfect the glasses. Two or three buckets full of KMnO4 solution to begin with ...

Family members and friends from within the neighborhood would volunteer and take turns to wash used glasses.

My grandparents have set up a stall – a Chhabeel -- under the shade of the guava tree outside the house ... Bhapa ji is serving lassi to thirsty passers by. Free. All welcome …

He serves every year.

My memory of kacchi lassi and KMnO4 is really a convergence of memories of several years. Scorching temperatures + superheated winds are built into these happy memories. I feel embraced by my grandparents.

In 1984 we are based in Delhi. However, as usual, we visit Ludhiana during the summer holidays.

Guru Arjan’s gurpurab is fast approaching, according to my grandfather’s Jantri. But something has gone terribly wrong.

The whole of Punjab is under Curfew.

Power blackouts. Phone disruption. No newspapers. Censorship.

Permanently tuned to BBC world service, my grandfather’s short wave radio lay supine on a jute cot. Now and then it heaves and crackles.

Indira. Army. Militants. Amritsar. Golden Temple. (We don’t know what is going on.)


DEAD (We don’t know yet.)

*   *   *   *   *

June, 1984.

Operation Bluestar -- even the most decorated generals and military historians acknowledge -- was a disaster. The raid on the Golden Temple complex was less a ‘flushing out’ operation, more a massacre of innocent civilians.

Thirty years later, there are more questions than answers. Why was Guru Arjan’s martyrdom day chosen as the day of attack? Why were thousands of pilgrims allowed into the Golden Temple complex just before the shock-and-awe operation?

It resulted in a huge loss of life, and caused acute individual and collective trauma, which has found no closure. Seven battle tanks had rolled in … A hugely important heritage building was reduced to rubble ... Firing squads executed captive men after tying their hands behind their backs with turbans. Rare manuscripts and historical artifacts were seized, and the reference library was set on fire.

The dying were even deprived of water by the army, and the dead were disposed off savagely with the speed of light. Thousands in Punjab were tortured, humiliated. Thousands disappeared.

To this day Bluestar is an open wound for millions. The full truth may never come out?

But the narrative provided by the Indian authorities does get disturbed now and then.

Recently it was disturbed (and convulsively so) by a declassified archive in the UK.

Operation Bluestar was not the ‘only option’. It was not the ‘last resort’. Recent articles in the media suggest that the standard narrative around this disaster has finally started to break even within the dominant discourse. Calls have been made in India to investigate Indira Gandhi’s criminal culpability.

Bluestar had catastrophic consequences, and its aftermath is filled with events that caused unspeakable suffering for years on end.

Ironically, this dark chapter in Indian and Punjab history is also the least documented. The universities have done little research. In the libraries, there is a serious dearth of witness memoirs. Not enough literature grew out of this rubble. No significant biographies.

Over the years I have heard so many people discuss the army action. Regardless of differences, most of them find the timing and the method of attack unacceptable.

Operation Bluestar left a traumatic imprint on the memory of the collective.

*   *   *   *   *

“Trauma: an overwhelming experience of a sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled, repetitive appearance of intrusive phenomena.”
  --Cathy Caruth (Unclaimed Experience)

*   *   *   *   *

Several times I have gone back to that moment when our lives were about to change forever. But all we knew then was the curfew, the power blackouts, phone disruptions, and BBC world service.

It was lunchtime. We were gathered at the table. My grandmother had cooked ‘lobia’, but the grown ups seemed to have lost appetite. Only the children ate. I see myself eating and looking and looking at my parents and grandparents. The rest is absence of memory. That moment in time never really got integrated into normal memory.

A few days later we left Ludhiana and I recall to this day the near empty highway, the Grand Trunk Road. Check-posts everywhere. Punjab under heavy army occupation. Our first stop, a roadside dhaba, near empty. We sat on jute cots in the shade of unknown trees.

Not far from the dhaba, near the green fields, an ancient well was visible, a Persian wheel in motion. The mechanical sounds of the wheel entered our ears intermittently. Fragile sounds made by falling water. Fatigued sounds made by two circling bulls.

Jaspreet Singh is the author of the novels Chef and Helium.

June 1, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Raj Singh (Canada), June 01, 2015, 2:37 PM.

There are series of videos by "Talking Punjab". Every Sikh should watch them to understand what exactly did happen.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), June 01, 2015, 2:43 PM.

I can only say one thing here. We will have to build capabilities to defend ourselves. Those who saw 1947 could never imagine 1984 coming. You never know what the future holds and 1984 may not be the last massacre. There could be more politicians who may want to target a small minority for their political advantage.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 01, 2015, 8:19 PM.

What a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Jaspreet ji, your grandfather S. Avtar Singh ji was briefly my chemistry teacher in M. B. School in Lyallpur. I also remember the house where he lived. And that he was a keen tennis player and every evening he would go to the Lyallpur Club in Company Bagh where it had a tennis court, to play. And on the way back on his cycle, he'd stop by in the Wadda Gurdwara for the evening service. After Partition, we shared a common wall and flat roof. Our house in Ghummar Mandi was No. 31. My youngest sister Jindi and your mother were very close friends and were often found on the roof separated by a low wall to sit and talk. My nephew Ravinder Singh (Rajan) and you were close friends and it so happens you both are now in Toronto and my only surviving sister Jindi is living with him. A small world indeed. In 1954 I found a job in Singapore and whenever I returned home to Punjab I would always visit your grandfather next door to touch his feet. Jaspreet, I do hope you meet your childhood friend Rajan. You have his e-mail address. Meeting him again would add another dimension to your beautiful and erudite writings. We look forward to your next post.

4: Harinder Singh (Punjab), June 02, 2015, 7:48 AM.

Document, make movies, write books about the generation that experienced 1984. I believe 1984 was an attempt to de-Sikhify India and de-nationalize the Sikhs from the Indian State.

Comment on "My 1984"

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.