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Friday, April 24, 2009

My Memories of 1984 (Part 2)

The morning after Indira Gandhi's assassination, I was at home, probably because school was closed on account of the state of mourning declared by the government. As I sat near a window in the quarter (one of four dwelling units in a 'block') which had been allotted to my father by his employer, like thousands of others who worked for the public sector unit, I could hear the wives of his colleague who lived next-door and the one who occupied the flat above ours converse among themselves. I do not recall the details, but do remember that there were a lot of unkind words said about the Sikh community, in general.

That evening, I stepped out on the front porch, upon hearing my mother's loud expression of anger, to see huge flames rising into the sky from the spot where the colony's Gurdwara had been. She ordered me inside and went off to ring up the fire brigade. We did not have a telephone connection at home and my father had gone to fetch the family's daily supply of milk.

The Sikh gentleman whose place my mother had gone to for making the telephone call told her that he had already contacted the fire-fighters and that she should go home, give my brother (who was a few days short of his first birth-day at that point of time) a teaspoon of Phenergan, so that he would sleep peacefully through the night, and turn out the lights after having locked all doors and drawn the curtains. She took his advice. Later, when my father returned, he told us about all that he had seen and heard during the day, as we sat in the kitchen, which was lit dimly by a small lamp that he installed there. The rest of the night passed uneventfully.

Early the next morning, my chacha (father's younger brother), who worked in the same manufacturing plant as my father and lived a few minutes of driving distance away, came to see us. He had seen the fire that engulfed the Gurdwara, the previous evening, and had been worried about our safety. As the day wore on, news came in that the home of another Sikh family, at about 10-15 minutes of walking distance from ours, had been attacked by the mob that burnt the Gurdwara and some members injured grievously. The police had been almost completely inactive throughout, so the threat to our lives seemed very real.

The non-Sikh tenants in the quarter diagonally opposite the one we had, offered to let my mother keep her jewellery and some other valuables with them until the violence subsided, for safety, which she accepted. Another such family in the adjacent block offered to let my father park his car in their garage, which he did. The next-door neighbours stored water in drums, whether to help us in case of a calamity or to safeguard themselves, I am not sure.

Since we did not have any weapons for self-defence, except kitchen knives, my mother (since she was not as easily recognisable as a Sikh as my father and I) brought in paving stones, one by one, from a nearby road-construction site, which were then stacked on the inside of the front door. My parents instructed me to pick up my brother and slip out through the back door to hide in the thick foliage behind the residence, with one hand cupped tightly over his mouth, while they would try to stop the hoodlums for as long as they could, in case of an attack.

No such eventuality arose, however, and the army staged a flag-march in the town on the following day, after which no violent incidents were reported. Like us, my chacha and his family, comprised of his wife and young son, also survived unscathed, even as thousands of other Sikhs perished in various parts of India.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Memories of 1984 (Part 1)

My brother was less than a year old and I was eight, in June 1984.

During the summer break at school, my mother, brother and I had gone to visit my maternal grandparents at Chandigarh, while my father staid back at Hardwar in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where he worked for a public sector unit. One fine day, curfew was imposed on the city with shoot-at-sight orders, for which no one really knew the reasons. People could not even procure essential supplies, since they risked being shot at if they ventured outside their houses. Fortunately, we had a relative in the local police force, who was able to help us during the few days that there was no relaxation in curfew.

Then, we heard on All India Radio that Sri Harmandir Saahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar had been stormed by the Indian Army. A day or two later, the curfew was lifted and life went on, though not the same as before, as I was going to find out subsequently. When my father came to fetch us home towards the end of my holidays, a neighbour of my grandfather's, whose son was an army officer, offered to have a batman sent along with us, but my father refused. On the way, ours appeared to be the only car that was stopped and searched at several army and police check-points. They not only searched our luggage, but also made my mother open her hand-bag and the bag containing my brother's diapers, even as vehicles with non-Sikh occupants sped by, unchecked. Out of the handbag's contents, one of the policemen found a pen that could also be worn as a bracelet to be highly suspicious. He made my mother use it to write on a piece of paper, while he and his colleagues at that particular check-post stood at a safe distance, just in case there was to be an explosion.

From all that happened between then and the carnage that took place in the month of November, a couple of incidents stand out in my mind. In the first instance, I was walking alone along a street near where we lived, to run an errand for my mother, the details of which I do not recall now, when a man on a bicycle rode past and then turned around to shout, "Oye aatank-waadi!" (Terrorist!). The same epithet was hurled at me in the second one as well, by a boy a little older than myself, while he and I played with toy guns in a park in the neighbourhood.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Remembering Lahore of Yore

Khaled Ahmed, a Pakistani journalist, has written recently in the Indian Express about Lahore, as it was known to previous generations and the way in which recent events indicate its transformation into a very different city.

The portions that I found particularly to be of interest include:

"Lahore was known as a tolerant city with a big heart that set cultural trends. It published all the books and magazines that mattered in India and Burma. Jats and Rajputs belonging to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities formed cross-communal “unionist” governments that disallowed entry into the province to both Congress and the Muslim League."

"The 1941 census had recorded 700,000 people in the city of Lahore out of which 240,000 were Hindus and Sikhs, who owned much of the city’s wealth. There were entire areas in the city, like Chuna Mandi and Shah Alami, which were non-Muslim."