My grandfather haggles with the Sikh shopkeeper over the price of the toys he is buying me & my brother for Diwali. While I eye the candy strategically placed in glass jars, a bargain is struck. I return home, predictably, with a doll while my brother brings home an airplane. The wooden airplane stays intact for maybe a week before one of its wings succumbs to a 5 year old’s rough play. Diwali’s hustle-bustle dies down right around the time the plane’s wing breaks. The October of 1984 has been uneventful so far.
Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only woman prime-minister, often called the mother of the nation, considered both ruthless and effective, walks through the sunny garden path of her residence. Her makeup is subtle, her salt and pepper bob making her appear elegant and aloof at the same time. Her fine cotton sari flutters lightly in the crisp fall breeze. Soon, it will be soaked in her blood and become a museum relic.
Beant Singh, the Sikh bodyguard who has served Indira for over a decade, wakes up on Oct 31st with a resolve to right the wrong she has committed by sending troops into Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh Shrines, tainting it with innocent blood. At 9:20am that morning, on her way to an interview with a British Journalist, Indira walks through the garden at the Prime Minister’s residence and waves at him. He responds by emptying three rounds of ammunition from his .38 revolver into her body. Satwant Singh, his partner and fellow rebel at merely 22 years old, follows through by shooting at her now dead body with a Sten gun. Beant Singh is shot dead by Indian commandos within minutes arguably while he is trying to “escape”.
Mrs. Bhatnagar’s chalk screeches on the black board as she demonstrates subtraction to curious 7 year olds in a classroom lit only with a 60 watt bulb and patterned light streaming through small slatted windows. The emergency bell shrieks shattering the fragile peace of the morning. Harried teachers run around passing half-baked news to each other in conspiratorial whispers. School is dismissed in the middle of the day. We are packed into buses and sent into the care of our equally confused and scared families.
The limited news footage on our black and white TV portrays a nation struck with grief, a feeling of betrayal hanging darkly over it. There are women on TV, wailing loudly, beating their chests, mourning the loss of Indira, their guardian angel. There are angry men filling the air with cries of “Khoon ka badla khoon” – Blood will avenge blood.
Sikhs, known for being large hearted and passionate, warriors and protectors, are suddenly transformed into fearsome threats. Their religious practice of allowing their hair to grow as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation, makes them easily identifiable targets.
The blood-thirsty mobs, already suffused with anger, unable to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, are plied with alcohol, weapons and money by political factions. Sikh homes, shops, places of worship are ransacked and desecrated. Men are beaten, killed, burnt to death in front of their wives and children. An indefinite curfew is declared city wide but blood continues to spill.
The next morning, my parents drink their morning cup of tea. They fret over the impending lack of groceries & essentials, wondering if the ritual of tea was going to become an impractical luxury. “What about them?” my mother asks my father in a hushed tone. I think they are talking about the three Sikh neighbor families on our compact street, one of whom shares a wall with us. Their dog, Michael, had bit me a few months ago and our mothers had exchanged heated words, but things had returned to normal over borrowed bowls of sugar.
The excitement of no school for a week fades quickly. I have read all available comics, cover to cover, multiple times. The board game attempts, as usual, have degenerated into screaming matches between my brother and I. The restlessness around us is being transferred to us by osmosis. 5, 7, 32, 40 – all ages are equally distressed. Dusk descends covering our homes in a shroud of trepidation. My mother smiles often but I get the feeling she is trying too hard.
Three days have passed since the assassination. It is 10pm and my father is up for his turn in the neighborhood security patrol along with six others. He will be relieved in four hours by the next group of patrollers. The families across four neighboring streets have made a pact to protect the Sikh families that live there. Pot-bellied, soft, fathers and brothers search for a sliver of redemption as they patrol the streets with fear and doubt in their hearts; and hockey sticks, cricket bats, axes, broom sticks and kitchen knives in their hands. Would they have been able to stop a mob blinded by hatred? We never got a chance to find out.
As the fury of the mob ebbs, the number of Sikh deaths continue to roll in at anywhere from 2500 to 8000 – depending on who was reporting them. A week passes and the schools reopen, much to my mother’s relief. On the school bus, I don’t recognize Sahib Singh, my classmate and a bully who often stole my lunch. His family has cut his hair off, like thousands of other Sikhs over that week, giving up the external symbols of their faith to protect their right to live.
On a quick but essential trip to the market, My mother and I spot the burnt remains of the store that was once the home of my doll and my brother’s now-broken airplane. I clutch her hand in a death-grip. I don’t know if the shopkeeper has survived and I don’t have the courage to ask.
Preity was born and raised in Delhi, worked in Dubai and has now made a home in Houston, where she lives with her husband and two children. She earned a degree in literature at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. She is an entrepreneur by day and a writer by night. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Keep Calm and Stay Curious and Medium.com. She enjoys travel, performing arts, her children’s jokes and a great cup of home-brewed chai.