Sunday, 4 November 2012

31st October, 1984 – New Delhi, A Riot

I was very small. We were practicing for sports day at school. We were let off early. We didn't know why till we got home. Even then, no one knew for sure.

It was only when the men returned from work that we all knew that Mrs Gandhi had been shot. Still, news was very sketchy. We only had the state-owned radio and TV to tell us what was going on but, everything was censored and hush-hush. 

For what seemed like days afterwards it continued - the plumes of smoke, ma called them Hiroshima clouds, they grew in numbers – burning for several days because no one came to douse the flames. We knew we were safe because our father did not wear a turban but, people were dying all around us. 

I saw the rioters. Everyone was watching from the terrace when they jumped out of trucks. They all wore red shirts and black pants and were carrying tall and thick bamboo rods. Someone said later that they had got them from a Sikh tent house when they had burnt it down. I wondered how could they carry such huge rods that were many inches taller than the men and so thick.

I was fascinated like everyone else. I was small and could not see clearly from the roof-top where all four families living in the house had got together. I slunk out in the confusion and went downstairs to take a close look. Strangely, I did not feel any fear when I saw those men in red shirts pass me by. I remember I was standing clutching the black collapsible gate and looking at them trooping past me like a group of trade unionist-cum-soldiers. Only they were unkempt and they did not make any eye contact. I stood looking at them for several minutes while they all sauntered past our house and under the old and gnarled banyan tree. I stood transfixed for a few minutes after they were all gone till I heard my name being called and ran back upstairs – the spell had been broken all around. The clip-clop of my slippers followed me up the three flights to our flat where we'd be spending many days cooped up, watching TV that hardly talked of the massacre. We saw the cremation ceremony of Mrs Gandhi, the stoic family and the many re-runs of the iron lady's last speech at Orissa where she had said, "the last drops of my blood would serve the nation..."

Two days later, my dad took me out to "check the situation" and we saw burnt houses, scooters, charred taxis... The neighbors told us about the plight of the people who did not get away in time. They told us about the stink of charred human flesh. Dad decided I had heard enough and holding my hands brought me home.

With the offices closed, he and the other men would be huddled around the 'paan' shop that was the only one open at half-shutter and discuss the newspapers in hushed tones till the Army trucks would shoo them away with a blaring microphone reminding them that the city was under curfew.

I now wonder why they had not come when the men in red had walked past our home to burn down the homes of our Sikh neighbors.

Many days later when school re-opened, everyone had horror stories to share but, the worst were of the kids who had lost their fathers or brothers. Many were gone without trace but, somehow these were better than the stories of those who had seen their family being burnt alive. Many boys and girls no longer sported the turban or the long hair. 

We cried in the school bus and sports fields upon hearing such stories. To me they sounded exactly like the stories my grandmothers used to tell about the partition riots. I would wonder, why was this happening now? Weren't we a free country?

The nightmare stayed fresh in Delhi’s memories for years. There was no one who was untouched. Almost everyone knew some people, friends, family who had been butchered. People stopped sleeping in the open terrace during summers which was a norm in Delhi.

Years later, when I went to college, I heard many more stories of death and destruction but, they dimmed eventually because by then, Babri Masjid had been demolished.

Suddenly somehow, Hindus were the new fascists and killers. We were the terrorists!

Yet, I clearly remember all the non-Sikh neighbours who had sheltered and thus saved those who were targeted.

Till date no one, neither the government nor the judiciary has told me who were the men I saw walking past my house without making any noise and without making eye contact with a small child gaping at them? Who had outfitted them in red and black and who had provided them with transport? 

But, what perhaps holds the key to it all - who had given them the exact addresses of the Sikh houses in our locality and the names of the shops owned by the Sikhs? 

This post by Amitav Ghosh opened the floodgates and images of Hiroshima clouds and charred scooters pushed through the doors of my memories.

A simple and poignant narrative that really tells how it felt - like a bad dream - only it was very real.

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