One month after I turn 14, the third prime minister to govern the world’s largest democracy, Indira Gandhi, is assassinated in New Delhi. My ninth-grade civics teacher has a test ready for us. This assassination puts a halt to all education and life that autumn.
* * *
It is October 31, 1984. A crisp, chilly morning in New Delhi. A tinge of breeze in the Safdarjung Road garden separating the prime minister’s bungalow from her offices. Indira Gandhi is 66. She has short hair, a shock of white streaked at a favorable angle across the bob, making her striking, especially in election posters and Times of India caricatures. Her nose is long, the features of a Kashmiri pundit, just like her father, Jawahar Lal, the first prime minister of India. She has a thin decisive voice and a fast walking pace. In a silk orange handloom sari, she carries a handloom jhola bag, though all her important files are with her secretary, RK Dhawan, who runs to keep up.
Peter Ustinov, a documentary film maker, is waiting to interview Indira in the offices. Many important meetings have been scheduled, arranged so Ustinov can film India’s fiercest daughter, Indira, the prime minister who has led the democracy for a decade and a half.
Indira’s security detail, five jawans, commando soldiers, are less than seven feet away. Of them there are two Sikh bodyguards. Twenty-five year old Beant Singh, Indira’s trusted bodyguard stands near her. Twenty-two year old Satwant Singh exchanged his guard duty to be with Beant this morning, instead of later that night.
Namaste, she says, her last words, to Beant Singh.
He steps forward, a .38 pointed at her: Bole so nihal, sat sri akal.
Whoever says these words, is eternally happy, eternal is the Great Lord.
He pumps three bullets into her abdomen. From behind him, Satwant pulls his semi-automatic weapon, lodging thirty of the thirty-three bullets in the 66-year old woman who crumples on the garden path. Her jhola falls with her, her maroon blood staining her sari rust.
Surrendering, Beant says: I’ve done what I had to. You do what you have to.
The two assassins are interrogated. Within minutes, Beant lunges for a security guard’s gun. Satwant pulls out his kripan knife from his turban—the knife that every Sikh carries to protect their religion. The guards shoot, killing Beant, critically injuring Satwant. The world outside Safdarjung Road is still unaware.
* * *
In July, Indira was urged by her cabinet not to have Sikh soldiers as her security detail.
She rejected that with: How can we claim to be secular? As long as I have Sikhs like these (meaning Beant Singh) around me, I don’t believe I have anything to fear.
Hearing the shots, Indira’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi rushes out, screaming: Mummy, Mummy!
Today, the most important opposition politician behind the scenes in India, but in 1984, still just an Italy-born daughter-in-law, Sonia cradles Indira’s head in her lap, with RK Dhawan instructing the car to move fast! Fast!
The prime minister’s car drives the dying leader to the AIIMS hospital in South Delhi, sirens blaring.
Indira’s doctors work to save her, with artificial lung and heart machines pumping blood and life into a lifeless body. At 10:50, 90 minutes after the bullets were fired, Indira is pronounced dead.
The war has only started.
* * *
It’s geography class in St. Anthony’s Senior Secondary Girls High School, South Delhi. News isn’t instantaneous in 1984. It is almost noon.
Mrs. Veena Singh, an Army wife, who prefers soft georgettes with pastel flowers, and hair in a fashionable bob, almost like Lady Di, teaches us about monsoons: So the low pressure rises in the Indian Ocean, sucking the Australian air stream toward South-east Asia. Young lady, what state does this pressure hit India? West Bengal?
Geography isn’t my strong suit. Clearing my throat, I stall for time: Miss, um…er…
Mother Pia, our principal knocks on the door. I sit down promptly. The nun beckons the teacher outside. They whisper, with ‘no! No!’ expressions from Mrs. Veena Singh.
Mother Pia adjusts her habit, tightens the rope belt around her jiggly belly hidden under a white cotton nun uniform. Her eyes sad, face round, she tells us: Pray for Mrs. Gandhi. Everyone leaves early. India’s favorite daughter was shot. By her own bodyguards. Very sad day.
We pray, we know the drill of asking Jesus for favors. Through my half-closed eyes I watch Mrs. Veena Singh wipe her face with her sari, her pale complexion now flushed red.
My best friend Nandita, and I nudge, pointing at our teacher—teachers aren’t supposed to cry. Being cruel teenagers, we perceive her tears as weakness. Weakness, even though I actually like Mrs. Veena Singh very much, but I cannot admit to that, mean-spirited bravado, after all.
Mrs. Veena Singh stares out into the street, chewing her lower lips that quivers involuntarily. She doesn’t stop us from talking across the classroom. Unused to not being reprimanded, we quieten down by ourselves. Nandita whispers: Go, ask her what’s wrong.
No one else has the courage to talk to a teacher without permission except me. I lie: Ma’am, may I drink some water from the hallway faucet?
She shrugs, as if: Do whatever you want.
I stay. Looking up, she smiles. Her eyes are brown, foreign: Do you know Simran?
Eighth grade? Uh-huh, I nod.
Simran is the Punjabi girl, two plaits, well-oiled, has a little sister, in second grade maybe. Studious, sweet, nothing spectacular. A Sikhni. Long hair, serious face, steel-iron kara bangle on her right wrist, the sign of a girl of the Sikh faith.
Mrs. Veena Singh wipes the corner of her left eye. Her mascara doesn’t drip. She continues: Her father was in Rajdhani Express, the train coming to Delhi from Calcutta.
How did you find out, Mrs. Singh?
Mother Pia told me. They can’t reach him. That train comes in early morning. He’s a Sikh.
Did Simran go home?
She nods and squares her shoulders, as if bracing for inevitable conflict: He’s a Sikh, just like me. Two Sikh soldiers shot at our prime minister. We aren’t safe.
The school bell rings, clanging us into attention. The buses rev their engines. I look at Mrs. Veena Singh, helpless. I don’t know who she means by “we”. The only thing I can think of is whether the civics test will be canceled, since we’re leaving school early.
We aren’t safe anymore, I hear the whisper again when I turn to pick up my bag from my chair.
* * *
Four months before the day Indira died, she launches a military attack on the Sikhs’ holiest temple. There are many versions of this story. Here’s one: The Indian government announces the Golden Temple in Amritsar is taken over by terrorists. These terrorists want to secede from India, create Khalistan, the country of Sikhs.
Later, when I read more about 1984 New Delhi, I find another version. The government call them terrorists. Who the government call terrorists is debatable—Bhindrawale was the armed militant Sikh guru, who asked the Sikh youth to return to the faith—to be true Sikhs, who live in austerity, focus on purity and faith. Bhindrawale’s missionary zeal converted many wayward Sikhs back to the path of Sikhism. These Sikhs were his trusted men, who defended Sikhism with zeal and eventually, with militant power.
While Sikhs in India have always been known for their valor and bravery, it’s the first time that Sikhs rise to ask for their freedom to practice their religion with AK-47s in their hands. Bole so nihal, sat sri akal.
Whoever says these words, is eternally happy, eternal is the Great Lord.
* * *
Violence in the state increases—between the Indian government and the Sikhs demanding jobs, justice, better living conditions.
Bhindrawale, the missionary terrorist with a bullet belt hung across his chest, tells the foreign press: If Indira wants the Sikhs to live in Khalistan, the Sikhs will leave. But we’d like to live in India.
Indira’s government takes this as the Sikhs’ call to secede. Now hunted, Bhindrawale and his 400 loyal supporters take shelter in the Golden Temple, the Sistine Chapel of Sikhs.
June 1-10, 1983: the Indian Army commandos and paramilitary troops storm the temple under Indira’s orders. Foreign journalists waiting outside the temple premises are removed by police and detained on the outskirts of Punjab state, near Haryana, creating a news blackout.
What trickles out is hearsay, panicked-recounts, lies or embellishments. Till date, the genocide of the Sikhs in their temple hasn’t been acknowledged. It’s said least 2,000 people were killed in Operation Bluestar, 200 of them were combatants, 500 civilians, and 136 soldiers. Unofficial records claim 20,000 civilians and 2,000 military casualties. The media blackout of June 1983 enables the dissemination of unverified grossly exaggerated or reduced death toll numbers.
Regardless, this much is true: Operation Bluestar, initiated under Indira’s jurisdiction led to the Indian army entering a religious place of worship under military orders, to destroy civilians and alleged terrorists.
Bhindrawale and his group’s dead bodies, riddled with bullets are displayed in photos in major Indian newspapers. Every school-going child is taught that terrorists holed in the temple were killed by the brave Indian army.
Then Indira dies. The Sikh commandos who assassinate her tell the world this was in revenge for Operation Bluestar. Revenge for how their own were killed, their temple defiled, their holy texts destroyed. The world knows.
* * *
When I return home, Didi says: Delhi’s burning.
I tell her not to overreact like a girl.
But she’s not. Ma’s smile when she opens the door to our first floor rental home, is unexpectedly large. She doesn’t hug us—we are Ghoshs after all. Physical demonstrations and professing love are looked down upon. The day Indira dies, she says: Aaye, shut the gate, and then the door.
The television blares the rapid fire Hindi news announcing that Indira was shot by her own. Rajiv, her son and reluctant politician is the political heir, the presumed Prime Minister. Sonia hides behind her huge shades, and the screen morphs in Congress party men screaming: Khoon ka badla khoon.
The revenge for blood is blood.
That evening, my favorite uncle and Baba’s favorite brother, Shonajethu, arrives from the hillside town of Dehradun. He works for the UN and visits us every month.
He announces: See, now the violence will start. Just like the Partition.
The Partition. In 1947, when India was divided by the British before they left into Pakistan and India, divided by religion, Muslim and Hindu. There was genocide then. My parents, children then, walked, rode trains, bullock carts into the Hindu-side of India. In 1984, they still talk about The Partition. Refugees once, refugees forever.
But, but, I sputter: Shonajethu, not the same. This is between Sikhs and Hindus.
Shonajethu, his face a rounder and softer version of Baba’s, the most educated one in the family, shakes his head sadly: Religion doesn’t matter once revenge’s in the air.
* * *
West and North Delhi erupts with stone throwing, name-calling, mourners grieving Indira with loud wailing and chest beating. The neighborhoods targeted by non-Sikhs are Sultanpuri, Mangolpuri, Trilokpuri—low-income group areas in Delhi.
Baba says: There’ll be curfew soon, we need food. I’m going to the market.
Ma’s pleas of—Ogo, stop, don’t go—falls on deaf ears.
We wait near the front window. The roads are quiet. The black and white TV screen is on a news loop till all we hear is: Indira’s dead. Indira’s dead.
Baba returns with a few stalks of greens, okra and eggplant. He sighs: No fish, no chicken. Looting will start soon. The bread fellow is still there though…
The sundries man, no, a boy really, manages a bread and eggs stall across the Main Street near Market I. I realize he’s a Sikh.
Didi says: Doesn’t he live in Govindpuri?
Those are the nearby Punjabi neighborhoods, where Sikhs and Hindus from Punjab moved into after The Partition. Just like we Bengalis (Hindus) moved into Chittaranjan Park.
Yes, Ma says, roughly: He’s stupid. You need to save yourself.
Baba hands the grocery bags to Ma, both silent.
Shonajethu calls his wife on the phone: Yes, yes, I’m safe. Don’t worry.
Shonama screams through the phone: I told you not to go! I’m alone here.
Shonajethu sighs: Ah, yes, but you’re in the hills. Everything will happen in Delhi.
* * *
The first Sardar is killed the night Indira died. They refute that information. Another Sardar is killed the next day. By henchmen of politicians. In the neighborhoods where money is as scarce as water. Where bearded and turbaned Sikhs are easily recognizable. Where their women with their long hair, salwar kameezes, and dupattas look different than the Hindu women. When the first death is reported, we expect it. But we sigh in collective shock hearing it on the government-run TV channel.
On the terrace, I smell tires burning, rubber, wood, we see smoke. Downstairs, in our black and white TV, pictures flash. Indira’s body rests in a state mansion, ceremonious, head covered in a sari, eyes closed, and dignitaries paying their respects.
Shonajethu says: Delhi’s burning, this is horrible. We’ll all go to hell for this.
Baba says: Yes, but they shouldn’t have killed her, right?
Shonajethu stops him: No, killing these people won’t bring Indira back, will it?
Ma strains her weak eyes: Look, smoke, hai bhogoban, smoke!
Didi’s vision is better than everyone else’s. Pointing at another dark spiral in the distance: Oi dekho there’s another. We’re the only safe neighborhood, huh?
The city burns. Plumes of smoke rise from burning homes, destroyed neighborhoods. Later we find out, the Sikh men are dragged out of their homes, tires thrust around their necks, kerosene poured, and lit on fire. Women were chased down streets, raped, murdered, or let loose, walking terrorized. Children orphaned, wait near the destroyed lanes, looking for their parents.
Then we can’t go to school, na, I ask.
Shonajethu replies: The world’s burning and you’re happy your test is postponed.
I stick my tongue out. He lets me be cute. Then adds: I hope you understand one day. Some day.
* * *
Police vans drive past our house, men announcing on the loudspeaker: There’s a curfew. Indira is dead. There’s a curfew. Stay inside.
* * *
Across the park from our house is the Punjabi neighborhood, Kalkaji. Hindu Punjabis and Sikh Punjabis. There’s a temple next to a Sikh gurudwara temple. The next morning, we wake up to the sounds of Bole so nihal. Sat sri akal.
Next to the Sikh priests, cymbals clash, starting the morning ritual of Om jaya jagdish hare, swami jaya jagdish hare in the Bengali neighborhood.
Baba says: The Sikhs are telling everyone that they are ready with weapons.
Ma protests: No, maybe all they’re doing is praying.
Dhurr, Baba dismisses Ma: That’s what everyone thought that Bhindrawale was doing in the Golden Temple. See what he did, that terrorist?
Ma whispers to me, as she hands me a tea cup for Baba: Yes, but after they killed him, his people killed Indira, so it was all for nothing, na?
Yes, Ma, I say. I’m still not sure that I have to take sides, in politics or at home.
We eat because there’s nothing else to do. Baba gets in Ma’s way in the kitchen and is kicked out of there. Storming into the living room, he asks me: When’s the funeral, Rumjhum?
Tomorrow. Three days since she died.
Yes, they can’t keep a dead body like that. Bad luck. And temperatures in India—bodies decompose quickly.
* * *
Rajiv wipes his mother’s brow like she’s alive. His two children, fair like their Italian mother, sit obediently on the floor next to their dead grandmother. Politicians from all over the world come to the body. Placing rose and gardenia wreaths, they bow their heads. Then they look around uncertain, unused to Hindu customs, afraid to make a religious faux pas.
Outside, the police announce on loudspeakers: Curfew is still on. Violence is expected. We have shoot-at-sight orders. Don’t disobey.
For dinner we have rice and potatoes. Ma complains: We’re eating like widows. No fish or meat.
I’m glad the civics test is canceled.
* * *
Indira’s party goons meet at Punjabi neighborhoods. Each now has voter lists and free alcohol bottles from their politician benefactors. They walk through the tight lanes marking an “S” on doors of Sikh homes. Later, alcohol in their bellies, they’re dropped off at main roads leading to small lanes with “S” symbols on old, cracked doors. Pulling families out on the streets, stripping men of their turbans, pulling down their pants because they can, they light their beards on fire. Their wives, mothers, sisters run to their spouse, son, brother, father. Their fate’s worse. Left to live, they cannot forget. The police, bullets in their rifles, turn a blind eye. New Delhi burns and Sikhs die. India’s fiercest daughter was killed. This is war. This is revenge.
Baba goes early morning to buy milk and bread. The Sardar’s sundries shop has been set on fire, Baba says.
He adds: I hope he’s alive—poor boy. I know he told me he’s the only son in his family.
Shonajethu nods: Yes, I’m glad you agree too, Hashi.
Baba takes a drag on his cigarette: I wasn’t saying kill them. But no one should ever think they can kill the Prime Minister.
Ma interrupts: I just want my daughters to go back to school. What kind of society is this?
Didi and I head to the front verandah. The air still smells of smoke, of dead Sikhs burnt. Yet, it’s a normal curfew day. Within a week, we’re used to an abnormal life. In the distance, we see a group of young men, men from shanty homes heading toward us. The men, in outdated bell bottoms from the seventies, and floppy hair of present-day Bollywood actors, uneducated men, with movie star dreams, riff-raff as Ma calls them.
Sidling closer, Didi pokes me: Chol, Rumjhum, inside.
Na, Didi, c’mon, don’t you see these fellows?
Of course, but don’t be stupid. Why’re you so curious?
The men, three, maybe four of them, have jars in their hands. Two per person, large glass jars, with metal lids.
Hearing us, Baba walks out of the living room: Ki holo?
Baba, I say: Those men stole some jars from a grocer’s shop, I think. Na?
Didi slowly moves back, wary of drawing attention to herself.
Baba peers ahead: Yes, saala, chor robbers! Those jars, oh, yes, the Sardar’s shop. He’s the only one with steel covers.
The men approach our home. The man with a Jeetendra haircut doesn’t notice us. The second one, darker, eyes flashing looks up. His hand is in the jar, fondling the purple covers of Cadbury chocolate bars. Turning to the third man in the group, he says: Here, take one, it’s chocolate.
The third man, a boy really, his polyester shirt with brown flowers sticking to his thin torso asks: Kitne?
Don’t know, four, five.
The second man, his green shirt fluorescent stares at us, expressionless.
Baba leans over the railing: Ai, kahan se uthaya, you rascal? Where did you get the chocolate from, you good-for-nothing?
Green Shirt glowers: What’s it to you, old man? Mind your own business.
It’s the first time I’ve heard my father being called an old man. I leap into the conversation: Shut up, you idiot. Stealing things because you’re a lying thief!
Baba yells again: You stole it from Sardar’s store. You luffunga good-for-nothing.
Shonajethu stage-whispers from behind us: Hashi, stop it! They stole and maybe killed the Sardar. Just come in.
Inside, Baba seethes, inhaling his cigarette like it’s an oxygen mask.
Ma lectures us from the kitchen: Yes, go, fight the low-class people. They’ll kill you just like they killed Indira and the Sikhs. Go on, you brave people.
I peep through the window where the riff-raff were. Near the flickering lamp post, they distribute the Cadbury’s chocolate, tearing the silver/gold foil with an unfamiliar greediness. Brown Flowers boy opens his two jars—both filled with gold coins—chocolate-wrapped in gold foil. He opens a few, one by one, and takes one bite from every one of them. As if his bite imprints ownership on stolen goods.
Jeetender looks up suddenly. His eyes pierce through the wood-rose tree, sizing me. I take a step back, and bump into Didi.
Didi whispers: Let’s go.
As I move away slowly, heading to the TV, Jeetender bites into the chocolate bar, like that’s the only thing that will satisfy him. Later, I look outside again. There’s no one.
* * *
Indira is cremated with a 21-gun salute and sad shehnai music. There’s no mention of Sikhs killed, the missing people. No one’s jailed for stealing chocolates or lives.
We return to school and Shonajethu to Dehradun. In the bank, Baba busies himself with his accounting ledger books and phone calls. He continues to lock the gate to our door nightly, till we move out of that rental to my mother’s dreamhouse near Kalkaji.
In November, a few days after Indira’s assassination, I have my civics test—I get an eight out of ten. Ma doesn’t scold me. We pretend that test never happened. Even today, civics is still a subject that can lull me to sleep, but politics can pump the adrenaline back in my blood.
Mrs. Veena Singh returns. Her georgettes still sparkle, but not her eyes. Next school year, she’s gone. Mother Pia announces: Mrs. Veena Singh’s army husband was transferred to Chandigarh.
Simran, the Sikhni and her little sister keep to themselves during recess. They eat their paratha and pickle near the biology lab steps. Nandita tries to get Simran to join us. They shake their heads, and leave politely. Next year, they too don’t return. Their mother moves them to Canada, or some place foreign. They never find Simran’s father’s body. He was handsome, and brave, according to the nuns of St. Anthony’s. They never found his body.
* * *
Ma sends us to Market 1 to buy milk, bread, and eggs. I hear the Sardar is back. I ask Didi: What’ll he sell from that burnt store?
Didi says: You’re evil, Rumjhum. I’ll buy the bread and eggs, ok?
We cross the main road. The Bengali neighborhood bustles again, fish walas yell out: Bhetki! Rohu!, a catalog of the fish they’re selling. Mukim, our Muslim halal meat man, covers the chicken coops so the birds can sleep.
We head to the Sardar’s store. I never noticed how young he is, till I see him that November, over a month after Indira dies. The storefront has a black gash of smoke where looters threw a kerosene bomb in. His shelves are empty. Only a few bread loaves, two racks of eggs. The glass jars with metal lids are missing. Instead, he’s lined cheap plastic jars with red lids—each filled with Parle G biscuits.
His eyes are wet, his gray shirt is torn. His turban is still intact, but grimy, like he has to wear it every day. He’s no older than the men who stole the Cadburys from his store. He wipes his eyes when someone asks him: What happened?
The Sardar shakes his head and says: How can I help you?
Didi steps up: Brother, we need one Modern bread and six eggs please.
He hands her a loaf wrapped in a waxed paper with red and blue checks and “modern” written in ugly blue-block letters. Packing six eggs in a flimsy newspaper bag, he holds his hand out for the money. I give him a note. He places it on his forehead, the universal sign of “thank you”.
I whisper: Thank you, bhaiyya.
The Sardar nods, his watery eyes still not meeting mine: Thank you, sister.