The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.
He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.
No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.
Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.
Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.
He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.
Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”
Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.
“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.
His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”
There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.
His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.
He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.
What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?
As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.
It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.
Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.
Opening the glass sliding doors ever so slightly, she squeezed herself out on to the front porch.
It was a morning unlike any other. There were no milkmen. No newspaper delivery boys either. No one was jogging or walking or even so much as venturing out into the garden. The buildings looked forlorn. The trees hung their heads. The birds clustered as silently as a group of morose mourners, while the dogs went about with their barks stuck in their throats. A booming silence, of a kind that is not heard in Delhi even in the dead of the night, greeted the new day spreading itself across the sky, as bright red as a freshly inflicted wound.
It was a ghoulish silence that packed more death and grief in it than the most harrowing cries of Muharram. Within it lay the silence of the dead, the silence of the afraid, the silence of the uncaring, the silence of the ones numbed by grief… As Savitri stood in its midst, her thoughts went back to yesterday morning where her entire world had rested so snugly in its usual frame that she had not paused to give it a second thought. She had been consumed with the arrangements that needed to be made for Deepa’s wedding. What she wouldn’t give for that to be her only concern at that moment.
The doors behind her slid open. Jaswant came out on to the porch, rubbing his eyes.
“Kitimeho gayahai?” he asked.
“Just past seven.”
“I must have dropped off on the sofa,” he said with a shake of the head.
“You looked run-down last night,” Savitri said.
“How is Deepa?”
“She is sleeping.” She didn’t tell him that Deepa had cried all night. With his gaunt face and drooping shoulders, he looked harrowed enough as it was.
“You should go and lie down,” he told her. “You must be tired.”
“I will. But first you tell me what you’ve been hiding.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve been married for twenty-five years, Jaswant. You can’t keep secrets from me.”
He looked away. For several seconds, he stood there with his eyes averted and his lips clenched in a tight line. She waited, the dread inside her growing. What was so terrible that he was finding it so hard to share it with her?
In a low voice, he revealed everything he had learned from his friend in the Home Guards. She listened quietly, catching her breath when he mentioned the state of Prem’s car. There was little chance Prem would have survived. She winced as if she had been struck when he said that. She was quiet after he was finished. She had feared something like that. But learning it had actually happened was something else.
“You know all last night I was thinking of how lucky I was,” she said finally. “I kept putting myself in Kishneet’s shoes, not knowing whether her son was dead or alive. And here I was with my entire family safely home. Everything intact. And I remember thinking, rabnakare, if I were ever in Kishneet’s situation, the one thing I would want more than anything would be to know.”
“You think I should tell them,” Jaswant said.
“We’ll have to tell Deepa too.”
Savitri’s face clouded. “We’ll worry about that later,” she said in a low voice.
“I’ll go call Amarjeet,” he said.
She stayed where she was after he had gone. Her thoughts had jumped back several years to her early twenties when she was friends with a girl called Neelam. Neelam had got engaged to an army officer. A love-cum-arranged marriage, as Neelam put it. She and her fiancé were childhood sweethearts whose families had known each other for years. Savitri, who was grappling with being married to a man she barely knew, had been jealous.
A week before Neelam’s wedding, the Chinese attacked. Neelam’s fiancé was ordered to the front. He died in the ensuing battle, leaving her widowed even before she had the chance to be a bride. Savitri, who had envied Neelam until then, thanked her lucky stars that such a fate had not befallen her.
Now it appeared to have befallen her daughter.
The sliding doors scraped open. It was Jaswant. “Prem’s safe,” he announced. “His friend Irfan just spoke to Amarjeet.”
The lack of joy on his face told her there was more.
“He was badly beaten up yesterday in Trilokpuri,” Jaswant said. “He’s in bed and needs a doctor. Amarjeet is going to fetch him.”
Savitri’s eyes opened wide. “Isn’t that dangerous?” she said.
“They can’t just leave him there. Normally, they could have got an ambulance. But it’s impossible to get one today. People are too scared to go out into the streets.”
“But he can’t go all by himself!”
“No.” He paused. “I said I’d go with him.”
The colour ebbed from Savitri’s face. “Ki tussipaagal ho gaye ho?” she said.
“You know the gadargoing on outside…”
“Savitri, Prem is going to be our son-in-law. He is hurt. We must do what we can for him.”
“Don’t you lecture me, I’m not going to risk losing my husband.”
Her eyes were gleaming with tears. He took her in his arms and held her close. He had to do this for Deepa, he told her. He implored her to have faith, no harm would come to him. She didn’t utter a word, simply held on to him as tightly as she could. In the end, he was the one who stepped back. He lingered for a few seconds, looking like he wanted to say something. Then he swung around and went back inside without uttering a word. She remained where she was, gazing after him.
Jaswant looked in on Deepa and Rakesh before leaving. They were both asleep. He was struck by how drawn Deepa’s face appeared, even in sleep. He hoped to have some news that would cheer her up by the time she woke up.
Savitri had come back inside and was slumped on the drawing room sofa. Once again, he told her to have faith, things would turn out fine. Even as he was speaking, he realized how trite his words must have been sounding to her at the moment. He couldn’t think of anything else to tell her. She didn’t utter a word. She didn’t appear to have even heard him. He went out to his car, afraid his resolve might crack if he stayed there any longer.
The streets were empty. Normally, such a sight would have been welcome. That day, it was disturbing. The sound of the car going down the deserted road resounded like a roar. Curious eyes watched from the windows and balconies of flats and houses. They were probably wondering why he was out there. Was he stupid or mad or both? Jaswant kept his eyes fastened to the road. To his right and left he could make out vandalized shops, walls blaring hate graffiti, the charred remains of cars and bicycles… Still, it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. His part of Delhi, at least, had escaped the worst of the nightmare.
Amarjeet was waiting when he reached Shanti Niketan. Jaswant could barely recognize him. Amarjeet had discarded his kara and shaved off his beard. His hair was also cut much closer to the scalp than Jaswant remembered. The anxiety under which he had been labouring since yesterday morning showed all over his face. Jaswant made out lines as deep as cracks, dark circles hemming in the eyes, a tremor in the jaw… Even the voice in which Amarjeet said hello sounded strangled.
They decided to take Amarjeet’s car. It was bigger than Jaswant’s and had a full tank of petrol. With no petrol pump likely to be open, they couldn’t run the risk of running low. They combed the car for anything that might give away the fact that Amarjeet was a Sikh. Jaswant had a picture of Ram and Sita in his car. He pasted it to the dashboard of Amarjeet’s car and took the wheel himself; he could see Amarjeet was in no shape to drive.
Once they were on their way, Amarjeet revealed what he had learnt from Irfan in a tremulous voice. Prem had been kept sedated through the night as the goondas ran amok all over Trilokpuri. The night had been full of yelling and screaming and the sound of things being smashed. The stench of smoke and burning flesh wafted all over the neighbourhood. No one got a moment’s sleep as they sat quaking in their homes. When Irfan came out of Raj Kumar’s flat in the morning, he found vultures feasting on dead bodies. The goondas had bludgeoned people to death, burnt them alive, looted their homes, raped their women… A local politician had led them and there was at least one policeman in their ranks. What was more, they seemed to know where all the Sikhs lived.
To Jaswant it sounded like Partition all over again. It wasn’t fair that he should have to go through something like that twice in one lifetime.
His mood darkened further as they passed through Central and East Delhi. Dead bodies, charred beyond recognition, lay about in the streets. Several had hair sticking out of their mouths. Locks of hair were adrift on the road, perhaps looking for the heads from whom they had been split so cruelly. There were remains of cars and bicycles, shops torched black, gurudwaras razed to the ground. They went past a house, where each of the five steps rising to the front door was smeared with blood. On the wall next to the front door someone had drawn a cross in chalk. Later, Jaswant would learn that was a sign to tell the mob that it was a Sikh home.
Air swelling with the anguish of unfulfilled souls not ready to leave the earth hammered on the car as it wound a tortuous path towards Trilokpuri. The lines on Amarjeet’s face grew deeper and his eyes glimmered with tears as he took in the horrors they were passing, Jaswant, painfully conscious of the queasiness prodding his stomach, kept his eyes glued to the road, trying to see as little of the horror as possible.
Finally, they were in Trilokpuri. With the help of the other residents, Irfan had removed the concrete pipe from the dirt track. What was left of Prem’s car lay in pieces.
What they had witnessed so far was nothing compared to the horrors awaiting them in Trilokpuri. No sooner had they entered the neighbourhood than a rotting stench assailed their nostrils. Dead bodies lay about in the gutters, in the alleyways, in the balconies of flats. Smoke still came off the burnt corpses scattered on the ground, while an ashen cloud hovered above the neighbourhood, blocking the sun. Hair lay piled up next to the corpses. The shrieks of the vultures swooping down for their feast rent the air, drowning out the wails of the mourners.
There were so many dead bodies in the way of the car that they were forced to get out and make their way on foot. Out in the open, the din was louder, the stench sharper, the smoke more pungent… Their eyes smarted and they were forced to cover their noses with their handkerchiefs.
From the other side of a car window, the dead had formed a part of the monstrous tableau streaming past. Now they no longer had that anonymity. They announced themselves in one slow, stomach-churning close-up after another. Their proximity gave them shape and definition. They were no longer a succession of broken limbs and charred faces, but recognizable as men who could have been fathers, grandfathers, sons, brothers, husbands… women who had loved and been loved… people who’d had hopes and ambitions… now they were merely cold corpses lying about in the streets of a neighbourhood that had been their home.
It was much later that Jaswant experienced the full horror of that walk through Trilokpuri. That morning, he plodded through its alleyways like a sleepwalker, far too anxious about Prem to comprehend the horrors he was witnessing. In memory, that moment came back stripped of his concern for Prem. Without the merciful veil of worry, he could make out so much more than he had consciously registered at the moment. Each charred face, each broken limb. The way he recoiled as he stepped on a corpse. How bile filled his throat as the smell of death invaded him.
It was an eternity before the walk was over and they were at Raj Kumar’s flat. Prem was fully conscious and sitting up in bed. The bandage on his head was disconcerting, as was his bloated jaw. But at least he was alive. Amarjeet, unable to restrain himself any longer, wept as he embraced him. Jaswant, Irfan and Raj Kumar left them alone in the room. Jaswant asked after Prem’s injuries. Raj Kumar was in the midst of explaining them when Amarjeet emerged from the room and said they’d better go home right away.
Prem was still weak from the blood he had lost. Amarjeet decided he should not walk. The four of them carried him to the car, where they made him as comfortable as they could in the backseat. Amarjeet thanked Irfan and Raj Kumar. Embracing Irfan, he told him that if he ever needed his help he simply had to ask.
They started for home. Jaswant drove slowly, trying to spare Prem any bumps. Prem began to relate what had happened. Amarjeet interrupted him. All that could wait. Right now Prem needed to save his energy for the long drive home.
They had been on the road for ten minutes when they found their path blocked. Several men had collected in the middle of the road. They were brandishing lathis, crowbars and bicycle chains while motioning for the car to stop. They had chosen a spot where the road veered sharply to the left and there was nowhere to turn. Jaswant had no choice but to stop. There was no way he could drive through them.
“Let me do the talking,” he told Prem and Amarjeet.
He rolled down his window. A tall young man with a crowbar, dressed in a pair of jeans and a checked shirt, came over. The others gathered round him. The man peered inside the car, his eyes zeroing in on Prem.
“What happened to him?” he demanded.
“He is my son,” Jaswant said. “A Sikh chootiya hit him. He was out like all of you, avenging Indiraji. The saala got him from behind. My brother and I are taking him home from the doctor.”
One of the other men was nodding. “Yes, that is what those maaderchods are like,” he said. “They stab you in the back. That is exactly what they did to Indiraji. Those bodyguards had taken an oath to protect her. And then they turned around and shot her in cold blood.”
There was a chorus of agreement. The man with the crowbar was not convinced.
“How do we know that you are not lying?” he said. “You could be Sikhs trying to flee.”
“Kya baatkarte ho, dekho,” Jaswant pointed to the picture on the dashboard. “We are Ram bhakts. How can we be Sikhs?”
The man didn’t say anything. The expression on his face, though, suggested he was still not convinced. Again his gaze travelled over Prem. Jaswant’s mouth felt as if he had swallowed sawdust. His stomach was as tight as a drum. It appeared his bluff was not working.
Suddenly, there was a shout. The men turned around. “Lookhere’s Jagat,” one of them cried out.
A heavily built man in a bluekurta-pyjama had emerged from one of the houses next to the road. He was dragging a naked boy behind him. A sari-clad woman was trailing the two of them, pleading with the man to let the boy go.
“Look what I found,” the man said. “The saali had dressed the little pup in a girl’s clothes. She thought that way she could fool us.”
“Please spare my son,” the woman begged. “He’s all I have. My husband is already dead. Rab de vaaste let him go.”
The men began to drift away from the car.
“You can go,” the man with the crowbar told Jaswant.
The woman had spotted the car. “Save my son,” she shouted. “Please, sahib, he’s all I have.”
The man with the crowbar was eyeing Jaswant. “For god’s sake, chalo,”Amarjeet muttered. Jaswant gritted his teeth and started the engine. The woman continued to shout after them as they drove away.
About the book:
Prem Kohli, the handsome, ambitious son of a Sikh refugee, has the world at his feet. A glittering career lies ahead, and he has just got engaged to his college girlfriend, Deepa, overcoming her father’s reservations about Hindus and Sikhs intermarrying. But, while Deepa remains occupied with their marriage plans, the Indian Army enters the Golden Temple. Prem cannot contain his rising anger at the desecration of the shrine and at the people around him who shrug it off as ‘teaching a lesson’ to the Sikhs. He begins growing out his hair and beard, and visiting the gurudwara regularly, where he learns about the militancy in Punjab. Matters come to a head a few months later, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated and anti-Sikh violence breaks out all over Delhi, as Prem is caught up in a vortex of violence and hate that threatens to engulf all their lives.
In The Assassinations, Vikram Kapur writes with sensitivity about a topic that still holds painful memories, skilfully telling the story of how ordinary lives are distorted by the forces of history. At the same time, he masterfully evokes the New Delhi of the 1980s, with its wide, leafy roads masking the precariousness of the Punjabi middle class. The book captures the turbulence of those times, while chronicling the ways in which continuing to live means coming to terms with many kinds of deaths.
About the author:
Vikram Kapur has published three novels of which the latest is The Assassinations (Speaking Tiger, 2017) and edited an anthology of writings on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals round the world which include, among others, World Literature Today, Wasafiri, Litro, New Writing, the Dublin Quarterly, Ambit, The Huffington Post, The Times of India and The Hindu. His short stories have been shortlisted/ longlisted in a number of competitions which include, among others, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Fish International Short Story Prize. He has received fellowships for residences at the Vermont Studio Center and the Canserrat Arts Center. Vikram Kapur has a Ph.D in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia and is currently Associate Professor of English at Shiv Nadar University in India.
His website is: www.vikramkapur.com.