By Devraj Singh Kalsi
Sardar Dayal Singh had lived all his life in a predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood. The cluster of Sikh families provided a feeling of warmth, making him feel safe even when the threat to life and property assumed horrific proportions. In 1984, the entire colony was converted into an impenetrable fortress, with the men and boys ready with a stockpile of soda bottles and swords, prepared to put up a brave fight against the pillaging mob. Fortunately, the area remained safe from any such orchestrated communal attack. Despite the presence of over a hundred Sikh families, it was a mystery why Kishanganj was not looted when the entire city witnessed sporadic incidents of violence against the minority community in those three days. The most plausible reason that surfaced was its distant location on the outskirts of the city.
The Sikhs of Kishanganj gave asylum to persecuted Sardars who fled from other localities and stayed with them for several weeks before returning to their burnt homes to salvage what remained, to collect the debris, and make a fresh beginning. For Sardar Dayal Singh, it was mentally less agonising as he realised how being together with people of the same community ensured safety when the entire city was up in communal flames.
Three decades later, after retirement from his job, Sardar Dayal Singh was not the same man who basked in the warmth of his community. A series of incidents had shaken him. All he wanted was to sell the ancestral house in Kishanganj and move into a gated community, a mixed society where he would feel safe. With the young generation relocating to foreign countries in search of a better future, those left behind in Kishanganj were small traders and pensioners.
With rising intolerance against the minorities, the high-rise complex was the safest place for Sardar Dayal Singh who did not want to flaunt his nameplate on the door. The flat number was a safe identity on the letterbox or the initials of his name on the main door of his apartment. The upper floor apartment in a high-rise building would keep him closer to God all the time and also provide him with safety from an irate mob. He did not expect any frenzied outsider, armed with a weapon, to climb the fifteenth floor to reach his flat and hack him into pieces.
Sardar Dayal Singh and his spouse, Charan Kaur moved into a spacious luxury apartment, equipped with Jacuzzi and Spa, with an extra-wide balcony to enjoy the sunset and a glass of whiskey. His Canada-based son was glad to hear that he had sold his ancestral house and bought a three-bedroom flat where the old couple would now get trained to accept a cosmopolitan daughter-in-law.
Charan Kaur, fondly called Charno by her friends and relatives, did not find the new life exciting. She missed her Punjabi friends in Kishanganj. Within a few months of moving to the apartment, Charno started feeling lonely — as if she was living in a foreign country. She had to mingle with neighbours who spoke other languages she was not fluent in. While Sardar Dayal Singh was happy to adapt, Charno often complained that the gurudwara was located far away from the residential complex. She had not found a single Sardar family in the entire building with who she could interact. This was the place where she felt she was living in a minority environment but in Kishanganj, with scores of Punjabi families around, she never felt she belonged to a minority community.
To stay connected to her roots, Charan Kaur began to listen to Punjabi music and watched Punjabi channels. Even if others spoke in Hindi or English, she replied in Punjabi, as if it was her duty to keep the language alive and in circulation inside the residential complex. When she spoke to the housemaid, the liftman, or the security guard, she used Punjabi all the time without bothering to know if they understood it or not.
Sardar Dayal Singh noted the emergence of a communal streak in his wife. He hoped the people would not take the old lady seriously. His advice to become liberal and speak in other languages was ignored by her. She started organising a small together every weekend and invited her Punjabi friends from Kishanganj, to make her new neighbours understand that she had a robust social network of Punjabi women who would rally behind her if the situation demanded. Charan Kaur was happy to spend time with them and sometimes she went to Kishanganj to revive old memories.
During her last visit, Charan Kaur stood in front of their ancestral house that was demolished. A new building was yet to come up, but the old mango tree stood tall in the vacant land. She told her close friends she was not happy with the decision to sell such a big house and live in a flat. She blamed Sardar Dayal Singh for the reckless decision and wiped her tears.
On the eve of their fiftieth marriage anniversary, she invited the entire Sardar community from Kishanganj to her flat. Sardar Dayal Singh used this opportunity to influence some other retirees to move into this residential complex by selling their properties in Kishanganj, but Charan Kaur fiercely opposed his suggestion, “Never sell your house. Guru would protect all in Kishanganj even if the younger generation is away.” Turning to Sardar Dayal Singh, she asked, “Is there a place or an address where death does not come, Sardarji?” He could not reply to her in front of the guests who supported Charan Kaur on this issue.
Gathering the courage to explain his point of view in the hope that he would not be misunderstood by his people, Sardar Dayal Singh said, “Cluster living was dangerous for a small community these days. We did not have the option of apartments then, but now with so many complexes coming up we should mix and spread everywhere, to avoid detection based on religion. Mobs do not come looking for one or two heads – they need hundreds to loot and plunder and a Sikh locality is a prime target.”
His views were diametrically opposite now and there were no supporters. His old-time friend, Sardar Jasbir Singh finally spoke his mind, “Dayal, only the fear of death does not keep us together. We are together in Kishanganj because we love to be together, for culture and bonding. It is good for mental wellbeing and mutual help. You live in a flat now, but I am sure you miss the manji (charpoy) sessions in the courtyard where we sat together and drank and discussed everything under the sun.”
The core point Sardar Dayal Singh was making was that the safety of Sikhs was high in residential complexes. He defended his stance: “Nobody knows a Sardar family is living here. I am safe from mad mobs, but you are still facing the same threat we survived in 1984. When you have a chance now, why not spread here and there? We can still keep meeting wherever we want and keep our social connections strong.”
Sardar Jasbir Singh responded with greater conviction, “One crazy man is enough to kill a dozen. Such mad people are there in these residential complexes as well. If something untoward happens, if Sikhs hog the headlines for the wrong reasons anywhere in the world, imagine the possibility of the liftman stabbing you in the elevator to seek revenge. Have you given this a thought?”
Sardar Dayal Singh was hit hard, and he could deny this possibility. There were many such incidents of men going berserk and opening fire, those racial attacks of stabbing and firing at point black range.
The next morning, Sardar Dayal Singh was wary of the liftman who glared at him. There was a case of sacrilege in Punjab and a youth had been lynched. The liftman charged him while he was coming out of the lift. “Sardarji, do you think what happened in Amritsar yesterday was right? All Sikhs come together and beat a young man to death. Is this Sikh justice?”
When the security guard also joined the liftman, Sardar Dayal Singh tendered an apology and condemned the incident. The tobacco-chewing security guard sought updates from the liftman who checked his smartphone for the latest feed on this issue.
Sardar Dayal Singh came home from the market and sought a candid opinion from his wife, “How likely is that the liftman goes mad and stabs me in the lift?”
Charan Kaur gauged something was not right but maintained her calm demeanour. Handing him a glass of water, she replied, “It is very much possible. You are wrong to think the people inside this complex will not turn into a crazy mob and attack us if the situation worsens. If a riot breaks out in the city, maybe a big mob does not get in here but two crazy people like the liftman or the gardener can open fire at us. Even if they do not kill us, they can threaten us, abuse us, make barbed comments, or torture us. Such repeated attacks will hurt sentiments and disturb our mental peace.”
Sardar Dayal Singh kept observing their behaviour in the coming days. He found nothing worth complaining to the committee. But there were undercurrents he could feel. Such behaviour or reaction based on stray incidents in a far-off place was really strange and he was not supposed to answer anything. He thought if he complained and the liftman lost his job, he could become violent and seek revenge.
Sardar Dayal Singh reduced his daily trips downstairs. He tried to placate the liftman with smiles whenever he met him. He followed the same strategy with the security guard who made a weird statement one evening: “We thought Sardarjis are good.” Sardar Dayal singh avoided answering it but his reticence seemed to annoy the guard who waited for a reply while he stepped out of the main gate.
Sardar Dayal Singh spoke about the simmering discontent with his son on the telephone and he advised him to keep some emergency helpline numbers ready.
When the farmer protests started, Sardar Dayal Singh sensed a fresh series of verbal attacks. He desperately wanted Sikhs to remain out of the headlines. Just keep the culture beat alive with Bhangra and Balle-Balle and keep making sacrifices at the border to keep the nation convinced of patriotic fervour.
Whenever the Khalistan issue was raised abroad, the domestic atmosphere got vitiated. What happened on Republic Day was indeed shameful and he felt the Sikhs were inviting trouble for no reason. Those extremist-minded groups wanted to destabilise the state by demanding a separate homeland. He felt ashamed and wrote fiery letters to the editors. He felt it was important to assert his national identity to stay safe.
Charan Kaur wanted to visit Kartarpur in Pakistan, but Sardar Dayal could not decide. On the one side, he also wanted to visit the place where Guru Nanak lived for so many years and on the other side, he was fearful of the consequences of visiting that country.
“If you don’t dare to go, I will go there with my friends from Kishanganj,” Charan Kaur clarified. Finding her determined, Sardar Dayal Singh agreed to join her and Kishanganj friends on this pilgrimage trip.
After returning from Kartarpur, Sardar Dayal Singh warned his wife to keep it a secret. He urged her not to reveal where they had been to, not to any neighbour or even the housemaid. But within a couple of days, he was surprised to hear the liftman say with a grin, “Pakistan settle ka plan, Sardarji?”
Sardar Dayal Singh was numbed to hear that. He found almost the entire complex had come to know of their visit to Pakistan. So, there was no point denying and creating further discord. To be called a spy at this age would be really humiliating for the elderly couple.
Sardar Dayal Singh remembered that the small reaction he gave to a national TV channel reporter at the border was a blunder. Neighbours started to isolate themselves and their gnawing silence was felt by Sardar Dayal Singh and his wife. There was nothing to explain but they thought he was a Pakistan sympathiser at heart. He had just gone to pay respects to Guru Nanak. Was this modern nation not going to allow him that?
His car parked in the covered parking zone was likely to be attacked. IK Onkar sticker on the windshield was immediately removed to avoid identification. But the security guard knew it was Sardarji’s car. Sardar Dayal Singh was reminded to be careful by the liftman whenever he met him. He felt the old couple could get killed in the flat by crazy people any day.
Charan Kaur decided to move to Kishanganj, and Sardarji supported her decision. He rented his flat to a company instead of an individual and went to stay in a rented house in Kishanganj. Although Sardar Dayal Singh faced no direct threat, he lived under the gaze of threat all the time. A lot had changed in one year. The farm laws were repealed, and the farmers returned home after several incidents of violence.
In Kishanganj, some TV reporters came to report the reaction of the Sikhs. They were bursting crackers to celebrate victory when the reporters arrived with guns in a black SUV emblazoned with a press sticker. “You Sardars still depend on Kirpan, have some AK-47, and stay secure.”
Sardar Dayal Singh stood in front and urged them to go back with their guns. The local Sikhs chased them away and gathered their swords and soda bottles. They did not want to launch an attack but were prepared to defend themselves. The video of Sardars with swords on the rooftops went viral and they were projected as bloodthirsty goons. While no offensive was launched, it was a clever move to lure them with guns and get their reaction. The identity of those reporters who came with guns remained unknown. It was certainly an act of mischief, and the Sikhs were trapped.
As Republic Day was approaching, Sardar Dayal Singh wanted the community to hoist the national flag, shoot a video and post it online. They wanted Kishanganj Sikhs to be seen as patriotic and nation lovers.
While addressing the mixed crowd of Sikhs spanning three generations, Sardar Dayal Singh thundered: “Sikhs have to stop talking of past sacrifices. They have to make new sacrifices and avoid taking credit for what their earlier generations did. With new sacrifices, we become known as real patriots and assert our love for the country…We should be the first to hoist the flag early in the morning and conduct celebratory events the whole day. The blood donation camp is the best event planned for Republic Day tomorrow. Sikhs must give their blood to save the nation and save human lives. If health permits, all Sikhs must donate blood. Instead of spilling it on the roads due to mob attack, we should donate blood.”
Sardar Jasbir Singh raised a query at this point: “Should we call it Sikh Blood Donation Camp? Or Blood Donation Camp?”
1984: Riots between Hindus & Sikhs after the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi.
‘Pakistan settle ka plan’ — You plan to settle in Pakistan, Sardarji?
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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