Coming to America
It was 1984 and I was engaged to a man who lived in America. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, and I wore my naiveté like an invisible sparkly tiara, winking subliminal, coded messages off its rhinestones.
New York, New York! my invisible tiara winked! I’m going to the land of milk and honey and Coffeemate! An uncle had gifted us a jar of Coffeemate which he’d bought on vacation in America, and I would sneak spoons of it and savor the taste of rich, bountiful America on my tongue.
I wondered if I would get to live in those neat, art deco homes shown in the American movies that played occasionally in our rundown local cinema with the cheap, stained PVC seats and the smell of stale urine lingering in the hallway. How about that adorable house with the white picket fence in “Seems Like Old Times” where Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase let her pedigreed dogs with shampooed hair run circles around the brilliant green lawn – a far cry from the mangy street mongrels one tripped over exiting the cinema.
My new husband
I didn’t know much about my husband-to-be—it was an arranged marriage after all. But he was cute-looking and friendly, he flirted with me and talked expansively about his Honda Accord convertible. I had never ridden in a convertible, but I had seen plenty in American movies. But next to my handsome, newlywed Prince Charming, I imagined myself zooming down a gorgeous winding road, intoxicating autumnal shades painted on the trees, my hair flying out in the breeze.
I was sold!
A lot was happening in the political sphere in that New Delhi summer of 1984, but I hardly noticed. I was leaving for a new adventure, like the ones Hollywood had created in 3MM for me. No more bumping along on three-wheeler scooters or getting my bottom pinched in crowded public buses as I commuted to the local college.
A slow burn on the streets
Yes, there was turmoil among the minority Sikh community, but it was none of my business. It was all politics, dirty, unfathomable, and unnecessary. A world away from discussions of trousseau and wedding venues. A separatist faction which was demanding a Sikh country of its own called Khalistan had been accused of storing weapons in their most revered place of worship, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Indira Gandhi, the then-Indian Prime Minister, had sent the Indian Army to raid the temple and confiscate the illegally accumulated arsenal. The Sikh community was outraged that their holiest shrine had been unceremoniously raided by soldiers and the leaders of the separatist group arrested.
The newspapers were full of uproar. I, however, was fascinated by my future husband and country-to-be. I began replaying all my old John Denver records, which rhapsodized about ‘country roads, going home.”
The Bhindranwale affair
“This Bhindranwala affair is not going well,” my father mused over his newspaper every morning. We lived in a three-story house on a narrow street where we had known all our neighbors for years. In the mornings my parents had tea on the balcony overlooking the street. My mother’s stainless-steel teapot was placed decorously on a tray (the dainty china ones were only for company) and covered with a hand-embroidered tea cozy to keep it warm. My father would read the paper, often aloud for my mother’s benefit, while she poured tea for him, and watered her beloved potted plants. They lined the length of the balcony and hung from the ceiling, a frilly skirt of green, and she nurtured them as tenderly like children.
On this particular morning, the headlines were shocking, exploding from the newspaper like a grenade in stark black and white print. Indira Gandhi had been murdered by her Sikh bodyguards.
“Oh no!” I gasped. She had been the Prime minister all through my growing-up years. She felt close and familiar, like a member of the family. Once, when a friend and I were walking near her official residence we saw her pass by in a chauffeur-driven white ambassador car. She was looking out of the window, straight at us. I almost waved, but was overcome by an awed shyness.
A fundamental shift in politics and humanity
I felt an inexplicable sadness. I understood that something fundamental had shifted in the world of Indian politics; however, it seemed to be happening at a remove from my bright, new future and I wasn’t too worried about its ramifications.
“There’s going to be trouble,” my father said grimly.
“Why?” I asked.
“I think the Singhs next door need to be careful. Maybe they should go into hiding for a while.”
“Why?” I repeated. “They haven’t done anything. It was her Sikh bodyguard who murdered her.”
My father sighed. “It’s not a question of who does what. It’s a question of which tribe you belong to.”
Michael Jackson, perms, and shoulder pads
I dismissed all that talk of trouble in the manner of a 22-year-old who has recently become engaged and committed to going to America with her new husband. I shifted my attention to my wedding outfits, the guest list, and talking extensively to my girlfriends, particularly those who had relatives in America. My friend Meera was considered the in-house expert on all matters American since she had a cousin who lived there and visited frequently.
“Get a perm” she declared. “Everyone in America has perms. And makeup. You’ll have to wear lots of makeup. Everyone wears makeup all the time, even to bed. You’ll have to wear those dresses with the big ugly shoulder pads which make you look like a man, but if you want to get a job you have to dress and behave like a man. Except for the nails—they have to be manicured with long nails, like you see on vamps in the movies. They always look at a woman’s hands before they hire her. And you have to stop listening to John Denver, he’s for old people. Everyone listens to Michael Jackson now.”
Riots in real-time
While I was brushing up on my Americana, the ramifications of Indira Gandhi’s assassination began to play out on the streets of New Delhi, in real-time. Sikh families were dragged out of their homes, sometimes by their neighbors, beaten, raped, and killed. Their homes and businesses were set on fire. There were accusations of the police not doing enough to help, of being complicit in the murders, and of receiving their orders from high-level politicians.
“Don’t go out today” my parents told me. “There’s rioting on the streets.”
The rioting was sporadic and not close to our neighborhood. I chafed at not being able to go out to the bazaar and browse through trousseau possibilities. But I listened.
I sat on our green oasis of a balcony, idly looking over some old-fashioned magazines, while my brain pursued a parallel track imagining my life with my husband-to-be in the new world. The usual noises from the street, the vegetable seller pushing his cart, shouting like a carnival barker, “Fresh okra, tori, tomatoes, onions, buy them now! Brinjal, cauliflower, gourds.” Bicycle bells rang, children played, and the occasional mother yelled at them to be careful of the cars belting around the curve at the end of the road.
A distant drumbeat comes closer
Around 4:00 pm I became aware of a faint shouting and a drum beat in the distance. It gradually grew more insistent and louder, as it moved closer. I peered over the balcony. The children had disappeared, and so had the hawkers. The street had emptied which was unusual. It was the small golden bubble of time in the late afternoon when housewives stepped out on errands, chatted with a neighbor, or bought vegetables for the evening dinner. Children came home after school, threw their book bags down, and stole an hour of play before summons for homework. The sudden quiet felt eerie as if the entire street was holding its breath.
My father’s car pulled up into our tiny courtyard and he emerged looking tired.
The shouting was louder now, and distinguishable as separate voices. My father stopped for a minute, to listen to the noise. He then came up and stood beside me and my mother on the balcony. Their anxiety seeped into me.
A street holds its breath
“What is it?” I asked anxiously.
“There’s been trouble near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences,” my father said. The Institute was India’s premier medical institution, churning out the country’s top doctors. It was eight miles away.
“I want you to go into the house and lock the doors. Don’t come out, even if someone rings the bell,” my father said.
“Why?” The vague mist of anxiety coagulated suddenly into a hard knot in my stomach.
“Nothing,” my father said. “Just taking precautions.”
The shouting was much louder now. I couldn’t pick words out of the hoarse medley of voices and the non-stop thumping drum.
Singh Murdabad! Indira Gandhi zindabad!
My father ran into the street. A few men from our neighborhood stood at their gates, heads turned toward the chanting.
My mother padlocked our front door and the stairway door to our balcony.
Go inside she insisted, while she watched intently from the balcony watching intently. I stood behind her, my face reddening as a slow-burning flame of terror began flickering inside me.
The rioters suddenly appeared around the corner like a tightly clenched fist – a large contingent of ordinary men you’d see on the street any day of the week. Except, tonight they were carrying sticks and cricket bats, their faces twisted in rage. Venomous slogans spewed in a rhythmic chorus – Death to the Sikh traitors, Death to the killers of Indira Gandhi.
A wall of neighbors
I saw my father speak to the other men and they formed a human barricade across the street.
The chants continued as the procession came to a halt, right in front of the wall of neighbors. My father stood in the middle, facing them squarely. He held up his hand for silence and the shouting stopped.
My father spoke to a man who appeared to be the mob leader. He was tall and broad, with a coarse-looking beard and a white bandana tied around his head. He wore a shiny, cheap-looking black shirt, brown trousers and sneakers. His voice rose up to the balcony in a shout:
“We are here to punish every last one of the Sikh traitors who live on this street and teach them a lesson they will never forget!”
My father interrupted.
“There are no Sikhs on the street! And even if there were, do you think we would allow you to attack our neighborhood in this way? Get lost!”
My father holds his ground
My father was a tall imposing man. He’d been an officer in the Railways all his life. He was used to handling rough men—engine drivers, mechanics, and signal guards. He knew street hustlers – rough and ready men, quick to take umbrage to a perceived insult, and equally quick to bestow their loyalty to a man they respected.
“Go back!” he roared.
“We have a list of Sikh homes” the leader shouted back. “We know there are Sikhs on this street.”
“Who gave you a list?” my father demanded. ” And what have they done to you? Go back. You’re not going to defile our neighborhood! You have to go through us first!”
A mob mentality
The shouting continued between our neighbors and the crowd.
I looked across the street at the whitewashed, three-story house where the Singhs, our Sikh neighbors lived. The door sign that said ‘Singhs’ in black letters on a white background was gone, their doors and windows were shut, the curtains drawn.
A geyser of fear threatened to burst out of me.
What if these rioters weren’t simply interested in the Sikhs? Did they include opportunists and looters? If they broke the door open and came up the stairs, would they loot, or rape? My father and our small handful of neighbors wouldn’t be able to stop them.
I trembled at the thought of facing enraged, out-of-control men. My mother had always warned me about men on the street, – “Don’t wear those tight clothes, you don’t want to attract their attention.”
That unhinged state of panic was my first encounter with sheer terror. I couldn’t think straight. Should I run out the back door or jump down from a high balcony. I could possibly break a leg. What if escape routes were cut off at the back of the house?
A realization flashed across the back of my mind—this is the terror that Sikh families were facing all over Delhi, mindless mobs thirsting for blood.
Taking a stand
It may have been ten minutes or an hour, but my father and the band of neighbors prevailed. It also helped that a handful of local police dutifully appeared. The mob slowly retreated.
When I look back at the events of that day with the maturity of years under my belt, I realize the bravery of my father and his friends, putting their own on the line to save their Sikh neighbors.
In a way, it represented the vision on which a free India was conceived – a richly diverse tolerant nation, thriving because it believed in protecting its entire population
As animosity and distrust burgeon between different communities, spilling over borders to distant lands, will brave individuals step up, like the men of my neighborhood, to take a stand against mindless violence.
Community is our tradition
In 1947, both India and Pakistan officially threw off the shackles of British rule. Today it’s almost impossible to imagine how intimately the two countries were fused together before that date. There were strong and intricate bonds between different religious communities. Every village and town in British India had Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus living side by side, drawing water from the same well, and celebrating community traditions stretching back over centuries.
India and Pakistan were divided hastily and clumsily by men who barely understood the cultural nuances of these integrated communities. The divisive Radcliffe Line showed how little they cared about the human lives they were manipulating, like pawns on a chessboard.
Today, as communalism and religious bigotry rise again in India, spilling across the desi diaspora, I hope my personal story demonstrates the power of individuals to make a difference and to make brave and difficult choices in order to protect their communities from mindless, bigoted violence.
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