The news kept coming, relentlessly, everyday. Newspapers. Radio.
Did we have a television then? No, not before 1984.
People pulled out of their houses, into their front yards. Shot in cold blood.
Terrorism. It was the first time I had heard the word. We heard it a lot in those years.
Everyday we heard of long haired people being spared in buses and trains and those with short hair being pulled out and shot. They asked them to step out, having stopped the buses on lonely roads in the middle of the fields. Some had a chance to run, run for their lives in the tall sugarcane fields. Screaming or the rustling of the tall grass gave them away. They were shot, killed.
Who were these beasts who killed innocent passengers in trains, buses? People going home to their children? Women and children traveling from their homes to their parent’s homes for the festivals. Many stopped travelling. Many grew their hair long – you could not tell that the women were not sardarnis if their hair was long. Men, not so easy to grow their hair without changing a lot about your identity.
We lived far away. In fear. Did we know whether our grandparents were safe in deep Punjab. Their house was barely 8km from the Pakistani border. Things could escalate anytime. My grandfather was a citizen activist. Fearless. A retired government of India servant. Who knew when they decided that he was the enemy and came for him. And my grandmother.
The blue inland letters that came brought relief. They used to take ten to fifteen days to arrive. So at least we knew they were safe ten days ago. No, nobody had telephones with easy, cheap and accessible STD (remember the term?) to call cross country. You called if it was an emergency. We dreaded receiving that call.
Worse, we feared going there. Year after year, my grandparents did not see their daughter, my mother. Or me, their grandchild. One day my mother had enough. She has never been scared of anything. She wasn’t going to be scared of a few AK-47s (oh yes, we children learnt about those too from the newspapers)
I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a child there. Or a young man accused of colluding with the terrorists. True or false, nobody knew. Those were dark times. Friend or Foe, there was little to trust. There was little but trust – if you lost that you had nothing. My grandparents and their neighbours had a pact. The partition and its riots was part of their living memory. Less than forty years, history was repeating itself. This time, the neighbours vowed, they would stand together. Sikh and Hindu, they would not be parted by these outsiders seeding violence. They knew where to hide in each other’s houses. Curfews meant sharing food, passed from terrace to terrace. Rotis still came from the sanjha chulha at the end of the road using the same terrace route. The neighbourhood stood strong together. Sanjha.
My mother decided that we would go to Punjab. Tickets were booked months in advance, but we could not find tickets to the destination. We would have to travel by bus for a part of the way. Just another six hours by bus. Was it safe? No. Were we going? Yes.
I started learning gurmukhi, the script of punjab. I barely knew a few sentences of punjabi – I began practicing. Went to the local gurdwara and bought a gutka – a small abridged version of the prayer book. I had read in the papers that women who recited the gutka were left alone – the terrorists were not tricked by long hair anymore. They needed proof of being a devout Sikh to spare your life. We insisted my father stay at home – it would have been very dangerous to have taken an obvious ‘mona’ into the Punjab in those days. We were daring but not foolish.
Gutka memorised, salwar suit dupattas draped, hair plaited, we were on our way. From train to bus, on high alert. We did not sleep all night. How could we? Anything could happen. An incident had happened just the week before. We were in the new badlands. As beautiful as ever, the tall crops waving, the straight canals full of water still the pride of the land. The canals had run red, we had heard. When the carnage came, there was no right or wrong, there was young blood.
There was a new police chief. A crackdown. Things were getting controlled. Brutal control. Mistakes were made. But the terrorists were being beaten down. Cornered. Their funding from other countries squeezed out. They were retreating into their stronghold. The villages and towns becoming safer, they said. I was a child. I read the news.
My mother and I boarded the bus well in time. It was dawn. We would reach our destination just after lunch. The bus was full. There was safety in numbers. Enough women. Families. It was going to be fine. I almost relaxed. Fell asleep.
Then the bus stopped. I woke up. It had broken down. No danger, no safety. We disembarked. The bus drove off. Why would a bus that had broken down drive off? We wondered that later, after it had gone. We were forty or so of us, surrounded by tall crops. The narrow tar pathway was the highway. We looked far into the distance, there was nothing. We looked at the tall grass – it was wheat or rice. It did not matter. It was tall and thick enough to hide more than a dozen gunmen. Were we safe in that lovely sunshine? The morning mist had risen, it was a clear day. A beautiful moment and not one of the families there could breathe. With our bags and bundles, all we wanted was to live. We had read and heard stories like this a hundred times. Gunmen would appear and we would be a mess of flesh and blood spattered on the green. They may not even find us till they harvested the crop. This is what fear looked like then – a dozen families with furrowed brows, stiff backs and pinched faces.
A bus trundled towards us in the distance. Was it life or was it death? Was the ordinary allowed to be just that? Or would something else cross our path today?
It was ordinary. It was a simple state transport bus but going in totally the wrong direction. It would take us another six hours away from where we wanted to be. A city. Cities were safer those days. A decision needed to be taken. Another bus may never come, or it might be hours or minutes. Uncertainty had seeped into everything, bus timetables were certainly not exempt. Do we stay where all was uncertain or do we go the wrong way?
All the other families boarded that bus. Out of there. Away.
My mother and I were the only ones left behind. One suitcase, one bag, two handbags. Two women. And a bus driving away into the distance. We were alone.
I have to admit it was moment. The sheer beauty of the fields, the sky, the faint white clouds was enough to drive any fear away. We were not made for fear, the two of us. We were made to lift our heads high and live that moment. And the next. Death could come, but this moment of pure freedom was ours. Unchained from any hope, any expectation. As I said, it was a moment.
Which turned into a half hour. And an hour. Two even. Surely, any terrorists who wanted to kill us would not still be hiding in the crop. We began to relax, reassuring ourselves and getting irritated at the same time. Had we taken the bus we would be somewhere at least, not in the middle of nowhere like now. There must be a village somewhere but we could not see it – anyway there was no guarantee that it would be any safer than we were. Even the suitcase we were sitting on was getting uncomfortable now, the sun hotter, the road surely dustier. We waited, this time knowing we were safe for now.
Eventually a bus did come along, and yes it was going in our direction and past (how? Our direction was the border. Ah, I was a child, this is all I remember). We got in, and the fear rose again. From the known devil to the unknown. I sat with all my senses clenched, four hours till we reached the town. It was almost night. Dim lights glimmered. A solitary rickshaw was rapidly commandeered by us – we were frazzled by now and were not going to let anyone get ahead of us. Women traveling alone – the others let us be. It was just past the curfew and all the shops were shut. Nobody on the roads. We reached my grandfather’s house and for the first time since my childhood I saw the big entrance doorway shut. We rattled the chains to ask them to open up. Not a sign, and yet we knew they were all there. An entire street cannot be so silent – they were all hiding in fear. We called out, fearless in our exhaustion. Our voices were heard and recognised. The door slowly creaked open, the rickshaw was paid, and we went in. Our beds were ready and they could not believe we had been out this late – unthinkable in those times even though it was not fully dark yet. The house glowed eerily in the single lamp lit low for us as we washed up and were fed.
The holiday had begun.
(As I look back to this I realise how much more dangerous the world has become now. The madness had begun then, and it has spiralled out of control in so many places all over the world. Like an eruption that will pop up and will not go away. Children know guns now, not just from the newspapers. They have seen and faced both ends of the gun. To survive. Or not)