“THIS IS the end/Beautiful friend/This is the end/My only friend/ The end/Of our elaborate plans/ The end Of everything that stands/ The end/ No safety or surprise/ The end/ I’ll never look into your eyes… again.” — The End by The Doors
As the vestiges of life left his wrinkled body on that sad, confusing but inevitable morning on 20 August, 2009 — I followed his gaze with eyes clouded with tears of helplessness and rage. This was a quiet, old, seemingly faithless but enigmatic man I was lucky enough to call my grandfather. As I watched his funeral pyre disintegrating his earthly remains in a billowing blizzard of ghee-scented smoke, I found myself pondering over the same question again and again: “He was a communist. Wasn’t he?”
He’d almost admitted it on a rainy June night after he’d held my hand and walked from the television room to his own for almost the last time. His health didn’t permit him to watch much telly after that night…
Just three months later, providence had snatched him away from me, just when I was back from my stint at the Asian College of Journalism. Here I was trying to make sense of his life and ideals days after he had none left in him; trying to make sense of his existence through pieces of paper that he had left behind.
My dad gave me granddad’s passport while clearing his room after his death. In addition to a book on Islam that he’d written on orders of an officer in his Intelligence Bureau office. And one on Sikhism — written in Punjabi in the Persian script.
His copy of the Holy Quran (“written in the Roman Script” — as the cover proclaimed) was purchased from Ankara when granddad had been posted to Turkey. The Holy Bible procured from the Vatican lay in another corner. He was to be made a Sikh — in accordance with customs in his village in the Punjab; our ancestral land, Sialkot — after he reached a certain age. He started smoking at the age of 14.
Partition — he walked from Sialkot to Shimla. It took him a month. No entry in his passport. Tales he never told me. Tales he never told anyone.
The old man had left me a puzzle. A bloody puzzling one, too.
The first entry in his passport: Pakistan; 14 April, 1955. Sent on a mission. Seemed like a ‘cover posting’ — certainly wasn’t one. Knew the Quran by heart. Wrote a thesis on it. But he wasn’t a Muslim.
Next entry: Saigon, South Vietnam; 12 March, 1957. Breakfast with the communists, “and dinner with the capitalists in Hanoi the same night,” as he had told me. “The same schedule for more than a year. Someone by day, someone else by night. Time and over again. And again…” he had trailed off.
1962: One on one with the Chinese. Kills. Comes back alive. In the service of his country. Medal.
1967: No entry on his passport. Naxalbari. Communists versus capitalists in Kerala, West Bengal, Delhi…
He admittedly killed 12 men. Who, or what were they? “They impeded the founding tenet of Nehruvian India. Intelligence wanted them dead.” But what was their ideology. No answer. In the service of his country. Medal.
Trouble in Sikkim. Covert operation. Palace coup. In the service of his country. Medal.
“Before you do anything anyone tells you to do, ask ‘why’.”
“Breakfast in Saigon, dinner in Hanoi… ideology… ? Just ask ‘why’… In the service of his country…
Maybe he was a communist. Wasn’t he?
“… It hurts to set you free/But you’ll never follow me/The end of laughter and soft lies/The end of nights we tried to die/This is the end.”
Illustration: Samia Singh