I first encountered him in 1984, not in a classroom, but in the student residence. My mother had accompanied me to the red-brick residence with two items of luggage (a black trunk and a roll of bedding) and she had ventured beyond the visitor’s lounge. She wanted to test the quality of food in the hostel canteen, and there Professor Singh, the boys’ hostel warden, spotted her. To this day, for some unknown reason, I am unable to forget his accent and choice of words, which conveyed three or four crucial years spent abroad. British, American, Indian English, strands no longer distinct, fuzzy, like a superposition of sine and cosine waves. Even his majestic turban looked westernised.
Slowly he walked up towards mother, his yellow tie fluttering in the wind. May I be of assistance? Gently he reassured her and joked if your boy doesn’t like the ‘spartan’ food here he could always eat at my place.
A few months after joining the engineering college in Delhi, the exact day I topped the class, Dr Singh extended an invitation: If you are free this evening you are most welcome to dine at Nelly and my place. The family lived in Munirka, only a kilometre from the college. Those days there were fewer houses, shops and people in the area and it was possible to walk real fast. Their front garden was filled with voluptuous bougainvillea and purple-blossomed jacarandas.
I got delayed by a full hour, apologised. I could not reveal the real reason for the delay. I had gone to Chanakya, accompanied by a bunch of classmates, to watch my first adult film. The ‘obscene’ images involved two or three fully exposed breasts, nipples longer than mulberries, enough to give me a huge hard on. Simultaneous pleasure and pain of a kind I had not experienced before. Plus, the campus gift shop was closed to mark an optional religious holiday, and I felt embarrassed arriving empty-handed. Hesitantly, I rang the bell. The bookshelves and other objects in the house suggested this family was steeped in deep knowledge about the world.
Nelly was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever encountered, a serene Sikh beauty, and the most refined. She would call him ‘Mn’ with a sense of ease that Indian wives of that generation didn’t normally possess. (Mn or ‘em en’ stood for Mohan and was the best chemical tease.)
She greeted me with a sardonic smile. In fact, both Nelly and Prof Singh had the same smile.
She had studied literature at a state college in Punjab, and was much younger, only eight or nine years older to me. They had married after he returned from Cornell University in the US. When I arrived at the house she was playing a musical instrument, a rabab. Her two children, both boys with long hair, were asleep in the bedroom.
In our class she was known as Mrs Singh, everybody fancied the ‘khubsurat sardarni’. Until that evening I had only seen the enigmatic Nelly from a distance. I will never forget the bread pakoras she fried, not with dhaniya/tamarind but with what she called cranberry chutney. That was the first time I tasted cranberries. There was a layer of spicy potatoes in the pakoras. She served channa-kulcha as well and cashew burfi and chiki as dessert. The professor seemed more relaxed that night, he unfolded his beard, and loosened his navy blue turban. Two or three strands of grey in his robust beard. Nelly had put on Ella Fitzgerald songs and now and then she would step out of the house, and this seemed to annoy him but he didn’t express it properly. After dinner Prof Singh did something unusual. He washed the dishes.
Nelly retired to her room without wishing us Good Night, and I ended up discussing ‘dimensionless numbers’ all night long with my teacher. By the time I departed, both of us sensed a new layer of relationship sprouting, the layer commonly known as friendship. Before departing, he also showed me his study. The walls had developed cracks and the electrical wiring was visible. The left side was covered with awards and commendations and important citations. On the right wall hung a huge black-and-white photo of the so-called great leader. She had imposed Emergency in my unfortunate country only six or seven years earlier.
These days the Times often runs profiles of highly qualified immigrants returning to India. Better jobs, better quality of life. Good life in Bangalore or the Los Angeles-style millennium city, Gurgaon. To me, these returns are not even half as interesting as Dr Singh’s decision to return when it was really hard to return.
“Why did you?” I asked him that day.
“Perhaps you know the answer. When I hear the national anthem, an electric current goes through me.”
All these years I have reflected, and tried hard to pay attention to the crime from a pacified state. But each attempt is a failure. Perhaps this is the most complicated and painful part of the story. My only hope is that I am able to narrate the facts with the precision they demand. The task, I am sadly aware, is nearly impossible. So let me just focus on the only truth I know.
A week later, our class was divided into two groups for factory visits. The chairman accepted my request to join the second, relatively small group. Not Bombay or ONGC but a two-day visit to factories up north in the mountains, this group was guided and led by Prof Singh. We left on 30 October.
Because I was unwell my father drove me to the station that day. He insisted on shaking hands with my teacher, and Nelly was there too on the platform. Although it was the onset of autumn, her light cotton sari exuded the feel of summer. Her cleavage visible, if one paid attention. (Her two boys with long hair were at school). The train was to depart at seven in the morning. “Is your father an IPS?” Prof Singh took me aside. I remember his soft voice. Father’s uniform made it obvious that he was an elite Indian Police Service officer, however, civilians found it difficult to decode the meaning of stars and ribbons and medals and other signs. Father was a supercop in Delhi Police, and took orders directly from the central government.
On 30 October, we visited the pharmaceutical plant in Kasauli (in the colonial times the building served as a TB sanatorium). On 31 October, we visited the Mohan Meakin Brewery in Solan hills (in colonial times it was called Dyer-Meakin Brewery. Dyer was the father of General Dyer who ordered colonial India’s most brutal killings of defenceless ‘natives’, the Amritsar massacre, in 1919). I still remember the enzymes, the smell of fermentation reactors and the hum of giant crushers, centrifuges, and heat exchangers. Stage-3 washing with excess CO2 to remove harmful gases from the liquid, the Bengali quality control officer (a ‘teetotaller’ and a Brahmin) who tasted ‘the thing’ after it ‘matured’. Alcohol was pumped like water from a muddy brown river to the bottling zone of the plant. In my ears, I still carry an echo of the strange music the pasteurised glass bottles produced on the conveyor belt. Fifty thousand bottles a day.
During our return journey Prof Singh regaled us with chemical stories, catalysts and runaway reactions. Bubbles, drops, and particles… He had a smile. To this day I cannot forget his special smile. The catering-wallah passed by and we ordered 21 lunches, eight vegetarian and 13 non-vegetarian, dal and chawal and dahi and oily parathas with achar. Non-vegetarian thalis had fish curry or mutton with gravy. I ordered fish and this detail, for some reason, is stuck. The fish is stuck inside me. Someone mentioned surrogate mothers and then a bad joke about female mannequins and Prof Singh stared at our silliness and there was a stunned silence. Then someone suggested we play antakshari and we sang old film songs and Michael Jackson and Prince and even David Bowie until someone played the radio, first All India Radio, and immediately afterwards the short-wave BBC Radio, which confirmed that Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated by her own bodyguards.
Good, said a class fellow, and Prof Singh stood up and raised his voice. You should not talk like this. So many bullets have been emptied into the poor woman, no one deserves to die like that. To disagree with someone doesn’t mean you assassinate them.
The slow-moving train got more and more delayed, and perhaps it was one of the most difficult nights for the entire country.
Early in the morning we saw people defecating by the railway tracks, Subzi Mandi passed by, and then New Delhi station. Even before it came to a complete halt we saw traces of violence on the platform, but there were cops stationed there, and because the cops were armed with guns and lathis we thought the situation was under control. We spontaneously formed a circle around Prof Singh (for he was the only Sikh in our group) and stepped out of the bogie. I wish my father had been there to receive us, then there would have been no need to worry. But cellphones didn’t exist in those days. Suddenly, an angry mob, armed with the most elementary weapons (metallic rods and rubber tyres), crossed the railway line and climbed up the platform. “Khoon ka badla khoon se”… “Give us that traitor sardar.” “Blood for blood.” We started running. What broke the circle was a vespa scooter on the platform. Sudden screeching of breaks, tyre marks, rubber smell. A photojournalist in a yellow windcheater started taking pictures of the mob. “Stop clicking,” said one of the thugs, “Otherwise we’ll kill you.”
“This traitor Sikh is going to take pictures,” the thug pointed at Prof Singh. “Those who want to save him, we’ll kill you.” He kicked the journalist, snatched the camera, destroyed the roll. I remained paralysed on my spot. He snatched our professor’s suitcase. “Sardarji, our mother is dead and you are not crying? Cry b*******d.” He unzipped the suitcase, rummaged through the contents, old and new, pulled out something that looked like a souvenir for Nelly, and a pahari doll (most likely for his daughter) and a Himachali achkan (most likely for his son). “Nice wrist watch.” The thug gestured for other lumpens to go ahead, who sprayed gasoline from the journalists’ scooter onto our teacher and slipped a rubber tyre around his neck. “Let me go. What have I done?” I heard Prof Singh shout. The tyre constrained his arms. “Sardar, you s**********r, you killed our mother”. “Gaddar, now we’ll kill you.”
“Stop it,” I said, “You can’t do this, he is our teacher.” “Khoon ka badla khoon se”… “Saala sardar ki aulaad… gaddar ki aulaad.” Although it was early morning, his breath reeked of rum. Half of my classmates disappeared, others repeated the same thing over and over. “This is madness.” I urged the cops to take immediate action, I told them that I happen to be the son of the police chief. At this point, the chief lumpen laughed and spat on Prof Singh’s face, doused the tyre with more hydrocarbons and struck a match. A senior Congress leader, his Nehru- Gandhi khadi clothes fluttering in the wind, stood close to the Station Master’s office on the platform guiding the mob like the conductor of a big orchestra. Khatam kar do sab sardaron ko. Khatam kar do saanp ke bachchon ko. He was not very tall and wore black glasses. I will never forget that Congresswallah’s black glasses. I wanted to confront him, but stood paralysed on my spot instead. “This is the way to teach the Sikhs a lesson,” said a bystander. I took a deep breath, the black glasses were gone by then. The photojournalist was still trembling, they spare his Vespa, and for the next couple of minutes we kept hearing screams. I still hear those screams. I can’t hear enough. We couldn’t do a thing. I could do nothing. The only thing I was able to save was a shoe, and that too was lost in the commotion that followed.
It was sickening. You had to see the horror to believe the horror, and it was so unreal that I almost didn’t believe my own senses. But the fire and the smoke were so absolutely real, different from the way they are usually done in the movies. During combustion I could not use my knowledge of chemistry and physics to extinguish the flames. How fast they engulfed his entire body. I could do nothing. I was a mere onlooker. In the end, all that remained along the ashes were a few bones and a steel bracelet. Black like a griddle.
My father had sent an official jeep to pick me up at the station and drop me at the engineering campus. Two of my classmates accompanied me.
As the jeep passed Tolstoy Marg, I saw dozens of Sikh bodies on fire. Smell of burning wool and books and rubber tyres and human flesh. I saw taxis being smashed. And the black cloud of smoke touched the sky. This was our Eiffel Tower. This was our carnival. Our periodic table of hate.
We passed by a church. The Bishop was standing by the giant black-painted cast iron gates, preventing the mob to enter the church. Thousands of children, women and men had taken refuge inside.
It was a Thursday. The jeep driver was in tears, he had seen horrible things. The skinny man trembled and was almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He said he didn’t want to come, but it was Sahib’s order and his duty. Those days my parents lived in a mansion in the posh Amrita Sher-Gil Marg (the road named after the ‘mother of modern Indian art’), and I lived in the hostel in the engineering campus.
After this there are lapses in my memory. And moisture in my eyes. There was too much going on. Too many exams. What conversations I had with my fellow classmates I cannot recall.
My thoughts were brittle and numb, as if deep inside a Zero Kelvin Dewar flask, and then drifting as fast as the speed of light towards Prof Singh’s family. Were they safe? The police jeep was still parked outside the hostel. Instead of going into my room I asked the driver to take me to Prof Singh’s residence in Munirka just outside the engineering campus. The driver urged me to check with Sahib first. So I called Father from the hostel common room using a landline. After three attempts and literally begging his junior officer, father took hold of the receiver. What are you doing to stop the madness? Incoherently I told him about the railway platform scene. Father didn’t express any shock. He only said that I must send the driver back. He hung up abruptly.
Because the place was not far I literally ran towards Munirka. There were smouldering ash particles floating around in the air. Punjab Woollens garment store was being eaten up by orange flames, dark and dense clouds ascending. Sikh shops, schools, houses and places of worship were on fire. I tried to help a man who lay on the street, but he was lying dead near his freshly cut long hair. Near the market I saw groups of women fleeing with voluminous loot bags. I, particularly, recall the red-coloured bag. Near the park I saw a body being torn apart, people playing tug of war with legs on one side and hands on the other. All along I did not feel unsafe, because one simple rule or law was clear in that hell — all the violence was directed against the Sikh citizens. These were not ‘riots’, for not a single Hindu was harmed.
Prof Singh’s house looked like a scene right out of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Brando inside. Heavily guarded. Not by the cops. But by lumpen youths. One of them had a Bombay filmstar haircut. A few other replicas were sitting inside a white Fiat car, drinking. Others near the car held tridents and iron bars and glass bottles. For some unknown reason the courage that had left me at the railway platform returned.
“Where are you going?”
“My professor’s family lives here.”
“They are safe,” said the self-appointed lumpen chief. “We are guarding them.”
“We the bodyguards.”
I avoided a direct eye-contact.
She was either inside or not. Were the boys safe? I had no idea.
“Go see for yourself. Everything okay here.”
There were 10 or 20 of them. Or 20 or 30. It was hard to estimate. All of a sudden I was able to breathe again, and slowly I tried to walk.
The jacarandas and bougainvillea stared at me and so did the Semal tree as I knocked several times, and announced my name. Several times.
All the doors were locked. The windows were all curtained.
It was Nelly’s voice. Choked a bit.
“It is me.”
“I know. Go back to your hostel. Right away.”
She didn’t ask about Prof Singh. I was the one who knew the exact details, what really had happened to him. She, it was clear then, didn’t want to talk.
Realising this I turned as if all that mattered in the world was to obey her voice. Soon my feet started dragging me towards my room in the engineering hostel.
“Told you they are alright.”
The lumpens laughed.
Most of them were drunk. They were loud and getting louder. Nothing about these guards was reassuring. They inspired little confidence. It was certain Nelly and the kids were not safe.
The cops were missing. I did see two or three men in khaki, mingling with the lumpens, but really it was hard to tell who was a cop and who a lumpen. The filmstar haircut stared at me piercingly.
Perhaps that is why I returned.
Back to Nelly.
Once again no resistance was offered.
I knocked again. Several times.
“Nelly, please open.”
She didn’t wait long this time. I heard near instant movement inside. “Please, Nelly, shall I ask my father to rescue you from here?” The fact is that I had lost all hope of getting help from Father. But this way I knew there was a possibility of getting a response from her, and she did respond.
I heard her walk close to the door. She didn’t unlock. Again she begged me to go home.
Unable to tear myself away from the house, I was utterly unable to assist.
“Don’t worry,” she said.
“What do you mean? Don’t worry?”
Don’t worry, she said again.
This is the situation. The chief lumpen is staring at me all over again. Threatening my body to leave. I ignore him and his buddies, the men in khaki and bright unmourning primary colours. My feet, for some unknown reason, drag me around the house. The mob on the other side, close to the kitchen, is as big as the mob on this side and both sides are getting noisier and noisier. I tap on the kitchen window.
And stand there waiting.
I knew she would return.
Finally, a hand swished open the curtain made of beads.
“Don’t worry,” she said. Her face looked like a phase-diagram plotted between fear and shame.
“I have already done what the men asked me to do,” she explained.
“You did not.” On their own her two boys, the twins, appeared close to the window.
At first, I did not recognise them. The boys had no maroon patkas on. Their long, curly hair was freshly cut. Hurriedly, brutally cut. It showed.
“I have already done what the men asked me to do. Now go home,” she repeated. “We are safe.”
Singh’s most recent novel, Helium, is published by Bloomsbury