By Karthik Venkatesh Oct. 31, 2017
For me, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the riots that followed was just a detail, merely newsprint. The impersonal nature of the incident insulated me from the human aspect of the killing. That is, until decades later, the tragedy of 1984’s events came home to me.
Iremember October 31, 1984 clearly. I was still in school in class five. It was a lovely early winter afternoon on which we were let off from school early. This was followed by a mini vacation of three days.
It began with a ride back from school on my father’s vintage Lambretta on the then stately Queen’s Road in the sleepy city of Bangalore. We passed the Indian Express building in front of which I saw a shocking announcement in bold, capital letters: INDIRA GANDHI KILLED. To a nine-year-old, the news was of uncertain importance. I had figured that this was unusual since school had shuttered early. But what were socio-political shifts for a nine-year-old armed with the sudden prospect of endless afternoons of midweek cricket?
When I got back home, it was past noon. There was another unusual visitor at that hour – the newspaper delivery guy with a special supplement of the paper with a gigantic photograph of Indira Gandhi on the front page and another bold headline: INDIRA GANDHI ASSASSINATED. I remember my father clutching the paper, eyes grimly set, reading it over and over. He then passed the paper to my mother wordlessly, shaking his head. My mother, normally uninterested in politics, read it too, the colour draining from her face.
This was when my sister and I knew something was seriously up. We peered at our family from behind the door. It was a silence of a sort we’d never experienced. Yet, my mini-vacation would pass in a daze of cricket matches and afternoon naps. But, much was happening elsewhere.
On the same day, hundreds of kilometres away, a train was arriving at New Delhi railway station. In it were a woman and her three daughters. The girls were in salwar kameez, had long pigtails, and wore virtually no jewellery except for a kada on their right hands. They were Sikh and they had no idea what had happened. They were on their way to Punjab from Pune, where their army officer father had been posted.
When did you get your hair cut, Singh? In ’84, was the stone-faced reply. Conversation wound to a halt.
At the Delhi station, there was a commotion on the platform. The woman peered out casually, to see something that made the blood in her veins freeze.
A Sikh man was being chased on the platform. A mob was baying for his blood and he couldn’t run fast enough. A minute later, more Sikh men appeared running helter-skelter.
The woman acted swiftly. She removed the kada from her hand and those of her daughters. She then bundled her three daughters on to the top berth and hurriedly shut the door of the ladies’ compartment that they were in.
A minute later, the mob entered the compartment shouting for any Sikhs on board to surrender. They hurried past the ladies’ compartment shouting at the top of their voices. Inside, the four sat wordlessly, afraid to bat an eyelid. It was the longest ten minutes of their lives.
Raised voices, the clank of the steel of bicycle chains, the smell of burning tyres. And then the sound of the train leaving the station with the mob left behind. That was the architecture of terror that the three passed through.
By evening, the train had reached Bathinda and the family was breathing easier. The next day, the papers were full of bloody tales with gory details. They knew they had barely made it. Unknown to the mother, the eldest of the three daughters, had seen the Sikh man, his turban in disarray, being beaten to pulp. It was beating of a sort that she had never seen before nor since.
But perhaps the worst knowledge of all, was that she had no idea what happened to the man after that. He had, in all likelihood, been killed, like the hundreds of others that day. She had been among the last to see him as a person in the flesh before he was reduced to just a statistic. A life snuffed out, in a blink.
The young girl never spoke about the incident for a long time. She had questions, of course. His name, his family, his age, nothing was known. But when she heard the conversations that followed that day, she realised there would be no answers. There was no point talking about what she had seen. It would only deepen her guilt. Of having survived. And so the memory was tucked away, hopefully forever.
A special supplement of the paper was published with a gigantic photograph of Indira Gandhi on the front page with a headline in bold: INDIRA GANDHI ASSASSINATED.
(Photo by Jacques Langevin/Sygma via Getty Images)
For me, 1984 was merely a detail. Horrible things had happened, but I was many levels removed from them. I read about them. The impersonal nature of the incident, given that nothing had happened in Bangalore, insulated me from the human aspect of the tragedy. For me, it was all newsprint.
That is, until the day, the impact of the tragedy came home around the turn of the millennium.
Over a lazy, noisy lunch with colleagues in Delhi, one asked the other: When did you get your hair cut, Singh? In ’84, was the stone-faced reply. Conversation wound to a halt. Later I learnt that Singh’s father had been a victim of the riots.
I happened to mention that detail to my wife. But I was completely unprepared for the tears and the confession that followed. You see, she had been that little girl who had witnessed the killing on Delhi station all those years ago.
To see my wife thus was a revelation. I’ve always known that her polite exterior belies her tough-as-nails attitude. Yet, for years she had shelved that memory in the darkest recesses of her mind. When it came tumbling out, she told me that the man she saw being beaten resembled her father. The indignity of it appalled her even years later.
Conversation then ceased. We never spoke of that incident again. We could not.
For my wife, the questions have always lingered. Not the big ones. The larger political questions had all been answered in the years since ‘84. But, the personal details of that dead man could never be known, would never be. In that unknown truth, lay the heart of the tragedy.
With this, my memories of October 31 have also changed forever. The newsprint of my memory has now been overwritten with the haunting recollection of a little girl, watching a killing unfold in cold blood — both secure and unsettled by the knowledge that she could’ve been killed too.
After teaching history to high-school students for more than a decade and reading their answer scripts, Karthik decided that he'd prefer to write it instead. So he writes on history and also edits other people's writing.