Love in the time of riots

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Bhagi Kaur (left) with her niece Pappi Kaur, file photograph. They lost 11 relatives during the 1984 riots. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Janki Kaur, who lost her husband, a file photograph. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Mohan Singh, who lost two brothers. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the sufferings they caused come alive in this novel.

FOR the second time in just over a year, Vikram Kapur has written about an abiding concern of his, the events of 1984 and their lasting impact on India. He has already done so through lives both real and imagined. The collection titled 1984 In Memory and Imagination (Amaryllis/Manjul, 2016), which he edited, combined seven short stories, including one of Kapur’s own, and seven factual accounts of the months from Operation Bluestar in June 1984 to the mass slaughter of Sikhs that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31 that year and went on into November. Among the contributors were Ajeet Cour, Hartosh Singh Bal, Humra Quraishi and N.S. Madhavan, as well as Kirpal Dhillon, who was appointed Director General of Police in Punjab on July 3, 1984.

Official reports and other analyses may, if those who prepare them are allowed the freedom, provide narrative accounts of such events, but it is often first-hand experiences that leave a vivid impression on people. It is often the artist, the novelist and the poet who place things in the public imagination, who keep them from disappearing into the realm of the forgotten or into the barely fathomable depths of official archives.

Kapur has done much to keep the narrative of 1984 alive, crafting a complex and intriguing love story and setting it in the equally complex and often terrifying context of India’s politics of the time. At first, all is as it may always have been, and Savitri is in a near-panic about her family’s indifference about arrangements for her daughter Deepa’s wedding. Only six weeks to go, and almost nothing has been decided—the venue, the shopping, the sangeet, the lehenga…

Kapur’s meticulous descriptions of buildings, clothes, TV programmes, and various Delhi neighbourhoods recapture the scene as it was then, and his characters ring true throughout. The Defence Colony house is fronted by a thick hedge, behind which lies a small lawn bordered with flower beds. On a grey, dank Delhi winter day, Savitri and Jaswant, a senior civil servant, decide to place a matrimonial advertisement for their 21-year-old daughter, Deepa. Savitri’s intuition cuts through Deepa’s tearful bewilderment—“You’re not involved with someone?”

Of course she is. The young man is Prem Kohli, like Deepa a Delhi University student. He is the son of a wealthy doctor who lives in the affluent south Delhi suburb of Shanti Niketan, and is doing an MBA. He is a shaven Sikh. Deepa and Prem, who started off with a nervous, fumbling conversation at a student party, are desperate about one another.

After much discussion, Jaswant, who remembers leaving Rawalpindi during Partition, and Savitri conclude that Hindus and Sikhs have not the communal animosity that Hindus and Muslims have had; moreover, Amarjeet and Kishneet Kohli are Khatri Sikhs, and Jaswant and Savitri conclude that the Kohlis are not too remote from themselves. So Jaswant invites them to tea at the Gymkhana Club.

The tea goes smoothly, and while the adults talk, the apparently chatty exchanges between Prem’s younger sister Seema and Deepa’s younger brother Rakesh tingle with delightfully awkward adolescent sexuality. An agreement is easily reached, and the engagement reception is all Deepa and Prem could have wished for. The pair continue to meet when they can, sometimes after Prem’s shifts at the Oberoi Intercontinental, where he starts off as a member of the coffee shop staff.

Then comes Bluestar. At home, Jaswant curses the government’s failure to see the hurt caused by the damage to the Golden Temple and adds that the world has changed. In the other family, Amarjeet starts drinking much more than usual, and Prem, sullen and withdrawn, is no longer the man Deepa knew. Suddenly, in an unexpected conversation in Nehru Park, he pours out his bitterness and resentment to her, including the time a bus driver waited until a turbaned Sikh was boarding before racing off and leaving the passenger lying in the road. Prem, still short-haired and shaven, listened in silence to a litany of communal insults directed at Sikhs from the driver and another passenger.

Others, however, are watching, and the Khalistan-movement recruiter Surjit moves in at just the right moment, starting a conversation after following Prem into Nirula’s, another of Kapur’s period details. Surjit gets more and more persuasive, particularly when their meetings move to a dhaba, where he is at home and far less conspicuous than he would always have been at Nirula’s.

If Jaswant thought Bluestar changed the world, the assassination of Indira Gandhi takes it apart. Kapur brilliantly captures the sudden panic and fear, the helpless waiting for loved ones to come home, not knowing whom or what to believe, above all simply not knowing.

Kapur is as well informed about the politics as he is adept with his characters, but he never stops telling the story, which now shows in detail how the mass slaughter of Sikhs after the assassination destroyed all that hundreds of millions had believed about their India. Prem, visiting his college friend Irfan in Trilokpuri, is dragged out of a car by thugs led by policemen and beaten unconscious; all that the mob went by was the kara he was still wearing on his wrist. A policeman lets Irfan go but tells him what would have been done to him during Partition.

The government’s failure to call the Army out for three days ends yet more illusions and allows the slaughter to continue. The Kohlis, who receive death threats, remove their name from the gatepost. Meanwhile, Surjit keeps working on Prem, and one day Deepa goes looking for Prem. Their families go looking for the young pair.

The Kohlis, who have relatives in Seattle, leave India. Twenty years later, Seema, who still carries a lingering memory of Rakesh, visits India with her young daughter. But the Shanti Niketan house is now an apartment block with a security guard.