Friday, June 13, 2008

The day Indira died

We heard the news first on the All India Radio. Immediately afterwards, film songs were taken off air and one could only hear strains of Sitar.

Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Kashmir’s most worthy son, Jawaharlal Nehru, had been shot by her Sikh bodyguards.

I remember, father was about to leave for office. In the weak autumn sunshine I was playing my usual game of “Headquarters” – a game in which I would be an Indian soldier, destroying Karachi. Imagining worn-out Eveready battery cells as dynamite, connected by woolen thread, I brought the “enemy’s” port city to its knees almost every day.

And now, I loped after my father, who informed his brother about what he had heard on the radio and together they sat huddled, not knowing what to do. They kept on taking a name, which I had heard just a few months ago from father: Bhindranwale.

Many years ago, before I was born, father’s family had visited Amritsar where my father’s sister, who was a young girl then, was operated upon for an ailment. Among other things, father vividly remembered the serenity inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden temple and the piping hot paranthas which he had devoured in a dhaba. Upon Indira Gandhi’s directions, the army had laid siege to the temple, in June 1984, flushing out extremists led by Bhindranwale. I was eight years old.

In retaliation – I couldn’t figure out the connection then – some Muslim men, in order to show solidarity to the Sikhs, had stormed into the Hanuman temple, built on the banks of Jhelum, near one of the seven bridges, in Srinagar, and hurled the deity’s idol into the gushing waters below. It was a sad moment indeed, more so for me, since my sister and I would pass that temple every day, while on our way back to home from school, and, on every Tuesday, sister would buy boondi from her pocket money and offer it to the God. All this while, I would look at the sadhus, who assembled there, their bodies smeared with ash, and matted hair looking like pieces of rope, smoking their chillum.

More than an hour passed. The All India Radio said that Indira Gandhi was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences; they said her condition was critical. My uncle looked at father. He was now turning the knob of the radio. After a few minutes, a crackling voice appeared. It belonged to a BBC news reader.

“Mrs. Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister has died.”

I don’t remember whether father or uncle spoke after that. In the meantime, my sister came back from school. She was distraught; her friends, Mubina and Ghazala had danced on the road outside the school when they heard of the assassination. There was celebration everywhere in the valley.

The time had come to act, I thought. As the family sat glued around the Bush radio set, I sneaked into the kitchen garden. In a polythene bag, I collected raw tomatoes. They were my hand grenades. Tying the bag around my waist, I waited for “them.”

Hilal, our neighbour’s son and few years older to me, appeared on the wall dividing our house. He and his brothers would often sit on that wall, asking us to give them some apples from the tree in our garden.

“Can you sing Jana Gana Mana…?” I shouted at him.

He looked at me as if I had gone crazy. Then he spat at the flower bed beneath him, on our side.

I don’t know when my hand went to my waist and I began throwing a volley of tomatoes at him. One hit him in the eye and burst there. He was caught unawares. He let out a cry and fell backwards.

Soon, we would see images of a young Rahul, who had lost his grandmother, his arms clutched around his father who wore dark glasses.

In Delhi, meanwhile, a massacre had begun. Our old Sikh carpenter was devastated; his sister lived with her husband in a west Delhi colony. Later, we came to know that her husband was killed – a mob put a burning tyre, filled with petrol, around his neck like a garland.

Three days after Indira Gandhi died, my mother’s mother, who had turned senile in her old age, began to see visions of two men aiming at her with a gun. I had grown up hearing stories from her. There was a poster of Charlie Chaplin in my room, and, for many days after I had put it there, she would burn incense sticks in front of it, thinking Chaplin was Englishmen’s God.

On the fifth day, she passed away in her sleep.

In another five years, I would have to leave Charlie Chaplin behind. In another five years, we would be queuing up to receive tomatoes in relief camps.

After all, we were refugees now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Too much Hemingway

There is some wine in the cupboard and a half bottle of whiskey. A country song is playing on the space radio, and I am drinking some coffee. I cannot have wine; I am on medication – some strange-sounding antibiotics have been prescribed to me for an infection which no one has been able to figure out.

I have been reading too much of Hemingway and, I am mesmerized with Paris, wine, typewriter – not necessarily in that order. I think I will make myself an Omelette tomorrow. I can put slices of tomato in it and perhaps toss a few mushrooms in as well.

My heart beat in rest mode is 65. A friend says that is too good. He has gone off to another city to meet another friend. Probably they would be having beer and talking about me. They might be feeling sleepy now since it is almost midnight.

I think I am sleepy too. But before I hit the sack, I must read more Hemingway.

I think the doctor I went to has a secret lover.

I think I must stop reading Hemingway.

I need to write

There is nothing to write about these days. There is no turbulence; my imagination has turned lame and I have no crutches to offer.

Actually, it is very important to discipline oneself in order to be able to write. The American writer, Philip Roth is believed to have kept for a long time two small signs near his desk: “Stay put” and “No optional striving.” Optional striving, as one profile of his describes, includes everything except writing, exercise, sleep and solitude.

I promise I will have little optional striving if at all I have to have some. From now on, I will write regularly. Today, time is on my side. Tomorrow, it will move on.

I need to write everyday. Without fail. I have to stay put.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Looking at obituaries

Is it important to have a cigarette stuck between my two fingers when I look at obituaries? I don’t pay much heed to this question that only I have thrown at myself. For now, I only look at the pictures of the dead.

The first photo looks like one shot for a matrimonial alliance. Face tilted towards one of the studio walls, lips stuck together, almost in an embrace, and one end of the Sari hiding the seemingly sharp shoulder blade.

And now, the photo of the young woman, sent to a newspaper office along with a few lines, which most of the mourning families usually tend to stick to:

The sunshine of our lives, the prayer of our hearts…

There would be other pictures too, probably stashed away in an old purse or in a cupboard above the television set in front of which the family sat for dinner every night, watching morbid soaps: a picture taken during a college farewell ceremony (remember, she was adjudged Miss Smile), another taken during a family vacation (she wearing a straw hat and staring at the lens, her thoughts somewhere else), yet another at a wedding (she looking dreamily at the henna-stained palms of the bride).

The family is probably still in mourning. Must be, since at least two inches more than usual of newspaper space has been booked.

Memory is short-lived. With each passing day, with each passing moment, she would be remembered only in occasional spasms. And then life will ease itself into a routine. After the mourning period is over, the only person who might remember her is an old, toothless grandmother, as she feels her prayer beads between her feeble fingertips.

Death, I suppose, snatches everything.

I cannot look at the next photo. My cigarettes are finished.