Hands Held To His Eyes
by Padma Viswanathan
In October of 1983, my father fell ill.
I arranged a leave to return from Canada to New Delhi and spend time with him. My sister also came home, but only briefly: she was, by this time, raising her own family in Montreal and couldn’t stay long. While in Delhi, I arranged to meet with a psychiatrist and a sociologist whose work I had long admired. I spent a day with them at the famous Institute for Research on Developing Societies (IRDS), looking in on meetings; even, when asked, offering an opinion. A week or so later, the centre’s resident Freudian, with a Jungian in tow, came to see me at my parents’ home. They proposed a collaboration to let me further explore my theoretical model. They would give me an office at IRDS, say, for three months or so, and resources to explore my ideas. They suggested I see a couple of short-term clients. Their own included inmates from Delhi jails moving toward release, victims of political violence or police brutality, police officers themselves, low-caste university students, and divorcées. India and Indians, they told me, needed me more than did the West.
Psychologists know how to persuade. My practice in Ottawa granted me an extended leave, but at the end of those three months, my work was barely starting to yield results. I had, perhaps rashly, taken on a few clients who needed more than three months’ therapy. Perhaps I did it because I knew it would create an obligation in me to stay. I had begun again to write, in a way I had not for the nearly fifteen years I had been in Canada. It was like releasing a hand that had been tied behind my back—numbness, pins and needles, then, what I was perceiving now, a return of strength.
I extended my leave again despite, or because of, not knowing where this was leading. Delhi was tense, and dangerous, at this time. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was long over, but the sense of her reign as decadent and bloody remained. The optimism that had still tenuously prevailed when I’d left in ’69 was in pieces, particularly in Punjab, our only Sikh-majority state, which was agitating for independence. Indira’s response was to put the state under President’s Rule. What’s that old saw? To a lady with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Being at the IRDS, though, felt like being part of the solution, while in Canada, I had felt like I was hiding my head in a hole. Here, I met political scientists and sociologists who were studying our government, its problems, our people’s response; I saw clients who personified, in many ways, our struggles.
At the expiry of my second leave, June 1, the IRDS offered me a permanent place. I thought about it, for an hour or so, and accepted.
It was in exactly this time that the tension in Punjab became suddenly concentrated in the area around the Golden Temple, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar. The rebels’ leader would roam the Punjabi countryside with his followers on missions of “purification”—violent confrontations with members of other sects, as well as acts of nationalist assertion—and then retreat, regroup and re-pray in the Golden Temple complex, their safehouse and stronghold.
For as long as the renegades managed to survive in their bastion, they could continue to wage their war on the disagreeable sectarians and secularists. If, alternatively, by making Sikhdom’s holiest place his fort, their leader was trying to tempt Indira Gandhi to make of him a martyr there—well, he succeeded in that.
June 3 was a holy day. The pathways and shrines of the temple were pilgrim-packed, as were the hostel, offices and library within the temple’s grounds. That night, a curfew silenced the city streets as the militants shrank from the temple thoroughfares into the sanctum sanctorum.
June 4, the Dragon Lady’s army began its assault, a seventeen-hour shooting day, with brief pauses for the army to invite pilgrims to exit the complex. Few dared. Reports leaked out: The army locked sixty pilgrims into a hostel room overnight—this was to protect them—but without water or fans, all but five were dead when the doors were unlocked the next morning. Crossfire wounded innocents as they drank blood-tainted water from the gutters, all they could find.
We followed it all, at the office, blow by blow, shot by shot. We heard later that the generals had never imagined the fighters would be so well armed or so persistent, but imagination is not, I suppose, a quality much cultivated in the army. Rebels popped out of manholes, shot at the soldiers’ knees, then disappeared again into the anthill that is the temple complex. The generals admired their courage and cunning, wished those Sikhs were on their side, as in days of yore. But the only way to get rid of ants is to kill them all.
June 5, they brought in the tanks.
Little changed in Delhi through this time. I had been there almost a year, and had made an offer on a flat, though my stay with my parents had been congenial enough. My cousin, Vivek, his wife and their children were also staying with us. His parents, down south, were unhappy about his unemployability and his indifferent attempts to renounce alcoholism. They had appealed to my father, the family patriarch, who obliged by taking their son in and trying to find him a job. Vivek’s response was to run after pyramid schemes.
The best thing about the living arrangement was their children. Vivek and Jana had two, a boy and a girl. Their favourite thing was to ask about Canada, and when they learned about Halloween, they begged for a dress-up party. They chattered all week about costumes; I was to provide sweets. I was thrilled about hosting a children’s party and planned to dress up as a bad-tempered female vegetable-seller. For days, I had shooed youngsters from my door as I transformed my bedroom into a haunted house.
I recall ticking off the final arrangements on my commute to work the morning of October 31. I had three clients to see that day and a meeting with colleagues to discuss a research initiative on the descendants of Partition.
When I think back now to the moment I entered the IRDS that morning, my memories are cinematically exaggerated. I could see no one, which was very unusual: the office was typically bustling by the time I got there, and much of the point of the institute was to encourage dialogue and cross-fertilization. I only closed my door when seeing clients.
I was whistling as I entered. I am competent at whistling, perhaps more so than at conversation, and was feeling jaunty. The sound, in my recollection, was sucked away from me in the emptiness of the corridors. I entered one of the conference rooms to find everyone huddled around a radio.
Indira Gandhi: shot.
Shot. The word in English is more onomatopoeic than ever we realize.
Shhh. The smooth sailing of bullet through barrel, fricting lead against iron, joined and separated by the hastening oil.
Ahhh. Lead against unresisting air, a fleshly sigh of admission.
T. The consonant finality of the bullet coming to rest.
We dispersed after some time and went about our business as slightly conflicting reports trickled in by radio and telephone: two men with turbans had assassinated the prime minister. There had been an attempted assassination on the prime minister and she was being rushed to hospital. Mrs. Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards had shot and killed her in apparent retaliation for her having ordered the storming of the Golden Temple in June. It was the last version that was borne out, exactly the sort of thing that many at the IRDS studied: communal conflict and cycles of revenge.
I spent my day seeing my therapeutic clients, but, that afternoon, we reconvened, seven or eight of us around the table, some talking with excitement; others, including the two Sikhs, more circumspect. Opinions varied, but people seemed too shocked to clash outright. India’s current incarnation was less than forty years old. The assassination was a nadir in our young democracy’s history. That any Sikhs, whose community was famously loyal to the multiplicitous notion of modern India, could feel so marginalized as to resort to this act seemed as tragic as the act itself. None of us was a fan of the prime minister, which fact also saddened us. She’d increasingly played the paranoid autocrat, rather than the freedom fighter and democracy defender she had been in her youth. But even through her various national and local suspensions of civil liberties, it had been possible to maintain the idea that civil society would ultimately triumph. Somehow, this violent end seemed the final shattering of that dream. I don’t think any of us suspected that the final shattering was yet to come.
The head of the office staff, a former stenographer promoted repeatedly for her unusual acumen, looked in the open door. “I am sorry”—she frowned—“but I must advise you learned people to go home.” She rarely encountered disobedience from those she supervised or those she served. We left.
My bus would take me right past the hospital where our prime minister lay dying. As we approached, government cars, with police motorcycles weaving and buzzing around them, overtook us. The crowds thickened—mourners, I supposed. The closer we got, however, the younger and more male the crowds appeared. Our bus slowed to walking pace, unable to get through; then a couple of young men stopped it, banging on the door until the driver opened it.
“Show me the Sikhs!” the first shouted as he leapt up the steps. He started down the aisle, checking the empty seats to make sure no turbaned head was ducked below, out of sight. Several of his fellows appeared behind him. Their eyes were red—not from crying, my guess. They wore half-unbuttoned shirts, moustaches, shaggy hair. Bollywood villains.
There were no Sikhs on our bus, but, as we arrived at the transit depot, I saw a tall gentleman dragged out of another bus by his shirt, spectacles askew. He was pushed down into the sweating, crushing sea of the crowd, where I lost him.
My second bus home contained a number of wary-looking Sikhs. I knew none of them. We reached my neighbourhood. They went to their homes, I to mine.
I found my father pacing in front of the radio. “Outrageous!” he said when he saw me, shaking his finger in the air. He had been a lifelong civil servant, dedicated to civility and servility. He liked a pendulum best when it was still. He had been piously regretful at the Golden Temple invasion, but extremists must bend or be bent to the rule of law.
Vivek’s children had come home early from school. They were mainly worried about whether our Halloween party that evening would be cancelled. I told them that although I wasn’t much in a mood, I would go ahead with our plan if their friends showed up.
Three did, surprisingly. Although I couldn’t bring myself to dress up, I gave them sweets and a tour of my Room of Doom, which included a disembodied hand that gripped their small necks and a ghost that popped out of my almirah. I had also strewn “poppers” on the floor so that their entry seemed to trigger gunfire. On other days, their screams would have been delightful.
Rumours floated in that I was not the only one distributing sweets: some Sikhs were celebrating the assassination. My sister phoned from Canada to tell us they had seen images on TV of Sikhs in Vancouver and Toronto laughing, dancing bhangra.
“It’s just a handful behaving like this,” she said, “but that’s what makes the news, right? The rest of them are going about their daily business, but you can’t show that on TV. I saw a bunch at a vigil downtown.”
By the time the children finished their candy, their parents were at the door, anxious to get them home. We expected a curfew to be called, and one was. We expected, if we woke in the night, to hear the buzz and wail of police and army making smaller and larger loops through the city, lacing it tight with invisible cords, tying the city down as if it were a patient suffering a seizure, until tempers cooled and order restored itself. In some cities, this was what happened. In Delhi, things went differently.
The next morning, the air smelled of smoke. As I descended to take my coffee, there was a rattle at the back gate. My mother went out. It was the wife from the Sikh family who lived next door. The husband, in his fifties, was already a little higher in the civil service than my father had been by the time of his retirement. Relations between them were cordial but not friendly, and I had wondered if the question of their equality might be the main source of the careful distance.
Now the wife was at the gate, pleading and sobbing. I went out into the garden but hung back to listen. Mrs. Singh was begging my mother to send my father to persuade her menfolk to come and hide in our house.
“They are killing Sikhs, you understand? They are going to each and every Sikh house, they are killing the men, they take the girls, they are setting the houses on fire.”
My mother was hesitating to open the gate when the woman looked past her, and me. My father had come out to stand behind me.
“Please, sir. My husband, my sons. They will not go.” Mrs. Singh’s voice rose as she approached hysteria. “Sir, he says he is as loyal to India as the sun is loyal to the dawn. He won’t believe they will attack our house.”
“He must be right, of course,” responded my father. He hadn’t moved from his spot near the house.
Beyond the gate, Mrs. Singh stopped crying. She wiped her cheeks with her dupatta and turned to go.
“Please,” I said. “Let me see what I can do.”
She gave a slight nod but did not pause.
I went to our rooftop first and looked out across the colony. At its fringes, fires were burning, not a general conflagration but isolated posts of smoke rising around the periphery as though to make a fence. I descended to the front door and found Vivek on the street, talking with a neighbour. “It’s true,” said the man. He had one crossed eye, and it was difficult to tell what he thought about what he was saying. “There are mobs moving in from the Ring Road. They are going after Sikh homes and businesses, but they will destroy Hindu-Muslim too, anyone who hides Sikhs. No macho hero stuff, uh? Look after your family.”
I went next door, but there was no answer when I rang, so I ran back through our house and shouted over their back gate. This time, Mr. Singh came out.
“My dear chap, why so distressed?” he asked in English. He was hale-looking, with a wide, sunny face and a tightly bound beard above a dress shirt and tie. “My wife has infected you with her anxiety!”
“Sir, I think you really would be very well advised to—that is, our doors are open to you and your family.” I wanted to speak more forcefully (really, I wanted to drag him into our house just as those goons had dragged that poor gentleman down the bus steps), but could not make him seem subject to my instruction, or pity, or fear. Singh means “lion”; it is the name of the pride. “You are in grave danger.”
“There are miscreants on both sides,” said Mr. Singh. He patted my shoulder. “Everyone is in terrible shock. Let the police do their duty. I’m sure they will have matters well in hand very shortly.”
I left him and began phoning friends and colleagues, who passed on to me still-tentative information, since confirmed. It appeared someone, possibly in the ranks of the ruling party, had supplied lists—census? voters? ration cards?—of Sikh-occupied homes, Sikh-owned businesses. The mobs were not rampaging randomly; those batons of smoke were rising only from the addresses on the lists. The streets were unusually quiet, and when we heard any vehicle, we imagined it was one of these organizers, shaping and directing the mobs, avenging sheepdogs herding wolfish sheep. The rumour was that the Congress party had hired otherwise unemployed young men to enlarge the mobs, 500 rupees a pop. To employ professional mourners is no new thing; to direct them to express their grief for their dear, departed leader with gleeful barbarism—this we had not seen before.
And the police? The army? “Standing by the side of the road,” one of my colleagues told me on the phone, choking on tears or indignation. “Fully complicit!” Later, I heard that Sikhs had called the police and found themselves arrested for actions they had taken in their own defense and that the few officers or commanders who protected citizens and property were reprimanded. Pogroms. State-sanctioned. Not officially, but.
The smell of smoke on our street was growing thicker, the fires visibly closer. I went again to the Singhs’ back gate and this time was met by Mr. Singh with his wife, daughters-in-law, and a small horde of children.
“All right,” he said, with the habitual optimist’s stiffness in dire straits. “Let me deliver our womenfolk and children to you. I so hate them to be upset!” He seemed almost glad to be shed of his family’s distress.
“Sir,” I said, letting his family pass into our garden. “Please. If the crowd comes to your door, let me tell them you are not home. It will go easier for all of us. Please. For your family.”
He drew a heavy breath. We could hear shouts now and guessed they must have reached our street. He inclined his head briefly and was gone. I went along between the houses, to the front, where Vivek met me, iron pot-tongs in one hand, paring knife in the other. I recall pausing briefly to wonder whether he was ridiculous.
The mob arrived, going straight to the Singhs’ house. A number of them hopped the gate into the front garden and began to bang on the door.
“Hai!” I screamed from our own garden. “No one is home there! They heard about you lot. They left yesterday. Shoo!” I, too, was brandishing something—I remember the feel of it in my hand, along with the taste of acid in my throat—but I can no longer remember what it was.
Astonishingly, whatever we did was effective. The goons at the gate shouted to the goons at the door that there were other fish to fry, farther up the same road. Thankfully Mr. Singh and his sons were not tempted into confrontation.
Startled at how easy it had been to move the mob along, Vivek and I exited our garden into the road. My father followed us. There was a much bigger crowd at the end of the street, half-undone men in half-undone shirts. The smoke was thick and thicker, as were the crowds, but we caught a glimpse of a man being pulled from a house by his unbound hair, his turban also unbound and torn. We knew who lived there: two brothers, Singhs, no relation to those hiding in our house. They were about my age, owners of a motorcycle dealership a few blocks away, and lived with their father. Kritika and I used to joke about how we couldn’t tell them apart. Singh and Singh. Singh and sons.
The crowd parted to reveal the man, now on fire. Oh God—which brother was it? Or was it the father? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell.
He held his arms out, shaking, reaching, staggering. A whole man alight. We reached toward him, we froze. What can you do? These are the smells of a man burned alive: kerosene smoke, burning hair, roasting flesh, but also something else, something green and wet—a near-anonymous martyr tied to wood where the sap still ran.
“Bhangra!” someone shouted, seeing the man shake in his own flames, and others shouted too, even laughed. “He’s dancing bhangra!”
In minutes, the street was empty. My father had run back to our house and fetched a quilt. He threw it over the now-fallen man and threw himself on top. The flames were doused, but there wasn’t enough flesh for a pulse. I checked. Another body lay at the far end of the street.
After, my father tried to phone our local police deputation. He could reach no one. He was in favour of going in person, but I told him, “Appa, surely you can tell that the police must be permitting this to happen.”
He looked insulted, angry. “Ridiculous. How dare you?”
“Then where are they? You think all this is somehow a secret from them?”
“Surely they are busy elsewhere—this must be happening all over the city.”
“Yes, because they have failed and are failing to prevent it. There is collusion, Appa.” I became more earnest as he stopped contradicting me, hopeful that I was wrong. “Come, I’ll go with you to the police station, come.” But now he sat, not meeting my eyes, looking drawn. I left him alone.
The next morning, a couple of my colleagues phoned to tell me of a protest meeting coming together in the compound of a relief agency. I was not inclined to go. I dreaded the rhetoric, the sense of mass action. I knew that it was necessary to show opposition, and that such protests might even succeed in dispersing a mob or two, but I have a near-pathological aversion to collectives. It goes against my grain to join any mob, even one forming to march and chant for something I believe in.
But Appa overheard the conversations. “This is it, Ashwin. We will make ourselves heard.” Perhaps my resistance would have broken down even if he had not insisted we go.
It was a small group, perhaps 150 people. I think it could have been much larger if they had been able to spread the word more effectively. If I had not been staying with my father, he never would have known about that gathering of concerned fellow citizens. If I had been living in my own flat by then, they would not have been able to reach me, since it would be years before I got a telephone.
I remember very little of that day. Generic details, such as the detestable mass-shouting of slogans expressing admirable sentiments. We marched together to a neighbourhood that we had heard was among the most badly affected, a Sikh-majority enclave. We confronted mobs and were mostly successful, simply with shouting, in getting them to stop, if temporarily. I don’t really remember. After the critical, desperate confrontations of the day prior, I think my brain’s ability to form memories with any specificity was topped.
My father, however, would talk about it for years as a seminal moment in his life. He had awoken to a new reality. He wasn’t sure whether it had been hidden from him or he had been hiding from it. Now that he had seen it, though, he would never turn away.
By the evening of November 3, the army and police had rediscovered their role as keepers of the peace. The mobs evaporated as quickly as they had formed. Official estimates range upward of 2,700 Sikhs killed; unofficial ones reach past five figures. Undisputed is that thousands more had lost their homes and livelihoods, were made instant refugees in their own city. Relief workers, sociologists, psychologists and lawyers dedicated themselves to the needs particularly of the women and children whose husbands and fathers had been killed.
I was not involved in the organization of tents and cooking pots. Making people comfortable? I wouldn’t know where to start. But a former IRDS fellow contacted me to say that she would like to see whether my therapeutic skills could help these bereaved and traumatized women take up the work of heading their families.
I made no guarantees, but she took me on anyway. “I’m pretty sure you can do no harm,” she said. I thanked her for the vote of confidence.
All in all, I saw a dozen or so families. I tried to help them in redefining and accepting their new circumstances, a task hundreds more managed without my help. They were usually referred to me because of some particular or extreme problem—guilt, debilitating anger, mental illness—that was preventing them from making the necessary adjustments and pursuing what little compensation was beginning to dribble forth from tightly shut government coffers.
The government claimed, much like my mother, that we had not seen what we saw. They set up “Commissions of Inquiry”—omissions of inquiry would have been more apt—whose main purpose seemed to be to shield those to blame for the atrocities. And our crown prince, Rajiv Gandhi, unexpectedly and uncomfortably inheriting the throne of what we had thought to be a democratic nation, passively voiced this summary of the three days of mayhem that his party had willed into being: “Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”
He may not have been responsible for the violence, but he was grateful to those who did what he lacked the cojones to do. And after he washed into office a few months later on a tsunami of sympathy, he kept on protecting the perpetrators.
In addition to the victimized families, I saw people in the course of my regular therapeutic work who had been implicated in the violence, and were haunted. Three or four police officers, at least two of whom were on stress leave because they had been held back from acting as duty and morals demanded. Whether the leave was imposed by their superiors as punishment or given to them as time to accept the drowning of their innocence is not clear in my recollection; perhaps it is somewhere in my notes.
I saw a few of the relief workers, whose overexposure to others’ grief was beginning to addle them. I saw some middle-class people from middle-class neighbourhoods, stalwarts like my father, whose guilt and disillusion were eating into their livelihoods and relationships, particularly in cases of obvious disparity between their feelings and those of their family members and colleagues.
I wrote the stories they told me. I gave them back. The stories intersected and informed one another. Seeing this, one family asked for a meeting. I put it to the others, most of whom accepted eagerly. Two Sikh families, all women; several Hindus from the affected areas; a single Muslim police officer; and my Appa, who, when I described the meeting, asked to attend. For several hours, they compared their experiences of betrayal and trauma and spoke to one another across religion and class. Our puny-yet-potent effort at truth and reconciliation.
Their individual narratives, and the story of their meeting, formed my first book. It is mostly about treating individual survivors of a sudden incident of extreme, state-sponsored violence, but it also provided me a chance to talk about secrecy and hypocrisy and the ways they wear on the psyche.
Who Are the Guilty? asks a well-known exposé on the riots produced by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, but the title is rhetorical. I called my little book Who Are the Victims? Narrative Therapy in the Aftermath of the Delhi Riots. I thought my question better than the one of the pamphlet on blaming, because mine could not so readily be answered.
Some ten years after the violence, Amitav Ghosh, a novelist of extraordinary scope, wrote a piece for an American magazine. He had been living in Delhi at that time. His neighbourhood was attacked, though he didn’t witness the burnings. He, too, was reluctant to march, though he did, in the same protests as I. “Writers don’t join crowds,” he writes. “But what do you do when the constitutional authority fails to act? You join and in joining bear all the responsibilities and obligations and guilt that joining represents.” And yet, he says, “Until now I have never really written about what I saw in November of 1984. Nobody, so far as I know, has written about it except in passing.” Why silent for so long? “As a writer,” he says, “I had only one obvious subject, the violence. From the news report, or the latest film or novel, we have come to expect the bloody detail or the elegantly staged conflagration that closes a chapter or effects a climax.” He is a writer mostly of fiction; I suppose those temptations are particularly present for them.
Part of the reason he didn’t write about the bloodshed is that he was spared the trauma of witnessing it. “What I saw at first hand,” he said, “was not the horror of violence but the affirmation of humanity . . . the risks that perfectly ordinary people are willing to take for one another.”
Ghosh’s representation is honest and necessary, but it doesn’t fully unlock my understanding of that time. The key, for me, was more ephemeral, less dramatic than either the violence or the resistance. Something in the middle, something about surviving and shifting. About seeing. The critical moment, the thing I remember and want to record, was my father’s transformation: one citizen awakened to his own blindness, his own complicity; my father’s hands held to his eyes in pain as the scales fell.
Excerpted from The Ever After Of Ashwin Rao (2015). Reprinted with permission from Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint.
Padma Vishwanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist, whose debut novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published to international acclaim and shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and the Caribbean), and the PEN USA Fiction Award. Her work has received many awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from the Canada Council, as well as residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Banff Centre, and the Sacatar Foundation. She lives with her family in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Very well written! Congratulations!