When Andrew and I first arrived in Delhi on our honeymoon trip to India in late January 1984, we stayed for two or three days in a small hotel in Paharganj, in a room that was inexpensive, quite clean though altogether luxury-free, and respectable though perhaps not altogether secure. Almost everything worked, the people at the front desk seemed a little bemused by us but were helpful enough, and none of our things were stolen, though we made sure to carry our passports with us at all times.
One peaceful Sunday morning we emerged from the hotel into the square below. We were in a Sikh neighborhood and it seemed that all the men had just washed their hair and were out drying it in the weak January sun. Their long damp locks strewn over their shoulders, they lazed on string cots, talking quietly among themselves or simply basking in silence. With their hair down, they looked completely relaxed. In Indian English, open, when referring to hair, means loose; and with their hair loose, they looked completely open. Secure in their manhood and in the bosom of their community; allowing themselves to be vulnerable.
The scene made an impression upon me at the time because the men looked so natural and at ease, and there was an abandon in them that outsiders might never see. Sikh men are usually so well-groomed, their turbans tightly pleated, not a stray hair escaping. There was something almost sacred about it. I felt myself to be an intruder on their privacy and made sure not to stare as I walked by, but also felt happy and privileged to have glimpsed such an intimate scene.
In retrospect, though, the scene carries a much greater poignancy. In January, 1984 it was still possible for Sikh men to feel at ease in Paharganj; four months later, in early June 1984, the Indian Army, on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s orders, were to invade the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and four months after that, on October 31st, 1984, Indira Gandhi was to be assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Over the four days that followed, the Sikh community in Delhi was targeted in an orchestrated orgy of violence that left nearly 3,000 dead (at a conservative estimate) and drove out tens of thousands more.
The peace of the scene that Sunday morning in Paharganj was soon to be shattered forever. How all the more fragile and precious it feels to me as I hold it carefully in my memory.