Josna Rege

99. Paharganj, January 1984

In 1980s, history, India, Politics, Stories on February 24, 2011 at 1:35 am

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.

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  1. Very moving. From something deeply personal and evocative to the sharply outlined and precise universal and historical in just a few deftly crafted paragraphs.

    • Thank you, Norah. I was anxious to get it right. There is so much that could be said but I thought it better to stick to that one small first-hand experience.

    • Norah sums it up well. I started reading Josna’s story as soon as she sent me the link. Since my husband is Sikh, I know how fraught the historical memory of that terrible pogrom remains. To this day, so many in India will not acknowledge it for what it was but continue to believe that it was a spontaneous outpouring of grief for Mrs. Gandhi. India remains a democracy, by some miracle, and all religions are represented in governance, with the PM being Sikh himself. But politician instigated pogroms such as this, and the one against Muslims in Ahmadabad, remind us that unless we face the facts and bring perpetrators to justice that democracy will be imperilled. Josna’s story shows, so simply and sensitively, how the equanimity of an entire community can be forever disturbed. It is almost like a prose Haiku of a scene, a snapshot before hell broke loose.

      • Thank you for your clear and moving response, Rashna; I’m glad you approved of it. Thanks, too, for “a prose Haiku”; I have a tendency to ramble, so it’s nice to get positive feedback when I occasionally manage to express myself in fewer words. And yes, thank goodness that democracy in India—however imperiled—persists, and even breaks out periodically to surprise and unsettle those in power.

  2. You wrote it perfectly. Lucky for us you’ve been such a sensitive and astute observer and have the words to tell us about it. I’d never have imagined such a scene if you hadn’t described it.

    It makes me think of Tunisia and Egypt, but especially Libya today, and how a month ago there would have been versions of the same theme in neighborhoods there. This is what scares me about extremism here, too. I think we’re so accustomed to civilization that people often don’t realize it’s a fragile veneer, and once it’s damaged, things don’t necessarily bounce back to what we think of as normal.

    • That “civilization” is a thin veneer is a frightening thought, only counterbalanced by the encouraging reminder of people’s deep humanity. Let’s hope that the Tunisian and the Egyptian people will be able to look back on this time with joy as well as sadness, and consider their gains worth the temporary disruption of their everyday lives. And that those who were killed did not die in vain.

  3. Beautifully told and very moving. Thanks for the history lesson – you put it in context for me.
    I wonder if Ompi reads your blog?

  4. Here’s a poem of mine about a scene from 1990 or so, which gets at the aftermath of what you have foreshadowed. But now maybe some of that time is healed. The Golden Temple is certainly tranquil and thrilling again. Maybe people can recover from historic traumas.

    AT THE GOLDEN TEMPLE

    The town around the place had by then been made
    To step back. Bulldozers had overcome
    The market by which the area was known.
    The plan to clear the rubble was delayed.

    “Gunned down, gunned down, gunned
    Down,” said a child riding pillion to the soldier
    Sand bagged at a break in the barbed wire
    Surrounding the suspect, sacred ground.

    That and “What is the time by your good watch?”
    Were the English he had taken from the circle
    Of a lifelong-student rebel killed by the devil
    Government, or someone out to pay him back

    For all the boys he fucked in Jodhpur Jail.
    The ragi started singing as light began to fail.

    • Wow. The troubled tenses and juxtapositions, followed in the closing couplet by that painfully beautiful last line. Thank you, Andy. And thank you for the hopeful reminder that recovery from such trauma may be—is—possible. Perhaps I was a little too tragic in suggesting that such innocence and ease as we saw that Sunday morning would never return. No doubt it has, though perhaps not exactly the same atmosphere: I am somewhat out of touch.

  5. Very nice piece Josna. It is very important to tell everyone lest we forget. Being a Sikh was especially difficult as I told Susan Stanberg on NPR on Nov. 1, 1984. Patwant Singh in his book, The Sikhs, provides detailed accounts as well as several prominent non-Sikh Indians.

    • Good to hear from you, Raj, and thank you for responding. Being a Sikh was also hard after September 11th, 2001, as I recall. I will look for Patwant Singh’s book. Warm regards, J

  6. VERY precious, Josna…and to think of all that has transpired since. There is something deeply moving about the the imagery and feeling you convey so simply and beautifully.

    • Thank you, Bill. Some subjects are too terrible to approach directly; they would just overwhelm and the reader would go numb in self-defense.

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