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Remember to Forget

By Neel Kamal Puri

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He had stepped off the train at the Old Delhi Railway Station in his red turban. There was a press of cabbies vying to relieve him of his bag and herd him to their taxis. He had instinctively picked one with a red turban.
‘Where to, sardarji?’ asked the taxi driver.
‘Janakpuri,’ he said, which was where his company had a branch office.
It was very early in the morning. On the way there was a campfire in the middle of the road. Or so it seemed. Furniture was piled up twenty feet high and was burning rapidly.Black smoke curled into the white, wispy clouds in the sky, dirtying them.
‘Some sort of clearing up?’ he asked the driver.
‘This is a rowdy area. Lots of gundagardi. Could be anything.’
‘Even if they are only trying to warm up a cold November morning, why in the middle of the road?’
As they skirted the volcanic mountain of furniture, they saw a human leg sticking out from the bottom of the heap.
‘Told you this was a bad area,’ said the taxi driver.
They shuddered and drove past. Amidst the smell of burning wood, a fleeting smell, quickly submerged, of burning flesh. A sudden waft again and then they had moved on.
Tejpal washed and bathed in the camp office, then read the paper, which was inked black with news of the prime minister’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. He contemplated awhile on how the commonplace eludes extraordinary lives even in death. Dying in bed of old age would be far too tame an end for the daughter of the first prime minister of independent India. But he had never liked her and could not say that he was sorry. There was something to be said for a life that was routine. You wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. At least no one thinks of gunning you down. Amidst such philosophical thoughts on the ironies of life he called for a cab to take him to the station to catch the eleven-thirty to Gwalior. ‘Come and get it,’ each of the drivers said, when he sent his office peon to the taxi stand. None would come to the building. He was surprised at the sudden intransigence of taxi drivers. He walked to the stand, carrying his overnight bag, the picture of normality beginning to curl at the edges.
A busload of ruffians went by.
‘Sardar, sardar, maro, maro, kill him, kill him,’ they shouted, pointing to him.
He gawked. Just when he had thought the ordinariness of his life was his armour. They could not be serious. They were just a bunch of hooligans getting a laugh out of the stupid look on his face. He waited for the bus to be on its way. But it stopped. And then they were streaming out, armed with clubs and swords.
‘Maro, maro.’
There was an explosion of blood inside his head. He scurried into a by-lane and ran wildly. Like a mouse, he thought. He did not look back as that would have slowed him down, but concentrated instead, on getting away from the hungry-eyed mob. That was the stuff his subsequent dreams were made of: the maniacal running, the attempt to keep his feet quiet even as he ran, willing them to fall softly on the tarmac, hiding behind doorways, cautiously peeping round a corner before plunging on.
He had run through a number of by-lanes when he finally felt he had outrun danger. In the distance he saw a small dhaba at the foot of an ancient banyan tree. An old sardar with a flowing white beard was kindling a tandoor, putting small pieces of wood into it and occasionally stirring its depths with a fireiron. Tejpal waited for the heavy pounding of his heart to subside, for his legs to solidify once again into bone and muscle before he made his way there. The sardar was a kindly looking old man. Maybe it was the sudden antithesis he offered, but even now Tejpal thought of him as the most handsome man ever. He went up to him and asked for some tea.
‘Babaji, how long have you been running this place?’ He was making small talk as the nearly viscous mixture of water, milk, sugar and tea leaves gurgled in the weather-beaten pot, reassuring himself that the ordinariness of life was still intact.
‘Been over forty years now,’ said the old man as he poured the contents of the pot into a glass through a tea-blackened sieve.
Tejpal rubbed his hands together in anticipation of tea and also as a closure to the cat-and-mouse game. He had just curled his cold fingers around the hot glass of tea when the mob appeared around the corner once again. He thumped his glass down on the table. The tea sloshed all over his hand, scalding it, but he ran.
As he looked back from the head of the lane, he saw that the mob had caught hold of the old man and was swinging him into the fire. That is where his visual frame froze forever.

When Harpreet wiped the sweat from his brow, he had woken up mid-stride. But he had also left behind an old man being roasted in an oven. And now that he was awake, he could not alter anything.

Tejpal had been to a school in Ludhiana where most of his class fellows were sons of industrialists—some petty, some giants. His father was a people person, prone to unleashing practical jokes.
His favourite one was from the time when India had neither independence from the British nor a national anthem. He was enrolled in an engineering course in London and when students from different nations were asked to sing their anthems he had gone on to sing a Punjabi folk song; standing at attention, hand on his heart and a grave look on his face, though he was singing about a wily old traveller who stopped for a night at a lodging run by a woman and left behind two counterfeit annas as payment after availing of everything she had to offer. ‘Everything’ was a matter of speculation and could be stretched as far as the imagination would go.
Nalle baba raat reh gaya, nalle de gaya doanni khoti,’ he sang.
The assembly of European students stood straight and stiff, whilst laughter gurgled silently in his chest.
To Tejpal he would describe the time, back in 1915, when he and others would meet at the Dewa Singh Sports Goods shop in Chaura Bazaar. His narratives usually came with appropriate sound effects. He could never mention the word motorcycle without an accompanying, prolonged ‘zooooooo’ which went from a low note to a high-pitched one, or a resounding slap that was always a ‘phataak’. There were many others and the accounts always became a dramatic enactment. Tejpal’s father’s stories were foggy and exciting. Tejpal never understood everything.
‘We would usually gather at the sports shop because we had to each collect our share of the pamphlets that were to be distributed. We would talk in whispers. Phus phus…phus phus. Not that it made any difference because we kept getting into trouble anyway. We would keep telling each other to shhh up because that had been our problem. We could never keep a secret. The angrez always knew in advance what we were going to do next.’
‘Did they know you?’
‘No. They just knew us as the ghaddaris—rebels. They also knew that in the February of 1915, we were all going to rebel against the British. I was very little then, only good for fetching and carrying. And that is what I did. But the others, the older boys, had plans. They were going to destroy railway stations and police posts, disable post and telegraph systems, cause disarray in military camps and set up their own camps in jungles and border areas.’
‘But I am sure the angrez knew you were one of the rebels. They must have been afraid of you.’ Tejpal could not imagine anyone not knowing his father.
‘We had just picked up a handful of those pamphlets and were headed out of the shop when one of those English policemen gave us chase. We barely made it because my friend dropped some leaflets and stopped to gather them, and I had to run back and help him.’
And then in a philosophical tone, he added, ‘Bravery came so easily those days. It was fuelled by a righteous anger and we would just surge ahead on its torrential flow.’

When Tejpal finally drove into Ludhiana on that cold November morning of 1984, after a journey on the razor’s edge, he felt nothing, not even anger. After he escaped from the mob he had been refused help by a senior police official who had told him he was on his own. Terrified, he had hidden on rooftops, and had watched two Sikh men being hurled off a neighbouring roof. He had been partially reassured when he found shelter with a friend; and had finally dumped his pride and identity and removed his turban, taken his hair down, smeared his forehead with a red tikka, and become Swami Vidhi Chand. His friend did not recognize him as he held up his hand in blessing. ‘Tathaastu,’ he said, and his friends gawked at this apparition that appeared to have fallen in through the roof. It was in this guise that he had travelled to Gwalior, only to find that he and his wife had to flee from there as well, because the mob had names and addresses there, too, and were carefully, methodically, going from one house to the other, making sure to kill, burn and loot.
All through the drive his wife sat beside him. Two large suitcases were thrown carelessly into the boot of his car along with a random selection of household goods—cushions, crockery, cutlery, gadgets, linen. There had been no time for considered choices. A hasty inventory made in a fleeting glance, things picked only because they were closest at hand, a moment of indecision between two necessities resolved in passing; racing against the crowd that was even now arming itself with swords and petrol somewhere in town.
The baggage in the boot, the car that they drove and a healthy bank balance were all that he had to show for all those years spent as a busy executive. He had arrived in Ludhiana with a frown wrinkling his forehead, eyes shadowed under by sleeplessness, worry lines creasing the rest of his face, his chin firmly set, not in any display of determination but more from the emotional necessity of gritting his teeth. Arriving at midnight, they had parked their car in front of the gurdwara at Kichlew Nagar. The familiar sight of a gurdwara, any gurdwara, offered a feeling of relief which had nothing to do with religion. It just gave them a sudden sense of belonging.
The town was characterized by frenzied industrial activity with neither time nor breathing space for any ghosts, nor for any finer sentiments that might pass for culture. Tejpal had parked here quite instinctively because this was where his parents had lived in later years after his father’s retirement from the Punjab Agricultural University and before their deaths. Harpreet and he had looked at each other and cried silently for a few minutes in homage to their lost lives. Before this, there had been no time to cry. They had then debated waking some friends to find a bed for the night but decided against it. Neither of them had the emotional energy to give a coherent account of the events to anyone, least of all to those who would wake up from sleep—those whose lives were still determined by the certainties of the everyday.
‘We will just sleep in the car,’ was all they said to each other, hoping that the morning would look different. And it did. They had woken up in the early hours and already the streets were beginning to fill up with traffic, the silence of the night broken by milk delivery men on motorcycles, the tinkling of cycle bells as labourers on early morning shifts made their way to their workplaces.
Once the immediate sense of danger diminished, Harpreet began to feel that there had been something strangely unfettered about their journey. Just a road ahead and they could have gone anywhere, any milestones past any green fields. But they had driven into Ludhiana.
The first settlers, the no-baggage itinerants, the Rajputs and later the Jats wandering in from the South, must have looked at the Sutlej river and said, ‘Here is where we stop,’ and may have gone on to say, ‘we may as well put down our backpacks and seek permission from whomever it is that gives permission.’ And no matter how dusty and tired those first settlers must have been, they had made an epic journey. The kind that creates castles out of thin air; when the dust clears, a whole city is in place.
Some said Ludhiana took its name from the Lodhi dynasty in the fifteenth century; others believed it dated back to many thousand years before Christ, during the time of the Vedas. But the romance of antiquity was soon submerged by the scramble for existence.
Into this city Tejpal and Harpreet had come, the skyline teeming with rooftops as far as the eye could see. They had been welcomed into Harish’s house. His father, the honourable Mr Bakshi, had lectured them on the mettle it takes to begin again.
‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘You will not believe that I started with nothing, just like you will have to today. Of course, it is not everyone who can do it. You have to be very determined.’

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