The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars...It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon ka badla khoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.
He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.
No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of the city than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared...instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements...even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.
Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. Rakesh was hunched in a chair.
Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.
Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.
He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.
Deepa, who had been anxiously waiting for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your son-in-law?”
Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.
“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked. His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”
There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.
His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege.
An army of goondas was running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.
He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.
What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?
As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.
It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.
Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing- room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.
Opening the glass sliding doors ever so slightly, she squeezed herself out onto the front porch.
It was a morning unlike any other. There were no milkmen. No newspaper delivery boys either.
No one was jogging or walking or even so much as venturing out of their front doors. The buildings looked forlorn. The trees hung their heads. The birds clustered as silently as a group of morose mourners, while the dogs went about with their barks stuck in their throats. A booming silence, of a kind that is not heard in Delhi even in the dead of the night, greeted the new day spreading itself across the sky, as bright red as a freshly inflicted wound.
It was a ghoulish silence that packed more death and grief in it than the most harrowing cries of Muharram. Within it lay the silence of the dead, the silence of the afraid, the silence of the uncaring, the silence of the ones numbed by grief...As Savitri stood in its midst, her thoughts went back to yesterday morning where her entire world had rested so snugly in its usual frame that she had not paused to give it a second thought. She had been consumed with the arrangements that needed to be made for Deepa’s wedding. What she wouldn’t give for that to be her only concern at that moment.
The doors behind her slid open. Jaswant came out, rubbing his eyes.
“Ki time ho gaya hai?” he asked.
“Just past seven.”
“I must have dropped off on the sofa,” he said with a shake of the head.
“You looked run-down last night,” Savitri said.
“How is Deepa?”
“She is sleeping.” She didn’t tell him that Deepa had cried all night. With his gaunt face and drooping shoulders, he looked harrowed enough as it was.
“You should go and lie down,” he told her. “You must be tired.”
“I will. But first you tell me what you’ve been hiding.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve been married for twenty-five years, Jaswant. You can’t keep secrets from me.”
He looked away. For several seconds, he stood there with his eyes averted and his lips clenched in a tight line. She waited, the dread inside her growing. What was so terrible that he was finding it so hard to share it with her?
In a low voice, he revealed everything he had learned from his friend in the Home Guards.
She listened quietly, catching her breath when he mentioned the state of Prem’s car. There was little chance Prem would have survived. She winced as if she had been struck when he said that. She was quiet after he was finished. She had feared something like that. But learning it had actually happened was something else.
“You know all last night I was thinking of how lucky I was,” she said finally. “I kept putting myself in Kishneet’s shoes, not knowing whether her son was dead or alive. And here I was with my entire family safely home. Everything intact. And I remember thinking, rab na kare, if I were ever in Kishneet’s situation, the one thing I would want more than anything would be to know.”
“You think I should tell them?” Jaswant asked.
“We’ll have to tell Deepa too.”
Savitri’s face clouded. “We’ll worry about that later,” she said in a low voice.
“I’ll go call Amarjeet,” he said.
She stayed where she was after he had gone. Her thoughts had jumped back several years to her early twenties when she was friends with a girl called Neelam. Neelam had got engaged to an army officer. A love-cum-arranged marriage, as Neelam put it. She and her fiancé were childhood sweethearts whose families had known each other for years. Savitri, who was grappling with being married to a man she barely knew, had been jealous.
A week before Neelam’s wedding, the Chinese attacked. Neelam’s fiancé was ordered to the front. He died in the ensuing battle, leaving her widowed even before she had the chance to be a bride. Savitri, who had envied Neelam until then, thanked her lucky stars that such a fate had not befallen her.
Now it appeared to have befallen her daughter.
Excerpted with permission from The Assassinations: A Novel of 1984, Vikram Kapur, Speaking Tiger.