Fateh Singh lies on his cot half-asleep, flirting with the faint breeze and listening to the sounds of the summer night and the musical snores. The rumble of heavy trucks is one of the sounds of the night as he continues to drift midway between the bloodsoaked dreams of his boyhood and the bloodier realities of his beloved Punjab today.
Even the whoosh of heavy hydraulic brakes does not sound any alarm bells in his head. They don’t make any effort at stealth at all. The crunching of their loud metal-soled army boots on the gravel outside belies the administration’s claims of a covert operation. They are not slit-eyed and bow-legged; they wear olive green fatigues. They quickly form a single file and enter the courtyard on the double, the Sten guns hanging from their shoulders marking time on the sides of their torsos as they slap back and forth.
There is no hatred in their eyes, but no compassion either. They are dumb, mute automatons out to do their job.
Hukam Singh swings off the cot with an oath, displaying the kind of agility that only extremely fat people have, and a rifle butt comes crashing down on the back of his unprotected head. Fateh Singh is too old to fight and continues to lie on the cot until he is jerked roughly to his feet.
The sevadars huddle together like Siamese twins mumbling incoherently out of fear, but their protests of innocence crumble before their eyes after bouncing off the inscrutable masks that are the soldiers’ faces. Their lips are silent now, but their eyes dart around looking for a saviour or an escape route. Their keskis, which Hukam Singh insists every man, woman and child must wear at all times inside the gurdwara, are rudely snatched from their heads and used to tie their hands behind their backs.
The old woman from Udhampur is lying prostrate on the ground, begging for her husband’s, or at least her son’s life, who cowers against the south wall with his hands tied behind his head with his turban. Fateh Singh looks around and sees that there are at least twenty-five or thirty Sikhs in the courtyard. There are old men and women and little children. And there are young men with hard expressions and sullen faces who stare back proudly and fearlessly at death, clad in olive green and black shiny metal.
There is Hukam Singh groaning with pain and muttering the foulest of curses, ones that would make truck drivers blush. The woman on the floor is wailing now and her mournful dirge is interrupted by gut-wrenching sobs that can see what is about to happen, even as her eyes cannot. The mouths of the Sten guns look as large as annons as the white marble wall behind their backs begins to push them, slowly and relentlessly, towards the shiny black circles of death. Their eyes can only see row upon row of neat geometric circles getting larger and larger until they look as big as railway tunnels and blacker.
Fateh Singh forces himself to look away and then blinks and shakes his head before rubbing his eyes hard.
He tries to jerk his feeble mind back to sanity, but the vision refuses to go away. Where there was just a small congregation of Sikhs seconds ago, he now sees a crowd getting thicker and thicker every second. His eyes, wide with disbelief, take in a scene not unlike one of the rustic cultural melas organised by the government, the ones in which villagers are asked to dress up in ethnic costumes and enthusiastically form a colourful melange in every kind of folk dress imaginable.
There are noble Harappans dressed in solemn white robes, patiently awaiting their deaths at the hands of the conquering northern tribes. He sees the ancient people of Punjab who fell fighting Alexander’s hordes. Their bodies are covered with sword wounds and there is terror in their eyes. He sees common people, traders and farmers lying helpless in the dust, lamenting the loss of their women to the pillaging Mongol armies. He sees the wailing women of Sayyidpur. He sees herdsmen and villagers groaning under the tyranny of Mughal rule.
He sees the first martyrs with their bodies scalded by hot sand and boiling in cauldrons, and having their bodies chopped limb by limb by oppressors with ecstatic smiles on their faces. He sees two little children being bricked into the white marble wall. He sees thousands of peasants proudly wearing the symbols of their new faith, lying in heaps that reached the sky, laid waste by Ahmad Shah Abdali and his rampaging Afghans. Then he begins to see more familiar faces.
His father – young, fearless and bold – and their neighbours and friends from his childhood in Amritsar. The crowd is growing every second, miraculously fitting into the tiny courtyard, squeezing in between the slowly creeping wall and the terrible hive of perfect circles.
The soldiers do not multiply like the crowd, but their faces are kaleidoscopes that change form and colour every second.
One instant they are the jewel in the widow’s helmeted head and the next they are Taimur’s bloodthirsty soldiers. Suddenly, they become Greeks with plumed helmets and then they are the thin-lipped, cruel Pathans with beards but no moustaches. Now the widow’s elite commandos have slit eyes and puttee-clad bow legs that disappear into incongruously large regulation boots and their modern Sten guns turn into bolt-action rifles.
The strange multiracial crowd now has familiar faces as it fills the courtyard. He sees the important men of Amritsar as they rub shoulders with the ne’er-do-wells and the layabouts and the street urchins. All the local leaders are there, as are the boisterous college students who announced the meeting even before the dire pronouncement of “Goli se chittar-bittar dega” had died down. The courtyard, by some act of sorcery, is now a walled-in maidan overrun with weeds, with a small platform at one end and a well on the other.
Excerpted with permission from Night of the Restless Spirits: Stories from 1984, Sarbpreet Singh, Penguin India.
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