We were humble people. We lived in the Punjab, in a small village. The movement for a separate state for the Sikhs—for Khalistan—was big in those days. We were not involved. But there was a man in our village—Harjinder Singh—who was involved with the terrorists. He would go to their meetings. They went places and threw bombs. He went with them. He stayed in Amritsar for weeks at a time. Then things got hot—the police or the CBI (the Central Bureau of Investigation) were after him. He came back to the village and he hid there for a while.
My father was an honest man, a farmer. He was also in the village council, one of the leaders. One evening we were at home eating our meal. We heard a knock on the door. It was the police! There were also two men in plain clothes—perhaps they were from the CBI.
They said that they wanted to speak to my father. They took my father outside and they asked him questions. They asked him if he knew Harjinder Singh.
My father said he did.
They asked him if he had seen Harjinder Singh.
“I have not seen him today.”
“Have you seen him this week?”
My father did not want to implicate the man. He was silent.
“Have you seen him this week?”
Still my father was silent.
They were not happy with my father’s answers. They put handcuffs on his wrists and they took him away.
We came to the veranda and we pleaded with the two men. They did not care. We said that we were honest people, that we did not know anything about terrorists. They did not care. My mother got down on her knees and began to cry.
She had been in the kitchen. There was flour on her hands and on her wrists.
“Madam, you are getting the flour on my clothes,” said one of the two men in plain clothes. He spoke in Hindi but he used the English word “Madam.” How concerned they were with their appearance. How concerned with their clothes.
They took my father to the police station—he was gone for days and days. At the station they beat him, they beat him. They tried to get information.
My father said he did not know.
Still they beat him.
My father said he did not know.
One day I went to the police station with two of my uncles. My uncles pleaded with the police—they were not concerned. Still they pleaded—they were not concerned. The next day we went back to the station. This time one of my uncles had an envelope, some bills inside. He went to a back room. There was a man there, an inspector of some kind.
The next morning we went and my father was sitting on a string cot in the veranda. He had been allowed to shave and to brush his teeth.
“Let us go,” said my uncles.
“Yes, let us go,” said my father.
At home my father did not speak much—he hardly spoke for days. One day he was working in the field. As he bent over, his shirt was slightly lifted at his waist. I could see the thick marks there on his back; many of them had begun to turn black and blue.
One day I was with my mother. We were sitting on the floor in the kitchen and I was eating my meal.
“Are there terrorists in the world, Mama?” I said.
She did not answer me.
“Are there terrorists in the world?”
Some two minutes passed, perhaps three. At last she spoke: “Some are in the village, some are in Amritsar. There are terrorists, my son—there are terrorists all around.”
My mother was right. There were terrorists in the world. Some were in the village, some were in Amritsar. And some were all around.
Harjinder Singh was from our village. This was his home. He was a “terrorist” now—or so the government of India said. He would go to Amritsar and he would go to the big cities. Every so often he would return to his home in the village.
Harjinder Singh was twenty years old. I was thirteen at that time. When I was younger, I had seen him play hockey in the fields. He had been one of the best players. One day they did not have enough players and they asked me if I wanted to play.
I was out of my element—they were all so much older than me, so much better. But how I enjoyed that day. I had come home exhausted and worn out.
A few days later I had seen Harjinder Singh in the market. He had put his arm around my shoulder and we had walked together to the flour store.
“You are a good player,” he had said to me.
I told him that he was being too kind.
“You are fast, you are not afraid of anything.”
I had said nothing.
We had come to the alley near the flour store and we had parted our ways. I had seen him from the back as he walked from the alley. What an impressive boy he was—he was tall and slim, he wore a light-blue turban. How confident and how erect he was in his walk.
Whether he was a terrorist or not, I did not know. But he was a born leader. “He is not a follower, he is a leader,” I said.
Was there truth to my words?
There was a school nearby. There was a girl there, thirteen years old, perhaps fourteen. She was a very good table tennis player. Her name was in the newspaper. One day she went to play in a competition in Amritsar. There was talk that they might even send her to a competition in Delhi.
We lived in a small village. To go to Amritsar, to go to Delhi—how talented the girl must be. How talented indeed.
One day the girl was playing table tennis and a man approached her. Some said that the man was her coach, her teacher. Some said that the man was a stranger and not affiliated with the school. Some said that the man was a complete stranger—Harjinder Singh.
I thought that the charge was bogus. When the police came to our house, I did not mince words—I told them so.
But the visitors had their preconceptions. Were they really interested in anything I said?
But this is the way the police are in Punjab—or perhaps in the world. They make these bogus charges. You speak up, they ignore you. You speak up, they ignore you. A third time you speak up—they put these iron things on your hands and they take you away.
Harjinder Singh had had experience with the police. My father had had experience with the police. The man accused of troubling the table tennis player—now he had had experience as well.
We were humble people, yes, and in this way we lived. It was a difficult world but we tried to do the best we could; we tried to manage.
We were humble people but I will say one thing—we were not stupid. The government of India might think that we were stupid. The police might think that we were stupid. But we were not so.
You get up at four in the morning, at five, you milk the cows. It is dark and it is cold—what does it matter? It is raining—what does it matter? The heat in the day is unbearable but the hard work teaches you, it makes you strong. You do not become weak—you do not get a chance to become weak. You do not become spoiled—you do not get a chance to become so.
I was fifteen years old now. My father told me to work—I worked. He told me to go to the market—I went to the market. When he was sick, and this happened a few times, there was no one to tell me what to do. But no one needed to be there. I knew my responsibility. I knew what I should do and I did it.
We grew many crops in those days: wheat, spinach, okra, coriander. Most of the crops we ate ourselves, but the wheat, that we sold in the market as well. A man needs money—money for expenses, money for food and clothing. The wheat was the source of our money.
Sometimes my father would go to the market to sell the wheat—I went with him. He bargained, he haggled—he always came up with a good deal.
In front of the others, he made a face. “I am losing money,” he said. “There are cheaters in the world, nothing but cheaters.” “I have a wife, three children—who will take care of the children?” But on the way home in the horse carriage, he smiled. Sometimes we would stop the horse carriage in the shade somewhere. He would take out the bills from his shirt pocket. He liked to feel them in his hand. He would count them. “Not bad,” he would say. “God is kind,” he would say. “Live and learn, my son. Live and learn from your old father.”
He was getting old. His hair was turning gray and the beard on his cheeks was increasingly gray as well. But he was a hardy man. He worked hard and he set an example for his younger brothers—my uncles; he set an example for the children as well.
We went about our lives. Harjinder Singh was far away. But our lives were meant to cross—it was our lekha, our fate. Who can escape it?
One night we were in our beds asleep. It was two o’clock at night, perhaps three. I slept in the room in the corner and I could see the moon every night from the window. When I had gone to bed, about nine, the moon had been above the fields, and high. Now it was in the direction of the town—and much lower.
I heard a scurrying in the distance—the sound stopped. I heard the scurrying again—again the sound stopped. I thought it was an animal, a coyote of some kind. Coyotes are very common in our parts. They are selfish animals, cowards—they only come out when the world is asleep.
For some seconds there was silence. Then a shadow covered the window—again silence.
I sat up in my bed, my chest racing to my mouth. I am not a coward—I refuse to be—but this was the middle of the night. A man works all day, he deserves his rest. Should I not be allowed this rest?
There was silence, silence, then a soft voice.
Someone was calling. Who was calling? Why?
I rose from my bed and I walked to the window. There was a wooden stick in the corner—I thought of getting the stick. But the time of the night, the unrealness of it all . . .
I will not trouble you further. The figure came again to the window and stood on the other side. It was the middle of the night, but the moon was there. The outside—and beyond, the fields—were bathed in that soft and silver, always silver, light of the moon.
The figure on the other side, I could now tell, was Harjinder. Our paths were meant to cross. Should they not cross on this night?
I opened the window; Harjinder Singh lifted his leg and stepped effortlessly into the room. We spoke in hushed whispers. But my father slept just two rooms away. He must have heard us—he soon joined us as well.
A few minutes later my mother came. She was in her bare feet (I still remember that). She walked thus, her bare feet touching the cold floor.
She stood at the half-open wooden door. “What is this?” she said.
I tried to reassure her. “It is nothing, Mother. Go back to bed.”
“Yes yes, Manjeet,” spoke my father. “Go back to bed.”
But my mother was in no mood to listen—not to me, not to my father. A woman listens—all day she listens, perhaps all her life. But a stranger comes, comes in the middle of the night. Does she not have the right to speak?
My mother stood at the door listening. Perhaps she had heard enough. This was serious business and it would not be resolved in five minutes, or even ten.
“You men need to talk,” she said. “I will go to the kitchen, boil the water for the tea.”
The minutes passed, we talked. My mother entered the room again, carrying a brass tray with small cups. We took our cups and drank greedily from them. It was the middle of the night, silence all around. We made slurping sounds as we drank.
Harjinder Singh was in trouble. The police were really after him. Harjinder and his group had bombed a bus in Patiala, there had been a shootout with the police. Three of Harjinder’s companions had died, two more had been shot. (Of their fate he was still not sure.)
Harjinder Singh had managed somehow to escape. The police were after him—they were sure to keep at it. They often came to the village looking for him. Why should they not come now?
My father shook his head, said that Harjinder Singh should turn himself in.
“They will hang me,” he said.
“If you do not do it, they will find you. They will shoot you filled with holes.”
I took a peek at my mother. She was sitting in the corner on the floor, her shawl covering her head. At my father’s last words, she lowered her shawl and covered her mouth as well.
“Let them shoot me. There is work to do. Our people are not free. As long as they are not free . . .”
My father bunched his lips, shook his head. These young people, how hot-headed they are. They get these ideas in their head. And they will not let go of them. Never, never.
There was a long silence. “What are your plans?” said my father at last.
Harjinder Singh said nothing, looked at my father.
“You cannot stay here.”
“Where will I go?”
“I have a family. My wife, my children. You want to save your people,”—my father laid a special emphasis on the last two words—“you want your glory . . .”
“You think I do it for the glory?”
“For the glory, for the madness, God only knows. Perhaps you know. I know only this . . .”
My father did not finish his sentence. He did not need to. The point had been made. Harjinder Singh might be a hero, he might be a madman. But he could not stay with us. One man sacrifices himself, dies—so be it. But should a whole family die as well—a father, a mother, their children?
Harjinder Singh sat there, his head lowered. He was a man distraught and lost. He had come here as his last hope. Now there was no other place to go. Now there was no other hope.
At last, he rose. He turned to my mother. “Thank you, Beeji. Thank you for the tea.”
He turned to me. “You practice your hockey, you hear. You have promise, real promise.”
“Sure,” I said, or perhaps wanted to say. But there was a lump in my throat. Little came out.
He held out his hand to my father. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said.
My father was not his uncle, just a stranger. But my father reached out and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“May God . . .” he said simply. The rest of his words were lost in the darkness.
The rest, why go into the rest? It was a matter of hours now, perhaps of minutes. The Indian police are slow, but not stupid. No doubt the CBI was involved, perhaps the military as well.
The morning came and we went about our work. My mother cooked, my father and I worked in the fields. We did not mention Harjinder Singh’s name, not once. Soon the news would come—we all knew it would. The only question was how it would come. Where would we be? What would we be doing?
The thing would happen, that much was clear. Only the details were unclear, still to be worked out.
That day, as I worked in the fields, I thought about Harjinder Singh—again and again I thought. He was a hero to some, a terrorist to others. To me he was a boy who had let me play hockey and praised the way I played. A boy who had put his arm around my shoulder and walked with me to the flour store.
The flour store, yes. How far away it seemed now—how far away.
But this is the way of the world, is it not? Things come, they go. They come, they go. It is best not to think too deeply on them. (No no, not that.) It is best to let them go.