He was only thirty, when he was forced to escape from his native land to save his life. In 1984, the riots against Sikh people began in the states of Punjab and Delhi, India. These places were the ones, where the majority of Sikh people lived. It was Wednesday, the last day of October, when he heard the news that Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. First, my father thought that it was just a rumor. However, in several hours, everybody knew that it was truth. Although more than thirty years passed, he will always remember those terrible events and will not be able to erase them from memory.
I decided to interview my father about these events, because I wanted to know my family roots better. I have never seen my grandparents, and it was interesting for me to know some details about my father’s youth in India. I was born in the USA, and I visited India only once, which was not enough for me in order to become familiar with this country. However, when I heard my father’s story, I could not even imagine how much pain and trouble he had to experience. I looked at him and asked what he felt when the first riot occurred in Punjab. He sighed. It was a sigh of grief. It was really painful to recall those events, because my father lost many friends and close people back then. After a short pause, he began to speak. His story was long, but I did not dare to interrupt his narration. Thus, we returned to 1984, the day when life in North India entirely changed…
My father was visiting his friend, when he heard the news about the Prime Minister’s murder. They were sitting at the table and looking out of the window. No one dared to speak. Finally, my father interrupted the silence and said, “I need to go home.” However, his friend stopped him, saying that it might be dangerous to go out, and that it would be better to wait till the situation would become clearer. They sat and gazed a gazeless stare. Surprisingly, the rest of the day seemed quite calm, and the father decided to go home and talk with his parents. He just wanted to go out when they heard the first stroke on the street. They looked out of the window and noticed that a group of people cleaned up a grocery shop, which belonged to one Sikh family. My father and his friend hid in the apartment and panicked, since they were Sikhs, too. Suddenly, the telephone rang and my father’s friend answered the call. It was his old Hindu acquaintance, who offered him to spend that night by him. He said that it was too dangerous to stay on the street, where the robbery happened, because those people could burst into other Sikh citizens’ apartments and assault them. Although my father did not know the origin of the robbers and their goals, and he was not aware of their further actions, he felt that they should escape from the flat. Thus, my father and his friend went to the back door and ran to their Hindu comrade.
My father paused and thoughtfully looked at me. He was checking whether I was attentively listening. My serious look and inquiring gaze did not make him doubt and he continued. “It was late at night when we reached the Hindu friend who provided us with shelter,” my father said. They had to wait until the next day to decide whether to go home or not. In the morning, my father peeped through the window, the street was clear. He thanked his friends and ran to his parents to check whether they were all right. Fortunately, they were safe from harm – the riots did not reach their house yet. However, my grandparents were so afraid that they wanted my father to escape from the country. They could not stay in their house, because the rioters could eventually reach them. My grandparents were quite wealthy people, and they wanted to invest their money in my father’s escape. However, they did not know how to do it yet. The next several days lasted so long that it seemed as if the whole month had passed. The situation in Punjab was critical.
I asked my father why the riots began, and he answered after a long pause that he did not know it then. Probably, those people thought that all Sikh citizens belonged to the group of terrorists and the two bodyguards who killed Indira Gandhi were their chiefs. However, it was ridiculous to accuse all those innocent people of the crime of two adult men who, most probably, had their personal motifs for killing. Some people said that they murdered Indira Gandhi, because she destroyed Sikh Temple – the holy place where all Sikh gathered and prayed. Of course, it was a significant reason, but not as significant to kill the prime minister. Today, no one can judge those men, but because of their mistake, thousands of people died and continue dying. Back to the story, the riots continued and every time they became bigger and more terrible. My father and his family had to hide in the cellar of their friends who were not Sikh. It was not safe to stay at my grandparents’ apartment, because more and more innocent Sikhs were killed or burned alive during these riots. Many young men who wore turbans were caught on the streets and asked whether they were homegrown terrorists or belonged to the group of other terrorists who assassinated the prime minister. Without listening to the answer, the rioters assaulted those men and killed them right on the streets. They never returned home.
My father paused again. I looked at him and saw that he was crying. It was a man’s dry tear only, but this one tear was very important. He worried, because it was hard for him to remember those events. Many of his friends were killed and the others had to run away from the country. While my father and his parents were hiding by their friends, they just heard the news and had nothing to do but plan his own escape. However, it was not easy. My father said that the riots reminded him of Nazi Germany of the 1930s-1940s, when thousands of innocent Jews and the other citizens were killed by the fascists. In 1984, the situation was almost identic in Punjab and Delhi, India.
In the cellar where my father was hiding there was a radio. Every night, they turned it on and listened to the latest news. First, the organizers of riots were common citizens of India, mostly adherents and members of the Congress party who stopped all Sikh men and hit them to death. They robbed the stores and flats that belonged to Sikh families and burned their houses and flats. Later, the police officers joined them and stopped every person who had a turban on his head. Wearing turbans is an essential part of Sikh religion. In such a way, we show our respect to God and His creation. Thus, it was difficult for many Sikhs to take off their turbans and shave their beards, because such actions contradicted their religion. Nevertheless, it was a mandatory precaution to save their lives. My father had to do the same. He felt frustrated, but he was forced to uncover his head, too.
On November 2, the government declared a curfew. Suddenly, all killings and robberies stopped. However, it lasted only two days and after that the army entered the city. The riots continued. More and more houses were burned; some families were inside and burned alive. The other houses and shops were stoned and destroyed. No one knew how long these riots would continue. My grandparents did not want my father to be killed, so they decided that he had to escape. My father had no desire to leave his parents, but they insisted. They were older and were not as afraid for their lives as for their son’s. In Punjab, there was a man who organized such escapes. Naturally, it was not free of charge, but my grandparents had enough money to pay for their son’s freedom and safety. Thus, they gave him some money and food and blessed him to go. It was 1985 already…
I asked my father whether it was easy to escape. He said no. He told that he had to travel at night and hide in cellars and gateways in order not to be noticed by rioters. There was a group of young men who traveled together. The group consisted of about 150-200 men who left their families; some of them had wives and little children in Punjab and the other cities. My father had no wife; however, he left his parents behind and he could not stop thinking of them. The only thought saved him that they were older and no one would think that they belonged to a terrorist group. My father was traveling for two months to the places he had never heard about. It was dangerous and fearful, and he never knew where he would spend the next night. Some people from his group died on their way due to different reasons. Some of them were ill; the others had no food to eat and no money to buy something, so they died from hunger. Until the end of their traveling, half of the group was dead. The other half managed to survive. Finally, my father reached Mexico..
In Mexico, he had to spend two months working on order to earn some money. It was a tough time, because he did not know English and Spanish. He had no friends there and had to find any job to survive. He had to do different work to earn for a living. He bought some clothes and food, and spent some nights on the streets, because he had nowhere to go. In any case, spending time in Mexico was much safer than staying in India, where the riots continued. My father had never heard of his parents and he did not know whether they were alive or not. He could not think of them, because it was too painful; so, he just worked and worked until he saved some money for his trip to the USA.
In two months, my father reached the border between Mexico and the USA, El Paso. Another man helped him to escape from Mexico, and eventually he got to the United States. There he could call his parents and hear them cry. He felt better when he got to know they were alive. My father told them that he wanted to come back, but they did not allow him to return, because they wanted their son to be alive and happy. Thus, he stayed in California and worked on a farm, because he had some experience in farming. The state of Punjab is a farming state, in which mostly rice and cotton is grown. My father worked on one of such farms in India; that is why he found a similar job in Mexico. The work was not easy; however, he got his monthly salary on time and sent half of his earnings to his parents. In 1988, he met my mother and they married here, in the USA.
A new period of life began. My father was happy in his marriage, and in 1989 he became a father of a son – me. He had never told me about those terrible events in India when I was a child. I knew that my grandparents lived in India, but I had never seen them, just heard their voice on the phone. My father told me that, if I were born in India, I would be dead right now. He said, “Maybe, God had other plans for you and he helped me to survive and save my family in India.” Unfortunately, when our family came to India in 2012, my grandparents were already dead, and I did not see them. We returned to the USA and now we continue our living here.
My father always says to me, “Never take things for granted.” Now, I think of this phrase and understand that we can never know what will happen with us tomorrow or even today in a particular place. I live a happy life here. This country provides me with a peaceful life and it protects my family as well. I can study and work here and be not afraid of being killed for my religious convictions. However, it is hard to realize what my father had to undergo to provide my family and me with the living conditions we have now. Nowadays, he often recollects the previous events, comparing them to that of Nazi Germany. This kind of violence keeps happening at some moments; then it stops for a year or two and starts again. Sometimes, my father says, it still happens because of the government and some political parties. Many of Sikh families in India have no men, because they have been killed or burned in riots. Some men were murdered in front of their wives and children. It is difficult to imagine how much pain they felt and how many troubles they had to overcome since those times. The worst thing is that the police and the government did not conduct any investigations. They just killed every man they did not like or believed he belonged to a terrorist group. Most of those people committed no crimes and were victims of misfortune. More than thirty years passed, but the pain is still the same.
After conducting the interview, I felt weird. I knew that my father had a sad experience behind his back, but I could not imagine that he had to come through such a long escape to save his life. My father feels sorry for his native land and worries about those innocent citizens who cannot live worthy lives, because someone does not like their religion. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 became a symbol of woe and distress for many Indians. I thank God for saving my father’s life and providing him with a good living here in the USA. I hope that in the future he will be able to return home safely if only he wants to do it. Today, I am happy that my father has told me the story of his life, because it allows me better understand the history of my family and respect my father even more than I respected him before.