Written in 1985 the year after Indira Gandhi’s assassination
I read today about the continuing bloodshed in the Indian Punjab, at the Golden Temple, holiest shrine of the Sikh community, in Amritsar. The photo showed the bloodied body of a Kalistani militant separatist, shot by commandoes of the Indian army. Another number in the vicious impasse which has claimed so many hundreds of Hindu and Sikh lives, mostly innocent. I thought of Satinder.
We met knee-deep in mud, early one morning in the foothills of the Himalayas, high above the sacred river Ganges. I had begun the day at crack-of-dawn on an over-crowded pilgrim bus; I was heading into the mountains to walk among the icy towering peaks, and to visit various sites of historical and spiritual significance. It was the monsoon season. The bus had rattled along the winding mountain road for barely three quarters of an hour when the driver abruptly braked on a blind corner and halted behind a line of earlier-departed buses.
I clambered down to stretch my legs and investigate the reason for the hold-up. At the head of ten or twelve buses, a landslide blocked the way. Sometimes whole hillsides collapse, sweeping kilometres of road into the deep valley of the raging river. This landslide was little more than the collapse of a sodden embankment, and the muddy debris barred only a few metres of the road.
There is a tendency in India to allow events to take their natural course, free from interference or intervention. The will of the Gods to sort out the situation. I was not particularly surprised then, to find that out of the five hundred or so stranded passengers, only four had rolled up trousers and sleeves to attempt to move the obstruction.
They were Sikhs to a man, and all greeted me warmly when I joined them to add my effort to their toil. Soon more of their bearded, turbanned brethren joined in, as well as a few Hindu men, and our relay of effort soon began to make an impression on the mudslide. Nobody knocked himself out, there was a pleasing camaraderie between us, and together we cleared the road within half an hour or so.
Washing off the mud in a stream, one of the Sikhs struck up a converstaon with me. Satinder was from Delhi, touring the mountains with a Japanese friend. He was a gentle young giant, almost two metres tall, broad-smiling and easy-going. There was not a trace of the fanaticism that the popular broadsheets had depicted Sikhs as in the wake of recent atrocities. Our conversation had hardly extended beyond though, when the blaring bus horns announced the impatience of the bus-drivers to depart and continue on our journey.
“Perhaps we’ll see you at the next chai shop, he invited warmly as we scurried for our respective buses. Sure enough, our bus stops coincided twice more in the course of the long day before road traffic was halted for the night. By that time we had become close enough that I had decided to join them in their walk to the holy lake of Hemkund, nestled high among the icy peaks, a sacred destination for both Hindus and Sikhs.
Many pilgrims take advantage of the short summer months to cleanse their souls and air their lungs, with a visit to the Himalayan shrines. The trek to Hemkund wound for two days up a steep rocky valley from the motor road. The rocky path was almost crowded with people, of many and varied classes and inclinations. Their conveyances varied greatly too, ranging from nimble-footed ponies to well-padded sedan chairs borne by stocky mountain men, or even baskets carried by the same tough porters. Most though, like us, relied on the strength of their own two legs and lungs.
There were men and women, old and young, rich and poor, aesthetes and family groups, all united by the common pilgrimage. I was accepted warmly by most as a fellow traveller on the same path, physically if not metaphysically, Only one or two averted their eyes from mine, and probably through startled reticence than from aversion.
Keiju, speaking little English and with inherent Japanese reserve, left most of the conversation between us to Satinder and I. There were few silences.
Satinder owned a successful perfume business, and had travelled several times beyond India’s borders. Like myself, he had little time for the formalities of religion but, being the traditional son in a traditional country, he observed the ritual insignias of his Sikhism out of respect for his family.
He wore a steel bracelet and brief shorts (I did not check, but assume it was so), carried a dagger and a comb, and had never cut his beard or hair. He was a pragmatist though, avoided ritual and abhored fundamentalism in any form. Like most, he had been shocked by the ruthless military action in the Golden Temple, and appalled by the loss of innocent lives, but was vehemently against the daily murders of innocent Hindus and moderate Sikhs by extreme separatists. The renegades were vehemently opposed by the vast majority of Sikhs, he said. There was, though, certainly disapproval of the government’s refusal to address the grievances of the Sikh community, most significantly over the sharing of the waters running through their state, which was the nation’s most productive agricultural belt. Certainly the gracious pilgrims seemed to be the antithesis of the terrorists so luridly depicted in the daily tabloids.
Politics occupied the least of our attention as we climbed higher up the valley. The path ran close beside a foaming torrent fed by the towering snow peaks which could be glimpsed now and then, framed in the side valleys of the craggy mountainside. The way was rough and steep, and the air thinning as we rose towards and beyond two and a half thousand metres.
“Shree Sat Akal!” God is Truth beyond Time, was the common exhortation of the pilgrims, urging each other on towards the destination.
Exhausted, we reached our night halt only as the sun’s dying rays tinged ice and rock with hues of deepening pinks and purples. The day had been a long one, and Satinder and I seemed to have covered most facets of our lives along the way. Though cultures apart, we shared much in common. A friendship between us had been forged.
The hospitality at the Sikh gurudwara where we spent the night was wonderful. Simple, packed in like sardines sleeping side by side, but with such a sense of shared tiredness and common bonding, all travellers along the way.
I’ve walked many times in the Himalayas, and often along the ancient pilgrimage trails of the Hindus; always their warmth and generosity have assured me of food and shelter for the night. Occasionally though, the strictures of caste and status have caused some embarrassment or discomfort if I have inadvertently committed a minor breach of religious protocol, offending with my lack of status or sensitivity. On those rare occasions, I have had a sense of awareness of the feeling to be an Untouchable, without caste. It is not a pleasant sensation.
Sikhs recognise no caste. Some Hindus are monks and aesthetes and sadhus, while Sikhism is very much a religion of the householder, shorn of status or privilege, or discrimination. Before any religious considerations were given, we were abundantly fed, and loaded down with a pile of woollen blankets.
“But I have a warm sleeping bag,” I explained, trying to hand back a few of the blankets to the beaming storeman.
“No matter,” he roared, pushing me gently away. “Tonight you will sleep more softly then,” he laughed raucously, patting his ample rump to indicate that I might appreciate any extra padding available.
The great crowd of pilgrims was accommodated more or less comfortable in the broad corridor around the central congregation room. The floor was hard and cold, and I was heartfully grateful for the extra blankets I had received. Weary from the climb, and soothed by the lilt of the harmonium and soft chanting next door, I soon drifted into a deep sleep.
Early in the morning, fortified by a steaming great mug of sweet chai, we headed up the path towards the lake of Hemkund-sahib. On a horizontal scale, the path was only four or five kilometres, but flat it was not, rising two thousand metres in that distance. Our conversation soon petered out to puffs and grunts, and we were thankful for the cheery encouragement of those descending from the lofty destination.
We plodded up the cruel zigzags, staggering like a hoard of drunkards, urging each other breathlessly on to the top.
Ah, Shree Sat Akal! We made it. Hemkund is a small cirque lake surrounded by towering peaks, whose jagged profiles were perfectly reflected in the millpond surface of the water. Several minutes passed though, before our panting subsided sufficiently to be able to appreciate the glorious panorama. A large beaker of sweet chai, strongly spiced with ginger, was pressed on each of us. Instant revival.
One of the great Sikh gurus meditated by the lake centuries past, received his wisdom through it; hence the pilgrimage, and a dip in its icy waters is considered a highly pious and auspicious deed. Keiju and I took one look at the intrepid bathers and shivered simultaneously. No way! We looked at Satinder, but he showed no enthusiasm for taking the plunge.
“You must be kidding,” he declared. It’s one thing to clamber up to five thousand metres on this pilgrimage to earn one’s brownie points. Piety is one thing though, but it’s quite another thing to invite pneumonia.”
We cajoled him lightly without effect, and then decided to circumbulate the lake. The shadow side was dotted with small icebergs. Under no circumstants was Satinder convinced to take the plunge. I couldn’t blame him.
Swirling clouds suddenly blocked out the mountains, and within minutes we were enveloped in a blanked of cold damp air. Satisfied with our pilgrimage we headed back down the track. Gravity sped us onwards, and after snacking on chai and savouries, we continued on our way all the way back down to the motorhead, offering heartfelt encouragement to the ascending pilgrims making the slow plod upwards.
We caught the first bus up to Badrinath, revered as the mountain abode of Lord Vishnu. One of the main branches from the Ganges bubble from the earth there, and many Hindus make the pilgrimage there each summer. Being accessible by bus directly ensures it attracts vast hoards of visitors. We stayed for a minimal donation in a Hindu dharamsala (a pilgrim’s inn) and visited all the revered sites and temples, welcomed everywhere or treated with respect, in spite of us obviously being non-Hindus.
Temple towns are invariably magnets not only for the pious, but also the needy and greedy. Beggars line all the approaches to the main temple, as well as vendors and hawkers vying with each other for the rupees of the pilgrims with diverse trinketry and basic needs. We decided to escape from the hustle and bustle, and took to the nearby hills for an afternoon’s respite and wandering.
Few people ventured away from the town, apart from shepherds and their motley flocks, scrounging meagre stubble from the rugged slopes. Soaring icy peaks cluttered every horizon, and snow-melt fed a tracery of streams that drained the glacial valleys. Exhilerating. The three of us had formed and comfortable camaraderie, and we had already decided to continue wandering for another week together before they would return to Delhi.
Returning towards Badrinath, we paused to catch breath in a tiny village along the way. Three pilgrims – two men and a woman – walked up the path towards us. The two men were obviously drunk, for they lurched unsteadily, moreorless supporting each other. They halted in front of us, swaying.
“Escushee mister, where you from?” He addressed me aimiably enough, and I replied simply. He shuffled towards Keiju and repeated the question, smiling blearily. Keiju responded economically.
“And you,” he turned towards Satinder, facial expression suddenly changed. His smile had become a sneer, and he slowly examined the young Sikh up and down, paying particular attention to the neatly tied turban. “Where you from?” Satinder blinked uncomfortably.
“I am from Delhi,” he replied politely. “I am Indian like yourself.”
The sneer tightened menacingly. “Main HINDUstani hoon. Tum kya hai?” The question was a challenge, addressed disrespectfully
Satinder flinched, stepped back a pace, and repeated his response in Hindi, adding gently that he was a Sikh.
The Hindu spat furiously on the ground and advanced towards Satinder, right up to him, stabbing his finger accusatively in the young man’s chest. “Main HINDUstani hoon. TUM kya hai?”
Satinder flushed darkly, his eyes narrowing angrily. “Ok, main KHALISTANI hoon!” Khalistan is the name which separatists provocatively give to their declared homeland.
The Hindu man, face contorted with rage, lunged at Satinder, his fists clenched in attack. His two embarrassed companions desparately managed to restrain him, apologising profusely for the drunken abuse.
Keiju and I calmed our furious friend, leading him away from the taunts of the drunkard, who continued to spit out his horrible vitriol. Satinder’s only retort was to accuse him of being a drunken fool.
We hurried away towards the town, pursued by the staggering abuser, who was even more irate to be deprived of his prey. We easily outdistanced him as he was reined in by his humiliated minders.
Satinder calmed down eventually, but we were all shaken by the incident, keen to avoid any sequel. Badrinath had lost its charm anyway, so we bussed out early next morning. For a week we walked on paths well off the beaten track, climbing over spectacular passes, walking ancient forests, waded through multitudes of wildflowers on high mountain meadows, dotted with sheep. Small hostelries, chai shops and dharamsalas all accommodated us warmly, and there was not the slightest hint of a repeat experience. It had apparently just been a rare case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We eventually parted company sadly, agreeing to all meet up again at a later date. I continued walking in the mountains for a couple more weeks, before returning to my language studies in the hill-station where I was living at the time.
Three weeks later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated, gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards, in retributions for the desecration of their holiest of shrines, and the continued prevarication over discussions on the autonomy of the Punjab.
The nation was devastated, and a wave of revenge swept across the north, with thousands of innocent people slaughtered by crazed Hindu mobs who hunted down any Sikhs in vengeance for the Prime Minister’s death, often egged on by politicians and businessmen bent on gain from the tragedy. Delhi was the flashpoint, with uncontrolled carnage and pillage, blood and fire, besieging the capital for more than a week.
I feared for Satinder, and wrote him a letter. After three weeks and another letter sent, I finally received a brief note from him; he was alive. He and his immediate family were safe. Relatives had been murdered, whole families. His fledgling business had been destroyed by fire. He was frightened of the future. Life was Hell.
A month later, at last I was able to travel to Delhi, and immediately phoned Satinder. Keiju had just recently returned from touring the south, so we arranged for a reunion lunch. It was wonderful to meet my two trekking companions again, but Satinder’s life was terrible. Since the assassination two months earlier, there had been little improvement. Too many were milking the situation for all they could reap.
Apart from mourning the family losses, he had little capital to salvage is gutted business, and enmity towards Sikhs had diminished little. Riding his motorcycle was a daily gauntlet; he had become a target for stones and abuse by complete strangers. Venturing out after dark was out of the question, the risk too great for assault by maurauding vigilante groups. Even during the day there were taunts and insults to be suffered; people who he had considered to be friends had spat in his face without provocation. Our mild, gentle, laughing young friends was considering going off to Pakistan to train with the Khalistani terrorists!
Keiju and I pleaded with him to come to his senses: that only pain and suffering would result; that the battle was only political, and he had no part in guns or killing. Satinder, quite calmly, described the experience of the assassination.
“You don’t know what it’s like for me. You haven’t lived amongst the fires and the massacres, the noise of the mobs, coming to get you. You don’t know the feeling of hatred directed towards you by people who you don’t know, who you have not the slightest reason to have offended. You don’t know.”
Keiju and I, stunned, said nothing for some minutes. The transposing of oneself into a similar situation was a sobering reflection. Twelve years earlier I’d ‘fought’ the government – in the relative safety and bonhomie of popular demonstration – against the immorality of fighting another country’s war. Under similar conditions as Satinder faced, I could imagine the possibility of taking the same line as him.
“You must come Japan”. As always, Keiju’s sparse words, and clear thinking. “I arrange visa for you coming. I sponsor you!”
It seemed a perfect suggestion; one of the only options perhaps. Keiju and I enthused over the potential of the idea. Satinder had expressed an interest in computer technology, and Keiju had friends in the computer industry likely to cooperate. Only gradually did Satinder warm to the idea, asking questions and proposing problems. By the end of lunch, and idea had evolved into a course of action.
Satinder flew to Tokyo three months later, working black as a lowly-paid laborer initially while computer work was negotiated. He studied Japanese single-mindedly, and eventually secured a company job. He’s been living there four years now. Works hard. Married a sweet Japanese woman. Doing well.
I haven’t seen him for five years now; our contact faded and disappeared. I’ve crossed Keiju’s path several times though; he sees very little of his old friend either these days. Satinder cut his beard and hair off, for the first time in his twenty two years. He really devoted himself to making a go of it, and has become a model ‘salaryman’. Keiju’s a musician, who definitively turned his back on the grey-suited stereotype which Satinder decided to follow, and so does not have much in common any more with his Indian friend and wanderer. Says that he’s lost all his old sparkle and laughter.
Pity. Better a live, successful salaryman than a dead, murdering martyr. Hmmm.