My first awareness of terrorism was in 1984, in October– when Sikhs demanding Khalistan assassinated our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. I remember a sense of unreality and disbelief, a sensation of being out of my ten-year old body. There was no continuous cacophony of television channels swooping in on newsworthy tragedies, like they do today. Only an eerie, tense silence, a suspension of activity for a long, stretched out moment.
In retrospect, it surely did not happen that way. The grainy black-and-white pictures on the state-owned Doordarshan repeated over and over again, the slow stumble and fall, the rumours spreading like a forest on fire.
The vehicles spontaneously stopped plying, the shops willingly downed shutters. Our school was declared closed, and we walked back home, saucer-eyed-apprehensive. A cousin who went by train to a school in Kolkata trudged back 25 kilometers on foot. She remembers the blisters on her feet. Our minds were blistered, too. The known, familiar social order had been overturned (we had grown up learning in our schoolbooks and from the newspapers – which we were just getting into the habit of reading daily – that the iron-willed Indira Gandhi the leader of our country, it felt that she had been so for ever) not by the ballot, but by a bullet.
What shocked my childish self most was the betrayal – the bullet which killed Indira Gandhi was shot by one of her own body-guards. As a ten-year old, loyalty came very very high on my priority list of values.
And then began the tearing apart of order and sanity. The anti-Sikh riots left us shaken. It was one thing to feel angry with the Khalistanis for trying to rip apart India, to feel enraged at the assassin’s betrayal in killing the hand that fed him. It was a totally different thing to see innocent Sikhs being pulled out of their homes and killed.
We had a Sikh family living in our para (locality); the husband was a strapping, jovial Sikh married to a Bengali Hindu wife. Of course, it was a love marriage, and of course, it seemed a very romantic and daring thing to elope with and marry a person from a different culture, defying your parents. Our young hearts were captivated by this love story. What fascinated me was the apparent ease with which this Bengali lady had adapted to her husband’s culture. She wore the salwar-kameez (not the then-ubiquitous Bengali saree), tied her hair in plaits instead of a bun and spoke in robust Punjabi to her family (switching to Bengali if she was talking to one). I remember peeping many times into their walled house which had a friendly, always-open narrow door, giving a view of the open courtyard which seemed full of bustle and people.
During the riots we were not allowed to go out-of-doors. After the bloodbath, when school re-opened, I remember gazing in grief at the disconsolate open door of their hastily-abandoned house, half-torn from its hinges. The empty courtyard, to which they never returned, spoke of another kind of betrayal – the betrayal of neighbours who had long pretended to be friends but who had nursed xenophobia in their hearts.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST AWARENESS OF TERRORISM?