Photo: Delhi 1984. The World Sikh News / Flickr
Photo: Delhi 1984. The World Sikh News / Flickr

Papa’s letters

A short story.
As a kid, I believed that Mummy's long, slim fingers were intent on never letting anyone forget that she was a typist. They'd tap away as if the world was their keyboard. They'd tap on tabletops and kitchen counters, on the backs of cushions and on the arms of chairs. When she was in the bus, they'd tap on her knees if she was sitting, or on the horizontal steel rod she was holding on to while standing. When we were walking hand-in-hand, they'd tap on the back of my hand. When she was putting me to bed, they'd tap on the bedsheet, keeping pace with the song she was humming to send me to sleep. They'd wake me up in the morning by tapping on my forehead. When her hands were free, they'd tap on air. When one of her hands was full, the other's fingers would be tapping furiously as if to compensate. When both hands were full, a finger or two still found a way to tap on the surface of whatever she was carrying.
Because I was so used to the tapping, I'd notice when they stopped. One of those occasions was when she'd read Papa's letters to me. Papa was working in Dubai. Mummy told me he left Delhi when I was four in 1984. Every two weeks or so, she'd come home from work beaming. Fishing Papa's letter out of her handbag, she'd sit down to read it to me. As she read, her fingers gripped both sides of the letter as if it was so precious and fragile that the slightest twitch would cause it to tear. I have little memory of what was written in those letters. What I remember vividly is how Mummy's smile would fill her entire face when she read them out to me. She looked as if she was inhabiting some secret heaven in that moment. It was only when I started asking when Papa was coming back that the smile diminished. She looked away with a deep breath. "Soon," she said with a faraway look in her eyes.
Since I had little memory of Papa, I'd spend a lot of time gazing at his pictures. I guess that was my way of getting to know the man behind those letters. There were pictures of him up on the walls of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. Many more in the photo albums that Mummy kept in her almirah. He was smiling in most of them, which made me imagine him as a jovial man. He had a bushy beard that hid a lot of his face. Each time I saw it, I was reminded of how a prickling sensation would run across my cheeks when he bent to kiss me. His thin, pointed nose was the same as mine. He seemed to like check shirts; he wore them in just about every picture. His turbans were flashy – deep blue, orange, bright red.

Because I was so used to the tapping, I'd notice when they stopped. One of those occasions was when she'd read Papa's letters to me.

Looking at him made me wonder about my closely cropped head. When I asked Mummy about it, she said it was because I was a kid. Once I grew up, I could grow out my hair and beard and wear a turban like Papa. I wasn't convinced. Other Sikh boys didn't cut their hair. They wore it in a bun in the centre of their head. The bun was held in place by a cloth patka that could be just as colourful as Papa's turbans. I felt strange when we went to the gurudwara for the Sunday service. I had the only head covered by a handkerchief. The other little boys would all be wearing patkas. Some of them would give me dirty looks. How dare you call yourself a Sikh? they seemed to be saying.
Out of all the photo albums in Mummy's almirah, the thickest one was of Mummy and Papa's wedding. They were married in a Delhi gurudwara in 1979. Papa's entire family came over from Chandigarh for the occasion. Other albums had pictures from their honeymoon in Shimla and their life in Delhi. They lived with Mummy's parents for three years, before Papa was promoted at the bank and we moved into the apartment where we now lived. There was nothing from his life in Dubai. When I was six, I asked Mummy if Papa could send us some pictures from Dubai. I was hungry to see him in the present.
"I'll write and tell him," she told me.
The pictures never arrived. She said she had forgotten to inform Papa when I brought them up a few weeks later. She promised to do so in the next letter. She repeated the promise each time I returned to those pictures. In the end, I stopped asking after them.
Pictures were not the only thing that did not come from Dubai. No money came either. We survived on Mummy's meagre income. The access to our apartment complex was over a dirt track. Dusty alleys with open drains ran between the rows of yellow apartment blocks. Three flights of stairs led up to our flat. Most of the steps were chipped. Some were broken. The flat was old. The plumbing broke down at regular intervals and frequent power cuts meant we spent a good part of our lives sweltering in the heat or freezing in the winter cold. Given our tight money situation, anything that broke took forever to be fixed. I can't think of one thing in the flat that wasn't secondhand. Yet Mummy decided to enrol me in a fancy English-medium school after I turned seven. Her mother, who'd come over to watch me when Mummy was at work, asked, "How will you afford it?" Mummy simply gazed at Nani and said, "I'll find a way."
She had received a vernacular education and spoke halting English. Yet she had a good memory that allowed her to recognise the kind of English found in official letters, memos and project reports, and to type it up at good speed. Somehow, she got her recalcitrant boss to loan her a secondhand Remington typewriter that was collecting dust at the office. Then she put up fliers all over the neighbourhood and the nearby bazaar to indicate that her typing services were available for a fee. Work poured in; there was no dearth of people who needed a typist. She didn't say no to anything. After coming home from work, she'd have a cup of chai before sitting down to tap away on the old Remington until the wee hours of the morning. On her off days, she could keep going the entire day. The work was draining and the elderly typewriter did not help. Some of the letter keys had to be hit repeatedly. As her tiredness grew, so did the mistakes. Entire pages had to be re-typed. One look at her harried face and I knew she was on edge. I made sure I stayed out of her way.
On some days she didn't even have the energy to be on edge. I'd enter the room to find her fast asleep, with her head tucked into her chest. I'd listen to the erratic rattle of her breathing for a few seconds, before backing away as quietly as possible. The restless breathing, however, would shadow my thoughts even after I'd left the room.
My old school had been a ten-minute walk from our apartment. The fancy school was almost 30 minutes away by bus or auto-rickshaw. We rode the bus on the first morning. An old green and yellow Delhi Transport Corporation bus that had scratches wherever you looked. There were no doors, just an open doorway at the back of the bus for getting on and another one towards the front for getting off. It was half-full by the time we entered. We made our way over the stained floor to a thinly padded seat for two near the middle of the bus. I was glad we were sitting nowhere near the front or back. It wasn't just people who moved through those doorways. Plenty of dust flew in, as well as hot or cold air depending on the season.

That was my first inkling of how much India came to resent its Sikhs in the 1980s.

A swarthy man with a thick moustache got on when the bus ground to a halt at the next stop. He decided to stand a few feet away from us in the aisle. He was puffing on a cigarette. Two stops later, a Sikh boarded the bus to stand next to him. The genial expression on the first man's face vanished to be replaced by hostility. He stared at the Sikh with distaste. Suddenly, he blew cigarette smoke in his face. I was taken aback. Why would he do something like that to anyone, let alone a Sikh whose faith forbade him from smoking? The Sikh squeezed his eyes shut and tried to slap away the smoke. No one said anything to the man. Some people sniggered. The Sikh glared at the man once the smoke began to clear. The man smirked, daring him to retaliate. For a moment, it looked like the Sikh might accept the dare. Then he thought better of it and headed for the front of the bus. "Ugarwadi," the man hurled at his retreating back.
I asked Mummy what ugarwadi meant. She didn't seem to hear. Her fingers were tapping frenetically on her knees. She shot me a stricken look, as her hand sought mine to hold on tight, as if scared I'd be snatched away any moment.
That was my first inkling of how much India came to resent its Sikhs in the 1980s. In 1987, I knew nothing about the Sikh separatist movement burning up the nearby state of Punjab. Or the June 1984 army raid into the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to flush out the separatists holed up there. The army desecrated the Golden Temple, filling it with corpses and bullet holes, and burned down the library that contained handwritten texts going back hundreds of years. That bred resentment even among the Sikhs who had nothing to do with separatism.
Four months later in October 1984, two Sikh men assassinated the woman who ordered the army raid – the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For the next three days Hindu goons, galvanised by Mrs Gandhi's political party, ran amok killing thousands of Sikh men, women and children in Delhi alone. The massacre gave a fillip to the Sikh separatist movement, and North India was shaken by a series of bombings and assassinations over the next decade. It was the mid-nineties before the insurgency lost steam and peace broke out to transform the Sikhs into good guys. In 1987, however, the insurgency was very much alive and the Sikhs were firmly installed as the nation's bad guys. I got my first sense of it that morning in the bus. The word ugarwadi planted itself in my brain. I only learnt what it meant much later. Yet I found it distasteful from the get go. Maybe that was why I could never get its first syllable right; it would come out as ugh instead of oog.
We did not ride the bus to school again. Mummy worked out a deal with an auto-rickshaw driver to drive us. John parked his auto overnight at a stand in the bazaar outside our neighbourhood. He'd pick us up from the alley that ran in front of our apartment building promptly at seven thirty in the morning. Mummy would come in another auto to collect me in the afternoon. This one was driven by Shahid, who operated from an auto stand close to her office. I didn't know then that she had chosen John and Shahid, because neither one of them was Hindu.

That day in 1987 the truth came down hard enough to flatten her will to sustain the story.

On the first day, the teacher made me sit next to another new boy. Ram was the son of a high-ranking government bureaucrat. Since we didn't know anyone else, he and I spent all our time in school together. Ram had no idea that I was a Sikh. I didn't look like one. Moreover, Mummy had dropped the Singh from my name and my first name, Iqbal, could easily be Hindu or Muslim.
Two weeks into the term, we were standing outside the school gate, waiting to be picked up after school. A skinny Sikh of medium height drifted over from the other side of the road. He stopped a few feet from us. He looked lost from the way his eyes were running all over. The well-built security guard stomped over to tell him to leave in a rough voice. I wondered why he did that. The Sikh wasn't doing anything. The security guard looked angry even after the Sikh was gone. I heard him mutter, "Damn ugarwadi," under his breath.
I asked Ram if he knew what ugarwadi meant.
"Ugarwadi is a bad guy who kills good people," the last three fingers of his hand clenched as he pretended to fire a gun. "Just like that Sikh."
I had seen bad guys who killed good people in movies. The Sikh didn't look like any of them. Rather, he appeared sad with his thin face and lost eyes.
"How do you know he's a bad guy?" I asked.
Ram gave me the incredulous look that you give someone who can't see the obvious. "Because he's a Sikh," he said. "Don't you know they killed Indira Gandhi three years ago?"
I had no idea who that was. Ram knew. In his house, the dinner table conversation was full of prime ministers, presidents and ministers. After he told me, I was struck by a thought. Papa had left for Dubai three years ago. Was his departure connected to Indira Gandhi? Was he staying away, because we were the bad guys? I was dwelling on that when Mummy arrived in Shahid's auto a few minutes later. I said goodbye to Ram. Normally, I'd start telling Mummy about my school day the moment I settled next to her in the back of the auto. On that occasion, I was too busy mulling over what Ram had said. It was Mummy who asked, "What's on your mind?"
I wondered if I should tell her. She put an arm around me. "Come on," she said.
I glanced at her. She nodded encouragingly.
"Is Papa not coming home because we are the bad guys?" I said.
Her face darkened. "Who says we are the bad guys?" she said through gritted teeth.
She had removed her arm. Shahid, who had heard us, was glancing over his shoulder.
"Who?" Mummy asked.
I swallowed, wishing I hadn't said anything. I told her about my conversation with Ram. '"He said we are the bad guys because we killed Indira Gandhi," I said.
Shahid was shaking his head. Mummy's eyes were flashing with anger.
"We didn't kill Indira Gandhi," she said. "Two men we never knew did. We had nothing to do with it." She admonished me for letting such thoughts enter my mind. I was too scared to utter another word on the way home. Mummy sat, with her lips clenched together. Her fingers were more agitated than ever and a glint had settled in her eyes.
She didn't return to the issue that day. But it was very much on her mind when we went to school next morning. Instead of dropping me off at the gate, she got off to have a word with my class teacher. I could see them talking in the quad, as I headed to the classroom to drop off my school bag before assembly. She must have been emphatic, for the teacher changed my seat in the first period, placing me next to a Sri Lankan boy whose family had moved to Delhi from Colombo barely four months ago.
A few days after the teacher changed my seat, we watched a Sikh being forced to take off his turban by a group of gun-toting cops when Shahid's auto stopped at a red light. The Sikh refused initially. He was slapped about until he complied. A group of onlookers cheered on the cops. Mummy averted her eyes and told me to look away. I stared at the floor, grateful for my closely cropped head.
Delhi resembled a war zone, with cops wielding guns and checkpoints cropping up every few kilometres once it started to get dark. There was no official curfew, but hardly anyone went out at night. Every evening the TV news bulletin would begin with news of the insurgency. Mummy would turn down the volume and wait for the news reader to move on to something else. Pictures of Sikh militants with guns and flowing beards would flash on the screen. Mummy would tell me to go read my book.
One morning I woke up to find a knot in my stomach. It wasn't a tight knot; it was more like a niggle that irks you just enough to remind you of its existence. It refused to go away no matter how many antacids Mummy fed me. It had nothing to do with my digestion. It manifested the anxiety that had become part of our lives. What lived in Mummy's fingers had made a place for itself in my stomach.
Nani lived barely three kilometres away with Mama, Mummy's younger brother, and his family. Yet we never visited her at home. You would've thought it'd be better for me to be dropped off at her place, when Mummy was at work, rather than have her come over to watch me. Nani was in her 50s with bad knees. It wouldn't have been easy for her to negotiate Delhi's jostling traffic day after day. Then she had to labour up three flights of stairs to get to our flat. Mummy, however, refused to go to her house. It became apparent why two months after I changed schools.
By then Mummy and Nani had been sparring for almost a month. I'd enter the room to find them embroiled in a heated exchange. Even though their voices would be low, their rancour was obvious in the way they'd glare at each other and grit their teeth. I'd catch snatches of what they were saying in Punjabi. I could make little sense of it. The words boy, father and future recurred frequently. Then I began to hear a good match as well. That evening Mama appeared on our doorstep around the same time Mummy would come home from work. Thinking it was Mummy, I ran to the front door upon hearing the doorbell. I was too short to reach the latch at the top of the door. I waited impatiently for Nani to toil over and undo it. Then I pulled the door open to find Mama beaming at me.

There was a touch of anguish in the way her fingers seemed to have forgotten to tap. Instead, they'd twitch as if they were shivering in the cold.

Mummy and Mamma had little in common, even though they were siblings. Mummy had taken after their father, who succumbed to a heart attack in 1983. While Mummy was thoughtful, Mama was outspoken with a quicksilver temper. He was a shopkeeper, who spent his days marking the inventory in his general merchants' store while keeping an eye out for the money going in and out of his cashbox. He had forsaken his turban and beard, and was clean-shaven with a short haircut.
He had brought me a chocolate bar. He handed it over, before bending down to envelop me in a bear hug. He had come straight from his shop and his shirt and trousers reeked of the musty air that never left the inside of the shop. I was glad when he released me. I stepped away to suck in air.
Nani had made chai. Mama settled on the sofa with a steaming cup. He filled enough of the sofa to ensure that no one else could sit there. I sat down in the wooden chair to his right and bit into the chocolate bar. Mama sipped his chai with a smacking sound and asked about school. His loud voice must have carried beyond the front door, for Mummy knew he was there even before she entered the house.
Her hands were clenching and unclenching as she strode in. The glint in her eyes reminded me of when she had got mad at me in Shahid's auto.
"Iqbal, go to the bedroom," she said.
The edge in her voice told me I'd better get going. I made for the bedroom. There I left the door half-open, so that I could stand next to it and listen in on what was being said. I didn't have to strain my ears.
"What is he doing here?" Mummy was asking Nani.
"I called him," Nani said. "You should hear what he has to say."
"Hear what? All he wants is to dump me on the first available man. I've told both of you that I'm not looking to get married."
"But this is a really good match. Proposals like this don't come every day."
"And what do I do when Sukhbir walks in through that door?"
"Since when have dead men started walking?" Mama demanded in a voice loud enough to be heard in the alley below. "I'm sick of the way you won't accept the fact that he's dead. What if there is no body? Everyone knows he died in '84. The bus in which he was coming home was waylaid by a mob. The Sikhs travelling in it were dragged off and set on fire. If he had survived that, he would have come home. The fact he hasn't means he's dead. Why can't you get that through your head? Why are you feeding Iqbal a story about him working in Dubai?"
By now Mummy had begun to sob and Nani was shouting, "Enough." She told Mama to leave. The sofa creaked, as Mama heaved himself off it. "Don't expect me to look after you if anything happens," was his parting shot before stalking out the door.
I could hear Mummy sobbing uncontrollably. I opened the bedroom door to go to her. Until then, she had comforted me when I was in tears. Now I knew it was my turn.
There were no more letters from Papa. It was Mummy who'd type up a new letter every couple of weeks and pass it off as one from Papa in Dubai. Making up a story about Papa was her way of preventing the awful weight of the truth from crushing her. In her story Papa did not exist as a charred, nameless corpse, but a vital man who wrote loving letters to his family. That day in 1987 the truth came down hard enough to flatten her will to sustain the story. There was nothing new in what Mama said to her; she had heard it all before. But for him to say that, within my hearing, in a voice loud enough to alert the entire neighbourhood was more than she could bear.
My memories of Papa were far too slight to make me grieve for long. What pained me more was the impact Mama's words had on Mummy. For months she went about with a vacant look on her face and an air of despondency tugging down at her shoulders. There was a touch of anguish in the way her fingers seemed to have forgotten to tap. Instead, they'd twitch as if they were shivering in the cold. Life eventually returned to her face and fingers, but never again did I see her smile as effortlessly as when she was reading out the Dubai letters.
Five years passed before Mummy remarried. She met my stepfather at work. He was a refugee from Kashmir; a Pandit who lost his wife and children in the carnage of 1990. The two of them bonded over loss; they understood what the other had gone through better than anyone else they knew.
We were supposed to move into my stepfather's house after the marriage. That day I was helping Mummy clean out her almirah when I chanced upon a yellowing stack of the Dubai letters. They were tucked well out of sight, as if Mummy had sought to lose them in the depths of the almirah. As I lifted the stack out of the almirah, I recalled the anticipation that would surge through me when Mummy announced that a letter had arrived from Dubai. Before I knew it, tears were tracking warmly down my face. Mummy took the letters gently from my hands. Then she put her arms round me and held me close. I had comforted her five years ago. Now it was her turn.
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