Fiction Fiction 2008

Amritsar

Tom wanted him to be prepared, to know what he was up against. But Gurukha didn’t want a pistol in his house. He wanted to move on, to be done with India, and with Amritsar.
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Illustration by Marc Yankus

I don’t like boats. For that matter, I don’t like water, either, unless it’s coming out of a tap, or a hose. Where would I have learned to swim, in the hot dusty Punjab of my childhood? We never traveled to the sea.

My children, grown up in a land laced with creeks and bays and rivers, find this an endless source of amusement. When they were little, they cajoled me into the deep end of the swimming pool, slithering and splashing as effortlessly as minnows. Always, on parents’ day at summer camp, they insisted that I sit in the front seat of the canoe, white-faced, gripping the sides, while they paddled across the lake, just to show they could.

This is different, Ajay says.

My son, now 27, tall and barefoot in the bottom of a bass-fishing boat, holds out his hand for me to climb down from the dock.

This kind of boat is much more stable. There’s no way we could capsize. And you can wear a life jacket if you want.

I sit on the dock’s edge, hugging the piling the way a toddler holds his mother’s skirt, and touch the boat’s rail with one foot. It gives beneath my weight. From some long-ago class in materials engineering, I remember the physical properties of a liquid: an object is buoyed by a force equal to the weight of the liquid displaced by that object. For 23 years I’ve looked at our little bay as a pleasant backdrop, a guarantor of property values, a picturesque scene. But not water as such. And if I haven’t seen this, what else haven’t I seen?

Take my hand, Ajay says. Commands, rather. He’s sweating; people are watching; he’s impatient to get out into the breeze. Put your feet solidly on the deck, he says, and lean forward, and I’ll hold you upright. Then you can sit down. You don’t have to get up again.

It sounds easy enough. But my feet strike the floor harder than I intended; the hull slides from under me, slick as a bar of soap. I pitch forward, grasping the air, swallowing a howl of terror. Ajay jerks my sleeve, and miraculously the boat rights itself.

You see? It’s not so difficult.

Don’t mock me, I say. You would find it difficult if you were me.

And he looks at me with laughing eyes, this son, who has never known a barrier he couldn’t leap, who will never have to do anything in his life he doesn’t want to.

I was an obedient child. I was a sponge. From time to time, when I was young—after we left Chandigarh and moved to Delhi, where such things were uncommon enough to mention—I heard some adult whisper, She was there, in Amritsar, and I assumed it was an indication of great respect. I thought that Amritsar was a training school, a university for old shawl-wrapped aunties who could barely read.

The day was hot, as all April days are in north India. A Sunday, a Sikh festival day, in 1919. The two great Punjabi nationalists, Kitchlew and Satyapal, had just been arrested, and three days before, a riot had occurred in the center of the city. Banks had been burned, a few unfortunate Englishmen killed by mobs. Nonetheless, that day some 20,000 people packed into the Jallianwallah Bagh, a large public market and square in the middle of the city, surrounded by high walls, with only one entrance.

They were not protesters. They were shopping and eating and saying prayers and listening to busking musicians and traveling salesmen and Congress party organizers. It was, after all, a holiday. Indians, then and now, do not take Sundays off. We have no concept of a weekly day of rest. So one takes advantage of a break in schedule—even three days after a riot, even in the midst of a gathering war.

An English general, Dyer, marched 50 soldiers into the entranceway of the Bagh, making escape impossible. Without announcing himself, without ordering the crowd to disperse, he instructed his soldiers to fire. The massacre lasted 10 minutes. Three hundred and seventy-nine unarmed men, women, and children died, some shot, some trampled underfoot as the crowd panicked and ran from one side of the square to the other. More than a thousand were injured. Afterward, Dyer ordered his soldiers to retreat, without summoning ambulances.

In my family—my parents both working frantically to climb the ranks of the civil service into middle-class respectability—this was no more than a fact, a date in time, as dry and removed as any other words on the shabby paper of our history books. But when I was 10 and 11 years old, my best friend was a boy named Gopal Singh. We became friends at school because neither one of us liked to play cricket. Instead, we sat on a dusty patch of grass in one corner of the school yard, in the shade of a mango tree that grew on the other side of the wall, and tried to best each other with elaborate lies. I was much taken with TheRamayana, and my specialty was wild speculations about what would happen to Sampati and Hanuman and all the rest in present-day India; I delighted in turning Kaikeyi and her evil maid, Manthara, into Bollywood actresses, and Ravana into a Bombay gangster. Gopal was more of a literalist; his stories were always plausible and thus all the more vivid and grotesque. In particular, he maintained that he was a descendant of Udham Singh, the Punjabi folk hero who took revenge for Amritsar, for those 379 innocent souls. He gunned down Michael O’Dwyer—the governor of Punjab during the massacre—at Caxton Hall, in London, in 1940.

That’s just the beginning of the story, Gopal would say, the rest has been ruthlessly suppressed. He loved to trill his R’s in imitation of certain politicians whose long speeches in English were often broadcast on the radio. Udham Singh was not captured, as is claimed. In Gopal’s version, he escaped over the prison wall with a rope ladder concealed underneath his jacket, hid himself among crates of china on a freight train bound for London, and lived underground for years in the city, like Jack the Ripper, carrying out a campaign of murder and mutilation on the O’Dwyer family and the families of his superiors. The devastation was total, Gopal liked to say. None of the murderers’ families escaped untouched.

Not until we were years older and our conversations had moved on to other topics—exams, colleges, imagined girlfriends—did I notice how Gopal’s talk kept veering, ineluctably, back to Amritsar. In his corner of the room he shared with his two younger brothers, he kept a photograph of Udhamji in a carved sandalwood frame, and in front of it the spent casings of two rifle bullets his uncle in the army had sent him from the Chinese border in the Himalayas. Gopal, I finally said one day, when we were perhaps 15, it isn’t right, worshipping him like a god. He was just one person. And anyway he shot O’Dwyer in the back.

By then, Gopal’s face had lost its preadolescent puffiness and had in fact become quite tight and angular, even wizened, as if he was underfed, or smoked too many bidis, though I knew he didn’t smoke at all. He looked at me and flashed a ravenous grin. You don’t understand, he said. Udhamji was the only one who stood up to the angreezis. He was the one true Sikh. The one true Indian.

But if you read about Gandhiji and Nehru—

I’m not talking about history, he said, waving his hand dismissively. I’m talking about blood. Innocent blood. It could have been us. Our mothers, our sisters. Doesn’t that matter?

It was almost 50 years ago, I told him.

Everything is boring today, he said, scratching his nose as if it was an unpleasant growth he wished he could remove. Everything is just work. I can’t help it. I was born at the wrong time, I think. India doesn’t need me.

The phrase came back to me, like a stinging slap, the day I picked up my visa papers from the American Embassy. Of course, I should have said scornfully, India doesn’t need any of us. India eats us like tinned sardines and spits out the bones. But by then Gopal had gone off to a trade school in Agra, and I thought I would never see him again.

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