1984, Delhi

1984, Delhi

1984, Delhi 569 797 Mahesh Nair

The river was dry with grains of white sugar. Whenever we were drowning in the granules, I ate a mouthful of the sweetener, keeping all of us afloat. Mom and Dad called it pious and we grinned at the daybreak. But when I woke from my dream, the room was dark. Shut door, closed curtains. Dad paced in the room; Mom carried his turban. We heard a roar of people outside shouting, Kill them, rape them.

When I asked why the people are angry, Dad cuddled me and said that two Sikhs assassinated our Hindu prime minister. His long hair tickled my topknot.

No school today. I craved sugar.

Outside, everyone was running. We heard sounds of slippers, shoes, and slashes. Men bawled. Women’s cries continued until after we heard crackles of fire. Children lasted seconds.

The silhouettes of radicals with sticks and swords, under the sun, gushed thick like a gutter as they passed our front window, spurting along around our house to pass our left window and over to a Gurdwara behind. We knew that some trash lingered outside our house. While they thumped our door, one yelled bring kerosene; the other said nobody’s inside.

Around noon, when killings moved to another block and the pain felt distant, I tiptoed into the kitchen. A jar of sugar lay on the top shelf. A painting on the wall read, If you love, express. Mom began cutting Dad’s hair.

I stood atop a wobbly chair and took a mouthful of the sugar. As it melted in my mouth, the scissors snipped. Another mouthful and the chair gave way. A bang. And someone kicked our door harder than before. I limped over to my short-haired Dad and covered my mouth.

Mom’s lips stirred in prayer when the red of the twilight stabbed through the curtains. What if someone had marked our door for a late attack?

Outside, a faint sound of keys followed a soft voice. I’m Ram uncle, your neighbor.

Hindu-looking Dad bleated that this could be a trap since Ram was a Hindu. But he unlatched the door to let him in. When uncle said, I’d locked your door with a chain last night, Mom and Dad howled.

Before the dawn cracked, we packed our essentials for a shelter home. Uncle led us through the alleys and around decapitated, nude, and burnt bodies. With rounded shoulders, Dad walked like he was wading ashore. Mom covered my topknot with her chunni. I rushed ahead of them, holding aloft the jar of sugar—my white river that’d keep us afloat.

Header photograph © Heather Wharram.

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