By Sonali Ghosh
Sonali Ghosh is a film maker and writer with a well regarded career as Producer in advertising film and television. Working in film for over a decade and a half, her observer eye is now honed to a craft of great beauty and empathy which is in evidence in the way she writes here of a woman who was scarred by the anti-Sikh genocide in Delhi in 1984.
There are many things about the Chirag Delhi crossing that have changed in the last thirty years, since `84. As a schoolgirl, crossing Chirag Delhi on my school bus every day, I recall how green, broad and wide the crossing used to be. There was no flyover then, no clogged BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes snaking along and eventually pouring out into today’s bustling traffic jams. In those days, waiting at the Savitri end of that traffic light, one could easily do a three hundred and sixty degree survey of the entire four-way crossing from the window seat of a school bus. Starting with the big, newly built three-storey bungalow in one prominent right corner, diagonally across the road, to the straight road leading to Vasant Vihar and beyond. Further left, was an unruly looking road to Saket (which didn’t really exist then) better known as the road to Sheikh Sarai. To the right and left – on both sides of the road towards my school – were the dreary DDA (Delhi Development Authority) flats that were beginning to dot vast tracts of South Delhi by then. In between these four roads at the crossing were thick clusters of trees that thickened further in as they forged their way to become Delhi’s ‘green belts’ to cut across major roads and crossings of South Delhi. Pan over to the smooth stretch disappearing towards Moolchand and Central Delhi and one’s gaze drifted back to that big sprawling house that marked one corner of the traffic light and suddenly, just like that, the house wasn’t there at all. What remained was a blackened hollow, a dark shell of what used to be a house.
Ever since the appearance of that visible scar at the Chirag Delhi signal, I recall the view of the rest of the traffic light being obliterated for me, but for that shell of a house. My eleven year-old self was less curious and more intrigued. How was it possible? An entire house, a brand new bungalow, becoming a transparent shell with no windows and black soot lined walls in just the span of a week when school had been shut and I had been cooped up at home straining to hear distant shouting, seeing plumes of smoke rising from market places all way up to Paras Cinema in Nehru Place, from the vantage point of the roof of our house in CR Park.
When school reopened I was back on the bus crossing the Chirag Delhi signal that remained unchanged but for that mysteriously hollowed out house and the equally mysterious appearance, at the same time, of a somewhat ragged and disheveled looking middle-aged woman. Visible from the bus, her head covered in a deep crimson dupatta as it bobbed up and down whenever she knelt into and out of cramped car windows, or staggered between cars or, dodged straying two-wheelers and speeding D.T.C (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses.
I didn’t really pay attention to this woman in her crimson colored dupatta until I was older and by then driving past the Chirag Delhi signal in my father’s Fiat that I used to drive to college on my own. By then, contact became more direct and one to one. Being part of a crowd of children in a noisy school bus is many layers removed from dealing directly with a person on the street. But this time I could see her leathery face up front with its deepening lines and manifold creases, her frayed dupatta now no longer any color at all, her unseeing eyes that glazed over a vacant look, the cheeks miming a broad smile that never met her eyes but which she wore to try to get your attention. When we finally spoke it was a brief exchange prompted by an equally small transaction. I had given her ten rupees and she took it smilingly, wordlessly. I asked her if she lived nearby and shook her head in the negative indicating a firm “No”! As I moved from first year to my third year in college, I saw her every week. By then I learnt that she was Sikh and someone ‘displaced’ by the `84 riots.
Over the next few years without exchanging names or pleasantries, our connection stretched beyond this basic exchange. She was growing older and more frail- in her fifties by now. Sometimes she would disappear for days and reappear with a young Sikh boy at her side who would be carrying a bunch of agarbattis or incense sticks in his hand along with a bag I assumed, also full of agarbattis. So now it was thirty rupees for the packet of agarbattis and the ten rupees if I wanted to give it to her. The young man was her son. He was fair, tall and had sharp features. Unlike his mother, he never made prolonged eye contact or any kind of conversation. He would emerge from the fumes of cars nearby and fix me with a gut-piercing gaze, thrusting a few packets of strong smelling agarbattis into the car. Within minutes, no movement or response from me would mean the retracting of the same cloyingly perfumed agarbattis back out the window, as his lean frame would disappear. Once I tried small talk like I did with his mother and was met with another piercing stare as he hoarsely shouted “Agarbattiiiiiiii” and without a moment’s pause, yanked his hand out of my car window and marched off thrusting it into the next car.
The boy was still a boy, in his late teens, about my age, but his face looked much older. Like his mother, his expression conveyed that he wasn’t fully there either. Later I learnt that he had gone mad. He would have raving fits, screaming in that hoarse voice of his, right in the middle of that traffic signal. What he said was like his eye contact – stinging, brief, and incomprehensible to the passersby. When shooed away from the Chirag Delhi crossing, he would turn up further down the same road at the Panchsila Park signal where he would hop around between cars and do a repeat performance of what he did at the Chirag light until he was shunted further out to the next one.
As the years rolled on, I graduated college and completed my post-grad. Not surprisingly the roads to both institutions went via the Chirag Delhi crossing which had been unofficially rechristened the Chirag Delhi Flyover by then. The woman was still a constant fixture at the traffic light. Money still passed through our hands. Sometimes a few hundred for a spot cash down payment to obtain a fresh stock of agarbattis, at other times a hundred odd just because she looked particularly worn out. On one rainy day, gripped by anger seeing her straying at the signal I forced her to get inside the car. I was convinced that depositing her at the Greater Kailash Part II Gurdwara would be an end to her constant sauntering at a pretty dangerous traffic light with its speeding cars and trucks. But no! The next day she was back at her usual spot, her head bobbing in and out of cars, her canvas bag of agarbattis intact. “I can’t stay in the Gurdwara, beta,” she said, looking away wistfully in the direction of oncoming traffic slowing down at the light. A few months down the line I had an idea. Why not take her home. If not my home where there wasn’t much work, she could stay with a family in the neighborhood who had children she could perhaps look after. We drove to my colony in silence. Upon entering my home I went to the kitchen to heat some lunch for her. I returned with what was the lunch made for us that day – dal, chawal, sabzi and some kakdi. She ate her full and asked for a glass of water. I asked if she would like to rest a bit before taking her to one of the houses nearby– “No, beta! I better be on my way,” she said, handing me the glass back as she wiped her mouth with her dupatta and left.
After I moved out of Delhi to live and work in Bombay, I would see her on my way from the airport to my parent’s house or on the way to the airport while leaving for another few months. On one of my trips I learnt that she had lost her son. He had somehow saved up enough to buy an old bicycle that he now rode around the main road. One day, after picking up new stock of agarbatti that was bundled and strapped to the back of his bicycle he was run over by a speeding truck that was on the wrong side of the road. This piece of news was conveyed to me by my father, who learnt of this on his way home from work himself. By now, the woman had stopped speaking altogether. She would stop at the car and I wasn’t sure if she recognized me at all. Her face would light up if I gave her some money but small talk or any other kind of exchange wasn’t welcome.
It was after this that she stopped selling agarbattis altogether. Our encounters at what was now “Chirag Delhi Flyover signal” were becoming more and more rare. I had been living away from Delhi for over a decade now and my trips were too short to pay much attention to the traffic light and its cluster of beggars and bizarre toy sellers – ranging from weird animals that spit stuff at you to ones with racing neon lights blinking inside, a sign of the times, a sign that even toys were to be noisy, in your face, spooky distractions now, and not just playthings. The traffic light itself had changed altogether. A sub culture had spawned below the flyover – thriving in the alleyways with their goods and piles of bestseller books that appeared miraculously at the car window as traffic snarled all around. There was no view of anything around the signal anymore – barely any trees, not even the ones leading up to the ‘green-belt’ that must have shrunk deeper into the recesses of what looked like tiny manicured gardens maintained by the Forest department. The D.D.A. (Delhi development authority) flats on either side of the road were unrecognizable, no longer shabby but pretentious facades, each designed to look like a private bungalow, a distinct sign that the increasingly wealthy middle class that had gone from modestly well-off to practically rich in the post liberalization era. The burnt bungalow with its soot-lined windows and hollow rooms lit up right through due to the absence of doors and windows was now back to being a sprawling big house from my childhood days though. These changes – from the new house to dark hollow, from shabby middle class flats to opulent glass façade DDA apartments – have punctuated the narrative of our change from pre-millennium to post millennium India. But these are the visible changes, visible only to the observer’s eye. The invisible change was not for show, unseen even to the observant. For here, the more visible it is, the more it is to remain unseen like that beggar on the street or those vacant-eyed people who sell agarbattis and neon colored toys or the woman acquaintance of my youth.
Recently for reasons both beyond and within my control, I opted to move back to Delhi. My parents had gone from old, aging, gray to now well and truly gone. Not prepared to let go of what was left of our home in Delhi, I decided to move back to try and see to what vestiges of the past could I cling on now. Over the course of these last three decades between 1984 and 2014, much had changed in not just the city but the neighborhoods all
around, including the new government that came to power this May “in the world’s biggest election process held in the world’s largest democracy…”
Friends, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances had moved house, moved cities, changed jobs. Old houses had been torn down and new apartments in glass, tile and design had come up. In markets, rows of houses had let their ground floors out to shopkeepers but most were dust covered and their glass facades unlit and empty. Barring a few close friends I was hard put to find too many remnants from the past, human or otherwise. As I drove around in my father’s car, I slowed down at the Chirag Delhi flyover traffic light and to my surprise, spotted the woman, grayer than ever, more disheveled, still making her way in between cars. As she came up to mine, I poked my head out in relief to see this reassuring presence from the traffic light again after so long. She did not really recognize me as she smiled unblinkingly. There was the customary smile, those glazed eyes – the irises foggy and milky white – could she even see me?
I suppose I hit a note when she heard my voice. “Bahut dino baad, beta?” – “After so many days child?” she smiled benignly, as she leaned her frame on the car window for support. But it was me who was seeing her with new eyes now even though she couldn’t see me. “What is your name?” I asked her gently, hoping she wouldn’t notice that in all these years I hadn’t bothered to find out.
It was true, she said, she had arrived as a regular at the Chirag Delhi traffic signal right after the riots in Delhi ended in November ’84. She and her husband, Naren Singh, their four children, lived in Govindpuri. He plied a taxi in the Ajmeri Gate area but a serious back problem had made him bedridden for a long spell. When the riots began, people in the neighborhood knew about his condition and informed on them. He was pulled out of the house and beaten with a tire iron and a burning tire slung around his neck. The son who had later died in the road accident, Gurcharan, never recovered from what he had seen. With four children to feed and no skills, Harjeet Kaur found refuge at the traffic light and some money by selling agarbattis or sometimes, money given to her by people in cars who often took that route and came to know of her as a regular there. I ask her if she feels hate towards the very neighbors who informed on them, the neighborhood where she still lives with the rest of her children and their children, her grandchildren. After Gurcharan, she lost one son to drug abuse and another to TB. The one who still lives there wants nothing to do with her and has built himself a floor above her where he lives with his family but does not provide for her. “This is my place, this signal. That is not my home, it is where I go to sleep and meet my family,” she says smiling resignedly, her milky irises floating unseeingly in those old, rheumy eyes. I ask her if she has made friends at the signal – “Oh yes, many. There are fellow Sikh brothers who bring me some rations off and on. Then there are people who come and give me some cash once in a while. This way, I can make a few hundred rupees a day here at my “place”. If I go to the Gurdwara, I won’t be able to provide for my family and take home even this much. The Gurdwara will look after only me.”
It’s late, summer rain splashes down and we are sitting inside my car. Harjeet Kaur is restless, keen to get on with the business of her day. It is close to lunch-time and now that she is in her seventies, she needs to walk back to her place in Govindpuri to sleep an hour or two before she returns to the traffic light for the evening rush hour to make her collections here. I want to know why she doesn’t sell agarbattis any more. “I don’t earn enough for a deposit to buy the stock. Besides, I cannot see anymore, what will I sell?” Says the woman who is as ageless as she is a nobody. A woman who has long given up the pretense of selling agarbattis or garish children’s toys or any other such typically outlandish item that people reduced to living their lives out on the street have to take up arms with. A woman who could well be wearing the same blood spattered clothes from when the riots took away the one and only earning family member and upended her life onto this traffic signal. What does the state see Harjeet Kaur as today, thirty years after the 1984 riots I wonder? Is she the ubiquitous beggar, a mendicant, who approaches old familiar or new unknown faces daily? People know her, recognize that familiar face. Long gone are the pitiful requests to please buy her thirty rupees apiece agarbattis or drop her off to the next crossing so that she can catch up with her son there. Today her one and only appeal to those driving past or waiting for the light to turn green is to just give her some money. She does not want help or a job. She does not want old clothes or food or even left overs from your doggy bag. She has no use for your leftovers or your token throwaways at a traffic light. She is not begging at all actually, for she is not a beggar at all. She is what a homeless, nameless riot victim is, an unhealed scar that is as visible as it is invisible to our unseeing eyes just as she, herself, is unseeing.
Looked at from a broader perspective, the many hundreds- running into the thousands- victims of riots, genocide, violence or displacement are all in the same ghost boat; stranded between nation and nationality, between this shore and that, between what we regard as the line that separates the good from bad. Their past obliterated, their present out of reach, such people gradually detach themselves from the embrace of family and community (because none exist) -whether class or caste based- and the long arm of civil
society to creatures worse off than strays living their life on the street. For the state, such people are not only the non tax paying, non performing minority – in a sense disabled majority – but also people without any moorings or a sense of belonging to anything – to be tagged dangerous criminal or just a mass of unaccounted for energy whenever the state wants or needs them – guns for hire at the riot maybe. If of no other use to the state, the state then dissociates from them altogether, absently and perhaps all too casually, brushing aside the vicious and riotous tragedy engineered by itself, crudely calling them the beggars that they are not.