During my banking career, I was posted to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh twice. The first time was between 1982 and 1985, and the second, a decade later, between 1992 and 1995. Both times, I was fortunate enough to have Bangalorean batchmates who would go yakkety-yak with “Howda? Swalpa adjustmaadi!” “Yaen Guru?” and other similar typical Bangalorisms.
The first riot that I came face to face with was in 1984. Indira Gandhi was killed on 31st October 1984 and curfew was imposed in Meerut. Hindu mobs were roaming the streets beating up Sikhs wherever they could be found. I personally saw elderly Sikhs being caught by Hindu mobs; they would pour petrol on the beard of the Sikhs and light a matchstick. We (the Bangalorean from Rajajinagar and I) were horrified. One day, I decided that enough was enough and ventured out, curfew be damned. A Hindu mob was beating up a Sikh boy who was hardly able to defend himself; one against fifty is not fair, at least in my book. I enter the scene and I ask them why they are doing this to an innocent boy. I then go a bit further and ask them how many Brahmins were killed when Gandhi was killed by a Brahmin named Godse. I get beaten up for daring to speak my mind, but that is what any self-respecting Germainite would have done, isn’t it? They call me names. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I take that young Sikh boy to my bank quarters where I feed him and nurse him. (“Try to be a Good Samaritan”—Mrs. Cobbles). Soon, we have a group of half a dozen Sikh boys who are sheltered by us. All of them are teenaged and call me “paaji” or elder brother. The Bangalorean from Rajajinagar asks me whether vegetarian food would be okay since he is a vegetarian and cannot cook meat, and I say that bisi bele baath and curd rice is fine. Who cares about fancy cuisine when one’s life is in danger?
The riots end. Cops shoot and kill everything in sight. Peace returns.
Eight years pass. I am in Kanyakumari district, Nagercoil to be precise. I get penalised for being “indisciplined,” which is a euphemism for not being a “chamcha” or a sycophant to your corrupt boss. I am threatened with a “punishment transfer,” and I, being a Germainite, laugh at it. Can they transfer me to Beijing or Shanghai, I ask them. It takes me only two hours to pack my belongings, I tell them. My family is based in Chennai and, come what may, I will not shift my family. Da missus was HOD Radiology at the Cancer Institute, and there was no way I would ask her to quit her job and follow me all around the country every three years. I would never dream of changing my daughter’s school every three years either. Wherever they transfer me, the bank has to pay me travelling allowance, I tell them. The powers that be are infuriated. They say that they are transferring me to Meerut, and I laugh, making the manager ask me “Are you sober?”
Transfer orders are issued and I reach Meerut. The usual 15 days’ time is given for fixing of bank quarters and I manage to get a place where the landlord is a towering Sikh. He gives me a strange look and says that he remembers me. I tell him that he is probably mistaken, but he laughs it off and I take possession of the keys.
December 6, 1992 arrives and the landlord comes running to my quarters and says that BBC had announced the demolition of the Babri building. He says curfew has been imposed and that I shouldn’t stir out of the house. He says he has sufficient stock of food and that he would bring me my meals three times a day. I say okay but the Germainite cussedness cannot be kept locked up too long. One day (December 9), I tell him that I am going to take a walk. He shakes his head but does not try to stop me.
I venture outside and walk for about a kilometre when I find myself confronted with a Hindu mob. They charge at me and pull down my pants and underwear. They find out that I am circumcised and reach (what they think is) the obvious conclusion. Knives flash in the sun. One of the guys tries to slash at my face and I throw my left hand up instinctively to cover my face. The knife passes through the two bones in my forearm, the radius and the ulna, and scrapes my chin. I don’t feel the pain because I am laughing like a maniac at the absurdity of it all. A Hindu being mistaken for a Muslim just because he has been medically circumcised, and getting stabbed by one’s own co-religionists, seems to me to be the height of irony.
I am losing a lot of blood by this time and my shirt is drenched. Then I hear loud shouts of “Bole So Nihal!” Half a dozen burly Sikhs have suddenly appeared out of nowhere, wielding swords and kirpans. I hear a voice saying, “Oye Balwinder! Paaji ko utthao!” The Hindu mob flees. Nobody wants to tangle with armed and angry Sikhs. The Sikhs carry me to a nearby mosque and the mullah there assumes that I am a Muslim. Not having a foreskin is sometimes an advantage, I tell myself. A surgeon is called and he sutures the knife wound. I continue to laugh and the Muslim doctor says “You are Iron Man.” He pronounces “iron” as “eye-run.” What could I tell him?
Suturing over, the Sikhs carry me back home. The landlord is waiting at the gate. He tells me that he sent the Sikh boys to follow me discreetly from a distance. I ask him why he went to the extent of all that trouble and he says, “Arre Paaji! Tussi hamko pehchaana nahin?” (Oh, elder brother! Don’t you recognize us?), and he takes me back in time to October/November 1984 and says that I gave him shelter when the Hindu mobs were going around maiming and killing Sikhs.