Wednesday, March 2, 2011


In 1984, even as the riot-hit families were still alighting from trains at the railway station, this 14-year-old was putting up a stall for Bhopal Gas Peerat, though he could help no one. Then came that devastating joke, the sickest joke that you ever heard.

Nischay Pal

DECEMBER 3, 1984. Headlines screamed about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and my gang of school-going big boys in Ludhiana wanted to know more. The Tribune and Ajit seemed just not enough. Everyone wanted to know more. 24x7 news TV was ouside the realm of even sci-fi writers' imagination, and a news break was still not Breaking News in 160 sized font. The hawkers used to deliver the Delhi editions of The Times of India and The Hindustan Times only a day later. The Statesman would come even two days later, along with The Telegraph. It was near impossible to get a copy of The Hindu if you were not a regular subscriber, and the Azad Newspaper wallah in Bharat Nagar Chowk would deliver only on the promise that you will not crib if the copies are two or three days' old, or if one or two days' newspapers simply did not arrive at your doorstep.
I remember bicycling to the Ghanta Ghar Chowk to get the newspapers. The Mahindra Newspaper Wallah had sold out all, except The Tribune that I had already read. Next stop was what was popularly called "Extension Library". In those days I had little idea of the huge cultural impact this extension arm of the Panjab University had on the young impressionable minds in that industrial town. (These days, PU vice chancellor has even lesser idea, so the library is in doldrums.) The librarian had hogged all the newspapers himself, and none were available. "Knock at KS Chawla's gate. I am sure The Tribune's office gets many newspapers," suggested a friend, exhorting the group on bicycles to see if the Rakh Bagh Road resident would help. Chawla shooed us away, and we deduced that anyone who lived in such a posh area could only be a colluder of the state. So why would he give us any information? (Twenty five years later, I still have to apologise to Mr Chawla, the then correspondent of The Tribune, and the Indian state still has to apologise to me for having turned me into somone who could think in such ways.)
The 14-year-old is a very young creature.
It is cocksure about so much, and
there is so much it does not understand.
It dangles between confidence of
knowledge and pangs of self-doubts
a thousand times a day.
How many tragedies do you think
 a 14-year-old could have absorbed
between the summer and
winter of the same year in 1984?
Our Murphy Radio was the one saviour, but it gave little details. Even lesser were expected from Tirath Singh Dhillon in the evening whose baritone voice on AIR Jalandhar I had become used to. But without the benefit of more newspapers, one thing was very clear, nevertheless. Bhopal tragedy was big. Bhopal was tragic. And Bhopal's scale was testing the imagination of a 14-year-old in faraway Ludhiana.
The 14-year-old's imagination was under a test for very long now. All the impassioned reporting and editorials of Ajit, Akali Patrika, Veer Pratap, Milap and the then young English Ajit Weekly could not explain enough why a situation came when army tanks went trundling inside a religious complex. The measured tone of The Tribune and the intrepid reporters of the Indian Express were little help in understanding why some poor people whom the state had failed in any case for decades would get together and burn alive hundreds of other people whom the state's security apparatus had shunned when they needed it the most.
The 14-year-old is a very young creature. It tells itself often that it is very intelligent, and understands much. And it tells itself, just as many times, that there is so much it does not understand, and so much is not making sense to him. It dangles between cockyness of being sure and pangs of self-doubts a thousand times a day.
How many tragedies do you think a 14-year-old could have absorbed between the summer and winter of the same year in 1984?
Images of devastation at the Akal Takht appeared regularly in Ajit, and by the second week of November, families, or whatever was left of them, were alighting regularly from trains at the Ludhiana Railway Station where a Naujawan Sabha of a motley group of Sikh youth had set up a table and a chair with a banner behind: “Danga Peerat Sewa Sambhal – Apna Hissa Pao Ji.” Next to the table was placed a large drum in which people would pour some atta now and then. A little langar used to be organized twice a day but I could do sewa there only on weekends. The timing clashed with my school hours.
A call had gone out to people to donate their old clothes. I don't know what it was about old clothes, but couldn't help wondering why even my very rich relatives donated only old clothes that even we could afford to. As a rebellious 14-year-old, I declared two of my four shirts very old, and then shamed my mom into donating these. (Yes, I know I would have made a very poor rebel if that was my idea of a rebellion.)
I would try and collect such hand me downs every once in a while and deliver them dutifully to the young men at the railway station who would be very recognisable. Alongside the fervour of sewa was also the fervour for wearing a saffron patka or turban.
I was young, very young. You couldn't tell whether I had a beard or not, unless you noticed very keenly. In those days, everyone used to read the newspapers. That is, everyone who bought them. Nowadays, boys of that age can go through the newspapers drooling all over, without reading a single word. In those days, you could do that with only one page of the Punjab Kesri, and there was no dearth of those who slammed it for publishing "ashleel photos."  We were young, and many of us used to look forward to those photos.
Asiad had come and gone, and color TV was there in the market. But in our locality, TV was still black and white. Our neighbours had a Televista, and the rich man across the street had a Texla. Thursday 5 pm was the permanent movie time, and Chitrahaar used to be at 8 pm. Some people had a single antenna atop a pole on rooftop, others had two. A flattened cable would hang loose from the antenna and snuggle its way right behind the TV in the drawing room. (All TVs used to be in the drawing rooms, silly!)
Someone down the lane had bought an extra four-colored screen which he had affixed on the TV screen. A group of street urchins that I led had barged into that house to see the color TV. The screen was divided into four differently colored parts. And we all thought that was what color TV was about. I had not heard of Andy Warhol then, and could draw no allusions to his work and the 'color' screen.
Life was simple. Even devastation was simple. Bhindranwala was a key tag word. “Tag word”, however, was not even a word in those days. Operation Bluestar was too recent, it was still to turn into memories. And the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi was only yesterday. All talk about painful memories was still to even start. It was all happening rather quickly. June 1984, curfews, Sarbat Khalsas, Indira Gandhi, massacre of Sikhs, Bhopal gas tragedy. In godforsaken Ludhiana, who had time for memories? Every week, there used to be a rumour that some people living in a slum near our house were planning to loot houses of Sikhs. Poor KR Lakhanpal as Deputy Commissioner must be at his wit’s end to reassure people that all these rumours were being spread by “gair-samajik ansar”. I was very keen to see this particular tribe: “the gair-samajik ansar”. Now, after Bhopal, we heard new rumours: the slum dwellers’ were planning to put poison in the water tank. Lakhanpal was at the job again: “Gair Samajik Ansar,” he said. That hardly re-assured me. I mean I knew the tank was too high and it was difficult for anyone to scale it with the ulterior motive of adding fistfuls of poison, but I had no idea about the abilities of “gair samajik ansar”. (These days even unemployed teachers lose little time in climbing atop water tanks, and for the government, they too are ‘gair samajik ansar’ because they are asking for jobs.) A few days later I asked the maid who used to clean utencils at our place and lived in the same slum if her people had any plans to put poison in the water tank. She laughed hysterically: “Arre bhai, hum to roz hee zehar wala paani peete hain. Tum ek din pee lo ge to kuchh nahi hoga.” Such inhuman response! I was shocked. For a few days, I would gingerly take a sip and test for taste every glass of water. Till the maid’s little child died of cholera one day. “The water is all poison in our area,” her husband was explaining. I didn’t know how to react. “May be they put the poison in the wrong tank?” I thought, but then kicked myself. A 14-year-old can be an idiot. Several times in a week, in fact.
Ludhiana was a simple town for a 14-year-old in 1984, much simpler than what you see now. At the Basant Ice Cream corner of Kucha Number 5, Lal Singh himself used to sell 'kulfi' standing on the footpath. His son, Rajinder Singh, now a senior leader of Akali Dal in Ludhiana, was still learning the art of kulfi making; politics was far away unless you count cutting deals with the Municipal Committee officials to allow the illegal kulfi stall to ply the trade.
Kucha Number 5 shopkeepers and Karimpura Bazar shopkeepers, who would collectively bribe the shop inspector at the rate of Rs 25 each per month to keep their shops open on Sunday, decided to down the shutters on Monday, December 3. Dharamveer Multani whose sons ran a stationery shop near Shahpur Chowk was angry that the liquor vend on Field Ganj road next to the post office stayed open, and shamed them for selling poison.
Gurdwara Kalgidhar was often the centre of community activity. Gurdwara pardhan Gurcharan Singh was a kind soul who would religiously mark his presence at the gurdwara each morning and then tend to his cloth shop on the Gujjarmal Road, reeling out rates of what he would call "popleen", "bamber", "patte da than", "terricot", "full voil" and "boski". The last one was his favourite, and he would often make the customer touch his kurta to prove what a superior "boski" it was. After Operation Bluestar, and even more after November massacres, he had turned somewhat bitter. Years later, he told me how he had gotten angry with an old man when the latter suggested that there should be a mention in the evening ardas for those who perished in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
“You think they all mentioned in their prayers what happened on Delhi’s roads?” As I said, Pardhan Gurcharan Singh was a kind soul. “For years, I tried to find that old man among the sangat as I wanted to apologise to him. Most of those who were the first to raise their voice against the massacres were Hindus. Justice Tarakunde was the most vocal; Madhu Kishwar, Uma Chakarvarti…I don’t know what came over me. There should have been a mention of Bhopal, and that old man had even asked for it.”
There was a lot of Bhopal in Ludhiana that winter.
Two days later, the stale newspapers arrived. The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph. The smell of death peered from the front pages. The man at the Mahindra book stall was nice; I had badgered him for two days for these newspapers. “Here, take The Hindu too,” he said. I was so happy to lay my hands on the two day old copy of The Hindu that day.  Or so sad.
By evening, things were making sense. The tragedy needed all hands on the deck. For a 14-year-old, it was unprecedented. So I and the government of India were, for a change, in unison. But to act, I needed a precedent. Only true rebels act without one; and I was a rebel only as far as declaring new shirts old went.
Thankfully, there was a precedent.
I shared the newspapers with my gang. We were so sure we could do everything together. Bhopal needed help, all the newspapers were saying. And we knew how help is given. Next morning, we were at the railway station. Instead of a printed banner, we put up a couple of charts: “Bhopal Gas Peerat Sewa Dal”. Everytime a train chugged in, we would rush and shout if anyone from Bhopal needed help. All we had were a few old clothes, about ten kg of atta, and two whistles. And a spirit whose size you couldn’t measure even if you could climb atop a water tank in two steps. The think-team got together late that evening, and we decided to ask the station superintendent about which train can possibly bring Bhopal peerat people to Ludhiana. The old man was kind, I don’t remember him laughing or smirking as he advised us to contribute the atta and the rags to the Danga Peerat stall. He made sense. We left the atta with the young men in saffron patkas who gave us some handbills that announced a Kirtan Darbar on December 31st at Gurdwara Kalgidhar to herald the new year.
This could have been anyone's prized possession
in those heady days of 1984 in Ludhiana
For a few days at school, they called me Bhopal Express. Three more weeks passed. Bhopal was the new tag word. “Send Baba Santa Singh to Bhopal, he will erect the Union Carbide with sarkari kar sewa.” I was too young to articulate to myself how humour tells more nuanced truth than even newspapers. It seemed in the fitness of things to attend the Kirtan Darbar. Outside, there were many stalls for the Danga Peerat people. Inside, kirtan was interspersed time and again with some exhortations to set the enemy right. The stage secretary Rajinder Singh would describe such speakers as “Joshile Khalsa Jiyo”. Those who were rebels of a higher order than me were very boisterous about setting the enemy right. I wanted nothing different.
“How would you do that? I too wanted to do some good, so we had decided to help Bhopal victims,” I told a motley group of youngsters outside at a stall. It was then that I heard the dirtiest joke of my life. No “ashleel photos” in the many Punjab Kesris that are now published by The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and myriad other newspapers can match the dirt bomb that the joke contained. “You know where Baba Nanak was when so much zulm was taking place? He had gone to Bhopal.” And they all laughed. I didn’t get it then. But there was something not right with the joke, because there was something not right with that laughter.
Inside the Kirtan Darbar, I scurried around for my uncle. And when I found him, I told him the half-joke that I had heard. Never had I seen the timid man so furious. “Kithey ne? Kithey ne oh haraamzaade? Chal mere naal. Kaun si? Kithey ae?” He snatched a long bamboo stick from one of the sewadars, and ran outside. I ran after him. Behind me the sewadars. The group that had told the joke had run away. Pardhan Gurcharan Singh was told about what had happened. He was sad. Crest fallen. “Mazloom gareeb de pichhe piya hai, sarkar aish kar rahee hai.” The joke had dawned on me, suddenly. The youngster wanted to say that the Guru had gone to Bhopal to open the gas valve. I later found that the joke did the rounds for many weeks in those days. It was as if Bhopal’s poisonous gas had engulfed me in Ludhiana. I was sick. Some in the community that was in deep pain were trying to assuage their pain by cracking jokes about others writhing in similarly soul-shattering pain. For days, I was sick. If I had known that young man’s house, I promise you I would have turned into a rebel of a higher degree. I would have put poison in his water tank, and scribbled Warren Anderson outside his house. And you know what? Guru Nanak would have forgiven me!
After all, it was not very easy to handle Bhopal Gas Tragedy in small town Ludhiana.
(This personal memoir appeared in the Punjab Today edition of June 12-18, 2010. Readers can obtain copies of any old edition of Punjab Today at nominal price. Write to

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