Escaping Death

10th November 1989, TIET, Patiala

The last few months have been triggering many a memory that have otherwise been dormant or repressed – many such memories are ‘eerie’ survivor stories that were laid to rest, seldom shared with close friends and family. Perhaps there were taints of guilt and perhaps there were a sensing of burdensome responsibility to live, and more so – sheer disbelief of my listeners – that made it easier to just forget such moments.

But I don’t think I have been very successful – It was just a few weeks ago, where I caught myself almost ‘boasting’ of how I have escaped death not once but several times – as if I had played a major role in the turn of events. This just appeared in my head like a ‘bang’ – and I was wondering what triggered this.

This evening, my mother met a couple of writers and poets who have been chronicling narratives of how terrorism impacted Punjab in the 1980s, and one of them has sought me to talk about my narrative. So I thought I might as well pen down what happened on the 10th of November in Patiala more than three decades ago.

Narrative

9th November 1989

In 1989, I was nineteen years of age and precocious to the boot.

I was representing my college in a set of skills ranging from quizzing to dumb charades at the annual jamboree of Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology (TIET) at Patiala. I was a part of a four-man team that was excitedly looking at competing across a wide array of events, where we would thrash other colleges– just as we had done so the year before. This year was special given that we had competing teams from colleges from other states.

This year was also special for me. A few weeks ago, I had shorn my hair and shaved my beard, as a part of rebelliously relinquishing Sikhism – a religion that I was born into. I no longer wore a turban or carried any visible artefacts that made me look like a Sikh. I felt different.

We landed in Patiala on 9th November in the mid-morning – a short trip from Chandigarh, and entered the premises. The campus was abuzz with excitement – there were banners being put up, loudspeakers blared the latest music, stalls selling eateries were being erected, and of course there were pretty women anchoring preparations.

The four of us with our bags landed at the reception desk, where we were warmly greeted and then told that we were being put up in a large dormitory, that has students from Haryana, UP and Rajasthan.  The news was not great, as we had been looking for smaller premises – like the year before as opposed to be with 40 other students in a large hall.

It pays to know someone in the system…

We had an old friend in TIET – P, who was a young engineering student and a hosteler – more importantly he was a part of the organizing committee. He had been a classmate with us in high school.

It was P who rescued us from the initial disappointment oof being cooped up in a large hall. P offered his room that had five cots sprawled across a large space, and which offered us more privacy and a sense of being together. P was fun loving, extroverted and extremely generous as a human being. P’s room was a mere 30 yards from the dorm.

The day went by with usual fun – the four of us explored the campus – this was our second festival – sampling food (Patiala is known for great cuisine), meeting others, and preparing for the competitive run of events the next day. That evening was memorable, as I was at my wittiest best – cracking stupid jokes – most of them had people rolling on the floor. Post dinner, we retired to P’s room, and began practicing dumb charades – a game that we could engage with for hours.

It was around 2130 hours, somebody knocked our door – the person was a tall and well-built Sikh with red eyes – he did not look like a student – he looked aggressive, angry, and sternly reminded us that as per the rules of festival – we had to immediately move to the dorm. Not that we cared much for this intrusion, and I don’t remember us committing anything to him, except when his back was turned, we cracked a joke on how some students never graduate from an engineering college.

Outside, the evening was full of gaiety – the loud music was often interrupted by firecrackers, singing KK numbers, and loud yelling.

A couple of hours later, two more belligerent folks came to check us out – they were pretty adamant that we had to shift to the dorm immediately as per the norms or rules. But those were the days, when you would not see any of us succumbing to any pressure tactics. P, our host, joined in with voluble protests and we stayed where we were.

It was much later, we guessed, and we discovered that most if not all students cloistered in the dorms were non-Sikhs.

The Night and Early Morning

10th November 1989

It was well past midnight, and while we had run out of movies and books to practice dumb charades on, we discovered that we had run out of water as well. P, our genial host, went down to get water from a water cooler just outside and opposite to the front doors of dorm below. While he was away, we heard a really loud staccato of shots – these continued for several and long minutes. Our first impulse was to curse the students who were rousing all of us with this late display of fire-crackers in a confined space.

When this loud staccato ended, and while we all felt uneasy about the sound – we sleepily got into our beds and slept.

At around 0350 hours, our door was nearly brought down with loud thumping. Fed up with these intrusions throughout the night, we opened the door wishing to express our rage and irritability. However, what we saw were intensely worried faces, who were screaming at us – trying to confirm whether we were from DAV College, Chandigarh, and that we were supposed to be in the dorm. They looked at our ID papers in sheer relief.

By 0430, we knew…

Nineteen students had been gunned down in the same dormitory where our made beds lay. Five students were badly hurt, and were being whisked away in ambulances. Police and para-military had taken over the campus, and each of us were being interrogated. One of my three friends (the gang of 4) was R, and his dad was the Chandigarh editor of a national daily. I guess the pressures to find him and us were intense for we were supposed to be in the room.

By 0600, I could at least start thinking and not just feel numb. Here was an intense act of Sikh extremism – the massacre targeted non-Sikhs – young people who had come to participate in a well-known festival. The people who had knocked on our doors were possibly not the TIIET students but a part of the larger gig that knew what was bound to happen. In 1984, my family had survived the onslaught of angry mobs targeting and killing Sikhs, and here in 1989, I survived yet again, ironically as a non-Sikh from Sikh terrorism.

Those were not the days of cell-phones, in fact my folks lived thousands of miles away and did not even have a phone! All I could remember is that the next few days were a daze for me – a bit like the misty cloud that swallowed everything else – like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!

It took a lot of time to process this event so to speak… perhaps It was shame that never allowed me to speak much. Regardless of my shunning away my Sikh identity, I could never get over the fact that fellow Sikhs had chosen to gun down harmless innocent students.

R and I did often get together and in hushed whispers talk about this event when we meet – we used to meet perhaps once in two or three years.

Our Guardian Angel

P, our host, when he had gotten down to fetch water, had seen the vehicle coming into the road leading into the dorm-hostel. After filling the water up, and when he was coming up to the room, he saw the vehicle exit. For the next few weeks, we were in touch with him – he had been our guardian angel and he had cheated death in the most dramatic way.

We considered him to be the luckiest chap alive.

A few months later, P died of cancer – it was sudden, and it was relentless. I can never forget P.

The Context

I find it difficult to watch the news of how Russia is obliterating Ukraine or what happened to Syria and Iraq a few moons ago. It is violence and destruction that leaves me frozen internally. A part of me just gets numb to watch people die. In this numbness – also lies a promise to myself to make my life count.

It is this promise to self that keeps me alive, and bravely confront the disappointments, the let downs, and the failures when I don’t.

One thought on “Escaping Death

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