Dear Sikhs of Bandra (W), I get it’s your Christmas today and that you’re happy etcetera etcetera and that’s lovely. But bursting firecrackers and caterwauling into a bloody microphone at 4am? That’s just wrong. And cruel. I went to sleep at 2am last night. By 4.30, I was ready to do to you lot what your ancestors did to Mughals like Jahan Khan. In case you don’t know your history, I wanted to cut all yer heads off. Anything to stop you from singing.
A couple of weeks ago, someone I met was telling me about Sikhism. She described to me the procession that is taken out on the day before Guru Nanak Jayanti. (Guru Nanak Jayanti, i.e. today, is Guru Nanak’s birthday.) She said it’s an elegant affair that happens at twilight and wraps up by dawn. Then on the morning of the Guru Nanak Jayanti, there are hymns sung, poems recited and before you know it, it’s lunch time so you go to the gurudwara and eat. The whole thing sounded very civilised and more Bengali than Punjabi, frankly. Songs, poems, free (and yummy) food — add a jhola and you have the stereotypical Bengali intellectual.
Meanwhile, if you think about how Durga Puja is celebrated in Kolkata these days, it seems far more Punjabi in its ostentation. Every neighbourhood is in competition to make their idols and decorations bigger, better and flashier than the other’s; not for aesthetic satisfaction but to bag a monetary prize for the best designed puja. People flaunt new clothes. Neighbourhoods are lit up with blinding lights. And thanks to the crowds and traffic, “pandal-hopping” (pandals are the temporary cloth tents in which the idols are housed for the Puja; they’re often incredibly inventive structures) is really hard, physical work, which isn’t something Bengalis are known for.
Coming back to Guru Nanak Jayanti. When this acquaintance was telling me about the hymns and the music with dreamy reverence, I nodded my head energetically and told her how amazing the Golden Temple was and how I’d spent hours listening to the Ragis, who sing hymns all day, non-stop, in the Harmandir Saheb. There is an incredible serenity and elegance to that place, which I honestly hadn’t expected. Cover your head, wash your hands and feet, and step into the Golden Temple complex, and it’s like entering an enchanted world. Everyone seems to settle down, like silt coming to rest in a riverbed. The hymns are all around you. There’s no cacophony. Children laugh softly, the adults are gentle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not, the Golden Temple is amazing. It’s beautiful and it fills you with a sense of tranquility and quiet that is so difficult to explain and so remarkable given the kind of violence and bloodshed that the Golden Temple saw during Operation Blue Star.
The 1984 attack on the Golden Temple is yet another horrible moment of Indian history for which we can thank Indira Gandhi. The Indian army entered the Golden Temple, not just with soldiers but also tanks and armoured vehicles, on 5 June 1984 because a group of armed Sikh separatists had taken refuge in the temple. By the time the Indian army had “secured” the temple, it was the morning of 7 June. The Golden Temple looked like a war zone: rubble, blood, bullet holes, corpses. There isn’t any agreement on how many people were killed during Operation Blue Star. The official figures, believed to be conservative estimates, are 83 army personnel and 492 civilians. Some say 800 militants were killed. There was a complete media blackout about Operation Blue Star. In the years when all you had was state-run media, people thought it was possible to regulate what information slipped out. No photos were released because the government didn’t want “things to escalate”. It’s the phrase that was used by someone who was among those ensuring the blackout really was black. They also said to me, “It made sense. The few photos we saw, if they’d ever been released, Bhindranwale (the Sikh separatist leader) would have got sainthood and Punjab would have gone to war.” But locking away official photos that had been sent to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting wasn’t going to stop the images from slipping out. If anything, it ensured Sikhs didn’t forget what happened.
(Someone sent me these photos. They were supposedly taken by an army official soon after the Golden Temple had been officially secured. I obviously don’t know if they’re real, but from what I’ve heard about Operation Blue Star, if the photos are fake, they’re probably a decent approximation of what the temple complex looked like on 7th June.)
The place where Bhindranwale was killed is a shrine of sorts now. All you can see are bullet holes in a wall and a mottled darkness that is, perhaps, old blood. There’s a glass wall around it. People go and kneel there. They bring their kids and tell them to press their foreheads to the glass. There’s a sign with some writing on it but I can’t read Punjabi so I don’t know what it says.
All I know is that it’s miraculous that when you step in and see the Golden Temple complex, you don’t feel any of this violence, the spilt blood and anguish and anger. It’s not forgotten. Every slab of marble that has been replaced, every blood stain removed, the Akal Takht itself, they’re all reminders of what happened. But that isn’t what characterises the temple complex. There’s something older, purer in there and that’s what you feel. That’s what goes to show Guru Nanak and his posse of Sikh prophets created something incredibly special in Amritsar.
Which is why, despite how militant and violent I felt at 4am today when my Sikh neighbourhood started bursting firecrackers and singing with spectacular tunelessness, I’m going to close my eyes, remember the Golden Temple, give thanks to Guru Nanak Dev and wish him a very happy birthday. Non-violent, happy-birthday-worthy photos of The Golden Temple coming up in the next post.
Meanwhile, I’m almost 5,000 words behind target in NaNoWriMo. Gah.