I remember the day distinctly. It was the 13th day of Baisakh. Both Pra and I had got up early.
At the crack of dawn.
Hurriedly, we had taken our baths. On entering my room, I found new clothes laid out on the bed.
My ten year old mind was super excited and elated.
I remember whistling slowly as I put on the new dress.
As I did so, I heard the jingling of earrings.
I looked up. Maa was standing at the doorway.
She had put on a new salwar kameez. All red. Her favourite colour. She was smiling.
I could see she was very happy.
“Puttar, come have some paranthas. Your Pra is already ready. Everyone is waiting. We will leave in ten minutes”.
I nodded my head. Combed my jet black hair. Before stepping out, I glanced towards my left, saw my reflection in the full length mirror.
White kurta, white pyjama, white turban_ a dimpled ten year old with the slightest of black line over thin lips smiled back.
My joyous self sprinted towards the dining room, which was a massive open air courtyard.
Seated on small rectangular stools were my family. I wedged myself between Di and Pra and ravenously attacked the plate of hot ghee dipped paranthas. After that, I gulped down a large glass of lassi, my lips all moistened by the icy cold liquid.
“Good, now that we have all eaten and ready, let’s proceed. It’s going to be long day”.
Everyone stood up on hearing Pyo’s words. And in one long procession, all of us left through the main door.
Pyo and Dada and Nana and Pra were in the first line. Immediately behind them were Maa, Dadi and Nani.
I held onto to Dee’s hands. That morning the entire Singh clan, all six of us, was on the road.
A few hundred meters along, as we crossed a couple of rice fields, we were joined by seven more families, a few were distant cousins, several known to us, all sharing strong familial bonds.
“Let’s not be late for ardaas.”.
That was Pyo. I could see him at the front. Tall, built like an oak, he looked majestic in his sky blue turban and that fiercely proud tumble bar moustache. Everyone in our village knew Pyo. We were farmers. I heard Maa say we were rich. Had lots of land. Pyo was the village sarpanch, too. He was a kind person. Always helping others. With money…with advice…with his kindly words. Behind his massive macho near unsmiling self was a man with the most magnanimous heart.
I stepped my pace. In no time, I saw the most wondrous sight. Without an exception, every single roof top was aflutter with Nishan Sahib, the symbol of Sikh pride.
And as we reached the city square, I saw large processions emerge from every street corner. We stopped near one, and waited for the nagar kirtan to pass. I saw men, all dressed in dazzling red, blue and green, waving small wooden sticks, play acting street battles, all jumping and dancing and prancing about, showing their martial skills in an ever heightening frenzy of unrestrained merriment.
“So, you finally saw the gatka and phari, haven’t you, “, Pyo clasped my arm and exclaimed.
I followed his raised fingers as he continued, “and that Putttar is the ardaas. See those five men in saffron. And that canopy behind them holds Guru Granth Sahib, our holiest scripture. It is our identity. It’s our symbol, our prestige, our power. Remember Puttar, whatever you do in life and wherever you go, don’t forget to bow your head before Harmandir Sahib, and to pay eternal obeisance to our Gurus.”
I was too young then to understand the full import of what he was saying.
It took us another fifteen minutes to enter Harmandir Sahib. I had come here on umpteen occasions, but today the place looked magical. A sea of humanity had converged. Families upon families were moving around, all smiling, happily entering and exiting the inner sanctum sanctorum while the mellifluous renditions of the gurbani rendered through mega sized speakers ensured all devotees, those inside the sprawling temple complex and those outside could hear unhindered.
We did our parikrama, paid obeisance, and headed towards one of the several massive halls to sit for langar.
All of us sat down after that, the elders, joined by several others, even took an afternoon siesta there on the courtyard.
As we came out, Dadi wanted to visit the Jallianwala Bagh.
None ever could say no to Dadi.
And so we marched westward, and in no time reached the lone gate of Jallianwala Bagh.
My first impression was of the crowds. I knew it was Baisakhi, knew every year hordes came from near and far to not just visit Harmandir Sahib but also spend time at the leafy Bagh that boasted of beautifully laid out gardens, a lush green verdant landscape and plenty of playing area for us children to frolic and have fun.
But today, I sensed something else. As we entered through the massive wrought iron gates, we heard lots of discordant voices. Young men were moving about, a few even raising slogans. I couldn’t fathom what it was, couldn’t make what they were saying. My ears just caught a few words…Down with oppression, British Cruelty Must End, and so on.
We were right inside the Bagh when I thought I heard something much bigger than a cracker sound. A huge commotion followed. I saw people were running, shouting and screaming.
At that instant, Di caught me by the arm. I looked into her eyes. I saw primal fear in them. She pulled me and began to run like a woman possessed. In the melee, I could only see Pyo, his legs, actually. I heard Maa shout out.
Harvinder, get Dalbir, get everyone…all rush to the gate…get out…fast…
They were Maa’s last words. I didn’t hear from anyone after that.
All my ears heard thereafter were the sound of gun shots…boom…boom…boom.
Someone screamed like a mad man_ “We are trapped. The British are raining bullets on us. They have closed the gate. Wahe Guru help us…”
It was then that I felt something loosen its grip on my hand. It was Dee. She had fallen. I looked down. Her white salwar was blood red. I bent down, and that instant went hurtling up in the air. Someone had kicked me. Like an unhinged rocket I revolved in space for God knows how long before landing on something soft.
I opened my eyes as something stirred under my legs.
I looked down and saw the most horrendously unforgettable sight of my life: Pyo lay on top of Maa, clutching her hand was Pra, his dashing yellow turban now painted red.
I extricated myself from the human dead and dying mass around me and fell down in front of my parents. I shook them, poked them, implored, begged them al.
Dadi, Nana, Pyo, Maa, Pra, Di…all of them…None stirred…not one of them moved. It was my first brush with death. My entire family lay dead in front of my eyes. I screamed and shouted, cried my heart out, wept like a mad person. Wept and cried and ran helter skelter looking for Nani…my cousins, their families who had come with us.
As I rushed from one end of the Bagh to the other, I was welcomed by a non stop shower of bullets fired from all angles. I saw men, women, children fall down. I ran over them, around them, God knows for how long but my ear drums split with heart wrenching cries. That evening in the course of a mere 15 minutes, I experienced and lived through pure Hell.
I lost count of the number of last moment agony filled gasps of the dying I heard.
Then, something hit me, a bullet perhaps, for my legs gave way.
I fell on a heap of bodies. Di’s blood spattered head fell on top of me_my last memory before my world turned all black.
APRIL 13, 2022, JALLIANWALA BAGH, AMRITSAR,
A tear dropped from forty four year old Satwant Singh’s eyes. His hands shook as he gently closed the book and laid it on the raised platform beside the Guru Granth Sahib.
For one final time he looked at the hard bound red flap book. A melange of emotions, including of sorrow and pride filled his heart. Sorrow for losing his entire clan in the course of a mere 15 minutes. Pride and joy because he held in his hands the most priceless gift a father could give his son. A lifetime of memories etched in over 400 pages, bringing alive his bloodline, a book that will live till eternity, a constant reminder to future generations of the vile, horrific, evil acts of one monster in particular, and the entire British imperial power in general.
His head bowed as his eyes read the title of his father’s passing gift to humanity, a reminder of what evil resides in human hearts, what efforts must humanity make to ensure such utterly despicable incidents, a forever black spot in the annals of history never ever occur: JALLIANWALA BAGH_ 15 MINUTES OF TERROR_ REMEMBERING THOSE WHO DIED, THOSE WHO LIVED
BY DALBIR SINGH, RETD. DIRECTOR, GOVERNMENT OF PUNJAB, INDIA.
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