Lockdown has been a tumultuous time for me, as it has been for everyone else. I lost my job, mental stability and a tooth – among several other things. All in all, it has been a stifling affair.
But if there is one thing I have been absolutely thankful for, and would wish to preserve and tuck away into a safe corner in my heart, is the dinner table conversations I’ve been having with my parents over the past few months. These conversations range from my parents’ childhood memories to annoying relatives, politics and so on.
One night, while laying the table, I noticed that my father seemed sad. I had seen him upset, annoyed, worried and happy, but had never seen him look as he did that evening. The moment he realised I was looking at him, he became unusually cheerful. It reminded me of something Molly Hooper said in Sherlock Holmes: “You look sad. When you think no one can see you.”
I knew I had to do something and nudge him to tell a story – and not one of the fables that he used to narrate to me when I was a child, but the story behind what was bothering him. After a few failed attempts, I finally managed to coax it out of him.
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My father was born and brought up in Amritsar, Punjab. His house was very close to a tiny railway station called Bhagtanwala station and was not very far away from the Golden Temple – something he never forgets to boast about. Since the station was deserted, it it an ideal spot to study. Since the station master knew him and his friends well, he did not stop them from going there.
My father and his friends would wake up early in the morning and cycle to the station with books clutched tightly. His best friend, let’s call him Gurpreet, who had a crush on the station master’s daughter, would often ask my father to tag along whenever he would go meet her. My father would unwillingly agree.
While my father would lie to the station master for Gurpreet, his best friend always had his back whenever he faced any problem when it came to academics as well as bullies at school. They would nosh on khatte laddoo and murmure and later play gilli-danda, kho-kho and kanche together after school.
Nothing and no one could separate them until one day, he found out that his best friend was suffering from stage 2 leukaemia. Due to lack of resources and technology, there was little chance that he would survive.
My father was shattered, but he wanted to make the best out of whatever time was left on their hands. He would go meet him every day and sometimes even help his mother attend to Gurpreet.
Several months passed. Each day, he would wake with the hope of being able to spend one more day with his friend. Then came June 3, 1984. Owing to an ongoing military action called Operation Blue Star, a 36-hour curfew was imposed on the entire state of Punjab with all methods of communication and public travel suspended. The electricity supply was also interrupted, creating a total blackout and cutting off the state from the rest of the world.
Despite the suspended communication, the news travelled fast. From across the streets, in the middle of the night, my father found out that his best friend was taking his last breaths – that he might not get any stolen moments anymore.
Even though Gurpreet lived two lanes from his house, on that night, he seemed to much further away. All my father wished to do was to run out of the house, cycle as fast as he could and say one last goodbye and hug his best friend.
But all he could do was lie in bed and listen to the deafening noise of firing inside the Golden Temple.
The night passed by and sleep evaded him. He woke up with swollen eyes and a heavy heart to find out that his first and only best friend was gone.
Crestfallen, he went to the terrace to get some air where he found shells of fired bullets and had stolen memories flash before his eyes. For months, he had been by Gurpreet’s side only to lose him without saying goodbye. He picked up one of the bullets, stuffed it inside his pocket and decided to give it up only after he got to bid a final adieu to his friend.
I don’t know if he still has it – he didn’t tell me nor did I ask. It has been 36 years since it happened, yet all it took to remind him of his dearest friend was a WhatsApp video about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that took place in the first week of November.
Though he is the strongest man I know, the tear that rolled down his bearded cheek is testimony to the fact that some bullets can tear into you without actually penetrating the skin.
Prachi Batra is an intern at LiveWire. She loves watching sunsets, sipping light coffee and writing stories.