Assassination – Scene 2 (Draft 1)
My husband, David, was doing complimentary research at Jawaharlal Nehru Library in New Delhi. As a linguist, he worked with several translators on esoteric manuscripts dating back to the 16th century. I expected him back in Calcutta by early November, but days, then weeks passed and he did not return. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated in Delhi, so I assumed he was laying low somewhere until he could safely catch a train back to Calcutta. It was mid-December before I saw him again.
David had waited a couple weeks after the assassination, watching the same kind of urban anarchy that surrounded me. Delhi authorities, however, were quicker to bring out the Army and quell some of the violence, but not all. Finally thinking himself safe, David grabbed only a backpack and caught the Rajdhani at midnight – a fast non-stop train that would have him in Calcutta within a day. Once on the train, he saw the error of his decision. Entire Sikh families were fleeing Delhi, hoping to move into cities, rural communities, or anyplace they could be safe until the violence abated. Unfortunately for them, the non-stop train made a perfectly inescapable cage for the angry mobs of men moving car to car down the long length of the non-stop train…killing, maiming, abusing, raping.
David spotted an older Caucasian woman in the train car ahead of him. He made his way to her through a crush of bodies, crying children and piles of household goods. She was probably over 70 and alone, crammed in a 2-person seat with five other people, and looking distraught. Pulling out some luggage and shoving it into the lap of a sleeping man, then rousting out a couple other guys, David sat down beside her.
“What are you doing on this train alone?” he barked and then realized his own stress was showing.
“I’ve come to visit my granddaughter,” she responded in a tougher voice than he would have expected. “She lives in an ashram on the Ganges River and she invited me to spend a few months with her. I’ve been in a hotel in Delhi waiting for the violence to calm down. Now I’m not so sure this train was a good idea.”
David looked around at all the Sikh families and wondered if they were going to be safe. These were innocent people, but the anger of the Hindu nation had yet to be assuaged, and gangs of vigilantes still appointed themselves avengers of the martyred Prime Minister. He settled back on the hard, wood train seat, letting his tension subside, when his musings were abruptly interrupted by shouts and fighting from the train car ahead of them. Suddenly a frantic young man burst through the connecting door.
“Churee! Churee! Chaku!” Knife! Knife! he begged first in Hindi and then in Punjabi. “Cut my hair! Cut my hair!” He pushed and shoved his way into the crowded train car with the desperation of a man about to be executed, which he was. His Sikh turban was in his hand and his long black hair hung wildly down his back and shoulders.
“They’re coming! Killing anyone with a turban! Killing anyone with long hair! Cut my hair! I don’t want to die!” he shrieked.
The deceptively agile old grandmother beside David jumped up and shouted, “Come here! Come here!” He hardly heard her over the frantic din of other Sikh men shouting, reaching for their turbans, knowing they would have to fight the killing mob if they wanted to keep their lives and families safe. The crowd propelled the young man back to where David sat and the fearless woman pulled out her knitting scissors and went to work on her first emergency haircut. Other men approached for haircuts and she never hesitated, cutting fast and furious. Then knives appeared around them and other turbans disappeared as men began to cut their own long hair and throw it out the train windows.
By the time the vigilantes reached David’s train car, two Sikh men still wore turbans. They sat proudly and waited, showing neither fear nor anticipation. Their hair was a connection to God and their turbans were a sign of their religious conviction. No one in the train car breathed when the turbaned Sikhs stood in silent opposition to the vigilantes. Then the train whistle suddenly rent the moonless night and the emergency brakes sent everyone lurching into seats and aisles around them.
Before the train completely stopped, the cars were overrun by more angry men who climbed the train’s outside ladders from the open countryside. They had blocked the tracks and taken over the train, fueled by the fever of riot and revenge, knowing that fleeing Sikhs were trapped in the train cars like goats in a pen. Ten more men entered David’s train car from the outside. Spotting the turbaned Sikhs first, they let loose with canes and clubs, attacking the two men and anyone who tried to defend them. Weakened and bloody, the broken men finally surrendered to their fate and were thrown out of the train car to the hardpan beside the tracks. Half the vigilantes still looked around the car, hoping to find another scapegoat for their unsatisfied bloodlust. Not one passenger moved. Then a hot, angry hand grabbed David from behind and drug him to the center aisle. Accusations from the vigilantes of “American! CIA!” came in Hindi and broken English, and the rioting men were on him with feet and fists. He tried to fight but their canes bloodied his head and shoulders. They drug him to the door and flung him into the night. He heard the wail of the old grandmother as he hit the ground and lost consciousness.
David tried to sit up, tried to find himself in the cold, moonless night. A hard kick from the back sent him sprawling again, face down in the gravel bed of the tracks. Terror gripped him and he screamed through torn lips and broken teeth. Then they had him by his arms and were dragging him out into the barren countryside. Far from the tracks, they dropped him next to the two Sikhs who had fought and lost on the train. An argument amongst the captors had the group pushing and fighting each other almost as viciously as they had beaten David and the Sikh men. David listened to their slurred and possibly drunken Hindi and understood there was disagreement about the next move. They had stopped a train, raided the cars, and extracted innocent men for punishment. But they had no common resolve when it came to revenge.
A large brute of a man ignored the fray and grabbed one of the Sikhs by his long hair, dragging him in front of the other captors. From nowhere he produced a metal can and liberally doused the prostrate man with gas. Some of the captors shouted objections, but others cheered him on. He lit his small cigarette and threw it on the Sikh. A startling whoomph of fire, an inhuman scream, and the crowd was forced backward, into the shadow of their deed. The burning body whirled and writhed, bent and rolled, fought like a wild beast against the inevitable. Unholy screams called in both gods and demons, called in the land, air and water as witness, embedding themselves in the heart of every man who stood silent. On and on they went, as though the burning man would not be silenced until only ash remained, until the screams would rise unbidden from the earth having borne such a travesty. And when the sound was only an echo in their memories, the guilty men were bound by the smell of burning flesh, clinging to the fetid night, wrapping itself around their clothing and resting firmly in their nostrils lest memory of the deed fade. Then the train whistle wailed a last time in the far distance, leaving them alone and anonymous in the dark countryside. David vomited into the brown soil beneath him.
End Assassination – Scene 2 (Draft 1)