The psychic turmoil in a retired Sikh brigadier’s family after Indira Gandhi’s assassination

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi
The Collected Stories of Upamanyu Chatterjee, Volume One
Book Excerpt 

Bunny’s father locked up early, at about seven. He then checked his Service revolver. From the lawn, the hills and the valley were a black menacing mass, shrouded by mist and topped by a clouded night sky. The quiet of Mussoorie normally gladdened him, but now it made him irascible and uneasy. No intermittent laughter from the teastalls below them, no wink of light from a neighbouring hill. Just the evening chill, the opaque mist, behind it the dark, and an underwater silence. Mr Kairon felt nervy, irrationally remembering the riots of Partition and the wars of ’65 and ’71. Indoors, the tension was alleviated only by the depression at Bunny’s illness.

Dinner was short. Bunny nibbled something in bed. His mother asked him to leave his door open and to call whenever necessary.

That night, Bunny entered a private, nightmare world. His ankles and knees turned red and doubled in size. His skin burned with fever. Very very slowly, he struggled to sit up in bed. He touched his left knee and the pain stunned him. He just looked at his legs and could not believe the horror. Then Bunny heard the telephone ring and ring, loud and frightening.

At last his father picked up. ‘Oh Pammi, hello…what, I hope…oh no…god…no…’ From his father, Bunny heard only exclamations of shock. Mrs Kairon joined him, ‘What, what’s happened?’

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Bunny carefully put his two pillows beneath his knees. He couldn’t scream because he was not used to expressing pain or to pleading for help. His fear and his helplessness drew tears out of his eyes. His face crumpled. But he cried without sound. Jerking his head from side to side, his fists squeezing the pliant quilt, he decided to fight his battles silently and alone.

‘A pogrom in Delhi.’ Mr Kairon walked around helplessly. ‘Sikhs pulled out of buses and butchered. Some burnt to death. Bonfires of turbans. Houses attacked and looted, torched. Hundreds dead already.’ Then, Mr Kairon’s slippers made the only sound.

‘And Pammi?’ asked Mrs Kairon.

‘No problem in his area yet.’

Mrs Kairon’s eyes followed her husband. ‘And Punjab?’

‘No news. There’s a news ban there.’

To Bunny in his delirious state, it seemed that the world’s chaos merely mirrored his own. He again tried to move. The pain rushed up to his hip and back. He sat motionless for what seemed ages. That night, he began to realize for the first time what he was later to get used to, that pain cannot be acute forever. After a time it turns monotonous, even becomes boring. So, sitting up in bed, he dozed a little, till some inadvertent movement wrenched him out of sleep. Awake, he would suffer, grow bored, and doze till the next wrench. Then at last, through the window behind him, he heard the chirrup of the birds and sensed the new dawn.

In this manner, he provided his parents with something other than Indira Gandhi to think about. Dr Malviya checked his heart and, avoiding Mr Kairon’s eyes, said that apart from jaundice, Bunny probably also had rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor called for more blood tests and even an ECG. Rheumatoid arthritis stunned and later scared and disgusted Mr Kairon. It was not an illness for a young, strong, goodlooking Sikh. When the sun came up, he dragged his son out onto the lawn.

In the sunny cottage that he had bought for a song, Mr Kairon now felt helpless and isolated. He was cut off, lost in an idyllic location, while epochal events were taking place elsewhere. He looked at his son, lying there with arms folded and eyes closed, with bewilderment.

Out under the heavens, Bunny was less scared. He sensed the security of the house, aloof and removed; he liked the feel of the orange of the sun under his eyelids. He was living with people who meant well, who would never do him harm. Home. Though home didn’t mean that for everybody, I mean, he said to himself with an inadvertent, horrible little smirk, look at Indira Gandhi.

Mrs Kairon brought out the portable black and white TV, another present from Rajwant. They watched Mrs Gandhi lying in state. Initially, they all felt solemn. Bunny said, ‘She still looks dignified.’ Later, he looked down at his torso and then up at her aquiline nose in that grey face surrounded by flowers, and thought, Just an old woman dead before her time.

Mrs Kairon murmured obscure expressions of sorrow every time Mrs Gandhi was shown. But Bunny soon wearied of TV and returned to the infinite variety of the sky. Malviya’s pills were good. If he lay still, he could even forget the pain for a while. The weeping women on TV irked and disgusted him. He watched them beat their breasts and wail on shoulders. But surely tears were more valuable than that, he thought, remembering only his own. The TV continued to spew out words of grief and immediately deprive them of meaning.

Duggal came again that afternoon and was quite happy to hear of Bunny’s new illness. He and the Kairons talked interminably, about the assassins, the pogroms, Punjab, the Anandpur Saheb Resolution, Khalistan, Trilokpuri. ‘A communal carnage,’ said Mr Kairon, picking up the jargon of the newspapers from Delhi that had just come in. ‘The riots are also directed against the financial dominance of the Sikhs in Delhi.’ ‘They’ll announce the elections soon and this killing will win it.’ ‘Some young Sikhs are cutting their hair, turning out like Bunny.’

Bunny liked the discussion as background and the stray sentences that registered with him like the conversation of fellow-travellers on a long bus journey. He idly wondered what Khalistan would be like. He was a little surprised at the fervour of the elders. Religion to him was an alien and awkward thing. But listening to them, he realized that he liked his state, without roots or history. With his nondescript past and ugly future, nothing could claim him.

Dr Malviya came again. ‘The fever will return. The swelling will subside in three weeks or so. Later you will need a physiotherapist.’ Over the next few days, he visited regularly. ‘You must be careful, Bunny. You must not allow the pain to move into your wrists and fingers, or up your backbone. No exertion, complete rest.’ ‘You’ll have to forget alcohol forever, or almost forever. The jaundice will pass, but the arthritis is going to stay.’ Sometimes Dr Malviya turned quite philosophical. ‘You will have to learn to live with pain, with limitations. Learning to live, that can be quite rewarding, Bunny.’ ‘Don’t think of it too much, and don’t talk about it with others. They’ll all have stupid theories. Don’t you have hobbies or something like that to occupy you?’

Bunny said no. He never read, he had no ear for music, he collected nothing. He wasn’t even used to thought.

As Dr Malviya had prophesied, the fever returned, fitfully. Then when his mother asked every hour if he felt better, he couldn’t even snap at her because he felt so dulled. Sometimes he would press his hand to his heart, hard, and say, You are strong. Sometimes he would giggle when he recalled that earlier, in Delhi, he had thought that he had problems, and now… Sometimes he would glaze his eyes and pretend not to recognize his mother when she bent over him because he found her concern irritating. Sometimes he played a game of exaggerating the pain, for the pain was boring and needed to be embellished.

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