I discovered at the cost of considerable time and trouble that writing about the immediate past is more difficult and hazardous than writing about the hoary past. Past history has fewer records for reference and the people you write about are not there to take umbrage and drag you to court. The recent past has more material that one has to sift through and no one besides yourself has to decide what to take as significant and what to reject as trivia. You also have to be careful and not tread on anyoneís toes and be prepared to receive summons from the court on charges of defamation or criminal libel. I should have known better when I agreed to update my two-volume History of the Sikhs and bring it up to 2004. In an earlier edition bringing the story of the community up to 1984, I had made derogatory references to Bhindranwale and progenitors of Khalistan, notably Jagjit Singh Chauhan. He took me and my publishers to court in London, asking for a million pounds sterling in damages. We had to hire expensive lawyers and get witnesses to attest in our favour. The court awarded Chauhan one penny as damages for the damage done to his reputation. I keep a penny handy to pass it on to him.
Pronouncing on events that took place in the last 25 years was like skating on thin ice. The Sikhs were still suffering from the trauma of Operation Bluestar and the massacre of well over 5000 men and women across the country following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. For 10 years, the Punjab countryside was in the grip of terrorists, over 10,000 lives were lost before the Punjab Police led by J.F. Ribeiro and following him KPS Gill put them down with a heavy hand. A small section of the community hailed Bhindranwale as a martyr, lent tacit support to the demand for a separate state and condemned Gill as a wanton killer. In my judgement, they were wrong and Gill saved Sikhs and Punjab for India. He comes out as a hero in my assessment. However, I had also to look into
charges levelled against him and his police by human rights activists and the disposal of over 1000 bodies without proper identification or post-mortem. I could do not more than mention this without passing a judgement.
The period also saw many changes of government: Presidentís Rule, Akali, Congress, Akali, Congress with much mutual mud-slinging about personal corruption, patronising corrupt officials amassing vast fortunes, squandering public money on self-aggrandisement, charges of indulging in drink and debauchery. I was never sure how much of it was true nor how much space it should find in a book of history. The best I could do was to show the draft of what I had written to friends in whose judgement I had faith. The rest Ileft to the editors of the Oxford University Press.
The postscript was a happy ending. Just as it was going to press, appeared a lovely colour photograph on the front page of The Hindu, showing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led by a naval officer carrying a drawn sword walking past the guard of honour provided by the Sikh Regiment. The photograph (unfortunately not on the cover but inside) pretty well tells the story of the Sikhs in the last quarter of a century: alienated from the mainstream in 1984, completely re-integrated by 2004 with the ablest, most honest and experienced Sikh at the helm of affairs of the country.
How far back into childhood does human memory go? Most people who have written on the subject have agreed that they can remember events that occurred when they were between three to four years old. Some claim to take it back to two years. Salvador Dali, the eccentric modernist painter, claimed he could recall what happened to him while he was still in his motherís womb. We Indians who belong to Hindu faiths ó Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism ó beat all the others in believing that some can recall what happened to them in their previous lives. Even I, who claim to believe in none, when visited Holland for the first time in my 40s, had an odd feeling of what the French call deja vu ó I have seen this before. In my case I am sure it was due to my having seen pictures of windmills and beds of tulips when I was in the nursery.
When one event takes place simultaneously with another of equal importance, it tends to imprint itself on a childís mind. Alison Utley in Ambush of Young Days writes: One of my earliest childhood memories was being held up by my mother to see the stars. She stood at the dining room window before the shutters were closed, and showed me the starlit winter sky. Whilst she sang "Twinkle, twinkle little star," to me in her high, soft voice, I must have been two at the time. The song is closely knitted with the stars, a feeling of wonder and delight ó the great starlit vault outside and the candle burning on the table."
My earliest recollections are of my village home, Hadali, where I was left in the care of my grandmother, while my mother had joined my father in Delhi. I recall very well my clutching her by the hand, while in the other I had my wooden takhti, inkpot and reed pen. I was led to the dharamshala to learn Gurmukhi alphabet. Packs of pi-dogs followed us all the way as my grandmother had the stale left-over rotis of the other dayís evening meal to feed them. I recall going out with village boys to play on the sand dunes. Most of all, I retain memories of summer nights, lying on my charpoy on the rooftop of our haveli, watching the moon and the stars and pestering granny with questions or insisting on her telling me stories. She would get fed up, point to the sapt rishis constellation and say "see how late it is? Now shut up and go to sleep and let me say my prayer." Then she rubbed clotted cream (malai) on my back as she recited the Kirtan Sohela. It was ending of the day: her gentle hand rubbing my back and her melodious voice chanting the last prayer for the night. I must then have been around three years old. These memories remain in my mind because they became a daily routine of my days in my village.
Once as a lawyer I witnessed a very interesting trial in the local court.
A man was called to reply to a question by the judge, who asked, "You are charged for causing damage to the bar in a fight in the local club. What have you to say for yourself?"
The man said, "You honour Iím not guilty. My reputation is spotless."
Thereupon the judge said, "Do you have any witness to vouch for your character?"
The man then pointed to a man in uniform in the corner, "Sir, the SHO over there."
The SHO was surprised. He stood up and said, "Your honour, the man is a liar. I have never seen him before in my life."
Thereupon the man turned to the judge and said, "See Iíve lived in this locality and town for 15 years and the SHO doesnít know me. Isnít that character enough?"
(Contributed by R.N. Lakhotia, N.Delhi)