It would be hard to find a building more burdened with suffering and memory in all of Delhi.
And yet, if you walked past it, you would hardly turn your head to look back again. There is nothing that distinguishes it from tens of thousands of urban cages, untidy multi-storied government constructions anywhere in the country. Floor after floor is crowded with one-room tenements, like in abandoned defaced beehives, of the kind that governments build occasionally to surrogate as homes for people of meagre means.
Signs of neglect
There are visible everywhere customary signs of neglect by public authorities — peeling paint, crumbling plaster, bunched hanging electric wires, stale unlit rooms — but also the forced intimacy and vibrancy of community living: clothes and underwear hanging to dry on small verandahs, boys playing make-shift cricket in narrow corridors, girls in uniform rushing from school to housework, women gathered in knots chatting, snatching some brief leisure from cooking and cleaning.
You would not know that in this unsightly apartment building in Tilak Vihar, the government had settled a quarter century ago 450 widows and their children who survived the terrible massacre of Sikh men and boys in 1984 on the streets of Delhi.
Official fiat conjured within its walls a bizarre community of suffering, one in which several hundred boys and girls grew up with no fathers. They assumed initially that this must be the way life is for all children. And then each one of them was destined to slowly and separately learn — and struggle agonisingly to come to terms with — the dreadful truths of how they lost their fathers, and brothers: to flaming tyres flung around their necks as they burnt alive, dancing to their deaths; to daggers and guns; to sticks and iron rods; to the betrayal of neighbours; to mindless deadly hate.
In one of these dank airless apartments on the third floor of the Tilak Vihar Widows' Colony, an unlettered matriarch Lachmi Kaur has lived half her life.
Within the cramped confines of this home, she has raised all those she loves with one fierce smouldering resolve. This is to stand resolutely between those who survived the slaughter in 1984, and all that had disfigured her own life: want, illiteracy and hate.
Her family belonged to a subaltern sect of the Sikhs, the Labanas, who are more comfortable speaking Sindhi (and now Hindi) than Punjabi. When she was 13, her parents found her a Labana Sikh groom from a neighbouring village, Sundar Singh. Soon after they were wed, Sundar Singh moved alone to Delhi to seek better prospects for his family, and built a hutment in the slum resettlement colony of Mangolpuri. He initially sold vegetables on a hand cart, but gradually saved enough to bring over his young teenaged bride Lachmi and together they set up a successful meat shop. Her husband, whom she called Sardarji, would buy goats from the wholesale market in Paharganj and skin them himself. He would hang the carcasses in his kiosk in the small market adjacent to the Hanuman statue near the cinema hall in Mangolpuri and would cut, weigh and sell the meat through the day.
In time, as their business grew, Lachmi also learned to assist Sardarji by herself slaughtering the goats, and that too in a single strike. She recalls that it was perhaps this that helped her keep a level head during the 1984 man-slaughter, as she hid and tried to rescue seven men even after her husband and his brothers were killed. She was accustomed at least to the sight of flowing blood. She bore three children, two boys and a girl, and insisted on sending them all to school. She was content with her life.
But this life changed irrevocably one afternoon when crowds rushed to their colony, crying out, “Indira Gandhi has been killed”. The day was October 31, 1984. Lachmi's immediate response was of grief. They credited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with settling poor people like them, many of whom were uprooted from slums, in Mongolpuri, with house-sites in their own name.
Lachmi did not light the fire in her kitchen that evening, in mourning for the departed leader. Sardarji, her husband, was confused about how he should respond to her assassination. After all, he knew that Indira Gandhi was also responsible for the sacrilege in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, when troops were marched in and ravaged the sacred structure.
But Lachmi said tearfully that he still should close his shop for a day, in tribute and gratitude to someone who had given them their home. Hearing her, even Sardarji broke down, and exclaimed affectionately: “Just listen how this illiterate woman is trying to make sense of all of this for me!”
Riots break out
This was how it transpired that all of them were home when the mobs arrived at Mongolpuri.
The rioters were armed strangers from outside, but were joined by many residents from within the colony. They began to pull out Sikh men and youth from every home to slay. Soon they lit fires on all the exit routes to block terrified Sikhs from escaping. Lachmi desperately pleaded with the only neighbour who had not joined the mobs, the eunuch, to hide her husband in her home, but she refused. “They are killing all Sikhs. Do you want me to get killed while trying to save him?”
Sardarji did not want to endanger his entire family, so as the waves of rioters moved closer to their house, he resolved to make a run for the police station. On the way, he was waylaid by a mob and felled with two or three blows on his head with heavy sticks. He still tried to escape by pelting bricks at the horde, when policemen from Mangolpuri police station surrounded him and flung a burning tyre around his neck. He collapsed near his shop and right opposite the police station. Five of Lachmi's seven brothers were also slaughtered in the murderous melee, which continued unabated for three days and three nights.
Some rioters reached their home, and fell upon Lachmi's older son, then around 12 years old, with sticks. When they struck blows on his head, she tried to shield him by covering him with her own body, and begged the attackers to leave him. The boy fell unconscious and they left him for dead. His mother hurriedly picked him in her arms and hid him in the toilet. When she later went to feed him, he started crying and complained of an aching head. By the time they reached the relief camp in Punjabi Bagh four days later, he was seized with a high fever and his one arm was paralysed. She got him treated by private doctors, but his arm remains crippled and he walks life-long with a pronounced limp.
None of their neighbours helped them except one Dalit jamadar (sanitary worker), a stranger who came to their ravaged home at night with cooked rice for the children and reassured her, saying “Don't worry, Lachmiji, you are like my sister.” Today Lachmi recalls: “He appeared like an angel out of nowhere and disappeared after giving us food and succour that night. He neither told us his name nor gave his address…nothing.” They never met him after — or before — that night.
For three days as the rioting continued, they cowered and hid in the colony itself. On November 3, 1984, on a chilly morning, the military finally moved in. They pulled all the survivors — mostly women and children — into their olive green trucks, and transported them out of the colony — much of it reduced by now to ashes — to a civilian camp in Punjabi Bagh. “The army soldiers and officers were kind to us, but the civil authorities to whom they handed us were callous and did not even care to give us water to drink.”
From Punjabi Bagh, they were moved to another camp in Rani Bagh. After that, Sikh organisations came forward with aid, and shifted them to a Gurudwara in Greater Kailash. There they were looked after for a month and a half, at the end of which - tired of living on charity - most people vacated the camps. Lachmi went back to her village in Alwar with her children, to the home of her birth.
While in Alwar she heard that compensation as well as jobs was being offered to victims of the 1984 riots. She did not want to burden her indigent parents with the care of her family, so within two months of mourning she was back in Delhi. After living a few more months in various camps, she was allotted the apartment in Tilak Vihar in early 1985, about four months after the riots. The building had been constructed before the 1984 carnage, to rehabilitate people uprooted by government demolitions from slums. But after the massacre, officials decided to house instead in it some of the legions of widows whose husbands had been slaughtered on Delhi's streets.
Rebuilding her life
She fed, clothed and raised her family to start with from the government compensation of Rs. 10,000 which she got for the death of her husband. A Sikh organisation Nishkam began a centre for the rehabilitation of the widows, where she was paid Rs. 250 a month for pounding and packing red chilli powder, salt and other spices.
Eventually in 1986, she was given a government job. Being unlettered, she only qualified as a peon at a local school. Her salary from this school remains the main income for her entire extended family even two decades later.
Lachmi filed a police complaint after her husband's death. She was given a death certificate, but there was no action on her complaint. Some Sikh organisations helped her pursue their compensation claims, but no one came forward to help her fight the criminal cases and bring to book the policeman who killed Sardarji in cold blood, or her neighbours who joined the rampaging mobs. She lamented: “Sikhs who killed Indira Gandhi have been punished with death, so why should poor innocent Sikhs like us continue to suffer?”
But still she harbours no bitterness. “I am just an illiterate woman,” she declares. “But I believe it is the same blood that flows in everyone's veins. I do not hate anyone, though I wonder how the perpetrators did not feel ashamed about the killing of innocents.” She heard about the massacre in Gujarat in 2002, targeting the Muslims. “I don't think targeting any one religious community is right, whether Sikhs or Muslims. After all they are all human beings. Why should any one be attacked and why should any poor person get killed because of these things? I feel in my heart the pain of anyone who suffers misfortune, including people killed in riots or by bombs; I feel their shock and their fears.”
She recalls the quarter century she has lived in her home in Tilak Vihar, as devoted to one single uncompromising mission, of trying to raise her children — and their children in turn — as good human beings. She was convinced firstly that they should not be unlettered like her.
Her elder son could never study — as he wrestled instead with his disabilities and painful memories — but she sent her younger boy and girl to a government school nearby. She worried obsessively that they would stumble and fall without a father to guide and restrain them when they faltered; she became to them both father and mother.
She was vigilant for their slightest misdemeanour, and would punish them obdurately if she suspected they strayed at all from the straight and narrow. One day her son brought home from school a pencil which did not belong to him. She thrashed him roundly, and a furious Lachmi was in the school the next morning, to berate his bemused teacher for failing to teach her son right from wrong. She tried to insulate them all from what she felt was bad company and the evil influences of their environment.
Over time a dark murky secret — born of desperation and shame — came to shroud the unfortunate colony of widows. It was hard for the single women, many of them without education, unaccustomed to negotiate the world alone, to raise their children single-handedly. Some got government jobs, others looked for work as domestic help, but expenses continued to mount.
No one knows when and how it started, but the colony evolved over the years as a major haven for drug peddling. It is said that some of the women residents of the settlement — robust, earthy and desperate — or their kin joined the dangerous twilight trade. As their sons grew older, this was the vocation that many of these young men were also inexorably drawn into.
What their mothers had not bargained for was that such intimate proximity to drugs would haul their own children into its lethal illusory comforts. Today many women of the colony despair most of all about their sons, who have drifted away from them, dealing in and themselves using drugs, sometimes dying of overdose while even in their teens.
This was Lachmi's worst nightmare, that her sons, and their sons who followed, too would be lost to drugs. She counts her only success in this quarter century of penury and struggle to be that none have fallen to drugs. They may have stumbled or been defeated in many other ways: but not to drugs.
Her elder son initially recovered somewhat from the blows on his head, although he still fell prey to frequent bouts of extreme rage and depression. But these did not last long, and he would soon return to normal. Lachmi married him off to a young woman Asha. He even found employment in a factory, and would bring Rs. 900 a month home.
But years later, in 2002, his younger son met with a road accident that crushed one of his legs. The sight of his injured son completely collapsed his already unsteady mental balance. The same day he rampaged through the house, breaking everything he saw. Since then he never recovered again. He stays confined at home, limping without halt from the kitchen to the single living room, and back, speaking incoherently. Lachmi took him to doctors in Delhi and even Jaipur, but none could find a cure for him.
Her younger son is moody and irresponsible. He has kept clean from drugs and its peddlers. Yet, mostly he mopes around the house. He does not take his work seriously and only hawks vegetables from his cart when he pleases, which is not very often. We found him stretched out in bed, where he spends much of his days.
It is only Lachmi's grown daughter Vidya and her daughters-in-law who help Lachmi bring in money to feed the large family — her sons, their wives and children — by working as domestic helps.
Most of all Lachmi still desperately misses Sardarji, her husband. “Had he been around I would not have been the way I am today…I would not have to struggle at this age with failing eyesight and children whose lives lie ruined. Had Sardarji lived …”