(The following is an edited excerpt from author Arjun Raj Gaind’s novel ‘The Anatomy of Scars’ — and is being republished with permission. The story is based on the author's personal experiences and recollections of the turmoil following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, as well as several first-person accounts that have been fictionalised. No offence is intended against any individual or social group; any and all resemblances to real people are purely coincidental.)
(The sub-headings are not part of the original text and have been added by The Quint.)
(The views expressed below are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them).
The District Police thana was a dun, drab one-floored building near the outskirts of a nearby village that looked more like a schoolhouse than a police station. With a squeal of rubber, Nani skidded to a halt outside this unprepossessing structure. Outside, the world was cloaked in a particularly yellow twilight. A gauzy mist hung in the air, which was viscous with the promise of rain. In the distance, high over the plains, I saw a shiver of lightning jag through the stolid sky, followed a moment later by a deafening thunderclap that made me wince, as palpable as a slap to the face.
Nani secured the handbrake before turning to me and saying:
“Now, you listen, young man... whatever happens, you will stay in this car. If you dare leave this vehicle, I will give you a hiding like you have only imagined in your worst nightmares. Do you understand?”
Meekly, I nodded at her, cowed by her unequivocal tone.
With that ominous warning, Nani stepped out of the car and locked the door behind her. Then, while I watched with my face pressed up against the warm glass of the windshield, she turned and made a stately entrance into the police station, limping slightly because her arthritis was aching at her knees.
I hadn’t intended to disobey her, but as I watched her go, unexpectedly, I was filled with an awful trepidation, a premonition that if I let her go in there alone, she would be lost to me forever.
Hurriedly, I rolled down the window and wriggled out through it, tumbling to the ground with an ungainly thump.
“Nani,” I squealed, jumping to my feet and running after her, “Wait for me.”
She paused and looked down at me coldly, her eyes hard as flint.
“I thought I told you to stay in the car.”
“Please, Nani, I want to go with you. Please, please don’t leave me in the car.”
When she heard this entreaty, her fury abated. Brusquely, she took me by the hand and led me through the police station’s verandah to the brightly lit antechamber within.
Inside, we found ourselves in a large dingy room with peeling, wet stained walls, filled with desks and wooden benches and a long row of Godrej cupboards overflowing with stacks of mouldy box files. Near the entrance, a plump, khaki-uniformed havildar sat behind a metal table, yawning widely as he fanned himself with a yellow plastic fly-swatter. When he saw Nani, he lumbered to his feet hastily, moving to obstruct her path with one hand upraised, but she brushed past him with nonchalant disdain, as if he didn’t exist, and barged straight into the senior inspector’s cabin.
A Disappointing Cabin for a Cop — and a Glowering Indira Gandhi on the Wall
Mute, I trailed after her, staring around with immense curiosity. I had never been inside a police station before. Much to my irritation, it looked nothing like the eponymous police thanas I remembered from the Hindi movies I had seen. For one thing, there were no swinging saloon doors at the entrance, creaking open and shut each time someone entered or left, and no holding cell full of hardened criminals banging their tin mugs against the bars as they protested their innocence.
Even the inspector’s cabin was disappointing, little more than a pokey cubicle that resembled a clerk’s office.
There was a small window in one corner, shuttered tight, and the room was dominated by a rickety table piled high with a mess of manila files and government papers, and two wicker office chairs. From the wall, a garlanded photograph of Indira Gandhi glowered down, and above, an ancient ceiling fan turned tiredly, creaking with each rotation as it fought a losing battle to dispel the musty fugue of the room.
As for the inspector, he was even more of a disappointment.
For one thing, he looked more like an accountant than a policeman, a short, sallow young man, not more than thirty, bespectacled, his squinty eyes hidden behind thick black glasses, with a careful moustache that lamentably did not quite join in the middle, thus giving his face a perpetually incomplete, rather lopsided look.
Whatever Happened to My Nana, Sardar Gobind Singh?
When we barged into his office, he was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped atop his table, reading a newspaper, and the suddenness of our entrance almost made him lose his balance and topple over.
"Excuse me," Nani said to him politely. "I am sorry to disturb you, but I need help, please."
For a moment, the inspector glared at her angrily, a sour expression of surprise flickering across his face. It was obvious he was furious for our unannounced intrusion, but then, he folded the newspaper he was reading neatly and smiled, an affected little smirk.
"How can I be of assistance, Madam?"
“I am Sardar Gobind Singh’s wife. He came to visit you earlier this morning and did not return home.”
Abruptly, the inspector’s smile vanished.
"I am afraid, Madam," he said briskly, "that the person you mention has been detained for questioning."
That declaration made Nani flinch visibly. She shuddered, and clenched at my hand so hard that I almost squealed with anguish.
"I…I don’t understand."
The inspector frowned. "There is nothing to understand, Madam. We have a few questions to ask your husband, and when we are done, we will be happy to let him go."
‘You Cannot Hold Him Without an Arrest Warrant’
Just then, a loud symphony of screams rent the air, making me jump. They seemed to be coming from the basement of the police station, a sinister concerto of pure terror, as if an animal was being tortured. Nani shivered when she heard this morbid cacophony, and pulled me close to her, leaning on me for support.
“I demand that you release him at once,” she said, her voice querulous with barely repressed panic. “You cannot hold him without an arrest warrant. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
The inspector glowered at her, his frown twisting into a scowl. His features were ripe with naked aggression. At that moment, he was transformed from something insignificant into something monstrous — there was something unbearably feral about him, a lupine quality that made me clutch at Nani’s hand even more tightly, cowering behind her, trying to hide from his piercing eyes.
“I would advise you, Madam, to go back to your home if you know what is good for you. Do not force me to undertake a course of action we will both regret.”
Despite the naked menace in his voice, Nani refused to budge. Instead, she raised her birdlike chin to glare right back at the inspector.
“I am not leaving here,” she said resolutely. “Not without my husband.”
It made me so proud, looking up at her, so diminutive but still so brave, standing ramrod stiff as she faced down the policeman.
Much to my surprise, rather than losing his temper at this show of defiance, the inspector laughed, a short bark of derision.
"You rich Punjabis, you think we are all your servants, don’t you, with your upper class English and your family money? You think all you have to do is snap your fingers and we will all dance at your commands?"
Smiling snidely, he clapped his hands together.
‘He’s Just a Boy, Leave Him Alone’
A moment later, a pair of policemen marched into the cabin, led by the havildar from the anteroom.
"Take her away," the inspector said dismissively, with an absent flick of one wrist.
Immediately, the policemen seized Nani by her arms, one flanking her on each side, while the third man, the havildar, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, so hard that I whimpered with pain.
“Don’t you dare touch him,” Nani squealed with outrage. “He’s just a boy. Leave him alone.”
In spite of her protestations, the policemen manhandled her out of the inspector’s office. Nani tried to struggle, to resist, but she was no match for their collective brawn. They walked her unceremoniously through the police station and shoved her through the front door so roughly that she almost lost her balance, but I managed to wrestle free from the havildar’s grasp and ran to steady her before she could topple to the ground and hurt herself.
“Go home, old woman,” the havildar cackled, “otherwise we may have to keep you for questioning as well.”
The other policemen laughed when he made this threat, as if the havildar had cracked a particularly hilarious joke. I glared at him angrily, my knuckles whitening with rage, my hands twisted into fists. I would have attacked him, but Nani placed one slim hand on my shoulder to restrain me.
Wordlessly, she gathered herself, straightening with an almost imperious dignity.
"Go sit in the car," she said to me.
I started to argue, but something forbidding in her voice checked my objections and compelled me to obey her. Quietly, I retreated to the Ambassador with downcast eyes, and climbed into the passenger seat, waiting for Nani to drive us back to the farm without Nana.
But Nani did not return to the car.
Instead, as I watched curiously, she walked up to the iron fence that bordered the police thana. She did not try to go back in. Instead, she stood there, and with a soft sigh, raised her head and began to sing.
The Ballad of Heer-Ranjha
It was one of Nana’s favourite songs, the ballad of Heer and Ranjha, as written by Waris Shah and sung beautifully by Gurdas Mann. Appropriately enough, it was the heartbreaking story of two doomed lovers, kept apart by fate and circumstance.
And now, Nani sang Heer’s words for my grandfather, hoping that her voice would reach him wherever he was, locked away in a cell somewhere deep within the bowels of the police station, and remind him that she loved him more than life itself.
“Tu ve reh gaya adhura,
Main ve reh gaye adhuri
Teri hor majboori, meri hor majboori
Reh Gayi Channe vich choori takdeer banke
Ki khateya banke main teri heer banke
Tu vi reh gaya adhura, main vi reh gayi adhuri”
“You remained incomplete,
So did I,
You had your own reasons for being helpless,
and I had mine
Our fate lies smashed in a bowl.
What did I gain by becoming your beloved?
You have remained incomplete — and so have I.”
The Unwept Tears of Punjab’s Women
Nani had a beautiful voice, clear, lilting, not an old woman's cracked caterwauling but rather a young girl’s contralto, full of passion and plaintive pathos, evoking the sound of the wind as it whispered through the cane and the scent of fresh mud in the fallow fields.
And as she sang, an incalculable sorrow seemed to well up inside me, an insurmountable wellspring of despair. I could hear the bottomless depth of her pain in her soaring voice. I could hear the threnody of all of Punjab’s womenfolk, the collective lament of a thousand hearts breaking and the aching gasp of a million angry, unwept tears.
When the plaintive timbre of Nani’s song rang through the air, most of the policemen stopped what they were doing, and came out from the police station to watch her. They milled about, until at last the inspector emerged and barked an order at them, commanding them to return to their posts.
One by one, they sidled away, shame-facedly avoiding Nani’s eyes. She continued to sing, until finally only the inspector stood on the police station’s porch, frowning at her, his sallow mouth twisted into a grimace.
"Stop this stupidity, Madam," he shouted, struggling to be heard above the resonance of her song, "Stop it, or I will be forced to have you arrested."
But Nani refused to stop.
Without pause, her voice swelled louder and louder, echoing through the sky until it seemed to me to be the only sound in the world.
Even as the last light of day waned and darkness fell, she did not stop, not for a single breath, not even when abruptly, with a crackle, the skies broke open and it began to drizzle, an insistent froth of rain that left her soaked to the skin.
Still her mournful dirge persisted, deep into the night, until at last, as the first gloaming of dawn crept across the sky, her voice began to waver and break and betray her.
One last time, her requiem rose to a crescendo, and then, with a hoarse gasp, Nani fell silent, unable to sing another word.
She looked ready to collapse. I jumped out from the car and ran to help her, but before I could get to her, Nani squealed with delight and pointed towards the door of the police station.
“Gobind,” she croaked, “my Gobind.” My eyes followed the direction of her out-thrust finger, and I laughed too, clapping my hands in delight. They had let Nana go.
‘You Came for Me’
A burly policeman escorted him to the door, and pushed him out brusquely, without a word of explanation or apology.
Nana looked exhausted. I could see that he was in terrible pain, cradling his hands to his chest. His face was grey and ashen, and he had a florid bruise on his face, just beneath his right eye, a brilliantly plum-coloured discoloration which caught my eye because it was shaped just like Pac Man.
Barely able to stay upright, he stumbled towards us, hunched over like a cripple. With each step, he winced, swaying from side to side.
When he saw Nani, he raised his arms, desperate to embrace her. But before he could reach her, his legs folded under him and he began to fall, unable to take his own weight.
Immediately, Nani and I darted forward, each taking an arm and struggling to hold him upright. Slowly, we helped him to the car and hustled him into the back seat, where he collapsed in an untidy heap.
"My angel," he whispered, smiling beatifically at Nani, "You came for me."
And then, with a groan, he fell into a faint.
(Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of ‘A Very Pukka Murder’, ‘Death at the Durbar’ and ‘The Missing Memsahib’, which are the first three instalments in the best-selling ‘Maharaja Mystery series’ published by Harper Collins India and Poisoned Pen Press America. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel, “The Anatomy of Scars”,and the creator of several graphic Novels including ‘Empire of Blood’, ‘Reincarnation Man’, ‘The Mighty Yeti’, ‘Project: Kalki’, ‘Blade of the Warrior’ and ‘A Brief History of Death”. Arjun also serves as the editor of ‘Third Eye’, an anthology of Contemporary Indian Speculative Fiction. He tweets