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Sabrang
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World

Splintered

Guest blog on the Indian Sikh experience in Canada, and the price of speaking up against the Indian regime

Gurpreet Singh 01 Jul 2020

sikhs in canada

Still rolling in my bed. Trying hard to go back to sleep, but can’t.

It’s too early to get out and make a coffee and open my laptop to catch up with the world.

The buzzing sound of WhatsApp makes it difficult to doze off once again. Out of curiosity, I pick up my iPhone from near my pillow to see who is messaging me at this time. It is four in the morning. I curse myself. Why can’t I get enough sleep similar to the one of those worriless childhood days?

I still have three more hours to get up before the alarm goes on at seven am.

What’s the point of putting an alarm when these messages are not going to let me sleep? Especially, when most of these people are not even friends, why should I even receive them? But my profession is such that I cannot ignore them either.

I shut my eyes and try to imagine being inside a forested area where I love to go for long walks. This place gives me immense pleasure. I had read it somewhere long ago that this works when your sleep is interrupted. Think of something that gives you some kind of relaxation. That’s exactly what I am trying to do now. It has worked in the past, but not anymore. Maybe, I need to imagine something else to break monotony of my brain. My sleep pattern has become erratic during last couple of years. Sometimes it is a bad dream, while mostly its WhatsApp messages that shudder me out of sleep. 

I scroll down the screen to kill time by trying to read all messages. Out of nowhere, I have one from Ajay. He has not been in touch with me for the past many months. To be precise, we have always been good friends, but the relationship has gone wrong. Why is he messaging me now? I decide to ignore it. It is easier said than done though. It has already caused a trigger bringing back some memories I try to ward off. I am getting angry now. My shoulder muscle is aching. As I have been spending more time on reading and working on my computer, the problem has aggravated. The lack of sleep increases its intensity. 

I try to think of something else to relax my mind. What could it be? I ask myself. May be dating Bebo, that beautiful Bollywood actress I have always had a crush on. She goes by a different name, but I like to call her by her nickname. Yes, why not? But wait a minute. Aren’t you married? Don’t you think you should be ashamed of yourself? What’s the big deal? I am just imagining of being with her. It’s not same as cheating your wife? No real physical contact, so how does it matter? I choose to think of her being close to me. She hugs me and I try to hug back when I slip into a fairy world.

The surroundings take the shape of woods. Everywhere, I see butterflies of different colours. The fragrance of flowers gets into my nostrils and enters my mind. Trees with chirping birds, hiding somewhere behind green leaves on long branches hanging over my head as I keep going deeper. Then I realize I am actually riding a motorcycle and not walking. My beloved Bebo is nowhere to be seen. Maybe I am going to see her soon. Actually, I am going all the way to see her at the end of the trail where the motor vehicles are prohibited. I had got a text from her along with a smiley.

A conservation officer appears. I recognize him. He had ticketed a youngster few days ago while I was out for my daily walk. The boy was caught riding his ATV. And now it’s my turn.  He starts chasing me. I try to drive as fast I could. The vehicle he is sitting in has a similar buzzing sound that I hear when I get messages on iPhone. It seems weird, but technology has no boundaries. I start losing my control as my motorcycle crashes into a tree and I am thrown into a gorge. There is a complete darkness for some time. The sound keeps chasing me, while I don’t see anything else, neither the officer nor his vehicle.  As the sound grows louder, my body shakes. I get up and try to run, but cannot as if my feet are caught into something. Not sure what, maybe a hyacinth or maybe the stream with a violent current. Can’t figure out what, with the mist all around.   

***

My iPhone is buzzing again with messages.

With a parched throat, I wake up. My room is lit up with sunlight. The cover of blackness is all gone. I pick up the phone to see the timing. Fifteen minutes to seven in the morning, my time to rise and get started. 

As I walk up to the kitchen to brew my coffee, I look at the screen one more time to identify important messages. None is there. Some are just silly videos that take too much memory and space. Others are jokes and cartoons. I instantly delete most of them, though I avoid blocking the senders as some of them are my news sources.   

Then my eyes fall on the one sent by Ajay. Upon reading, I realize that it is nothing but a show of formality, a gesture most people are making these days. It has become a new norm, a fashion of sorts. To assure others, “we are all in this together”.

Ajay writes, “Brother Gurjot. Hope you and your family are doing well under these circumstances”.  I don’t know how to respond? What is there to respond anyway when we are not on talking terms?  Why send a message if you really care? He could have just called. He has been ignoring me for all these months when I needed him the most? So how does it matter to him that how I am doing now?  The content of the message suggests that he is just following a set language to reach out anyone on your contact list when the authorities are suggesting that we must try to connect with people we know when most of us are in self-isolation.

The pandemic has forced all of us to work from home and maintain social distancing. Everywhere it’s the same news, same stories, and same headlines.

I open my laptop to take notes for my news bulletin I will be sending out soon to my radio station. The studio is shut because of public health emergency. I am supposed to record everything on my iPhone and send it to the office. I have to rush, but my mind is occupied with thoughts of Ajay.

We have known each other for years. We first met during a conversation on social justice. His passion instantly drew me closer to him. I saw in him a spark and a strong will to bring a change in the society. He spoke against discrimination and oppression everywhere in the world. And why wouldn’t he? Being someone from the oppressed community of Dalits who have been treated as untouchables for centuries by Hindus, his anger was justifiable.

When my turn came up to speak on the issue, he was delighted to see how we both thought alike. We soon became friends.

I was new in Canada and had moved from India with my wife Rosy and two-and-a-half year old son Raj only a few months ago in early 2000s. We didn’t know many people in a country that was totally new and alien to us. We began meeting once a while. Then came a time, I began writing short fiction apart from working for a radio as a news caster and talk show host for living. One of my stories was about something Ajay always cared for. It challenged caste system within the Sikh community. Even though Sikhism denounces caste based discrimination, Dalits continue to face persecution at the hands of upper caste Sikhs.

Ajay was amazed to find someone like me who in spite of being a Sikh was vocal against this injustice. Those were the days when Sikh fundamentalists were aggressive and active in Surrey. Any criticism against them invited backlash.

Two Sikh suspects were recently acquitted from charges of being involved in 1985 Air India Flight 182 bombing above the Irish Sea. The incident had left more than 300 innocent people dead. Several extremist groups wanted to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India. An year before the bombing, thousands of innocent Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and other parts of the country by organized mobs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi had ordered the military attack on the Golden Temple, the holiest place of the Sikhs in June, 1984 blaming radicals for stockpiling arms inside the shrine.  The army operation had left many pilgrims dead. This act of sacrilege had alienated the Sikhs from Indian mainstream, with some starting asking for an independent homeland of Khalistan.

The Sikh separatists in Canada had given the call to boycott Air India flights. One of their leaders had threatened that Air India planes will be falling from the skies. He was said to be the mastermind of the conspiracy. As luck would have it, he died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of Indian police much before the trial began. He had gone back to India to pursue an armed insurgency when he was arrested and tortured to death.  

Those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy were devastated when the two men were acquitted because of lack of evidence. I was critical of the judgment and it had enraged many in the community. They did not like anyone questioning Khalistan supporters who had lot of influence.

By this time, I had started contributing articles to local newspapers too. Most of them were harsh on Khalistanis. At one point, a Caucasian editor emailed me to say that some people within my own community have raised concerns over my writings and described me as “anti-Sikh”.  I responded with a longer email listing details of the articles that were equally critical of the Hindu extremists who were getting active in India and the Indian state for allowing Sikh massacre. I made him understand that being born in a Sikh family I cannot be against the community and my write-ups were only critical of a section of hardliners. 

On another occasion, my family physician who is a practicing Sikh asked me why I was so critical of my own people when I went to see him for a medical check-up. I was taken aback by his comments. I asked him whether he discriminates between his patients on religious grounds. He looked at me in disbelief. Maybe he didn’t anticipate this kind of answer. I told him that I am doing my job just as he is doing his and left the clinic.

As if this was not enough, one morning a supporter of Khalistan walked into our studio and cautioned me in the presence of my colleagues that I need to be careful as some people have hired a hit man from US to attack me. This was obviously serious and the matter was reported to police. 

Ajay and others who were offended with the bombing supported my stance. Hindus and pro India Sikhs, including some communists who felt threatened by Khalistanis extended their solidarity. The Indian diplomats began inviting me to their events seeing me as a potential ally. Needless to say, they liked me for being critical of those who were considered as “enemies of India”. But the threats kept coming in. The police kept a watch for some time. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened.

Ajay was so much moved by my short story that he and his group of activist friends invited me to read it out at a public event. For someone like me, it was such a huge honour. We gradually came close and frequently visited each other’s home. Our wives too enjoyed each other’s company and strongly this bonding grew into family relationship of sorts.  

We began going out for parties, hiking and camping.  We occasionally watched new Hindi movies together. I still remember having watched a film in which Bebo danced to an item number. The moment she popped up on the screen in her revealing outfit, Ajay bumped his knee into mine. Our eyes met and we smiled. “Here comes your sweetheart”, he joked. Outside when we were having coffee before leaving for homes, he said that no one would ever believe that a serious journalist like me would ever fall for a film star.

I enjoyed going to his yearly barbeque where we both enjoyed beer, while our wives got themselves busy making meals and chatting. Raj had become fond of him. They never forgot to give each other high five whenever he dropped by at our home or we visited him. “You are my most favourite uncle”, Raj would tell Ajay, who was more like a mentor and an elderly brother to me. We always made it a point to include each other in our family rituals and functions. When our daughter Raunak was born seven years after we made Canada home, Ajay was the first one in our friend circle to get the good news.

Once he drove us all the way to Seattle from Surrey, which is an almost two-and-a-half-hour journey to drop us off at the airport from where we were to take a connecting flight to Texas.   

My eyes suddenly welled up. Before my train of thoughts could take me somewhere, I realised that it was time to finish my job.

***

Almost all websites were filled with the news on Covid-19. The disease had claimed more than 3,00,000 human lives all over world. The death toll was likely to rise. Canada too was affected.

Prime Minister Trudeau had made an announcement of emergency relief for those who had lost their jobs or were forced to work without pay as their employers were not in a position to give salaries. A story based on a research claimed to have found how majority of the people are living in anxiety due to enforced physical distancing and self-isolation to prevent the spread of virus. “A typical middle class reaction of those who are privileged”, I say to myself.  

Then I go to read another important story of how the poor are suffering more because of the lockdown imposed by a right wing government in India. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is allegedly a Hindu zealot has been accused of trying to use the pandemic as a god sent opportunity to suppress any form of resistance in the name of curfew and public safety.  The police under him had allegedly dismantled a camp of demonstrators and removed their posters. They were protesting until now against a law that discriminates against Muslims coming to India as refugees from neighbouring countries. Only non-Muslims are being allowed, something that stirred angry reaction from people who saw it as an assault on secularism.

An article suggested how the supporters of Modi were blaming Muslims for spreading the disease. They also accused Pakistan of sending people suffering with virus to India to make everyone sick. They never challenged Modi who had organized a massive rally for US President in Gujarat shortly after the outbreak of Covid-19, knowing well that such gatherings are more contagious. 

Another story was heart wrenching. Sixteen labourers were run over by a freight train as they were sleeping on a rail line to hide themselves from the police while walking back to their native villages from a city that once gave them employment. The steel plant they worked at fired them as the entire country had gone into economic crisis because of the pandemic. No passenger trains were running and police did not allow people to leave their homes. The violation would provoke physical violence by the policemen patrolling the streets all over the country. Their only option was to walk back to their homes by stealing the eyes of police that left no opportunity to harass poor people. They were all so tired that they fell asleep on a rail track without expecting what is going to happen.

When Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, he had promised to bring happy days. But people have seen worse days since then. Many lives were affected, including mine after his becoming the leader of a country I was born in.  

By the time, I finished my news; Rosy was up and was making tea for both of us. Unlike me, she is a tea lover. Even though I had my coffee, I enjoy sipping morning tea with her, especially during these days when we have enough time to sit down and talk to each other for hours. Being a social worker, her life is busier than mine. Nowadays, she is too working from home and goes out once a while to buy groceries. She asks me for the updates. I tell her everything I read and she listens keenly, while cross stitching.

Our interests are very common though we have some differences of opinion. She comes from a progressive family which is more politically aware than mine. I look at her while she is engrossed in her stitching. She is an anchor of my life. A big hearted beautiful woman, who has given me everything one can expect from a life partner;  two lovely kids and immense moral support which has become a rare commodity in the lives of most married couples. She has always been my strongest ally in difficult times. So much so, she never makes a fuss about me uploading pictures of Bebo on Facebook, except when I cross a line by posting idiotic comments.

In the summer of 2014, when we were visiting Madam Tussauds’ museum in London where Bebo’s wax replica is installed Rosy was generous enough to take my pictures with her. A mind reader, she sensed my feelings and encouraged me to hug the statue which I did eagerly but with little bit of embarrassment in front of her and my kids who were amused. Part of the reason why that vacation became unforgettable was Bebo, but the other part is what happened after we were back.     

I do not tell her about Ajay. Although she would have been very happy to hear this, I make it a point not to tell her anything. She would see it as a positive sign and lecture me to respond back. She has always been like this; more social and friendly than me, and much kinder to people even when they are mean to her.  She is always excited to invite people home and going to the parties. She is missing more of that these days, but not me. I have lost interest in socializing.  If she comes to know that Ajay has messaged me, she is going to forgive the fakery of the gesture and interpret it differently seeing a hope for reconciliation.

I get a text from my boss Usha. She wants me to call her in about an hour. Not sure what she wants to discuss, but I am bit nervous. I have put her in trouble recently. Maybe it has to do something with that or maybe I am just getting anxious unnecessarily. I have no choice. If your boss wants you to call, you have to.

I quickly finish my tea. It’s always bit colder in the mornings, so I pull out a light jacket, comb my hair straight and tell Rosy that I will be back soon. I step out of the door and start walking towards the jungle next door. I want to finish my daily walk before I am supposed to call Usha. Who knows how long will the chat be? Depends on what she wants to discuss. It’s hard to predict what is there on her mind? It will be a good idea to calm myself before I phone her.  

***

The scenery out there is no different than the one etched in my mind permanently. Apart from slight variation between the landscape of my dream this morning and what the bog really looks like, I don’t see much difference. I don’t see the butterflies anywhere. The stream is making a soothing sound as I approach the entrance. Perhaps, this is where my feet were caught in my imagination. 

I hear the train coming. A rail track cuts through the forest. At times one has to wait before crossing the line if there are too many cars. That’s what is exactly going to happen today the moment I notice a long and seemingly endless queue of freight carriers approaching.  My mind races back to India, where those labourers have been crushed to death by a goods train. There is going to be an enquiry soon. But will it really achieve something? They are going to put the blame on those who died. Why they fell asleep on the rail track, the authorities will argue. Nobody would question the circumstances created by the people in power. That’s the easiest thing to do. Those who are better off and privileged and posting happy family pictures on social media advising everyone to stay home will never understand why many others have no option, but to either keep working or facing life and death situation.

I spoke to my brother Mandy the other day. Being a businessman he has a soft corner for Modi – who represents the interests of upper middle class. He sees nothing wrong with his policies and is hardly bothered about the way Modi government is treating Muslims. He has been posting his pictures on Facebook showing his support to the Prime Minister’s call for staying home to make curfews successful.

As the train disappears, I cross the line to get inside the trail. I see so many new faces; some young, some old and some middle-aged like myself, some with masks, others without them. Probably, these people are forced to leave their homes for morning strolls and jogging to beat boredom. They have nowhere to go when malls and recreation centres are shut. Part of the forest is closed with a yellow tape to ensure physical distancing.

I walk along the stream as I pass by strangers who would usually greet with smile, but today nobody is making an eye contact. In fact, you don’t see many people smiling these days. They are mostly lost in their thoughts. Occasionally, you see some giving you a hostile look as if to make you think that you are guilty of something. As if you have brought this. If you are of Chinese descent, your chances of getting those kinds of looks increase. Even though I don’t look Chinese, some white men and women stare at me contemptuously. A couple did not even respond when I say ‘Hi’ to them. This is another reminder that for white supremacists all “outsiders” are all the same. The crisis always brings worst out of people.

I had an argument with Mandy few days back when he had posted a comment on Facebook asking for boycotting China. There is no dearth of leaders both in North America and India who are trying to scapegoat China from where the virus had originated. Such rhetoric has intensified hate against Chinese people for no fault of theirs. Disgustingly, in India, people of North Eastern states, who have oriental facial features are being taunted and attacked in other parts of the country just because they look Chinese. But he wouldn’t understand. To pacify me, he later sent me a racy picture of Bebo on WhatsApp. She looked irresistible in red dress and I saved the image on my device. Being familiar with my infatuation for her, he keeps sending me her pictures just to keep me happy and I keep saving them in the hidden photo album of my phone like a secret love. Touched by his thoughtfulness, I thanked him. “You made my day bro”.  

Why blame Mandy or all these people, when no one is sure where we are heading to? People have lost their jobs, businesses and future. It’s the political leadership that is creating false enemies everywhere to hide their own incompetence. I am not sure about myself either. I may or may not go back to work once this is over although my reasons are different. Considering what happened just two months ago, I might have to make a difficult choice, like the one I made six years ago.

***

Usha and I were at a public event that was hosted to honour her for running a campaign against racism. She had come out elegantly dressed with others in the staff. At the age of 75, almost my mom’s age, she remains healthy and fit. It was an important day for her. But little did we realize that not everyone is impressed with her in the crowd.  She is being hated for hiring me.

A man walked up to me and began shouting. He was upset with my commentaries against Modi. Upon listening this, Usha stepped in and persuaded him to be respectful. But the guy wouldn’t listen. He screamed, “You have hired a traitor. Do you want to break India?”  I wanted to retort back and tell him that it’s Modi who is trying to break India and not me, but I remained silent as I did not want to create a scene in the presence of Usha, who was trying to defend me.

A security man came up and asked him to either stop shouting or he will be asked to leave.

Upset with the development, she later told me that our radio station is being branded as “anti-Hindu” because of me. What could be more insulting than this for a devout Hindu like her? Those making such accusations have forgotten that Usha had to face threats and intimidation from Khalistanis in the past. And why only she, media persons like me too had to face that for challenging those who were responsible for violence against Hindus in Punjab. Why are we being humiliated? Is it because public memory is short and people forget? Or is it because their brand of bigotry is acceptable? Is it okay to criticise Khalistan, but not Modi? 

I have been thinking of quitting. I cannot let Usha take this. Why should she suffer such humiliation? She has already done a lot for me. Maybe it’s time to leave.

She had given me the job when other radio stations had ignored me completely when I had resigned from Radio Hindustan in 2014. My employer Narinder Singh who had previously stood behind me like a rock in face of threats from Khalistanis had now developed cold feet when I began raising questions about Modi.  He got infuriated when I interviewed one of the organizers of a protest against Modi during his first visit to US and told me to better stop entertaining such people. My stubbornness did not allow me to fall in line. Why is it okay to be critical of Sikh fundamentalists and not Modi who is more powerful and dangerous for similar reasons?  I walked out of the office never to go back.  

For days, I found myself completely isolated from the outside world. Barring a very few friends and well-wishers who listened to me, nobody called to find out where I have gone or what happened. Shortly, those calls also stopped coming.  Most media colleagues from other outlets largely ignored the story even though I had posted information about the reason behind my decision on Facebook. Nobody wanted to annoy Indian diplomats, who wouldn’t like media reporting about someone forced to quit because of Modi, a leader of the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian agents were not pleased with my action, which was understandable. It is a separate matter that they liked me a lot when I was bashing Khalistanis. But bashing Modi, their master was something else.

Loneliness began gripping me as I missed my work. The callers who daily participated in my shows and often called me later to give their feedback almost forgot me. Maybe two or three of them must have called me to find out if at all I am coming back, others just became used to someone who replaced me shortly afterwards. This had saddened me to some extent, but I wasn’t surprised. Journalism is a thankless profession after all.

I thought about the moments when Narinder had hired me without any reference or recommendation by only seeing my resume which was rich enough because of my journalistic experience from India. I was lucky to find a job related to my own field and that too in the first year of my being in Canada.  He asked me to start as a news caster and gradually gave me an opportunity to do talk shows. Coming from print media it was all new for me, but Narinder has been very kind and appreciated my skills. He also allowed me to bring my son to work for baby sitting as Rosy had a job and we couldn’t leave him anywhere for look after. He has been a big support that began waning as the outside pressure grew with the change of political environment in India.

Modi who was until now a Chief Minister of Gujarat got elected as Prime Minister with a huge majority. People forgot his involvement in anti-Muslim massacre of 2002. Or maybe they elected him to reward him for teaching Muslims a lesson much like they rewarded the son of Indira Gandhi by electing him as Prime Minister for engineering violence against Sikhs. Modi was never punished, yet he remains guilty in the eyes of survivors and eyewitnesses. That was the reason why US denied him visa until now, but after becoming the Prime Minister he was going to visit US soon as a state guest. That’s when the trouble started.

We had just returned from London and other parts of Europe. The whole trip was planned by Rosy. She took us to as far as Amsterdam where we went to see the house where Anne Frank lived in hiding. A young Jewish woman who became famous for writing a diary that documents the dark history of Jewish holocaust. We were not allowed to take pictures, so I just tried to take mental notes of the exhibits inside the house-turned museum.  On the display was a badge in the shape of yellow Star of David, which Jewish people were forced to wear under Nazis, the tyrants Hindu nationalists shamelessly admire, but nobody was paying attention to what is happening in India.  Free trade is all that matters.

After coming out of the museum, we walked along one of the canals nearby. I was completely overwhelmed with my thoughts of what we all just saw inside the former home of Anne Frank and her family.

Rosy rented a bicycle for our kids. Raj who is nine years older than Raunak sat on the driver’s seat with his little sister in the back. They giggled and went on for a quick ride along the canal, while Rosy went inside a shop selling souvenirs and other merchandise. I sat on a bench next to the canal immersed in my thoughts. How blessed I am to have such beautiful children and a caring wife, and yet so disillusioned with life.

Things were not going smoothly at work. The interference had grown ever since a new government took over in India and radio station which is already going into financial loss because of my employer’s troubles with Khalistanis. I felt sorry for Narinder as part of his problem with Khalistanis was because of my editorial positions. Some of their supporters had stopped advertising with us and Narinder needed help. He had started giving me hints that he does not want any conflict with pro-India groups, but it was hard to ignore what Modi was up to.

People at the Indian consulate and their friends within the community had started asking Narinder to control me.  In June, 2014 – month after Modi got elected, a ceremony was held at Stanley Park in Vancouver in memory of the Air India bombing victims. Being friends with some of the victims’ families, I always go there every year. A memorial wall bearing the names of the victims was built there only a few years ago. Indian diplomats were also invited to pay tributes. I was given an opportunity to speak as well. When my turn came, I tried to link the past with the present. I could not stop myself from pointing out that the new government in Delhi was also promoting terrorism in the name of religion. The leaders of the current government idealized the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi and have ties with Hindu extremists involved in bombings targeted at Muslims. This had put off the organizers. After the speeches were over, someone close to the Indian consulate came over to me and asked my position on Sikh extremists. I told him bluntly that probably he is new to Canada; otherwise he wouldn’t have asked me this. When he began defending Modi, I asked him whether the Indian police will dare to kill Hindu extremists involved in terrorism the way they did with a Sikh extremist leader involved in Air India bombing? He had no answer and left in a huff. 

Narinder was a changed man. He had begun promoting others to counterweight me. My editorials were now being openly challenged by other talk show hosts within the same organization that left a bad taste in mouth. He began making cuts in our salaries without any notice even for a genuine sick leave. This wasn’t happening before so why now? He was never like this. I had always seen him lavishly spending money on his employees. He had bought me a ticket to go to Ireland to cover the anniversary of Air India bombing just because I was passionate about the issue. If ever anyone in the office needed money, he would be happy to give you. When I first went back to India after settling down in Canada, he gave me some cash as a gift so that I can buy something. How come he is behaving like this now?

I understood that he was going through financial losses, but then why he was trying to interfere in the editorial content of the station by pitting other talk show hosts against me? That made no sense except that someone is behind all this. The message was very loud and clear that I don’t belong here anymore.  

Seeing my frustration, Rosy suggested me to take a break and planned this trip. I felt ashamed that instead of enjoying and making her happy, I was sulking over my workplace problems. As I saw her stepping out of the shop with bags in her hands and walking up to me smiling, I tried to look normal. However, she could see that I am thoughtful and that despite her efforts I am not leaving my worries. She began showing me the souvenirs to distract me. She had bought some for our family friends, including Ajay and his wife.      

Raj and Raunak were back. They both were hungry and wanted pizza for dinner. We returned the bicycle and went to a pizzeria. Rosy tried to cheer me up by saying that she has bought something special for me. What was it? She asked me to guess. I failed. Then she pulled out a bottle of whisky, she just bought. It was my favourite brand. How well she understood me, my tastes and my hobbies. The list is long and I can go on and on.

***

Shortly after we returned from Europe and I was getting ready to start my work the next morning, Narinder called me. He told me in a very plain language that from now onwards, we will have to be very accommodating with pro-India lobby groups as he wants business. I did not want to argue with him and thought about discussing this another time when we sat together in person, but that never happened.

A couple of days passed and Modi’s maiden visit to US was announced. The activists started getting organized across the border to greet him with black flags. One of them was a Khalistani leader who called me and asked for an air time. Since it was an important development, I booked him in and had him on air next day.

As I was about to leave the studio after my show, Narinder came in. He looked upset and asked me to follow him in his room. As we entered, he closed the door and asked me to take a seat. He came straight to the point. “Why the hell did you interview this chap?” I knew whom he was referring to. I told him that it was an important story to talk about. “I don’t care about that. We cannot afford to have Khalistanis in our programs”. I tried to reason that by having someone to talk about a protest doesn’t make us the supporters of Khalistan, a movement I have always opposed. Narinder wasn’t convinced. He went on to suggest that he can change the nature of my duties if I cannot handle this situation.  Mentally exhausted with the drama which has been going on in the office for weeks, I told him that it’s better that I leave the job. Narinder probably thought I was overreacting, and said that it was totally up to me, but nobody will be bothered if at all I take such decision. That was it. If he still assumed that I will continue to work for him despite such humiliation then he was mistaken. I opened the door and left with a heavy heart. After having worked for him for thirteen years, it was not an easy decision. More than leaving the job, I was pained at quitting on such an unpleasant note. 

What wrong I did? I was only doing my job by interviewing someone who was organizing a demonstration to draw attention of the world to Modi’s past. But that was not what Narinder would allow me to do as it was too much to criticise someone as big and mighty as Prime Minister of a country.

It soon emerged that not just him, but others who had been vocal against Khalistanis and defended India had decided to ignore the crimes of such an influential political figure. Shortly after I left Radio Hindustan, those pro-India communists and Hindus who considered me as their friend began falling apart. I had now become a kind of an outcast.

The biggest shock came when Ajay began showing signs of change in attitude. Initially, he remained very sympathetic. He kept calling me to find out if everything was okay and tried to engage me, but something was missing in his words and actions.  The very first sign of his becoming indifferent was after he invited me to an event to install the statue of Dr. Ambedkar at a university.

Dr. Ambedkar who had fought for the emancipation of Dalits was also the architect of Indian Constitution. For that reason, Indian consul general Ravi Bagchi was there, besides many other known people in the community. Some of them met me for the first time after I had quit my job. They either remained silent and did not talk to me beyond exchanging pleasantries, or just avoided me.

Ajay requested me to say a few words. When I was invited on the dais, I said that India as a nation has failed Dr. Ambedkar by electing people involved in mass murders of minority communities and who want to change the constitution that guarantees religious equality and freedom and replace it with an old Hindu text that discriminates against Dalits. I could see some red faces in the crowd.

As I got down, Bagchi came up to rebut everything I said.

Some days later Ajay and his wife came to visit us. This was our first family get together after our return from vacation. They called Rosy before dropping by. Rosy began making some cutlets for them.

After we had tea together, Rosy went inside to bring the bag of souvenirs for them. When they were about to leave, Ajay came close to me and said in a hushed tone that Bagchi and his staff were not happy over what I stated at the event and maybe I should have avoided that on such an auspicious occasion. I didn’t say anything.

Since then, he began avoiding me, or met me very sparingly for social obligations.

As the days passed without much activity, I began spending more time in the forest. Taking pictures of trees and wildlife became my pastime. I made innumerable videos of rabbits that often crossed my path nearly every day, but the trees fascinated me the most during these times. The famous poem of Shiv Kumar Batalvi on human relationship with trees always hummed in my head, much like it is humming at this moment. How right was Batalvi when he wrote that some trees are like sons, others are like moms, while some are like brothers.  That remains even more relevant today as I walk through them just by myself.   

Around this time, I along with some activists decided to create a group against growing intolerance in India. I had known some of them closely since I started working as a broadcaster. In the absence of many friends, they were the only ones I could rely on. While the friends turned foes, the allies turned into close buddies.   

Ajay came for the first meeting, but did not show much enthusiasm. He kept on complaining why we need to have such a group? It did not matter to him that Modi was trying to transform India into Hindu state where Dalits will be marginalized completely.  Ironically, some Khalistanis began showing their support to me in our campaign against atrocities on minorities under Modi. A few of them said to me that while they understood my position on Khalistan, they respect my consistency on human rights. I was really indebted to them for saying it. This only showed that they have a big heart, unlike the way they are being projected by those in the media. It was a hard lesson for me as well. On the contrary, those moderates never acknowledged my stance against Khalistan. My fairness finally paid some dividends. At least there are people out there who have been noticing my work and recognized my position on Sikh massacre and other state sponsored injustices.

While these new alignments brought new allies and new possibilities to challenge the growing influence of Modi in Canada, it also brought new complications. I was now being seen as a Khalistani only because of my Sikh name.   

Apart from many moderate Sikhs and Hindu leaders, Ajay and his group began avoiding our rallies and demonstrations in spite of our efforts to include them. Rather, he kept mingling with Indian officials and did not ever connect with me whenever Modi supporters or Indian officials tried to humiliate me in public or otherwise.  

One day, Raunak innocently asked me when is Ajay uncle going to invite us for dinner? Rosy was also around. We looked at each other not knowing what to say to our daughter.  Rosy told her that he is busy, maybe he will invite us once he is free. We had become used to be invited by him or having him over. He had won the hearts of both of our kids by throwing surprise birthday parties for them.

Rosy advised me to give him a call and directly ask him if he has something on his mind which is stopping him from keeping in touch with me. I reluctantly agreed, but Ajay categorically denied avoiding me or having any issues. He just said that he is busy at work and that’s it. However, he was frequently seen at gatherings of non-political nature and never missed attending the ones where Indian officials were present.

Slowly those who were part of his group began avoiding me too. I did not need a rocket science to understand what was going on. Out of sheer frustration, I unfriended Ajay on Facebook.

Feeling disturbed over all this, I began losing appetite and sleep. My intake of alcohol had also increased. I lost interest in meeting people.  There was hardly anyone left in my own circle of friends to spend time with. Rosy was getting concerned. She suggested me to seek some help. “Do you think I have mental health issues?” I became agitated without realizing that she was asking me to do the right thing. After much thinking and self-reflection, I tried to keep my emotions under control. I got myself busy with gardening and reading to overcome depression.   

Then one day, I got a surprise call from Manav, a friend who once worked with Usha. He was concerned about what had happened as he was following everything on social media. Though we were never close and had interacted with each other briefly during social gatherings, he wanted to help me. He suggested to me that there might be a job at her radio station and he would see if I could be hired. “Your voice is important for us Gurjot ji”, he said. I wasn’t even sure if Usha is going to recruit me as her station Masala Radio, was mainly entertainment-based, but his words gave me so much hope.  More than that, his concern restored my faith in humanity when the closest friends had abandoned me.

Rosy was delighted to learn this. She took me into her embrace as I cried on her shoulder. She said into my ear that we should always be thankful for what we have. Would I get this job or not, we weren’t sure, but Manav’s call had touched our hearts deeply. 

***

I had not known much about Usha except that she is a pioneer in radio industry and was a strict disciplinarian. This too, I had learnt from her former employees who worked with me at Radio Hindustan. I had met her two or three times at public functions where we greeted each other.  Some people used to murmur about her political affiliations with those in power in New Delhi and often accused her of being “anti-Sikh”. They couldn’t offer much explanation except that she had interviewed Indira Gandhi and ignored the grievances of the Sikhs. Since I wasn’t sure of that I never used to comment. Having faced such unfounded mudslinging myself, how could I believe what people are saying? Rumour is a weapon often used to tarnish image of public figures. I didn’t see anything wrong in her interviewing Indira Gandhi. You can disagree with political leaders, but being in media it’s your duty to sit down with devil if you have to. That does not make you an enemy of any group of people unless you are doing that with malicious intentions.  And how sure can one be of someone’s intentions without knowing the person. It is always dangerous and tricky to label anyone without any basis.  

I had been through a similar situation when I invited a moderate Sikh preacher who was ostracized by Sikh clergy for his outspokenness against fanaticism at Radio Hindustan. When Narinder objected to that I told him that being a journalist I am within my right to interview anyone. He may have been ostracised by the clergy, but cannot be slighted by media howsoever controversial he might be. The same preacher is now close to my former employer and is one of the biggest supporters of Modi. Maybe he has no problem with Modi’s fanaticism or he thinks it is better than the fanaticism of his Sikh compatriots.  

Two days after I spoke with Manav, Usha called me. She wanted to see me in her studio. She gave me an appointment and I began preparing myself for the interview.

On way to her office, I switched on Masala Radio that did some news, but mostly played Bollywood music. I had always enjoyed popular numbers played on that frequency even while working with Radio Hindustan. Sometimes, I used to text Nitu- a famous host with a request to play the item songs of Bebo while driving out. I got her number from Ajay. It was he who introduced me to her at India’s Independence Day event in Vancouver. Listening to more and more Bollywood songs on Masala Radio had created my interest in movies and entertainment. I was now thinking how it would be like to work with Nitu if at all I get this job.

As I entered the office, a young woman at the front desk offered me a seat and a glass of water asking me to wait as Usha was still on the way.

I looked around the office that was so passionately decked up with couple of antique radios. The walls were lined up with awards and shields bearing the name of Usha. The idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses greeted from various corners of the room.

With mixed feelings of hope and anxiety, I waited watching at the small fountain that sprinkled water at the feet of Lord Ganesha on a table right next to the entry door. It stopped all of a sudden and began making a screeching noise. The woman behind the desk smiled. “Ushaji knows how to fix it. She should be here soon.”   

Usha appeared shortly. As I stood up out of courtesy to greet her, she folded her hands respectfully. “Sorry Gurjot ji. I kept you waiting”. “Not at all ji” I said nervously. She asked me to wait for few more minutes and went inside to fetch some water in a pail.  She then poured the vessel at the feet of Ganesha. The irritating sound died immediately.   

I followed her into a small boardroom. A picture of much younger Usha standing next to Indira Gandhi hung on one of the walls.  Noticing me looking at the picture, she said, “That was in Delhi where I interviewed her”.

She pulled out a notepad and a pen and kept both on the centre table. “I want you to first tell me everything that forced you to quit before we talk about anything else.”

After listening to each and every word attentively, she said that she would like me to work for her, but I will have to be careful to maintain a balance to ensure objective reporting. She said that she understood my passion and anger against Modi and she is not going to stop me from speaking my mind, but I will have to be fair with the other side of the fence as a broadcaster. What I do as an activist outside is not her problem, but while on air I will have to follow certain rules. “That goes without saying”, I assured her after which she showed me around when we bumped into Nitu. She was happy to see me and got excited to learn that I will be joining their team. She told Usha mischievously, “You know what? Gurjot ji is crazy about Bebo”. “Really? I don’t believe that”. She expected me to be a hard-core journalist and activist.

Usha prepared a promo to introduce me to her audience. The moment the announcement was made all hell broke loose.  Her personal phone was flooded with calls, while the office lines were on fire. Most people wanted her to change her decision and complained about me being “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India”. Ravi Bagchi phoned her to raise his concerns. They probably assumed that being a Hindu woman she could be easily dissuaded from hiring me, but the trick didn’t work. She proved her professional integrity by ignoring these messages and telling Bagchi to mind his own business.

I soon began working with her in her morning show Chit Chat where we discussed everything ranging from music to current affairs. I began learning some new things. Although very few people were happy that I am back, not everyone was pleased. They saw me as a controversial and opinionated talk show host.

True to her words, she never discouraged me from interviewing the opponents of Modi, but to maintain a balance we gave equal opportunity to his supporters as well.

Shortly after I joined Masala Radio, Modi came to Vancouver on his maiden trip to Canada. The protestors were getting ready. Not many radio stations, even those who claimed to be sympathetic to Khalistanis were willing to give air time to the activists who were planning a big demonstration. Usha never stopped me from talking to these people even though she was among community business leaders who attended the dinner with Modi. A picture of her with Modi now hangs next to the one in which she is standing next to Indira Gandhi.  She still believes that one should respect the position held by these elected leaders, despite all disagreements.

On one occasion, she blasted Modi supporters for inciting hatred against Muslims in India. Being a Hindu, she is pained over the history of repression of her community by the Islamic rulers in the past, but she has told me several times that it does not justify violence against Muslims.

In 2018, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl was raped and murdered inside a temple in Jammu. The whole world was shocked to see the supporters of Modi taking out a march to show their solidarity with those involved. The rape was used as a weapon to terrorize Muslims. Several Bollywood stars, including Bebo went on Twitter to raise their voices holding placards denouncing such heinous act. For this, Bebo was trolled by Modi supporters. They attacked her for marrying a Muslim man and naming her son after an Islamic dictator. Disturbed to see such madness, Usha also held a sign condemning the rape and murder of the child and posted her picture on social media.     

One day, I asked her to tell me her story which she shared candidly. What emerged from her narrative was that she being a single mother had faced onslaught in the male dominated media industry and being Hindu, discrimination from the influential Sikh community because of polarization caused by the ugly events of 1984. So much so, she was once threatened with the death of her son.  All these verbal assaults culminated into a hate campaign to isolate her radio station that never received enough advertisements from Sikh businesses.  The problem started with her interviewing Indira Gandhi, who was seen as an oppressor by the Sikhs. 

She may not have told me everything, but those who haven’t forgiven her do not have valid arguments either. If they have problem with her being pro India, why they never object to the proximity of other radio stations with Indian consulate? Why they never dare to challenge male Sikh radio station owners who have compromised with Indian officials?  If she can stand up against Modi and his cohorts in Vancouver in spite of being a Hindu, why can’t others?  On one occasion, Usha had sent me to pick up a cheque from a Sikh advertiser, who began making remarks about her remaining indifferent to the repression of Sikhs. When I told him that she has never stopped me from talking about what happened in 1984 and has shown courage to stand up against Indian consulate’s growing interference, he had nothing to say. And yet, he remained adamant.  I told everything to Usha, who politely asked the person over the phone that he can stop advertising with us. All this boils down to the fact that it is a male dominated world that refuses to change.   

My excitement over joining Masala Radio was short lived. I noticed that not many people who previously used to call in my shows at Radio Hindustan were calling in.  Maybe they wanted to punish me for joining Usha or for quitting Radio Hindustan. My attempt to keep a balance didn’t work for very long. The supporters of Modi had stopped inviting me to their press conferences and returning my calls for interviews. What could one expect from such people, who had conveniently overlooked the objectivity of a person like Usha?

***

I have to rush back home. I climb the hill and then get on the road leading to our house. I am trying to take longer steps so that I have enough time to drink some water, wipe away my sweat and collect my thoughts before calling Usha. Walking was helpful and has turned me more energetic, but I was still very tense. I have made up my mind that just in case she brings up the topic of her station being under pressure, I am going to offer my resignation.

I can understand how hard it is when you have to survive with limited means and then all of a sudden people turn against you. The new Consul General of India in Vancouver, Asha Sharma has not only refused to give interview to Usha, she snubbed her couple of times at dinners hosted by common friends. She is not invited to the events of the Indian consulate, while businesses close to Sharma and others in her office have starting pulling back their advertisements from her station.  What happens if we continue to go into losses? Won’t it be appropriate if I leave so that others can survive?

That day when Modi supporter was criticising her for hiring a traitor, he wasn’t just being upset over what I have been doing, he was clearly trying to convey something to Usha. Since then we haven’t been able to sit down and talk, but I could see tension writ large on her face in the following days. Then came the announcement of global pandemic and everything halted right there. I am not sure when we will be back to our routine or whether I will be going back to work or not? But right now there is a long silence between us. Will I able to listen to her thoroughly or would I be in a position to tell her my side?

I take a deep breath before calling Usha.

“Good Morning Gurjot ji. How are you doing”, she asks sounding pleasant. After asking me about Rosy and everyone at home, she says that she wants me to do a commentary on the story about people living in anxiety because of loneliness and self-isolation. She then asks me about my thoughts on the issue. I try to keep my opinion to myself, but only say that these people are privileged, while there are others who are either forced to work or have faced worst forms of isolation. She just laughed and said that she knew what I am going to say.  

The call ends. We miss another opportunity to clear the air. I am unable to convey my decision to her. Not sure if that is going to happen soon. But I am sure the crisis will be over one day. The coronavirus is going to be defeated eventually, but I don’t see the defeat of the other virus coming. No vaccine can kill the virus of a bigoted mind. We as ordinary folks, Ajay, Narinder, Usha, Mandy, Rosy or myself are all eternally vulnerable to this other virus which continues to consume our everyday peace of mind. It has knocked us down. Shattered and splintered us into pieces. Will we be able to conquer it together? I have no answers.

I am in a dilemma. Shall I respond to Ajay’s message? Part of me says I should after the last talk I had with Nitu at work. She showed me the picture of Bebo standing next to Modi. This was from sometime around when most Bollywood stars were busy getting themselves pictured with the Prime Minister who was doing his outreach. I became speechless when she asked, “Now what?” I meekly responded, “How does it matter? I still love her.” Nitu wouldn’t let it go. She laughed out and then in a challenging tone said, “Wow. You can forgive her, but not your friends.” I couldn’t beat her. She had caught me. 

If I am guessing it right, Ajay must have told her about our differences. They both not only know each other well, but are close to those at Indian consulate and keep an eye on what I say or write or even do. 

I am feeling guilty and ashamed of being hard on Ajay. Being a Dalit, he understands more than anyone else what isolation and loneliness mean. Why wouldn’t he, when Dalits remain untouchables for many who are currently locked down with their families and still grumbling over social distancing? Maybe he is fighting in a different way which I won’t understand. If a powerful woman like Bebo who could have easily declined to get herself pictured with a fascist after being insulted by his supporters, what can ordinary men like Ajay do?  

I feel like picking up my iPhone and responding to Ajay’s message, but stop myself. We became friends out of choice because of shared ideology without which such relationship loses its meaning. Maybe he needs to realize that. But will he? I am not sure.

Splintered

Guest blog on the Indian Sikh experience in Canada, and the price of speaking up against the Indian regime

sikhs in canada

Still rolling in my bed. Trying hard to go back to sleep, but can’t.

It’s too early to get out and make a coffee and open my laptop to catch up with the world.

The buzzing sound of WhatsApp makes it difficult to doze off once again. Out of curiosity, I pick up my iPhone from near my pillow to see who is messaging me at this time. It is four in the morning. I curse myself. Why can’t I get enough sleep similar to the one of those worriless childhood days?

I still have three more hours to get up before the alarm goes on at seven am.

What’s the point of putting an alarm when these messages are not going to let me sleep? Especially, when most of these people are not even friends, why should I even receive them? But my profession is such that I cannot ignore them either.

I shut my eyes and try to imagine being inside a forested area where I love to go for long walks. This place gives me immense pleasure. I had read it somewhere long ago that this works when your sleep is interrupted. Think of something that gives you some kind of relaxation. That’s exactly what I am trying to do now. It has worked in the past, but not anymore. Maybe, I need to imagine something else to break monotony of my brain. My sleep pattern has become erratic during last couple of years. Sometimes it is a bad dream, while mostly its WhatsApp messages that shudder me out of sleep. 

I scroll down the screen to kill time by trying to read all messages. Out of nowhere, I have one from Ajay. He has not been in touch with me for the past many months. To be precise, we have always been good friends, but the relationship has gone wrong. Why is he messaging me now? I decide to ignore it. It is easier said than done though. It has already caused a trigger bringing back some memories I try to ward off. I am getting angry now. My shoulder muscle is aching. As I have been spending more time on reading and working on my computer, the problem has aggravated. The lack of sleep increases its intensity. 

I try to think of something else to relax my mind. What could it be? I ask myself. May be dating Bebo, that beautiful Bollywood actress I have always had a crush on. She goes by a different name, but I like to call her by her nickname. Yes, why not? But wait a minute. Aren’t you married? Don’t you think you should be ashamed of yourself? What’s the big deal? I am just imagining of being with her. It’s not same as cheating your wife? No real physical contact, so how does it matter? I choose to think of her being close to me. She hugs me and I try to hug back when I slip into a fairy world.

The surroundings take the shape of woods. Everywhere, I see butterflies of different colours. The fragrance of flowers gets into my nostrils and enters my mind. Trees with chirping birds, hiding somewhere behind green leaves on long branches hanging over my head as I keep going deeper. Then I realize I am actually riding a motorcycle and not walking. My beloved Bebo is nowhere to be seen. Maybe I am going to see her soon. Actually, I am going all the way to see her at the end of the trail where the motor vehicles are prohibited. I had got a text from her along with a smiley.

A conservation officer appears. I recognize him. He had ticketed a youngster few days ago while I was out for my daily walk. The boy was caught riding his ATV. And now it’s my turn.  He starts chasing me. I try to drive as fast I could. The vehicle he is sitting in has a similar buzzing sound that I hear when I get messages on iPhone. It seems weird, but technology has no boundaries. I start losing my control as my motorcycle crashes into a tree and I am thrown into a gorge. There is a complete darkness for some time. The sound keeps chasing me, while I don’t see anything else, neither the officer nor his vehicle.  As the sound grows louder, my body shakes. I get up and try to run, but cannot as if my feet are caught into something. Not sure what, maybe a hyacinth or maybe the stream with a violent current. Can’t figure out what, with the mist all around.   

***

My iPhone is buzzing again with messages.

With a parched throat, I wake up. My room is lit up with sunlight. The cover of blackness is all gone. I pick up the phone to see the timing. Fifteen minutes to seven in the morning, my time to rise and get started. 

As I walk up to the kitchen to brew my coffee, I look at the screen one more time to identify important messages. None is there. Some are just silly videos that take too much memory and space. Others are jokes and cartoons. I instantly delete most of them, though I avoid blocking the senders as some of them are my news sources.   

Then my eyes fall on the one sent by Ajay. Upon reading, I realize that it is nothing but a show of formality, a gesture most people are making these days. It has become a new norm, a fashion of sorts. To assure others, “we are all in this together”.

Ajay writes, “Brother Gurjot. Hope you and your family are doing well under these circumstances”.  I don’t know how to respond? What is there to respond anyway when we are not on talking terms?  Why send a message if you really care? He could have just called. He has been ignoring me for all these months when I needed him the most? So how does it matter to him that how I am doing now?  The content of the message suggests that he is just following a set language to reach out anyone on your contact list when the authorities are suggesting that we must try to connect with people we know when most of us are in self-isolation.

The pandemic has forced all of us to work from home and maintain social distancing. Everywhere it’s the same news, same stories, and same headlines.

I open my laptop to take notes for my news bulletin I will be sending out soon to my radio station. The studio is shut because of public health emergency. I am supposed to record everything on my iPhone and send it to the office. I have to rush, but my mind is occupied with thoughts of Ajay.

We have known each other for years. We first met during a conversation on social justice. His passion instantly drew me closer to him. I saw in him a spark and a strong will to bring a change in the society. He spoke against discrimination and oppression everywhere in the world. And why wouldn’t he? Being someone from the oppressed community of Dalits who have been treated as untouchables for centuries by Hindus, his anger was justifiable.

When my turn came up to speak on the issue, he was delighted to see how we both thought alike. We soon became friends.

I was new in Canada and had moved from India with my wife Rosy and two-and-a-half year old son Raj only a few months ago in early 2000s. We didn’t know many people in a country that was totally new and alien to us. We began meeting once a while. Then came a time, I began writing short fiction apart from working for a radio as a news caster and talk show host for living. One of my stories was about something Ajay always cared for. It challenged caste system within the Sikh community. Even though Sikhism denounces caste based discrimination, Dalits continue to face persecution at the hands of upper caste Sikhs.

Ajay was amazed to find someone like me who in spite of being a Sikh was vocal against this injustice. Those were the days when Sikh fundamentalists were aggressive and active in Surrey. Any criticism against them invited backlash.

Two Sikh suspects were recently acquitted from charges of being involved in 1985 Air India Flight 182 bombing above the Irish Sea. The incident had left more than 300 innocent people dead. Several extremist groups wanted to avenge the repression of Sikhs in India. An year before the bombing, thousands of innocent Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and other parts of the country by organized mobs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi had ordered the military attack on the Golden Temple, the holiest place of the Sikhs in June, 1984 blaming radicals for stockpiling arms inside the shrine.  The army operation had left many pilgrims dead. This act of sacrilege had alienated the Sikhs from Indian mainstream, with some starting asking for an independent homeland of Khalistan.

The Sikh separatists in Canada had given the call to boycott Air India flights. One of their leaders had threatened that Air India planes will be falling from the skies. He was said to be the mastermind of the conspiracy. As luck would have it, he died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of Indian police much before the trial began. He had gone back to India to pursue an armed insurgency when he was arrested and tortured to death.  

Those who lost their loved ones in the tragedy were devastated when the two men were acquitted because of lack of evidence. I was critical of the judgment and it had enraged many in the community. They did not like anyone questioning Khalistan supporters who had lot of influence.

By this time, I had started contributing articles to local newspapers too. Most of them were harsh on Khalistanis. At one point, a Caucasian editor emailed me to say that some people within my own community have raised concerns over my writings and described me as “anti-Sikh”.  I responded with a longer email listing details of the articles that were equally critical of the Hindu extremists who were getting active in India and the Indian state for allowing Sikh massacre. I made him understand that being born in a Sikh family I cannot be against the community and my write-ups were only critical of a section of hardliners. 

On another occasion, my family physician who is a practicing Sikh asked me why I was so critical of my own people when I went to see him for a medical check-up. I was taken aback by his comments. I asked him whether he discriminates between his patients on religious grounds. He looked at me in disbelief. Maybe he didn’t anticipate this kind of answer. I told him that I am doing my job just as he is doing his and left the clinic.

As if this was not enough, one morning a supporter of Khalistan walked into our studio and cautioned me in the presence of my colleagues that I need to be careful as some people have hired a hit man from US to attack me. This was obviously serious and the matter was reported to police. 

Ajay and others who were offended with the bombing supported my stance. Hindus and pro India Sikhs, including some communists who felt threatened by Khalistanis extended their solidarity. The Indian diplomats began inviting me to their events seeing me as a potential ally. Needless to say, they liked me for being critical of those who were considered as “enemies of India”. But the threats kept coming in. The police kept a watch for some time. Fortunately, nothing untoward happened.

Ajay was so much moved by my short story that he and his group of activist friends invited me to read it out at a public event. For someone like me, it was such a huge honour. We gradually came close and frequently visited each other’s home. Our wives too enjoyed each other’s company and strongly this bonding grew into family relationship of sorts.  

We began going out for parties, hiking and camping.  We occasionally watched new Hindi movies together. I still remember having watched a film in which Bebo danced to an item number. The moment she popped up on the screen in her revealing outfit, Ajay bumped his knee into mine. Our eyes met and we smiled. “Here comes your sweetheart”, he joked. Outside when we were having coffee before leaving for homes, he said that no one would ever believe that a serious journalist like me would ever fall for a film star.

I enjoyed going to his yearly barbeque where we both enjoyed beer, while our wives got themselves busy making meals and chatting. Raj had become fond of him. They never forgot to give each other high five whenever he dropped by at our home or we visited him. “You are my most favourite uncle”, Raj would tell Ajay, who was more like a mentor and an elderly brother to me. We always made it a point to include each other in our family rituals and functions. When our daughter Raunak was born seven years after we made Canada home, Ajay was the first one in our friend circle to get the good news.

Once he drove us all the way to Seattle from Surrey, which is an almost two-and-a-half-hour journey to drop us off at the airport from where we were to take a connecting flight to Texas.   

My eyes suddenly welled up. Before my train of thoughts could take me somewhere, I realised that it was time to finish my job.

***

Almost all websites were filled with the news on Covid-19. The disease had claimed more than 3,00,000 human lives all over world. The death toll was likely to rise. Canada too was affected.

Prime Minister Trudeau had made an announcement of emergency relief for those who had lost their jobs or were forced to work without pay as their employers were not in a position to give salaries. A story based on a research claimed to have found how majority of the people are living in anxiety due to enforced physical distancing and self-isolation to prevent the spread of virus. “A typical middle class reaction of those who are privileged”, I say to myself.  

Then I go to read another important story of how the poor are suffering more because of the lockdown imposed by a right wing government in India. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is allegedly a Hindu zealot has been accused of trying to use the pandemic as a god sent opportunity to suppress any form of resistance in the name of curfew and public safety.  The police under him had allegedly dismantled a camp of demonstrators and removed their posters. They were protesting until now against a law that discriminates against Muslims coming to India as refugees from neighbouring countries. Only non-Muslims are being allowed, something that stirred angry reaction from people who saw it as an assault on secularism.

An article suggested how the supporters of Modi were blaming Muslims for spreading the disease. They also accused Pakistan of sending people suffering with virus to India to make everyone sick. They never challenged Modi who had organized a massive rally for US President in Gujarat shortly after the outbreak of Covid-19, knowing well that such gatherings are more contagious. 

Another story was heart wrenching. Sixteen labourers were run over by a freight train as they were sleeping on a rail line to hide themselves from the police while walking back to their native villages from a city that once gave them employment. The steel plant they worked at fired them as the entire country had gone into economic crisis because of the pandemic. No passenger trains were running and police did not allow people to leave their homes. The violation would provoke physical violence by the policemen patrolling the streets all over the country. Their only option was to walk back to their homes by stealing the eyes of police that left no opportunity to harass poor people. They were all so tired that they fell asleep on a rail track without expecting what is going to happen.

When Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, he had promised to bring happy days. But people have seen worse days since then. Many lives were affected, including mine after his becoming the leader of a country I was born in.  

By the time, I finished my news; Rosy was up and was making tea for both of us. Unlike me, she is a tea lover. Even though I had my coffee, I enjoy sipping morning tea with her, especially during these days when we have enough time to sit down and talk to each other for hours. Being a social worker, her life is busier than mine. Nowadays, she is too working from home and goes out once a while to buy groceries. She asks me for the updates. I tell her everything I read and she listens keenly, while cross stitching.

Our interests are very common though we have some differences of opinion. She comes from a progressive family which is more politically aware than mine. I look at her while she is engrossed in her stitching. She is an anchor of my life. A big hearted beautiful woman, who has given me everything one can expect from a life partner;  two lovely kids and immense moral support which has become a rare commodity in the lives of most married couples. She has always been my strongest ally in difficult times. So much so, she never makes a fuss about me uploading pictures of Bebo on Facebook, except when I cross a line by posting idiotic comments.

In the summer of 2014, when we were visiting Madam Tussauds’ museum in London where Bebo’s wax replica is installed Rosy was generous enough to take my pictures with her. A mind reader, she sensed my feelings and encouraged me to hug the statue which I did eagerly but with little bit of embarrassment in front of her and my kids who were amused. Part of the reason why that vacation became unforgettable was Bebo, but the other part is what happened after we were back.     

I do not tell her about Ajay. Although she would have been very happy to hear this, I make it a point not to tell her anything. She would see it as a positive sign and lecture me to respond back. She has always been like this; more social and friendly than me, and much kinder to people even when they are mean to her.  She is always excited to invite people home and going to the parties. She is missing more of that these days, but not me. I have lost interest in socializing.  If she comes to know that Ajay has messaged me, she is going to forgive the fakery of the gesture and interpret it differently seeing a hope for reconciliation.

I get a text from my boss Usha. She wants me to call her in about an hour. Not sure what she wants to discuss, but I am bit nervous. I have put her in trouble recently. Maybe it has to do something with that or maybe I am just getting anxious unnecessarily. I have no choice. If your boss wants you to call, you have to.

I quickly finish my tea. It’s always bit colder in the mornings, so I pull out a light jacket, comb my hair straight and tell Rosy that I will be back soon. I step out of the door and start walking towards the jungle next door. I want to finish my daily walk before I am supposed to call Usha. Who knows how long will the chat be? Depends on what she wants to discuss. It’s hard to predict what is there on her mind? It will be a good idea to calm myself before I phone her.  

***

The scenery out there is no different than the one etched in my mind permanently. Apart from slight variation between the landscape of my dream this morning and what the bog really looks like, I don’t see much difference. I don’t see the butterflies anywhere. The stream is making a soothing sound as I approach the entrance. Perhaps, this is where my feet were caught in my imagination. 

I hear the train coming. A rail track cuts through the forest. At times one has to wait before crossing the line if there are too many cars. That’s what is exactly going to happen today the moment I notice a long and seemingly endless queue of freight carriers approaching.  My mind races back to India, where those labourers have been crushed to death by a goods train. There is going to be an enquiry soon. But will it really achieve something? They are going to put the blame on those who died. Why they fell asleep on the rail track, the authorities will argue. Nobody would question the circumstances created by the people in power. That’s the easiest thing to do. Those who are better off and privileged and posting happy family pictures on social media advising everyone to stay home will never understand why many others have no option, but to either keep working or facing life and death situation.

I spoke to my brother Mandy the other day. Being a businessman he has a soft corner for Modi – who represents the interests of upper middle class. He sees nothing wrong with his policies and is hardly bothered about the way Modi government is treating Muslims. He has been posting his pictures on Facebook showing his support to the Prime Minister’s call for staying home to make curfews successful.

As the train disappears, I cross the line to get inside the trail. I see so many new faces; some young, some old and some middle-aged like myself, some with masks, others without them. Probably, these people are forced to leave their homes for morning strolls and jogging to beat boredom. They have nowhere to go when malls and recreation centres are shut. Part of the forest is closed with a yellow tape to ensure physical distancing.

I walk along the stream as I pass by strangers who would usually greet with smile, but today nobody is making an eye contact. In fact, you don’t see many people smiling these days. They are mostly lost in their thoughts. Occasionally, you see some giving you a hostile look as if to make you think that you are guilty of something. As if you have brought this. If you are of Chinese descent, your chances of getting those kinds of looks increase. Even though I don’t look Chinese, some white men and women stare at me contemptuously. A couple did not even respond when I say ‘Hi’ to them. This is another reminder that for white supremacists all “outsiders” are all the same. The crisis always brings worst out of people.

I had an argument with Mandy few days back when he had posted a comment on Facebook asking for boycotting China. There is no dearth of leaders both in North America and India who are trying to scapegoat China from where the virus had originated. Such rhetoric has intensified hate against Chinese people for no fault of theirs. Disgustingly, in India, people of North Eastern states, who have oriental facial features are being taunted and attacked in other parts of the country just because they look Chinese. But he wouldn’t understand. To pacify me, he later sent me a racy picture of Bebo on WhatsApp. She looked irresistible in red dress and I saved the image on my device. Being familiar with my infatuation for her, he keeps sending me her pictures just to keep me happy and I keep saving them in the hidden photo album of my phone like a secret love. Touched by his thoughtfulness, I thanked him. “You made my day bro”.  

Why blame Mandy or all these people, when no one is sure where we are heading to? People have lost their jobs, businesses and future. It’s the political leadership that is creating false enemies everywhere to hide their own incompetence. I am not sure about myself either. I may or may not go back to work once this is over although my reasons are different. Considering what happened just two months ago, I might have to make a difficult choice, like the one I made six years ago.

***

Usha and I were at a public event that was hosted to honour her for running a campaign against racism. She had come out elegantly dressed with others in the staff. At the age of 75, almost my mom’s age, she remains healthy and fit. It was an important day for her. But little did we realize that not everyone is impressed with her in the crowd.  She is being hated for hiring me.

A man walked up to me and began shouting. He was upset with my commentaries against Modi. Upon listening this, Usha stepped in and persuaded him to be respectful. But the guy wouldn’t listen. He screamed, “You have hired a traitor. Do you want to break India?”  I wanted to retort back and tell him that it’s Modi who is trying to break India and not me, but I remained silent as I did not want to create a scene in the presence of Usha, who was trying to defend me.

A security man came up and asked him to either stop shouting or he will be asked to leave.

Upset with the development, she later told me that our radio station is being branded as “anti-Hindu” because of me. What could be more insulting than this for a devout Hindu like her? Those making such accusations have forgotten that Usha had to face threats and intimidation from Khalistanis in the past. And why only she, media persons like me too had to face that for challenging those who were responsible for violence against Hindus in Punjab. Why are we being humiliated? Is it because public memory is short and people forget? Or is it because their brand of bigotry is acceptable? Is it okay to criticise Khalistan, but not Modi? 

I have been thinking of quitting. I cannot let Usha take this. Why should she suffer such humiliation? She has already done a lot for me. Maybe it’s time to leave.

She had given me the job when other radio stations had ignored me completely when I had resigned from Radio Hindustan in 2014. My employer Narinder Singh who had previously stood behind me like a rock in face of threats from Khalistanis had now developed cold feet when I began raising questions about Modi.  He got infuriated when I interviewed one of the organizers of a protest against Modi during his first visit to US and told me to better stop entertaining such people. My stubbornness did not allow me to fall in line. Why is it okay to be critical of Sikh fundamentalists and not Modi who is more powerful and dangerous for similar reasons?  I walked out of the office never to go back.  

For days, I found myself completely isolated from the outside world. Barring a very few friends and well-wishers who listened to me, nobody called to find out where I have gone or what happened. Shortly, those calls also stopped coming.  Most media colleagues from other outlets largely ignored the story even though I had posted information about the reason behind my decision on Facebook. Nobody wanted to annoy Indian diplomats, who wouldn’t like media reporting about someone forced to quit because of Modi, a leader of the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian agents were not pleased with my action, which was understandable. It is a separate matter that they liked me a lot when I was bashing Khalistanis. But bashing Modi, their master was something else.

Loneliness began gripping me as I missed my work. The callers who daily participated in my shows and often called me later to give their feedback almost forgot me. Maybe two or three of them must have called me to find out if at all I am coming back, others just became used to someone who replaced me shortly afterwards. This had saddened me to some extent, but I wasn’t surprised. Journalism is a thankless profession after all.

I thought about the moments when Narinder had hired me without any reference or recommendation by only seeing my resume which was rich enough because of my journalistic experience from India. I was lucky to find a job related to my own field and that too in the first year of my being in Canada.  He asked me to start as a news caster and gradually gave me an opportunity to do talk shows. Coming from print media it was all new for me, but Narinder has been very kind and appreciated my skills. He also allowed me to bring my son to work for baby sitting as Rosy had a job and we couldn’t leave him anywhere for look after. He has been a big support that began waning as the outside pressure grew with the change of political environment in India.

Modi who was until now a Chief Minister of Gujarat got elected as Prime Minister with a huge majority. People forgot his involvement in anti-Muslim massacre of 2002. Or maybe they elected him to reward him for teaching Muslims a lesson much like they rewarded the son of Indira Gandhi by electing him as Prime Minister for engineering violence against Sikhs. Modi was never punished, yet he remains guilty in the eyes of survivors and eyewitnesses. That was the reason why US denied him visa until now, but after becoming the Prime Minister he was going to visit US soon as a state guest. That’s when the trouble started.

We had just returned from London and other parts of Europe. The whole trip was planned by Rosy. She took us to as far as Amsterdam where we went to see the house where Anne Frank lived in hiding. A young Jewish woman who became famous for writing a diary that documents the dark history of Jewish holocaust. We were not allowed to take pictures, so I just tried to take mental notes of the exhibits inside the house-turned museum.  On the display was a badge in the shape of yellow Star of David, which Jewish people were forced to wear under Nazis, the tyrants Hindu nationalists shamelessly admire, but nobody was paying attention to what is happening in India.  Free trade is all that matters.

After coming out of the museum, we walked along one of the canals nearby. I was completely overwhelmed with my thoughts of what we all just saw inside the former home of Anne Frank and her family.

Rosy rented a bicycle for our kids. Raj who is nine years older than Raunak sat on the driver’s seat with his little sister in the back. They giggled and went on for a quick ride along the canal, while Rosy went inside a shop selling souvenirs and other merchandise. I sat on a bench next to the canal immersed in my thoughts. How blessed I am to have such beautiful children and a caring wife, and yet so disillusioned with life.

Things were not going smoothly at work. The interference had grown ever since a new government took over in India and radio station which is already going into financial loss because of my employer’s troubles with Khalistanis. I felt sorry for Narinder as part of his problem with Khalistanis was because of my editorial positions. Some of their supporters had stopped advertising with us and Narinder needed help. He had started giving me hints that he does not want any conflict with pro-India groups, but it was hard to ignore what Modi was up to.

People at the Indian consulate and their friends within the community had started asking Narinder to control me.  In June, 2014 – month after Modi got elected, a ceremony was held at Stanley Park in Vancouver in memory of the Air India bombing victims. Being friends with some of the victims’ families, I always go there every year. A memorial wall bearing the names of the victims was built there only a few years ago. Indian diplomats were also invited to pay tributes. I was given an opportunity to speak as well. When my turn came, I tried to link the past with the present. I could not stop myself from pointing out that the new government in Delhi was also promoting terrorism in the name of religion. The leaders of the current government idealized the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi and have ties with Hindu extremists involved in bombings targeted at Muslims. This had put off the organizers. After the speeches were over, someone close to the Indian consulate came over to me and asked my position on Sikh extremists. I told him bluntly that probably he is new to Canada; otherwise he wouldn’t have asked me this. When he began defending Modi, I asked him whether the Indian police will dare to kill Hindu extremists involved in terrorism the way they did with a Sikh extremist leader involved in Air India bombing? He had no answer and left in a huff. 

Narinder was a changed man. He had begun promoting others to counterweight me. My editorials were now being openly challenged by other talk show hosts within the same organization that left a bad taste in mouth. He began making cuts in our salaries without any notice even for a genuine sick leave. This wasn’t happening before so why now? He was never like this. I had always seen him lavishly spending money on his employees. He had bought me a ticket to go to Ireland to cover the anniversary of Air India bombing just because I was passionate about the issue. If ever anyone in the office needed money, he would be happy to give you. When I first went back to India after settling down in Canada, he gave me some cash as a gift so that I can buy something. How come he is behaving like this now?

I understood that he was going through financial losses, but then why he was trying to interfere in the editorial content of the station by pitting other talk show hosts against me? That made no sense except that someone is behind all this. The message was very loud and clear that I don’t belong here anymore.  

Seeing my frustration, Rosy suggested me to take a break and planned this trip. I felt ashamed that instead of enjoying and making her happy, I was sulking over my workplace problems. As I saw her stepping out of the shop with bags in her hands and walking up to me smiling, I tried to look normal. However, she could see that I am thoughtful and that despite her efforts I am not leaving my worries. She began showing me the souvenirs to distract me. She had bought some for our family friends, including Ajay and his wife.      

Raj and Raunak were back. They both were hungry and wanted pizza for dinner. We returned the bicycle and went to a pizzeria. Rosy tried to cheer me up by saying that she has bought something special for me. What was it? She asked me to guess. I failed. Then she pulled out a bottle of whisky, she just bought. It was my favourite brand. How well she understood me, my tastes and my hobbies. The list is long and I can go on and on.

***

Shortly after we returned from Europe and I was getting ready to start my work the next morning, Narinder called me. He told me in a very plain language that from now onwards, we will have to be very accommodating with pro-India lobby groups as he wants business. I did not want to argue with him and thought about discussing this another time when we sat together in person, but that never happened.

A couple of days passed and Modi’s maiden visit to US was announced. The activists started getting organized across the border to greet him with black flags. One of them was a Khalistani leader who called me and asked for an air time. Since it was an important development, I booked him in and had him on air next day.

As I was about to leave the studio after my show, Narinder came in. He looked upset and asked me to follow him in his room. As we entered, he closed the door and asked me to take a seat. He came straight to the point. “Why the hell did you interview this chap?” I knew whom he was referring to. I told him that it was an important story to talk about. “I don’t care about that. We cannot afford to have Khalistanis in our programs”. I tried to reason that by having someone to talk about a protest doesn’t make us the supporters of Khalistan, a movement I have always opposed. Narinder wasn’t convinced. He went on to suggest that he can change the nature of my duties if I cannot handle this situation.  Mentally exhausted with the drama which has been going on in the office for weeks, I told him that it’s better that I leave the job. Narinder probably thought I was overreacting, and said that it was totally up to me, but nobody will be bothered if at all I take such decision. That was it. If he still assumed that I will continue to work for him despite such humiliation then he was mistaken. I opened the door and left with a heavy heart. After having worked for him for thirteen years, it was not an easy decision. More than leaving the job, I was pained at quitting on such an unpleasant note. 

What wrong I did? I was only doing my job by interviewing someone who was organizing a demonstration to draw attention of the world to Modi’s past. But that was not what Narinder would allow me to do as it was too much to criticise someone as big and mighty as Prime Minister of a country.

It soon emerged that not just him, but others who had been vocal against Khalistanis and defended India had decided to ignore the crimes of such an influential political figure. Shortly after I left Radio Hindustan, those pro-India communists and Hindus who considered me as their friend began falling apart. I had now become a kind of an outcast.

The biggest shock came when Ajay began showing signs of change in attitude. Initially, he remained very sympathetic. He kept calling me to find out if everything was okay and tried to engage me, but something was missing in his words and actions.  The very first sign of his becoming indifferent was after he invited me to an event to install the statue of Dr. Ambedkar at a university.

Dr. Ambedkar who had fought for the emancipation of Dalits was also the architect of Indian Constitution. For that reason, Indian consul general Ravi Bagchi was there, besides many other known people in the community. Some of them met me for the first time after I had quit my job. They either remained silent and did not talk to me beyond exchanging pleasantries, or just avoided me.

Ajay requested me to say a few words. When I was invited on the dais, I said that India as a nation has failed Dr. Ambedkar by electing people involved in mass murders of minority communities and who want to change the constitution that guarantees religious equality and freedom and replace it with an old Hindu text that discriminates against Dalits. I could see some red faces in the crowd.

As I got down, Bagchi came up to rebut everything I said.

Some days later Ajay and his wife came to visit us. This was our first family get together after our return from vacation. They called Rosy before dropping by. Rosy began making some cutlets for them.

After we had tea together, Rosy went inside to bring the bag of souvenirs for them. When they were about to leave, Ajay came close to me and said in a hushed tone that Bagchi and his staff were not happy over what I stated at the event and maybe I should have avoided that on such an auspicious occasion. I didn’t say anything.

Since then, he began avoiding me, or met me very sparingly for social obligations.

As the days passed without much activity, I began spending more time in the forest. Taking pictures of trees and wildlife became my pastime. I made innumerable videos of rabbits that often crossed my path nearly every day, but the trees fascinated me the most during these times. The famous poem of Shiv Kumar Batalvi on human relationship with trees always hummed in my head, much like it is humming at this moment. How right was Batalvi when he wrote that some trees are like sons, others are like moms, while some are like brothers.  That remains even more relevant today as I walk through them just by myself.   

Around this time, I along with some activists decided to create a group against growing intolerance in India. I had known some of them closely since I started working as a broadcaster. In the absence of many friends, they were the only ones I could rely on. While the friends turned foes, the allies turned into close buddies.   

Ajay came for the first meeting, but did not show much enthusiasm. He kept on complaining why we need to have such a group? It did not matter to him that Modi was trying to transform India into Hindu state where Dalits will be marginalized completely.  Ironically, some Khalistanis began showing their support to me in our campaign against atrocities on minorities under Modi. A few of them said to me that while they understood my position on Khalistan, they respect my consistency on human rights. I was really indebted to them for saying it. This only showed that they have a big heart, unlike the way they are being projected by those in the media. It was a hard lesson for me as well. On the contrary, those moderates never acknowledged my stance against Khalistan. My fairness finally paid some dividends. At least there are people out there who have been noticing my work and recognized my position on Sikh massacre and other state sponsored injustices.

While these new alignments brought new allies and new possibilities to challenge the growing influence of Modi in Canada, it also brought new complications. I was now being seen as a Khalistani only because of my Sikh name.   

Apart from many moderate Sikhs and Hindu leaders, Ajay and his group began avoiding our rallies and demonstrations in spite of our efforts to include them. Rather, he kept mingling with Indian officials and did not ever connect with me whenever Modi supporters or Indian officials tried to humiliate me in public or otherwise.  

One day, Raunak innocently asked me when is Ajay uncle going to invite us for dinner? Rosy was also around. We looked at each other not knowing what to say to our daughter.  Rosy told her that he is busy, maybe he will invite us once he is free. We had become used to be invited by him or having him over. He had won the hearts of both of our kids by throwing surprise birthday parties for them.

Rosy advised me to give him a call and directly ask him if he has something on his mind which is stopping him from keeping in touch with me. I reluctantly agreed, but Ajay categorically denied avoiding me or having any issues. He just said that he is busy at work and that’s it. However, he was frequently seen at gatherings of non-political nature and never missed attending the ones where Indian officials were present.

Slowly those who were part of his group began avoiding me too. I did not need a rocket science to understand what was going on. Out of sheer frustration, I unfriended Ajay on Facebook.

Feeling disturbed over all this, I began losing appetite and sleep. My intake of alcohol had also increased. I lost interest in meeting people.  There was hardly anyone left in my own circle of friends to spend time with. Rosy was getting concerned. She suggested me to seek some help. “Do you think I have mental health issues?” I became agitated without realizing that she was asking me to do the right thing. After much thinking and self-reflection, I tried to keep my emotions under control. I got myself busy with gardening and reading to overcome depression.   

Then one day, I got a surprise call from Manav, a friend who once worked with Usha. He was concerned about what had happened as he was following everything on social media. Though we were never close and had interacted with each other briefly during social gatherings, he wanted to help me. He suggested to me that there might be a job at her radio station and he would see if I could be hired. “Your voice is important for us Gurjot ji”, he said. I wasn’t even sure if Usha is going to recruit me as her station Masala Radio, was mainly entertainment-based, but his words gave me so much hope.  More than that, his concern restored my faith in humanity when the closest friends had abandoned me.

Rosy was delighted to learn this. She took me into her embrace as I cried on her shoulder. She said into my ear that we should always be thankful for what we have. Would I get this job or not, we weren’t sure, but Manav’s call had touched our hearts deeply. 

***

I had not known much about Usha except that she is a pioneer in radio industry and was a strict disciplinarian. This too, I had learnt from her former employees who worked with me at Radio Hindustan. I had met her two or three times at public functions where we greeted each other.  Some people used to murmur about her political affiliations with those in power in New Delhi and often accused her of being “anti-Sikh”. They couldn’t offer much explanation except that she had interviewed Indira Gandhi and ignored the grievances of the Sikhs. Since I wasn’t sure of that I never used to comment. Having faced such unfounded mudslinging myself, how could I believe what people are saying? Rumour is a weapon often used to tarnish image of public figures. I didn’t see anything wrong in her interviewing Indira Gandhi. You can disagree with political leaders, but being in media it’s your duty to sit down with devil if you have to. That does not make you an enemy of any group of people unless you are doing that with malicious intentions.  And how sure can one be of someone’s intentions without knowing the person. It is always dangerous and tricky to label anyone without any basis.  

I had been through a similar situation when I invited a moderate Sikh preacher who was ostracized by Sikh clergy for his outspokenness against fanaticism at Radio Hindustan. When Narinder objected to that I told him that being a journalist I am within my right to interview anyone. He may have been ostracised by the clergy, but cannot be slighted by media howsoever controversial he might be. The same preacher is now close to my former employer and is one of the biggest supporters of Modi. Maybe he has no problem with Modi’s fanaticism or he thinks it is better than the fanaticism of his Sikh compatriots.  

Two days after I spoke with Manav, Usha called me. She wanted to see me in her studio. She gave me an appointment and I began preparing myself for the interview.

On way to her office, I switched on Masala Radio that did some news, but mostly played Bollywood music. I had always enjoyed popular numbers played on that frequency even while working with Radio Hindustan. Sometimes, I used to text Nitu- a famous host with a request to play the item songs of Bebo while driving out. I got her number from Ajay. It was he who introduced me to her at India’s Independence Day event in Vancouver. Listening to more and more Bollywood songs on Masala Radio had created my interest in movies and entertainment. I was now thinking how it would be like to work with Nitu if at all I get this job.

As I entered the office, a young woman at the front desk offered me a seat and a glass of water asking me to wait as Usha was still on the way.

I looked around the office that was so passionately decked up with couple of antique radios. The walls were lined up with awards and shields bearing the name of Usha. The idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses greeted from various corners of the room.

With mixed feelings of hope and anxiety, I waited watching at the small fountain that sprinkled water at the feet of Lord Ganesha on a table right next to the entry door. It stopped all of a sudden and began making a screeching noise. The woman behind the desk smiled. “Ushaji knows how to fix it. She should be here soon.”   

Usha appeared shortly. As I stood up out of courtesy to greet her, she folded her hands respectfully. “Sorry Gurjot ji. I kept you waiting”. “Not at all ji” I said nervously. She asked me to wait for few more minutes and went inside to fetch some water in a pail.  She then poured the vessel at the feet of Ganesha. The irritating sound died immediately.   

I followed her into a small boardroom. A picture of much younger Usha standing next to Indira Gandhi hung on one of the walls.  Noticing me looking at the picture, she said, “That was in Delhi where I interviewed her”.

She pulled out a notepad and a pen and kept both on the centre table. “I want you to first tell me everything that forced you to quit before we talk about anything else.”

After listening to each and every word attentively, she said that she would like me to work for her, but I will have to be careful to maintain a balance to ensure objective reporting. She said that she understood my passion and anger against Modi and she is not going to stop me from speaking my mind, but I will have to be fair with the other side of the fence as a broadcaster. What I do as an activist outside is not her problem, but while on air I will have to follow certain rules. “That goes without saying”, I assured her after which she showed me around when we bumped into Nitu. She was happy to see me and got excited to learn that I will be joining their team. She told Usha mischievously, “You know what? Gurjot ji is crazy about Bebo”. “Really? I don’t believe that”. She expected me to be a hard-core journalist and activist.

Usha prepared a promo to introduce me to her audience. The moment the announcement was made all hell broke loose.  Her personal phone was flooded with calls, while the office lines were on fire. Most people wanted her to change her decision and complained about me being “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India”. Ravi Bagchi phoned her to raise his concerns. They probably assumed that being a Hindu woman she could be easily dissuaded from hiring me, but the trick didn’t work. She proved her professional integrity by ignoring these messages and telling Bagchi to mind his own business.

I soon began working with her in her morning show Chit Chat where we discussed everything ranging from music to current affairs. I began learning some new things. Although very few people were happy that I am back, not everyone was pleased. They saw me as a controversial and opinionated talk show host.

True to her words, she never discouraged me from interviewing the opponents of Modi, but to maintain a balance we gave equal opportunity to his supporters as well.

Shortly after I joined Masala Radio, Modi came to Vancouver on his maiden trip to Canada. The protestors were getting ready. Not many radio stations, even those who claimed to be sympathetic to Khalistanis were willing to give air time to the activists who were planning a big demonstration. Usha never stopped me from talking to these people even though she was among community business leaders who attended the dinner with Modi. A picture of her with Modi now hangs next to the one in which she is standing next to Indira Gandhi.  She still believes that one should respect the position held by these elected leaders, despite all disagreements.

On one occasion, she blasted Modi supporters for inciting hatred against Muslims in India. Being a Hindu, she is pained over the history of repression of her community by the Islamic rulers in the past, but she has told me several times that it does not justify violence against Muslims.

In 2018, an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl was raped and murdered inside a temple in Jammu. The whole world was shocked to see the supporters of Modi taking out a march to show their solidarity with those involved. The rape was used as a weapon to terrorize Muslims. Several Bollywood stars, including Bebo went on Twitter to raise their voices holding placards denouncing such heinous act. For this, Bebo was trolled by Modi supporters. They attacked her for marrying a Muslim man and naming her son after an Islamic dictator. Disturbed to see such madness, Usha also held a sign condemning the rape and murder of the child and posted her picture on social media.     

One day, I asked her to tell me her story which she shared candidly. What emerged from her narrative was that she being a single mother had faced onslaught in the male dominated media industry and being Hindu, discrimination from the influential Sikh community because of polarization caused by the ugly events of 1984. So much so, she was once threatened with the death of her son.  All these verbal assaults culminated into a hate campaign to isolate her radio station that never received enough advertisements from Sikh businesses.  The problem started with her interviewing Indira Gandhi, who was seen as an oppressor by the Sikhs. 

She may not have told me everything, but those who haven’t forgiven her do not have valid arguments either. If they have problem with her being pro India, why they never object to the proximity of other radio stations with Indian consulate? Why they never dare to challenge male Sikh radio station owners who have compromised with Indian officials?  If she can stand up against Modi and his cohorts in Vancouver in spite of being a Hindu, why can’t others?  On one occasion, Usha had sent me to pick up a cheque from a Sikh advertiser, who began making remarks about her remaining indifferent to the repression of Sikhs. When I told him that she has never stopped me from talking about what happened in 1984 and has shown courage to stand up against Indian consulate’s growing interference, he had nothing to say. And yet, he remained adamant.  I told everything to Usha, who politely asked the person over the phone that he can stop advertising with us. All this boils down to the fact that it is a male dominated world that refuses to change.   

My excitement over joining Masala Radio was short lived. I noticed that not many people who previously used to call in my shows at Radio Hindustan were calling in.  Maybe they wanted to punish me for joining Usha or for quitting Radio Hindustan. My attempt to keep a balance didn’t work for very long. The supporters of Modi had stopped inviting me to their press conferences and returning my calls for interviews. What could one expect from such people, who had conveniently overlooked the objectivity of a person like Usha?

***

I have to rush back home. I climb the hill and then get on the road leading to our house. I am trying to take longer steps so that I have enough time to drink some water, wipe away my sweat and collect my thoughts before calling Usha. Walking was helpful and has turned me more energetic, but I was still very tense. I have made up my mind that just in case she brings up the topic of her station being under pressure, I am going to offer my resignation.

I can understand how hard it is when you have to survive with limited means and then all of a sudden people turn against you. The new Consul General of India in Vancouver, Asha Sharma has not only refused to give interview to Usha, she snubbed her couple of times at dinners hosted by common friends. She is not invited to the events of the Indian consulate, while businesses close to Sharma and others in her office have starting pulling back their advertisements from her station.  What happens if we continue to go into losses? Won’t it be appropriate if I leave so that others can survive?

That day when Modi supporter was criticising her for hiring a traitor, he wasn’t just being upset over what I have been doing, he was clearly trying to convey something to Usha. Since then we haven’t been able to sit down and talk, but I could see tension writ large on her face in the following days. Then came the announcement of global pandemic and everything halted right there. I am not sure when we will be back to our routine or whether I will be going back to work or not? But right now there is a long silence between us. Will I able to listen to her thoroughly or would I be in a position to tell her my side?

I take a deep breath before calling Usha.

“Good Morning Gurjot ji. How are you doing”, she asks sounding pleasant. After asking me about Rosy and everyone at home, she says that she wants me to do a commentary on the story about people living in anxiety because of loneliness and self-isolation. She then asks me about my thoughts on the issue. I try to keep my opinion to myself, but only say that these people are privileged, while there are others who are either forced to work or have faced worst forms of isolation. She just laughed and said that she knew what I am going to say.  

The call ends. We miss another opportunity to clear the air. I am unable to convey my decision to her. Not sure if that is going to happen soon. But I am sure the crisis will be over one day. The coronavirus is going to be defeated eventually, but I don’t see the defeat of the other virus coming. No vaccine can kill the virus of a bigoted mind. We as ordinary folks, Ajay, Narinder, Usha, Mandy, Rosy or myself are all eternally vulnerable to this other virus which continues to consume our everyday peace of mind. It has knocked us down. Shattered and splintered us into pieces. Will we be able to conquer it together? I have no answers.

I am in a dilemma. Shall I respond to Ajay’s message? Part of me says I should after the last talk I had with Nitu at work. She showed me the picture of Bebo standing next to Modi. This was from sometime around when most Bollywood stars were busy getting themselves pictured with the Prime Minister who was doing his outreach. I became speechless when she asked, “Now what?” I meekly responded, “How does it matter? I still love her.” Nitu wouldn’t let it go. She laughed out and then in a challenging tone said, “Wow. You can forgive her, but not your friends.” I couldn’t beat her. She had caught me. 

If I am guessing it right, Ajay must have told her about our differences. They both not only know each other well, but are close to those at Indian consulate and keep an eye on what I say or write or even do. 

I am feeling guilty and ashamed of being hard on Ajay. Being a Dalit, he understands more than anyone else what isolation and loneliness mean. Why wouldn’t he, when Dalits remain untouchables for many who are currently locked down with their families and still grumbling over social distancing? Maybe he is fighting in a different way which I won’t understand. If a powerful woman like Bebo who could have easily declined to get herself pictured with a fascist after being insulted by his supporters, what can ordinary men like Ajay do?  

I feel like picking up my iPhone and responding to Ajay’s message, but stop myself. We became friends out of choice because of shared ideology without which such relationship loses its meaning. Maybe he needs to realize that. But will he? I am not sure.

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