Three wide streets converge before Brothers Dhaba. The flood upon them was knee-high, but that didn't deter the traffic. The waters didn't hold back the rickety cycle-rickshaws even. But the rickshawallahs needed to stand to gain strength to push down the pedal. The cyclists surprised me. They sat sedate as they cycled, mindless of the water that hit the hem of their trousers. At any rate most pedestrians and cyclists and rickshawallahs had rolled up their trousers. All old-Amritsar was deluged like this, as also the newer areas through which I had passed on my way to the Golden Temple in the morning. After the temple I'd been to nearby Jalianwallah Bagh, and there I'd asked my driver to pick the better among Brothers Dhaba and Kesar ka Dhaba for me.
I'd inquired for lunch options at my hotel. "Write down the names for sir, no!" the front-office manager had admonished his reception. They wrote two names, but there wasn't a choice really, because Kesar ka Dhaba was among inner gullies where the cab couldn't go. And, there isn't a meal in the world that I'd go wading through overflowing drainwater for.
I was early; so I'd a table by the window.
The sight of the wide flooded streets brought the dhaba's kitchen to mind and I worried if the food might get me down. I asked for a Roti Thali. The rotis were warm, and soft and crisp in the right places--eveything they should be in the homeland of the roti. They were bright white and dappled with varying shades of brown and tasted fresh and clean on the tongue. The channa and the dal were a murky sight and suspect, but a week after that meal I'm fine, and ashamed of having been so sqeamish.
Important persons came into the dhaba. One came in a beacon-topped car. He wore military olives with two gleaming stars on the shoulder. He was a tall tough young Sikh. He minded only his menu and the top of his table and the meal that followed. His neat and fat-free chin-lines showed through the beard. He ate with no apparent fear of what his meal might do to him. But the man was a soldier.
Almost as clean as the rotis was the dhaba--though there were footmarks on the floor from the slush outside. And there was the unclean feeling from the short time spent in stinking streets, which layered over time I'd spent in the perfumed hotel-car and in the washed n' mopped environs of the Golden Temple. There at the temple there was no flooding, no slush, no mess. The water flowed into gutters, volunteers swept the marble expanse before water had risen a quarter-inch, and the entire place was hushed and quiet. The silence made room for sweet Sikh bhajans in Hindusthani that came from within the 750-kg golden sanctum and carried everywhere across the complex. A step outside the wet white walls corporeal Amritsar lay in wait, waiting to rush up to you. Peace inside; Hell outside.
The dhaba was not a dhabha as I've known dhabas. It had no thatch roof, and it had cement flooring and tables and chairs and a multicuisine menu card. Authentic, I told myself as I chewed on the roti and the channa, and sipped rough-beaten lassi off a steel cup. Lassi elsewhere in the world comes smooth and in tall glasses. But I was content with what was before me. I looked around, watched the two-star army officer take in the entire menu before making a choice, and smiled at quintessential Punjab perched on a stake on the wall. A pink plastic doll had been sat on the it, dressed up in a sardarji's salwar-kameez, its face framed by a pukka grown-up's turban. It had the cherub's cheeks, and black n' orange eyes.
They are a genial people, the sardarjis. And possessed of a dignified mien. You wouldn't imagine them marked for humiliation and massacre.
Different reports cite different numbers of people killed at Jalianwallabagh. By any account, too many died. You could perhaps say the right number died. The massacre caused Gandhiji to shift his long-held commitment to be a model subject of the Crown. He decided that the British should quit India.
The field on which people ran to escape 1650 rounds of gunfire is now covered in cement. The well into which scores of people jumped and perished is on the edge of the bagh, and that is covered over too, with mesh round it. I recoiled from the stink that sprang at me when I peered into the well. Stepping back, looking down, feeling sick, I saw earthworms all round. They'd been trampled on and cut up and squashed under the feet of visitors to this site of great tragedy. What were earthworms seeking on concrete? They must've been washed up by flooding rainwater. To death on high ground.
Col. Dyer who ordered the shooting passed in bed in England. But his erstwhile boss the Governor of Punjab, Michael Dwyer, was shot dead in London by an avenging sardar. His name was Udham Singh. Britain hanged Singh three months after the deed. His remains were brought to Punjab thirty-four years thereafter, were received by Indira Gandhi, and his ashes were dispersed over the Sutlej. Two copies of his portrait are displayed on opposite walls in a minimal gallery on the site.
Gandhiji condemned the assassination. Nehru the freedom fighter expressed outrage; years later, Nehru the Prime Minister called Udham Singh a Shaheed.
I was susprised at my lack of emotion as I came out the bagh. Indeed, I was surprised at the absence of emotion even among the other visitors there. I could sense in their Hindi or Punjabi mentions of a terrible wrong, but the real interest at the gate to the bagh was in getting to the Wagah border. "Wagah border, Wagah border," chanted touts with receipt-books in hand, selling place on the bus to the border-crossing between India and Pakistan. There were takers for tickets to Wagah, but none for the DVD documentaries of the massacre that other touts worked hard to push. The folks across the border rouse stronger emotions in Indians, more than the sahibs ever did.
Toward the end of my meal in the dhaba, a Caucasian had taken the table across from mine. Unlike me, he was not looking about. He was absorbed in an Amazon Kindle that he held at the correct distance from his eyes. He had a long silken beard, and a lot of hair on his head, but he was not quite as hirsuite as the Sikh. Not yet. I figured the man must have embraced the faith recently. For the amount of hair that had grown in the time, a GAP-style fine-woven Western style cap was doing the job. It didn't matter, it seemed to me, how long ago he'd embraced Sikhism. He was as concentrated as the best sadhvi, a serenity was upon him that that would win any yogi's respect, and nothing drew his attention save his e-book. Was it Sikhism that had made him so? Or, was he taking to his new faith qualities that he already possessed?
I left the dhaba before his order arrived.