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The crowning glory of Sardar Harinder Singh

Ipshita Nath | Updated on January 18, 2019

Harinder Singh was a well-known businessman in Lajpat Nagar, where he lived in a two-storeyed white house with a 20-foot fence and thick iron gates beyond a spacious garden. There was a massive mango tree next to the house and, sometimes, monkeys would drop half-eaten pulps on his beloved red Fiat Padmini, which the helps scrubbed clean every morning. His wife’s white Contessa, driven by a chauffeur, usually left at 7 am for Bangla Sahib, where she offered her daily prayers. After breakfast, when their son left for tennis, Harinder Singh sat in the verandah or in the lawn to read three newspapers while sipping tea and listening to the radio. When his wife returned, they sat together for breakfast and finally, around noon, he left for work.

Harinder Singh was 60 years old, and proud of being a self-made man. He was a taxi driver to begin with, and lived in Trilokpuri in a small one-bedroom house some years ago. But he had climbed up the proverbial ladder and was now one of the more wealthy men in Lajpat Nagar, feared and respected by many. When he moved in there, the Sikh community at Lajpat willingly welcomed him and his family into their fold, believing he was of respectable lineage. No one knew about his struggles — how he had come from Mumbai, or how he was once involved in trafficking human hair.

Some years ago, Harinder Singh had become partners with men who had been acquiring human hair illegally from across the border for the manufacture of wigs. These wigs were sold in black or exported, fetching them money in dollars. It was the 1980s and the market for hair was growing in India as well, and fine-quality Indian Remy hair was in great demand in cities such as Mumbai, where actresses and celebrities paid up to thousands for hair sold by weight. And Harinder Singh, who was a property dealer at the time, knew where to find women willing to sell their hair. He simply went to the colony of daily wage labourers who were employed at one of their construction sites in Greater Kailash, and spread the word that a foot of hair would fetch a hundred rupees.

The word spread and, soon, there was no dearth of women who wanted to sell their hair to him. The process was simple. The women had to meet him a day before the transaction and show him their hair for a quality examination. He handed them a big pair of scissors, which he fancied was lucky for him, and the next day they were supposed to bring the hair in a box, neatly tied up and clipped. The hair was not cut by him or even around him, so the exchanges were brief and discreet.

Harinder Singh earned so much money being the middleman that within two years, he decided to break away from his partners and make his own line of wigs and extensions under his exclusive brand, “Crowning Glory” — a swanky shop on the main road with an impressive display of all kinds of black and brown wigs for men and women.

 

His business kept growing by the day, and the factory where the wigs were manufactured had to be doubled in size. After merely a year of opening, they had opened another store in West Delhi, and it was inaugurated by a Bollywood starlet.

****

Harinder Singh was proud of being a connoisseur of hair, but, more importantly, he was proud of his own lustrous black mane, which fell almost to his hips. Everyday he combed and brushed it after applying perfumed oil, then carefully tied it up in a braid before wrapping his pagdi. He believed that everyone should have hair like him, and that was the motto of his brand which he had got embossed on the display sign of his shop: “Crowning Glory: Beautiful hair equals beautiful life”.

When the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination reached him on the morning of October 31, 1984, and violence against Sikhs erupted all over the city, it was the first thing that came to his mind. His long hair gave away his identity. He would be cornered soon.

But he did not betray his fear. He and his wife were lounging in his verandah, drinking tea at the time, and he ordered her to remain calm when she insisted that they hide in the house. It was a cold October evening, and they had returned from their holiday in Paris a few days ago. His wife had been looking at the photos they had developed, and he curtly told her to continue arranging them in the album. Their son, Surinder, was out — probably with his fiancée, Harpreet Kaur, daughter of Balwant Singh, an affluent jeweller, who had been his friend since he moved to the house in Lajpat Nagar. Harinder Singh decided to give him a call.

Balwant and his family were flying to Kolkata that night.

Initially, Harinder Singh had not paid heed to the warnings that had come from concerned friends and relatives. The phone kept ringing, and his wife was beginning to get hysterical. There were rumours of murderous rioters hunting down sardars, colony by colony. Harinder Singh was calm, knowing nobody could harm him — a rich and respected sardar in the main market of Lajpat Nagar. Besides, there were too many sardars around them for him to feel threatened. Upon learning that even Balwant was fleeing, he became slightly agitated.

As the minutes passed, he grew restless. His neighbours were leaving too. He watched them leave in their car just before dinner. He tried to ignore the fear that was piling up in the pit of his stomach and screamed at his wife, who was delirious with panic, to take some pills and go off to sleep if she couldn’t keep calm. He then called the Gymkhana Club and asked to talk to their son. Surinder was hiding there; he told them that the situation was getting worse in the city and pleaded with him to get to the airport.

But Harinder Singh was steadfast. He told Surinder to leave if he could, and promised to leave the next morning if it was needed. He then took a hammer from the toolbox in the storeroom, went to the gate, slipped outside, and swiftly smashed the nameplate outside his house. He came back, and simply turned on the radio. He would speak to Sardar Baksh, who headed the sardar association of the market, in the morning — his phone was not connecting. Till then, there was no need to make a move.

It was well past midnight when they heard the shouting on the streets as vehicles zoomed by and mobs marched up and down the street, torching the houses marked with Sikh names. Soon, there was banging on their front door as men climbed over the fence and began looking inside through the windows on the lower floor. Harinder Singh and his wife had climbed under the bed upstairs and remained still as the banging continued downstairs. They were unsure if the house belonged to a Sikh. Across the street, the brick red house was up in flames. Screams rent the skies as the family tried to escape through the windows on the upper floors. The bodies of the women were on fire as they dropped into the garden, writhing in agony. The men who were unconscious or screaming in pain from the injuries were slaughtered with swords. A woman was dragged away by a man on a bike, her body swinging about on the road as they sped away. They couldn’t tell who it was.

After a while, there was a crashing sound as a window broke downstairs. Harinder Singh clasped his hand over his wife’s mouth to keep her from screaming. Thankfully, the men were too restless to linger. They moved on to the next house.

From where he sat, Harinder Singh could see the flicker of the flaming torches reflecting on the glass window. Once the voices grew faint, he clambered out from under the bed and peered from behind the curtains. The men had moved on, but he knew they would return. There were screams and sounds of glass crashing at a distance.

An hour later, they watched a tall flame rise up from above the rooftops barely half a kilometre away. By morning, the smell of burning flesh hung in the winter air.

****

Harinder Singh was told the next morning that his shop had been burnt down. It was too unsafe to move out so he stayed in. His Padmini was parked, as usual, under the tree. But he couldn’t take a chance. There was no way to escape.

The streets were uncannily quiet that day and not a bird chirped. The usual sound of traffic was muted too. Surinder had called them from Mumbai early in the morning to say he was safe. He told them he had travelled in the boot of Mita’s car, and that they should do the same. But there was no one to help. His wife had called all her friends but all of them said it was too risky for them to get involved. No one knew or understood what was happening. Their servants had fled long ago, so they were all alone. Harinder Singh was glad he had removed the nameplate. But the rioters, if they came again, would be more thorough. He had a feeling they would know his identity.

****

The AIR continued to play classical music through the morning. His TV was not working and he cursed his luck. He desperately needed to see what they were saying on Doordarshan.

Around noon, the shouts of mobs reached them again. This time, they were on jeeps and bikes, with torches with which they burnt tyres and threw at the houses marked with Sikh names. A mob of 10-15 boys with chains and swords ran up the street and entered the vacated Singh house a few feet away, but finding no one, proceeded to pour kerosene in the lawn and lit it.

The rancid smell of burning rubber made Harinder Singh and his wife choke inside their house. From the window, they could see men knocking on the doors of his neighbours — South Indians.

Harinder Singh watched as the mob gathered around his house. He was holding a big pair of scissors in his hands — it was the same lucky pair.

In one quick movement, his long braided hair fell in a heap on the floor next to him. He picked it up, and tossed it into a box of wigs that had come in from the factory a few weeks ago.

When the goondas came knocking at their door, he looked at least 10 years younger, clean shaven, and sporting a crew cut. His wife was cowering in a corner, but he was Ramesh Gupta , and he coolly took the two boys — just 16 or 17 — around the house, treating them as ordinary guests. He badmouthed the sardars who had killed Indira Gandhi, and cursed Sikhs in general. He told them Khalistan and its supporters were doomed. Then, as if intoxicated with his own acting, displayed his boxes of wigs — the one that contained his own hair — and boasted about his business.

The boys left after demanding some money. Harinder Singh gave them one thousand in cash and called them brave lads of the nation.

When they left, he went to his bedroom, retrieved his braided hair, tied it around his neck, and strangled himself to death. His wife was downstairs, hiding in the storeroom.

 

Ipshita Nath teaches English at University of Delhi; her collection of short stories The Rickshaw Reveries will be published by Simon & Schuster

Published on January 18, 2019

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