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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom My Hero (From SikhChic)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
I adored my father as a child.

I thought he was strong, wise, and an infinite source of information. I hero-worshipped him and could never get enough of his time and attention.

This never changed - even as I grew through my teens and developed the arrogance of the all-knowing son who, as he grew even older, just couldn't figure out how Dad had survived in this world on his own!

Not unlike how my own daughter feels about me today.

My love and adoration for him survived all our inter-generational conflicts - and there were many! - all the way to the day he passed away, 18 years ago today.

It is the way of the world, and how the baton is passed on from one generation to another.

But I can clearly picture the day I saw my Dad at his very best, as if it was only yesterday. The incident has stayed with me, and shaped me. I see it as clear as day every time I find myself with my back against the wall, and it inspires me all over again.

I was still in my pre-teens. I was home for the holidays from boarding school, and liked to hang around in my father's business premises, especially when it was busy, for I enjoyed his inter-action with his customers.

"M.I.T. Motors" - as his business was known - was named after my mother, Mahinder Kaur; my father, Ishar Singh; and I, his eldest son, Tapishar. It was an auto-parts retail and wholesale establishment, with tires as its main focus.

It was a tall building on one of the main through-fares of the new city, several stories high. The lower two floors were occupied by the business, while the next two floors constituted our residence.

It was located in Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar in India - where my newly-married parents had fled, a thousand miles away from the home they lost during the Partition of Punjab in 1947.

Bihar, though rich in natural resources, was then - and still is - known as a poor, ill-run and unruly province, plagued by a caste-ridden society, corruption and rogue politicians.

It was a great place for me to grow up, but it did have an air of the wild-west to it. It still does, if you know of Lallu Prasad, for example - Bihar's latest scoundrel, who has also cultivated world-wide notoriety as a bufoon in order to distract attention from the billions he has stolen from the exchequer.

Well, I grew up there and learnt the ropes in that mileue.

One morning, as I played on a type-writer beside my father in his store, three cars pulled up to a screeching halt outside, spilling a dozen white-khadi-clad men through the huge doors. [‘Khadi' is home-spun cotton made famous by Mohandas Gandhi during the Independence movement and, since then, worn by Indian politicians to feign their ‘dedication' to India's poor.]

One of them came inside and approaching my father, announced softly that "the Minister of Education" would like to come in and 'pay his respects'.

My father greeted the dignitary and welcomed him into the inside office. The Minister and his assistant sat with us - I remained in the office, lurking behind my father's chair as I always did when there was something interesting going on. The rest of the contingent, obviously hangers-on who usually accompanied politicians, stayed outside to light their ‘beedies' (local cigarettes) since smoking was strictly prohibited in the store.

My father was well known and respected in the city, including the political establishment. The Chief Minister was a friend, and the visitor appeared to be aware of this as well as of my father‘s general reputation: Dad, inter alia, was President of one of the local Rotary Club chapters, and chaired the city's tire industry and auto-parts dealers' association.

Tea was ordered for the entire entourage, and small-talk lasted until the last drop. As a by-the-by, the Minister asked if the store had any tires in stock for his cars - parked outside, each of the three was an Ambassador, the car-brand then favoured by the Indian politicians because they could easily squeeze-in well over a dozen men into each.

Car tires were then in dire shortage, and sold at a high premium, because demand far outstripped supply.

My Dad said he'd be glad to be of service - "How many do you need?"

"Twelve, Ishwar Babu! All of our cars need them to be changed."

Knowing that the Minister was a powerful man, my father - Ishar Singh, but "Ishwar Babu" or "Sardar ji" to the Biharis - simply said: "No problem!" and turned to a servant and asked him to bring them out.

Twelve tires were rolled out.

The Minister's assistant checked the size and the make, sought and received assurances that they were right and the best, and asked the servants to load them in the cars.

Four were stuffed into the trunk of each car.

My father asked a store clerk to prepare a bill, and added - for the benefit of both the clerk and the Minister - that the price charged would be the recommended list price. [Which, at the time, was roughly half the market price!]

When the bill was brought in, my father respectfully offered it to the Minister's assistant who, without even glancing at it, folded it and put it away in his kurta pocket.

The Minister and the assistant stood up. The former announced: "Good. Thank you, Sardar ji. The money will be sent to you in due time!" and turned towards the door.

My father stopped him: "Sorry, Minister Sahib, but we do not give credit. Ever!" And he pointed to a sign above his head which glared, in large red letters over a white background: "NO SMOKING NO CREDIT NO HIGGLING" (sic).

He looked the assistant straight in the eye and added: "We'll have to be paid IN CASH - before the tires can be taken away."

The Minister turned around and sat down. "Ishwar Babu: you know who I am. There's nothing to worry. You'll be paid. You see, I don't carry around so much money on me."

My Dad was polite but firm: "I understand, Minister Sahib. But we have a strict policy and simply cannot make ANY exceptions. We'll take the tires out of the vehicles, and your assistant can come back in an hour or whatever, pay the invoice and pick up the tires. We'll keep the tires put aside for you. Not to worry."

The Minister was getting a bit agitated and raised his voice. "You don't trust me? You can't take my word? Don't you know who I am?"

I snuggled closer to my father's chair. I could sense that things were taking a turn for the worse.

"No, Minister Sahib. Most respectfully, we just don't do business this way. Your assistant knows this - he's been here before. The whole town knows about it. We're quite firm about it. It has nothing to do with you personally, Sir. I have the utmost regard for you. But the tires must stay here until they are fully paid for."

The Minister stood up. The others had come into the store and were now crowded around the door.

The Minister's voice was raised, angry and spluttering.

"No one is going to remove those tires from my cars. Do you understand? You Punjabis! You dare to come to live in my land, do business here, and then show me such disrespect. How dare you! I will simply not allow it!" He huffed and puffed, and shuffled from one foot to another.

My father repeated his pleas, but they were drowned by the muttering from a dozen different directions. A couple of more men had entered the office and were towering over my father, who continued to sit behind his desk.

I looked at him while snuggling even closer to him, alarmed at the turn of events.

He was quiet as he slowly patted me on my arm. He looked at the Minister and those behind him. They scowled back.

Seconds passed, but felt like eons.

Then slowly, he got out of his chair and said: "Please wait a minute. I'll be back ..." He turned to me and said, "Wait here, beta, I‘ll be back."

And he went out.

I could hear his footsteps on the stairs and the receding echoes told me that he was going upstairs to our apartments.

The crowd grumbled, with the word "Punjabi" thrown around liberally. I didn't understand the stand-off, but knew that they appeared agitated. And I knew that my father had seemed deep in thought, as if trying to make a decision.

Minutes went by. I slid into my father's chair. They glared at me as if it was all my fault. I trembled and looked away.

Finally, I heard the footsteps echoing down the stairwell at the back: my Dad was rearing down the stairs, as he usually did in the morning, full of energy.

He re-appeared at the door. The crowd parted. He entered. I vacated his chair. He sat down.

He looked at the Minister who was standing with the rest of them by the door, as if chomping to leave.

My father then slid a hand into his inside coat jacket pocket, brought it out almost wide open but covering something. He placed his hand slowly, palm down, gently on the glass table top right in front him. There was a slight metallic sound. He removed his hand and pulled it back.

"Okay, now, where were we?" he said softly. He was breathing a bit harder. From the four flights of stairs?

Everyone stared at the object before him.

I instantly knew what it was. He had shown it to me once before when he had first received a license to own it and had purchased it from Calcutta.

A Baby Browning. Mini-pistol. Shades of angry grey. Pointed to the side, towards the wall.

"As I was saying, Minister Sahib. We'll keep the tires here, safely reserved for you. They can be picked up as soon as the payment is brought in." And he turned around and yelled instructions to the servants: "Remove all the tires from the car-trunks, and put them aside for the Minister Sahib. Now!"

The servants swivelled into action.

The crowd in my father's office remained frozen. Speechless. All of them had their eyes glued on the pistol.

I remember clutching my Dad's arm and whispering "D-a-d!"

He put his arm around me and pulled me closer.

It took the Minister an eternity to give a voice to his moving lips.

"This is not good! You will hear from us later, Sardar ji! This is not the end of it!"

He pushed through the crowd and stomped out in a huff. The rest followed him. They passed our servants on the way to the cars, as they rolled the tires in multiples of four back into the shop.

The cars drove away in a tornado of smoke and dust.

No one said a word - neither my Dad, nor the staff. Nor I. For a long time.

Everyone pretended to be busy.

But I was afraid the posse would be back before long. Should I flee upstairs or stay by my father's side?


"Yes, beta!"

"Will they come back?"

"I don't think so. Not today."

"But why did you bring out the pistol?"

"I'm not sure, beta."

"What do you mean? Would you have used it?"

"I don't know ... no, I don't think so."

"What do you mean? Then, why did you bring it?

"I don't know ..."

He looked at me and comforted me by holding me close.

"What did they want, then?"

"They did not want to pay. That's all. Because they are politicians and they think they can get away with this sort of thing."

"But he said he would send you the money?"

"Yes, he did. But I don't think he ever would have. This is how they oppress people, these bad politicians."

"Are we in trouble now?"

"I don't think so. I don't know for sure, but I don't think so."

"How do you know?"

"Because such people are cowards. They take advantage of weak people. And they are afraid of those who fight back."

"But, but, why did you bring the pistol?"

He was thoughtful for a minute or two. And then broke the silence.

"I had to show them I was not afraid of them."

"You weren't afraid?"

"I think I was. But you should never let the other person know you're afraid. Because if you do, then they'll walk all over you."

"But you could have let them take the tires. They would have sent the money. He said so."

"No, he wouldn't have. If I went to the police, they wouldn't do anything. That man has power over them. And then, whenever he would need anything from us, he would send a bunch of his people, and they would similarly take things and never pay. Because then he would know I can't do anything. And word would go out and others would try the same thing. We would be at their mercy because we would be scared. So, I had no choice. I had to do what I did."

It took me years, no, decades, to fully understand what he had done.

But ever since, whenever I see a Western show-down, I see him standing beside Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd, Glen Ford and Audie Murphy, under the high noon sun. Unhappy, but determined. Unwavering. Unflinching.

He'll always be my hero.

P.S. The posse? We never saw or heard from them ever again.



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Mai Harinder Kaur

Oct 5, 2006
British Columbia, Canada
Those of us who are blessed with heroic fathers have a real head start in this world.

I mean, would we ever, ever let them down by being average or less? I know my Dad was a huge inspiration to push myself a little harder, a little farther, do a little bit better.