I was told my papa died in a war called Kargil

‘The death certificate which I once read even states the date, 6 August, but I know that already.’
‘Every year, we observe paath at the local gurdwara for which we need to take leave from school. The leave form always says ‘attending father’s death anniversary’.
‘I always dread this day — the long walk from my desk to the teacher’s table with my diary in hand and in it a handwritten note dripped with sadness despite its curt language.’
‘What generally follows is pity on my teacher’s face, a deep sigh of sympathy and a sad pat on the back.’
A moving excerpt from Gurmehar Kaur’s memoir Small Acts Of Freedom.

Age Six
Jalandhar, 2002

The market has two toyshops in the same lane, one next to the other. Mummy told me once that both the shops belonged to an old uncle when she was young, but after he died his sons decided to turn it into two different toyshops. I think it is a good thing because two is always better than one.

In the same lane, there is an old store that constantly smells of petrol and has a neon board that screams out the shop’s name. We give all our pretty winter clothes for dry cleaning to the uncle who sits on the counter.

There is nothing that we love more than our trips to the market, especially this lane, because while we wait for the clothes to be ironed, Mummy lets us have popcorn or candyfloss from the shop next door. I really like eating candyfloss. I can never have the whole thing without it sticking to my whole face.

I am not the one to blame and I tell Mummy this. The fault completely lies with the size of the whole thing. It’s double the size of my head and triple the size of Bani’s — my sister’s.

I have a plan and it almost always works. To get to the candyfloss shop from the drycleaners, we have to walk past the toyshop. I just have to be swift enough to enter one of them. It is a good thing that they don&’t have doors but a shutter that comes down when it is time for the shop to close.

I just have to stand there, pick a doll and try really hard to convince Mummy to buy it for me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Convincing her is not as easy as it sounds.

One day Mummy scolds me because I cannot write ‘5’ properly. I get so angry at her. I do not want to talk to her or be around her. I go to Nani, my mother’s mother, and tell her I do not like Mummy any more. ‘Why can’t she be sweet like you?’ I ask her as I rub the tears from my eyes.

‘No, don’t talk about your mother like that. You don’t know what she has given up to be with you and give you a happy life. This school that you go to, the new uniforms, the pencil boxes and the Barbie school bags that you have are all because of her. Never talk about your mother like that,’ Nani says.

Nani has a special man who flies down from the land of the gods to give us chocolates, but only she knows where he will come to meet her. His favourite places are the high wall-hanging behind the door, the cupboards and the freezer of the fridge we cannot reach.

Nani has one rule though: Every time we want chocolates, we have to pray to him and keep our eyes closed. She warns us that if we ever try to be sneaky and open our eyes, Babaji will stop visiting. I never think that this is a risk worth taking.

I’m home from school. I really want the chocolates, but Nani gave me one for school today, and I know I won’t get another one. There is no way to convince her; she will tell me about the two cavities that had to be filled last week.

The doctor was kind enough to tell Mummy that almost all children of this age have cavities, but Nani wouldn’t take that as an excuse.

It is funny because she is Mummy’s mummy, so even Mummy has to listen to everything she says. I asked Mummy once why she never fought with Nani and loved her so much. She simply told me it was because there was no amount of love that could repay all that Nani had done for her and Maasi and that she would never ever disrespect her.

‘Woman like Nani deserve to be praised all the time for their bravery,’ Mummy says. I don’t know much, but Mummy knows best, so I just agree. Besides, Nani is sweet and makes custard for snacks sometimes.

Right now, I have to find the chocolates. The bags behind the door might have them. I will need a chair to stand on because even though I can pull a bag down, I don’t want to make a lot of noise, or Nani will wake up from her nap. The chair from the dining table can be easily dragged and makes very little noise.

I stand on the chair and look inside all the bags. One has a bunch of old keys that probably belong to the house in the village. Another bag has pieces of cloth, a sewing kit and a box of sewing needles. None of the bags has any chocolates.

I find money in one, exactly fifty rupees. I can go to the shop and buy chocolate, but then I’m not allowed to cross the road on my own. These bags here are useless. The cupboard will definitely have them. But I will have to steal the cupboard keys. I shouldn’t steal, but then I really want the chocolates. I will just quietly take the keys from the drawer and hope Nani doesn’t wake up.

Aha! The cupboard has some real gems. I’ve seen her keep all that she possessed and loved safely locked in this cupboard for years. It has a distinct smell to it, of old wood, cloth and hints of sickly sweet attar that her brother bought for her from a Dubai duty-free shop.

We love him, he always comes back with a huge bag full of chocolates and goodies for all of us. Last time he got us a huge box full of pink rubber bands in all kinds of shapes and sizes, a beginner’s eye shadow kit, a doll and dresses.

Everything is there the way I thought it would be. The single cupboard is stuffed with bags filled with little knick-knacks as well as important documents. None of the documents belong to Nani; most are ours and Mummy’s.

We don’t know Nani’s birthdate since there is no birth certificate or class X certificate even though we know she has completed class XII. Her English is impeccable and she speaks refined Hindi, Punjabi and Telugu.

The only certificate that really belongs to her is the one she keeps on the top shelf with Mummy’s file and my nursery certificate file. There are two death certificates too, one is Nanaji’s and one Papa’s.

I was told my papa died in a war called Kargil. The death certificate which I once read even states the date, 6 August, but I know that already.

Every year, we observe paath at the local gurdwara for which we need to take leave from school. The leave form always says ‘attending father’s death anniversary’.

I enjoy school a lot, but I always dread this day — the long walk from my desk to the teacher’s table with my diary in hand and in it a handwritten note dripped with sadness despite its curt language.

What generally follows is pity on my teacher’s face, a deep sigh of sympathy and a sad pat on the back.

The easiest way to reach the highest shelf is to step on the lowest shelf and climb up. I do just that. A big brown leather bag tumbles down with its contents flying across the room. A total disaster.

Knitting needles.
A watch.
An old pair of earrings.
An old pocket-sized photo album. All photos in black and white.

A file. Another file. Both old and grey.
A set of keys. A dial.
A broken pair of spectacles. A passport.

A passport? I look closer at the document. This is Nani’s passport. I didn’t even know she had a passport. I open it and examine it closely, curiously. And then I see it. The word next to ‘birthplace’ is ‘Pakistan’.

I can sense my blood boiling. I want to tear that thing to pieces. Yet, I don’t want to touch it. My mother has betrayed me. Why would we have the enemy’s belongings inside our own house, locked and kept safe in the cupboard? It should have been burnt.

I scream.

The vase that was on the newly polished table is on the ground. The sharp pieces are scattered all over the room, along with Nani’s belongings. That woman’s belongings.

She cannot be my Nani, I cannot be her granddaughter. She is a Pakistani. From the same Pakistan that was responsible for the death certificate on the top shelf.

I need to get her out. I don’t think I can breathe any more. Rage pours down from my eyes because there is nothing that I can do.

I howl. My wails reach my mother and she comes rushing. I can hear her hurried footsteps on the staircase. She must think I have hurt myself.

What do I tell her? I don’t know what this emotion is that I’m feeling. It is painful but the wounds and bruises seem to be inside me.

I sleep next to her and I let her feed me. Why would they do this to me?

My mother is at the door, horrified. What separates me from her is the mess on the floor.

‘Don’t move, stay there. How did this happen? Did you do something?’ she asks me as she quickly tries to pick up the broken pieces.

‘You lied to me.’

‘About what?’

Nani comes in. She is just as worried as Mom. This makes me cry louder. My nose starts running. I wonder where my handkerchief is. I make do with the back of my hands, rubbing the snot and the tears away in one painful smudge across my face.

‘About Nani.’

Mummy has the passport in her hand along with the knitting needles, old keys and bits of the broken glass. She understands, so does the woman. She told me stories. Why did I listen to them? Mummy knows how I feel. We had a conversation on our way back from Saharanpur. She knows I hate them.

Beta…’ That’s all that leaves her lips. The woman’s face falls as her eyes well up with tears.

It is the two of us crying now. My wails overpower her silent tears and I know I’ve won because the louder I cry the more pain I project.

‘I will tell you a story, but first you stop crying,’ Mummy says. ‘I know why you are angry and I know why you are crying.’

‘Is Nani a Muslim too?’ ‘No, she is not. But even if she is, would it matter?’

‘I don’t believe you. You lied to me.’

‘We never did.’

‘She is a Pakistani. We have a Pakistani in our home.’ I start crying louder at the word Pakistani.

‘You don’t believe me, but do you believe in God?’

This is an easy question. I believe in God. I have to, only then will he listen to all my wishes.

My mother starts telling me a story.

In 1704, Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Army of Sikhs fought with the Mughals. They called it the Battle of Anandpur Sahib.

We Sikhs are the warrior clan. We fight for what is right and we rise up against the unjust. The battle had been brutal and many soldiers were dying.

The Mughals had laid siege to the Sikhs so that no food or supplies could reach the Sikh soldiers. There was a shortage of food and water.

The wounded, injured and dead men were all lying on the battleground bleeding, some struggling to breathe.

The sun was at its absolute worst. The scorching heat was nature’s way of torturing the injured soldiers.

Among them was a man whose duty was to do paani di sewa. Every day, after the battle was fought and both armies moved back to their camps to rest, Bhai Kanhaiya Ji would start doing his job.

He would walk around the bloodied battlefield looking for soldiers who were still breathing and give them water to quench their thirst.

What was unusual was that he not only gave water to the Sikhs, but also to the Mughal soldiers. This was not very well received by the Sikhs and they complained to Guru Ji about it.

‘He is a traitor. We are fighting every day and he is going and reviving the enemy’s men,’ they complained to Guru Ji.

Upon hearing this, Guru Ji summoned Bhai Kanhaiya Ji and asked him if the allegations were true.

‘Yes, my Guru, what they say is true. But Maharaj, I saw no Mughal and Sikh on the battlefield. I only saw human beings. And Guru Ji, don’t they all have the same God’s spirit? Guru Ji, have you not taught us to treat all God’s people as the same? Our Sikh heroes destroy the enemy by killing them, but I destroy the enmity by saving them.’

Guru Gobind Singh Ji smiled when he heard this.

‘You have understood the true message of the Gurbani,’ he told Bhai Kanhaiya Ji. ‘From tomorrow, carry balms and mend the wounds of the soldiers too.’

‘Papa did what he had to as a true Indian soldier. But you, beta, you have to do your part for the world, which is not the same as Papa’s,’ said Mummy after finishing the story.

‘You have to be like Bhai Kanhaiya Ji. Serve humanity by killing enmity. Tomorrow, when you decide to be a soldier, then you will have to do your job, which is killing the enemy. Until you serve the nation in the uniform, you must continue to serve the human race.’

I have to go hug Nani. I was very rude to her. I don’t care if she is a Pakistani, she is serving humanity.

‘Is Nani a Pakistani?’ I still ask for confirmation. ‘No, she lived in Pakistan when there was no India or Pakistan, but just one big nation. Today she is as Indian as you and I.’

This makes me extremely happy, but also guilty. I have to go say sorry to Nani. I run towards her room. She is sitting on her bed with her prayer beads, humming a constant murmur of ‘Waheguru, Waheguru’.

I go and hug her. I break her rhythm, but she doesn’t mind. I get smothered in hugs instead. ‘I’m sorry, Nani. I’m a bad person. Please forgive me for making you cry,’ I say, ashamed.

‘We are all God’s children and we all make mistakes,’ she tells me. ‘Do you want a chocolate?’ I do want a chocolate. I was indeed looking for one in the first place. I won’t tell her that though.

She takes me along with her to a different cupboard and asks me to close my eyes and pray for a chocolate. She reminds me that I have to pray with a true and innocent heart, with honest intentions.

The chocolate lands in my hands and I open my eyes.

Excerpted from Small Acts Of Freedom by Gurmehar Kaur with permission from the publisher, Penguin India.

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