The name of my project is an intentional misnomer. Initially, my project was supposed to be based on the events of 1984 in India. It has since expanded to include the aftermath of 9/11 here in the United States, but I had no idea what to call the project. So, for now, the project name stays, while the intent and content change shape.
When people talk about 1984, it’s as if everything hinged on this one year. As if prior to 1984, everything was running smoothly, and after 1984, everything returned to “normal.”
When I first started my project, I wanted to tell the story, in the form of a novel, of the Sikhs, in what I thought were the three key defining moments in my lifetime of the Sikh identity: 1) the storming of the epicenter of Sikh sensibilities and spirituality – the Golden Temple – during Indira Gandhi’s sanctioned and K.S. Brar’s lead “Operation Bluestar” in June, 1984, 2) the era of faked encounters by K.P.S. Gill where many innocent Sikhs were tortured and killed and all of these deaths were dressed up as daring police encounters with dangerous terrorists in some remote area of Punjab, and 3) From November 1-3, 1984, a full day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh pogroms –state sanctioned massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere – at the instigation of congress leaders like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, who will, in all likelihood, never face a day in jail.
Jagdish Tytller and H.S. Phoolka in live interview on NDTV
And then, during my own lifetime, the unthinkable occurred on September 11, 2001. Within my lifetime, there was yet another defining moment for Sikhs. This time, instead of having to differentiate themselves from the Hindu religion, they had to differentiate themselves from Islam. And from terrorism.
Researching 9/11 was a surreal experience because, in a sense it is history, but in many other ways it is not. The same could probably be said for the victims of 1984 who are still living with the atrocities and waiting, most likely in vain, for justice at the hands of the government.
It’s hard to believe September 11 occurred ten years ago. Ten years ago, I was nowhere near the twin towers and had no real attachment to the New York skyline. I was living in Fresno, California, 3000 miles away from New York, and yet it affected me profoundly.
As Americans and as a nation in shock at this act of absolute terror and tragedy, we all shared the sorrow, pain, and shock of it all. But Sikhs bore the extra burden of being the visible “enemy” of America. Many Sikhs who were at ground zero when the attacks took place were, on one hand, in shock and running to get out of Manhattan like everyone on the streets, and on the other hand, were also being blamed for the attacks. As they were running from the same thing everyone else was, they were being called terrorists and in many cases, physically assaulted.
Although a completely separate religion from Islam, Sikhs had long beards and wore turbans, which ironically none of the 19 terrorists responsible did.
The constant flashing images shown over and over again on our television screens didn’t help: plane crashing in tower followed by an image of Osama bin Laden with his beard and turban. There was now a face to place the blame.
But this didn’t affect just Sikhs. There were countless attacks on immigrants – from Latinos, Indians, Pakistanis, to anyone with dark skin who potentially looked middle-eastern. Mosques, Sikh Gurudwaras, Hindu Mandirs, and other places of worship were all vandalized, some were even set on fire.
And very little of this was being reported by any national news media. I heard about the collective experience through emails and media newsgroups I happened to be a part of. And then the inevitable happened: An Arizona man was shot five times in the back in the first documented hate crime on September 15, four days after the attacks. His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi and he was a turbaned and bearded Sikh.
What started off as research into a Sikh story had become much deeper than that. In the shadows of 9/11, we suddenly had to view the world in terms of “us” and “them.” And brown people, even those who were 3rd, 4th, 5th generation, had now become “the other.”
As soon as I made the connection, the direction of my novel had taken an abrupt turn. I was now less concerned with staying in the heated political arena of India in the 1980s, recreating an atmosphere entirely imagined from books and talks. I now wanted to bring the story home to America. A land I was familiar with. And could actually draw on memory to recreate some of the scenes.
The last conversation concerning 1984 I had was the one that affected me the most. It was at Jakara 2007 with Ajeet Singh Matharu. Click here to read more.