Escape from India

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

Escape from India

In October 1984, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, half of the city of Kanpur, a manufacturing city in Northern India, was after the “American on the bicycle”, namely me.

OK, I exaggerate. But there was a mob after me and this fact scared the life out of me.

What happened was this: I was staying with my Indian “sister”, Murti Saxena. We had become friends in 1981 while I was teaching meditation there. After my mother died in June, 1984, and following a cross-New England and Ontario camping trip with my mourning father, I decided to return to India. My trip was cut short after Gandhi’s death and I went to Israel instead.

Before the tumult of those days in October, I used to ride around Murti’s neighbourhood in a borrowed bicycle. Sometimes I would visit the large modern temple close by, at other times I would just ride around to nowhere in particular. On the day of the assassination, I did notice that certain people were riding around town on scooters honking their horns in celebration. I imagine that these people, probably Sikhs (the group that was deeply offended by Gandhi’s use of the military to clear out arms that were being stored deep within their holiest temple in the Punjab) would later regret these celebrations, considering the riots that would take place in the days to come.

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So I was known as “the American”. Why would this “fact” lead to so much anger directed my way?

If you can consider this logic: Americans were the “bad guys” because those arms found in the Sikh temple had originated in the U.S. via Pakistan, that’s why.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

On the day where I feared for my life, I was told by Murti that people were looking for me. At one point, bored at being stuck alone in a closed and shuttered room, I ventured to the roof where Murti and the rest of her family – her mother and sister – were watching what was going on in the city.

When I climbed up there I could see billowing smoke in different directions. Murti saw me and grabbed my arm to take me downstairs again. “They are looking for you, Ron,” she said. And so I ended back in the darkened living room again.

That night, I sat shivering the dark at what sounded like a sea of protesters converging outside the compound. Their voices rose as one, and I thought, “My life is over.”

The voices eventually subsided as the crowd moved on, not knowing how close they were to me and I, of course, lived to see another day. Before I continue, it’s worth noting how much one is in the present moment when you fear that you might be soon breathing your last breath. “This is it,” I thought, as the room filled with the roaring sound of angry voices, “This is it.”

Many people were killed in Kanpur in the next few days. Word got out that the Sikhs had handed out sweets on hearing that Gandhi was dead. The situation was much worse in the capital, New Delhi, 469 km to the northwest. There, thousands were slain in the ensuing riots; Sikhs, easy to spot with their turbans and beards and silver bracelets, were pulled off buses and trains and slaughtered.

As things quieted down, I didn’t have a clue how I would escape Kanpur. Everywhere there was an all-day and nighttime curfew in place.

One afternoon, Murti was visited by a friend, a university student, who agreed to take me to the train station to grab a train to New Delhi and my way out of the country. He seemed fearless and unfazed by any potential problems this might cause considering the curfew and the fact that he didn’t possess a curfew pass.

I packed up my bag, said goodbye to Murti, who I would never see again. We would maintain contact by mail; I helped her out financially a bit over the years. I learned that she died following an illness she contracted while teaching meditation in Russia.

It didn’t take long before we hit an army roadblock. “Curfew pass?” the soldier with the rifle slung over his shoulder asked us. “I don’t have,” my companion answered.

We were told to go home, and then a funny thing happened. After turning around to go home, my friend looked in the rear-view mirror and then turned the car around again! We drove right by the roadblock and the soldier talking to the inhabitants of another car.

We went to a busy train terminal, only to find that no trains went to New Delhi from this station. We would have to drive straight through town to the main train station, many kilometers away.

We drove down deserted roads, with burned-out empty buses stranded on the side of the road. We even drove through other roadblocks but were never stopped.

At the train station, I said goodbye to my saviour. He remained calm and genial throughout, while I was still a bundle of nerves. I bought a first-class ticket to New Delhi.

When I got there, I could not go into town; the whole city was in lock-down. The air was hard to breathe; there was acrid smoke everywhere from fires burning in the Sikh neighbourhoods. In a few days, after staying at a hotel near the train station, I was finally able to catch a plane to Tel Aviv, Israel.

My stay in India was over.

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