Sant Kaur, 58, has taken a rare day off before Diwali to clean her two-room house. She tries to be as quiet as possible, sorting old boxes and drawers. Even the instructions she shouts out to the painters adding fresh strokes of yellow to the crumbling walls of her house are in hushed tones.
In 944 homes in West Delhi’s Tilak Vihar, known popularly as the “widows’ colony”, preparations for the festival of lights are nearly always a discreet affair, laden with guilt.
For Sant and her neighbours, the weeks leading to Diwali are a chilling reminder of the riots of 1984. Most of them had lived in areas such as Nand Nagri, Sultanpuri, Shakarpur, Mangolpuri and Shahdara in North East Delhi before the violence. Wives of small- or middle-rung businessmen, a majority of them Labana Sikhs — a lower caste among the community —they had watched the men in their families being burnt alive.
The homes in Tilak Vihar were part of the compensation awarded by the government to the widows who survived. The colony has houses constructed over an identical 50 sq yard area each, but with structures added haphazardly to accommodate growing families. There are other indicators of a colony that sprang up hastily — the clogged, uncovered drains, the unauthorised electricity connections, the power lines hanging dangerously low, the uncollected garbage, and the flies.
Sant has been working as a Class IV employee at the Human Resource Development Ministry for 24 years now, much like the other widows of the riots who continue to work in the government jobs they were given.
Talking about her Diwali preparations hesitatingly, Sant confesses she is “just tired”, and desperate for “some semblance of normalcy”. “For years, I went to court for every hearing, deposed, participated in protests. Now I am just tired. I had an accident two years ago, my hip has not been the same. I cannot afford a surgery, and getting to office, which includes an auto ride and a one-hour bus drive, is an ordeal. Should I keep crying in the hope of justice that I probably will not live to see, or focus on more pressing issues?”
One of those issues, she says fighting back tears, is her son Harjeet, now 33. “I was so caught up in mourning, fighting for justice and my job, that I neglected the precious son I managed to save by dressing him as a girl… He never even completed school because I was just not there for him.”
Sant’s son became an alcoholic around the age of 15. Prone to bouts of violence, he left home at 18 and hardly ever visits Sant now.
There are many such stories in Tilak Vihar, of young men who never finished school, who idled as mothers went to work to lowly paid government jobs or did the rounds of courts, commissions and the media, and who became addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most young survivors grew up to become auto drivers.
Atma Singh, the pradhan of C-Block, says an entire generation of children in Tilak Vihar hasn’t completed school. “For a long time, there were no men in the colony. Only widows and children. Mothers would leave for offices 20-30 km away and many children would not go to school… Boys recovering from the trauma of the riots took to drugs, and got involved in thefts and violence to finance their addiction,” Atma says.
Many of those boys are now dead. Grieving mothers haven’t gotten around to admitting drug use, but talk about “bad company” and “psychological problems”.
Chiranjeet Kaur, 61, is among them. She lost her husband and eldest son to the riots. In 2009, she lost the third of her sons to drugs.
Pointing to the bus stop where the 32-year-old’s body was found, Chiranjeet says: “He had frequent headaches since he would stay out long hours… he was never the same after the riots.” As an afterthought, she adds, “I think he had jaundice.”
Recently, Chiranjeet sold her home and moved out to Tilak Nagar to be with her only surviving son who had started working in his teens and now owns a computer repair shop.
Located cheek by jowl to Tilak Vihar, Tilak Nagar is a Punjabi colony that also took in victims of the 1984 riots, but they were upper caste and from better economic background.
“When I started looking for a bride for my son five years ago,” Chiranjeet says, “I found no respectable Sikh family wanted to marry their daughter into a Tilak Vihar house… The boys of Tilak Vihar were seen as useless, and I don’t blame them.”
Months after moving into Tilak Nagar, she found a “BA graduate” bride. “Tilak Nagar has become associated with riot victims who managed to do something with their lives. In Tilak Vihar, time has stood still. In fact, things have become worse,” Chiranjeet says.
While only about 60 per cent of the residents in Tilak Vihar are now “original riot victims”, other residents are close relatives.
It’s not just the youth who had problems. Depression, cardiovascular problems, hypertension and anxiety attacks afflict the women too, and many admit undergoing counselling.
Surinder Kaur, who retired as an MCD safai karamchari and now gets a pension of Rs 7,000, says she has been receiving treatment for depression from RML Hospital for as long as she can remember. “I am much better now. There was a point when I was so numb with the stress about my sons that I would just lie on my bed, scared of going out.” There have been no studies to establish the after-effects of the trauma on these women.
Some of the widows couldn’t get themselves to accept the low-paying jobs the government offered them. Their husbands were small-time businessmen; some had their own shops.
Ravial Kaur, 72, lost her husband and two sons in the three days of rioting at Nand Nagri, and her two-year-old grandson a few days later. She escaped with her only surviving son, then 11, the same way most women saved young boys — dressing him in girl’s clothes.
“We had a 300-sq-yard plot in Nand Nagri, three buffaloes, and two shops. And they wanted me to work as a safai karamchari! How was that justice?” Ravial says.
She opened a tea shop first, then took to ironing clothes. When her son turned 16, they tried their hands at the family business of small carpentry work, starting with photo frames. Today, they have two shops in Tilak Vihar, while her son has moved out to stay in Indra Vihar.
But the tag of 1984 still trails them. Ravial’s 18-year-old grandson Sunny, a first-year Delhi University student, can’t hide his anger.
“Every year, on the 1984 anniversary, people come here, feast on our lives, journalists get their TRPs, politicians their mileage, and then they just forget about us… It’s like a riot economy that thrives on us,” Sunny says.
Gurdeep Singh, 31, is tired of telling mother Thakuri Kaur (49) to stop giving media interviews. He is fed up of being “identified with Tilak Vihar”. “This hope of justice still gnaws at her. And she thinks telling the same story over and over, how she saw my father being burnt alive two years after their marriage, how she stuffed my mouth with napkins to stop me from crying and ran… she thinks this will help,” Gurdeep, a father of two now, says.
Thakuri, who has been working at a government school for 28 years now, understands Gurdeep’s anger. “Gurdeep started his own business, went to a private school, he is not like the others, so he is frustrated,” she says.
Gurdeep managed to study up to Class XII and is determined to ensure his children don’t live in Tilak Vihar.
Others like Sant, who never escaped the shadows of 1984, can’t leave just yet. This is the one time of the year her alcoholic son makes his way home to Tilak Vihar. “If not for Diwali,” she says, “he will come for the 1984 memorial gurdwara service.”