Crackle and Pop

I’m looking at a snapshot taken by an amateur shutterbug. He was trying out a new lens in his camera while he stood at the window of an airport building somewhere in Sydney. It must have been taken in the late nineteen sixties or early ’seventies. It’s a grainy photograph and the boy – that’s what they said he was – looks like an inverted question mark in a buttermilk sky. He was caught on film when he fell out of some pocket of space in the underbelly of a plane as it climbed into the skies above the Tasman Sea. I don’t usually spend much time on pics as old as this one. And I soon move on.

I’m studying stowaways basically – those who survived and those who didn’t. I mean the guys who hopped it – or tried to – in the undercarriages and wheel wells of planes, or on boats and ships which were going all the way to Japan or Canada or England or France. Wherever. I always think of ones on the planes with the carbon dioxide seeping out of their lungs and not much oxygen to replace it, and their nerves going crackle and pop all the way to their brains, in shuffling sub-zero temperatures.

I’m trying to study the faces of stowaways as well as they have been recorded by media persons and the police. You may say that it’s a privately undertaken project.

When I close my eyes it’s crackle and pop all over again and Pathankot in winter, with the merest fringe of Himalayan snow in the air. It’s Amarinder and me playing marbles in the courtyard of his house or mine in Dhariwal layout.

It wasn’t just marbles Amarinder and I played. It was what he did with the marbles.

“See?” Amarinder would spin a frozen-blue marble around and say that it looked like a sliver of the Manasa Gangotri, the glacier in which the Ganga has its source. Then we too would spin around on happy weekend legs till the houses of the layout wheeled about faster and faster. Amarinder would call out breathlessly, “We are at the beginning of time, of life! We are the churning oceans! The stars! The constellations! We are the universe!”

And for about a minute or two we were.

Once he picked up another marble – a violet one with tiny peaks of white in it and he made me look into it. “You know what that is?”

“A marble.”

“No! What do you see?”

“Dark blue and bits of white.”

“No, stupid!” Amarinder pointed to the west and slightly to the north and said, “They’re the mountains of Afghanistan by night and that is Afghan snow trapped in a ball of glass.”

After that whenever it was the kite flying season we would pay out the strong, sharp manja from the firkee and watch our kites soar up and out, over the roof tops and into the clean September air. I would cry out, “Look, Amarinder! Look! The kite! It’s flying all the way to Sialkot and soon it will cross over Pakistan and soar into the Afghan mountains!”

Of course I knew it wouldn’t and that it was all nonsense. But I liked to pretend to believe it. So we saw other places in spinning marbles and kites in flight.

Amarinder showed me the world.

It was 1970 and we were seven.

1984 and we were twenty-one.

We moved to Amritsar and went to university there. Memories of Pathankot light-footed their way through my consciousness. Then they green-glided over the wheat fields and were far away. I pursued an M.A. in Political Science and Amarinder did an M.A. in English Literature. But he was really a poet. That’s why our story would be better sung than told.

Revolution was in the air: heavy and glowing. One day I met a young man called Khushwant who spoke of the khalsa – the brotherhood of devout Sikhs and of a man called Bhindrinwale who was going to get us a piece of good earth to call our own.

“Make up your mind, brother”, he said over a glass of lassi in the canteen, “decide where you belong. Remember, Guru Gobind Singhji himself spoke of the Sikh homeland.”

Professor Baljeet Arora paced about my mind and lectured me about political constitutions, origins and belonging, good citizenship, nationalism: “Art. 51A, Part IVA of the Constitution, specifies the list of fundamental duties of the citizens. It says “it shall be the duty of every citizen:

  1. to abide by the constitution and respect its ideals and institutions;

  2. to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom;

  3. to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of the nation;

  4. to….

  5. to….

  6. to….

I struggled with notions of loyalty and betrayal. They jostled mercilessly with each other till my brain felt like curdled milk. Professor Arora rolled a length of chalk between his palms, as he habitually did. He was restless yet stubborn. He addressed me specifically, “Do you understand —-”

Then Khushwant intoned, “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh: I am a subject of the Khalsa, and the Khalsa belongs to God; Victory belongs to God.” He clasped me by the wrist. “Are you with me, brother? I will give you our reasons from the beginning: from before the British came to after they left.”

He gave me our reasons.

“Do you….?”

“Are you with us?”

“Do you…?”

“Are you with…?”

Near the canteen window closest to us a blue bottle couldn’t seem to decide how to negotiate its way through the wrought iron grill, and stunned itself silly against the window frame.

I decided.

I wondered how long tourist procedures took. That night I dreamt of maple leaves gilded by the airs of autumn.

The next evening late, I took Amarinder for a walk on University Avenue and said, “Our world is shrinking to the size of a khalsa nation.”

“The world never shrinks for a poet.”

Somewhere in the black and silver stretches of dusk a voice sang: Where is that door of yours and where is that home where you sit and take care of all?

I turned to Amarinder, “Have it as you will. I’m going to Delhi.”


“To get a visa.”

“Where to?”

“To Canada. I have relations in Toronto.”

“But why?”

“I know a lost cause when I see one. Play it safe – always. You will come with me, then?”

He shook his head. “This is my world, brother. And it’s always big and beautiful when you’re a poet or a musician. Even when it’s ugly….It’s the land of Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh. Of all our Sikh Gurus.”

“But none of them is in power now. In fact I…I don’t even know about power. Sometimes I think that it’s a frightening thing in the hands of your enemies, but it’s even more frightening in your own. ”

Amarinder faded into the shadows as they fell on University Avenue.

I was in Delhi when they stormed the Golden Temple to flush out the men inside. A month later, two continents and an ocean slid silently away from me.


Seven thousand miles away we heard the earth shudder all across India: a Prime Minister assassinated and riots in the north. We heard about the decapitations in the streets and the blood in the gutters, and the encounters of police with young Sikhs. I saved up the stories, carefully. They were useful, you understand? They made it easier to prove that I could never return. Everyone said I was lucky to get out legally. There were others who were smuggled out any which way – by boat, or on trains to the border, and planes thereafter. Then there were those who never got out – except as stiffs.

I scanned the lists of the new arrivals in Toronto: Ahinder, Arminder, Arvinder….I asked friends and contacts. Once someone said, “Yes, there is an Amarinder Singh newly arrived.”

Visions of Dhariwal layout in the muslin mist of winter: Amarinder and me spinning around in the first shock of the cold as it settled down upon us; a brave, little kite fighting its way through the hostile blue of the sky.

“Amarinder Singh…you sure, Amarinder? Green eyes? Poetic sort of guy?”

Stupid of me to put it that way, but I did.

“No, brown-eyed and a former restaurant owner from Bhatinda. Now training to be a taxi driver in Missisauga.”

Marbles splintered in memory. A kite impaled itself on a treetop, its skeleton exposed to view.

Every now and then, someone whispered about secret border crossings, and stowaways on ships and boats. Once I read about two corpses which had arrived on a plane, with their black tongues stuck to their frozen palates. Another time someone called me up with news of an Amarinder Singh who had been sneaked out of the Golden Temple complex, but had to be in hiding because his “unpatriotic writings had nurtured anti-national sentiments.” Somebody else said he’d read about somebody who had fallen out of the undercarriage of an aircraft and nosedived into a North Atlantic breaker. He said that he hoped the guy had been clean dead before it happened.

My first Canadian winter came like a betrayal. Ghosts blew in from nowhere, their brittle-ice bones fracturing all over the carpet. I wrote with my index finger on the frosty pane of my bedroom window: ‘Amarinder and Sukhwinder. Pathankot, 1970.’ I watched as the pane frosted over again and the letters melted gently, one by one. Like childhood. Or innocence.

The next day I began studying the phenomenon of stowaways. It’s been ten years now and I’m still studying them. I look carefully at the photos of the faces – whenever they are available to me.

And I’m still hoping.


Copyright © Short Story Competition 2024 Privacy Policy