by SHEILA CSILLA BALI
I was born in Budapest, Hungary and currently reside in the
Bay Area in California, U.S.A.
Two years ago, when I was writing a book, I happened to meet
a beautiful young Sikh woman. We exchanged a few words over a
cup of coffee. Having learnt about the book, she became curious
to know about it. I told her that it was based on my experiences
during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
To my surprise, she also had a story to tell about the 1984
massacre of Sikhs in India. I was unaware and ignorant of the
magnitude of her agonizing story, as she of mine.
I was moved by this young woman’s story, now embedded in
history. How unfortunate that we gravitate only towards the
things that are near and dear to us, and tend to forget about
the rest of the world! We keep treasured the things that matter
to us, and shrug a cold shoulder to the things that don’t!
I turned seven in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution
and my friend turned eight in 1984, the year of the Sikh
As young girls, each one of us lived in very different times,
different places and thousands of miles apart.
I recall my father waking me up in the middle of the night.
And while we ran in the cobbled streets of Budapest, he tugged
my hands to move faster, to catch a train. My father, my mother,
my sister and I fled when the Soviet tanks rumbled into the
capital city. We fled because my father had become part of
something big - bigger than life. He had joined the resistance
fighters against the communist Soviets, and was caught, but he
managed to escape from execution.
He was targeted as ‘a wanted man’. His crime, like that of so
many millions, was that he wanted a better life for his family,
and have his country back from the grips of communism.
My book talks about the wishes and dreams of a people who
lived 55 years ago. From November the 4th to November the 10th,
2,500 Hungarian people and 700 Soviets troops died in the
struggle. In the two months - November and December - 200,000
young people escaped Hungary to begin new lives.
Mine is just one of them. It needed to be told.
In 1984, my Sikh friend witnessed a very different episode
from mine. Her father also held her hands, not on a train, or in
the streets, but on an ordinary commuter bus, in one of the very
quiet and calm cities of India. Just a few moments before the
vehicle was to depart from the bus stand, an individual from a
Hindu extremist group jumped aboard and singled them out - they
were visibly identifiable as Sikhs!
He threatened them with a steel rod, and menaced with fiery
eyes. “Let me kill the Sikh! Kill this man, he killed our mother
The burning words frightened the child. Her father stayed
focused and calm, gripping the kirpan he wore on his side. Some
passengers shouted to the extremist, “The Sikh is alright, he’s
a fine man. Leave him alone. He’s known to us.”
The frightened and traumatized eight-year-old could not
understand this shameful and inhuman behavior.
Thousands of Sikhs were persecuted, massacred, and burnt to
death, just within a few days after Indira Gandhi's death, for
which they had absolutely nothing to do.
Both the events occurred long ago, touched us as children and
have stayed with us till now with the same intensity.
Sometimes I relive the big escape of '56, walking the
farmlands from Sopron across the border to Vienna in the
blackest of nights - the sights, sounds and the peculiar smells
of the wet soil and leaves linger in my soul.
In these very same weeks, we commemorate the 1956 Hungarian
Revolution and the 1984 Sikh Genocide.
What have we learnt from these events? Did we forget?
Does history need to be told?
Yes, history must be told, and then re-told over and over
again, and remembered for ever, otherwise it will repeat itself.
My life’s journey from then to now and from there to here has
uprooted me physically and emotionally. In time, I learned to
yield and stretch into a living elastic band. I adapted.
Orphaned from my birthplace, heritage, relatives and language, I
immigrated to Canada with my family. I lived there for most of
my life, and then moved to California.
I am not lost, despite the repeated uprootings in my life. I
am blessed. I am blessed because along the way, I learned much
about people. I learned that one can physically be a citizen of
one country but at heart be a citizen of the world. We can learn
to see all people alike.
The journey for my Sikh friend came as an emotional uprooting
too, a disconnectedness from her home country. She felt
betrayed. Betrayed by her own people.
She never cheers, will never cheer, for an Indian team ever
again. To my surprise, she did not even celebrate the Festival
of Lights that was on the calendar only a few days ago.
”It was an Indian tradition," she said. ”I am not an Indian!”
Later, when my friend and I had talked for hours about our
past, we discovered that we shared something special.
Friendship. Our new blossoming friendship.
Time and distance transcends all obstacles. What matters is
that people can come closer and celebrate what the world offers.
That there can be peace.
Amen ... Waheguru.
November 2, 2011