While chatting with my classmate Aranjit a couple of days ago, Chandigarh came into our discussion. I recollected my first visit to the city and he suggested me to pen it down on my blog here.
The time that I am referring to in this story is of May 1986. I was then undergoing training in the bank. There was a system of one year training period on joining the bank as Management Trainee (probationary officer) in our bank. We were divided into several groups and the training was spread with institutional training and on-the-job training (OJT) interspersed. So round the year, some groups were having institutional trainings and while others were undergoing OJT.
During May 1986, I was undergoing my OJT in a branch in New Delhi along with some of my batchmates at different branches. One of our batch groups was undergoing training at the zonal training center in Chandigarh, around 250 km from Delhi.
Sometimes, we used to visit our batchmates while they were undertaking training at training centers as that gave us an opportunity to meet them besides exploring a new place. Buddha Purnima’s holiday was on Saturday in May 1986, so we got a two-day weekend. We planned to visit Chandigarh. We decided to meet at the Interstate Bus Terminus (ISBT) near Kashmiri Gate to take the bus for Chandigarh after our office hours, 5.00 p.m.
Before I proceed further, let me take you briefly to that period. There were problems in Punjab in connection with the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s and their demands for a separate Khalistan. Those separatists took over the Golden Temple at Amritsar. There was Operation Blue Star in June 1984. It was followed by the first Operation Black Thunder that took place on April 30, 1986, to flush out radical Sikh militants occupying the temple premises. It was a tumultuous period with terror activities and counter-terror police actions going on in and around Punjab. Chandigarh is a union territory in India that serves as the capital of the two neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana.
We, three of us, took a DTC bus from ISBT for Chandigarh at around 6.30 p.m. We had a nice hot dinner on the way and reached Chandigarh at around 11.30 p.m. Before we could find our bearing, the bus and bus station emptied including the bus driver and the conductor. It seemed that they all just evaporated in a moment! We, three of us, standing lonely in the dark bus station with no one to take us or guide us to the training center.
We knew the situation in Chandigarh was volatile and people generally didn’t venture out from their homes after sunset. But we could not imagine that the situation would be so bad. It was our first visit to the city. We were feeling lost and were wondering what to do until the daybreak.
We casually walked out of the bus station and were on the road thinking of getting some vehicle/rickshaw. Suddenly, we found a rickshaw coming towards us. We got happy and called him. The rickshaw-puller seeing three young men carrying bags in hand got scared and turned his rickshaw and cycled it away from us as fast as he could to our disappointment.
We were praying for some police patrol to pass by, who can either help us to reach the training center or take us to the police station, at least. We were feeling so miserable that we were even willing to spend the night at the police station. We could feel the scare of terrorism then. Anyway, the situation makes you brave. We thought that we have no other way than to spend the whole night wandering on the streets of Chandigarh.
Chandigarh is a well-planned city with wide tree-lined roads and houses looking similar by the streets. It was one of the early planned cities in post-independence India and is internationally known for its architecture and urban design. The master plan of the city was prepared by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. The roads intersect at a right angle and the city is divided into sectors.
In the dim moonlight, we were scared to go near the houses to find out the numbers of house or sector, if they were mentioned, as we might be caught as intruders or terrorists. People would beat us up before we could identify us.
As we were walking down the street we heard some dogs barking at the far end. I told my friends jokingly: “Let’s go towards the barking dogs, and follow them, at least that might help us in spending the night and with all probability these barking dogs might lead us to the hostel of our bank’s training center.” And we started following the barks of dogs. We found it as a game and followed the barks without knowing that the barks were, in fact, God’s signal to us. Suddenly we found that we were standing in front of the hostel of the training center.
We climbed the locked gate and jumped into the premises. It was already around 1.30 a.m. by then. Everyone was in deep sleep. We tried to check but of no avail. We could manage to open the main door and walked in. It’s all dark inside — lights out. We tried to check one room, some false wall started falling. We ran out immediately as we didn’t know which rooms were occupied by our female batchmates. We didn’t want to be beaten up before someone would switch on the lights and recognize us. We walked out of the building and tried to figure out from the outside of the windows.
We found a room with dim lights. We went to that room and found our Sikh batchmates sleeping in that room. We tried to open the window and made some sound, but they didn’t respond and they pretended sleeping dead. We tried and, somehow, managed to wake up one of our friends in another room and then we were let in. We had nice talk before we could catch some sleep there. We made plans for going around the city the next day.
The next morning at the breakfast table we asked those friends who pretended to be sleeping dead even after seeing us why did they not open the door or responded to our call. They said that they were shit scared as they thought some guys had come to attack them. They couldn’t recognize us in the darkness of night. They apologized for that. We could understand as the situation was then really very scary and we were too adventurous.
Everyone in the morning was wonderstruck that we went to Chandigarh and reached the city at midnight when even the local citizens didn’t venture out after it’s dark. Some told us it was foolhardy. They were wondering what the police didn’t catch us mistaking as terrorists. We told them that even the police weren’t on the street! We not only saw the terror but felt it too that night.
The best part of the trip, however, was that we had nice time with our friends, moved around the beautiful city the next day, had a lovely weekend and definitely, it was one of my most memorable getaways. I can recount the experience even after three decades with all the details.