It sounds like a movie or a novel – and a cheesy one at that. Man, wrongly convicted of espionage, is sentenced to death by an army court and spends 35 years on death row until a chance encounter with a Minister grants him a reprieve; finally he comes home to the wife and children who’ve been faithfully waiting all these years for him.
Except this really is the story of Kashmir Singh, an electronic goods trader who was arrested in Rawalpindi in 1973. But while his harrowing experience is grounds for plenty of socio-political and moral commentary on Indo-Pak relations, the status of prisoners of war in both countries and human rights, what really strikes me about him is the personal aspect.
I’ve been sitting here, trying to imagine what it would be like to be jailed at the age of 26 for a crime I did not commit, in another country, with no way of getting a message across to my family, knowing that my freedom was forfeit, that the best I could hope for was a life spent in a dingy little cell where sunlight was a distant memory… and I can’t even begin to put myself in that space. No wonder Ansar Burney, Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister, described him as “mentally disabled“.
When Singh saw India last, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, the government penalized free enterprise, the middle class was tiny, Rajesh Khanna was a superstar and Amitabh Bachchan was struggling to find a foothold, Helen was a vamp, Mohammad Rafi was breaking hearts, the Green Revolution was just picking up speed, the Emergency was as yet unimagined, the discord that would ultimately result in the tragically criminal riots of 1984 and the Khalistan movement was still taking root, the Cold War was going full force… and his family was still young.
The India that he returns to might as well be on another planet. Indira Gandhi’s widowed daughter-in-law and grandson now run the Congress, the Golden Temple has been rebuilt (twice), terrorism is an odiously familiar word, not only have fashions changed but we dress differently, our languages have changed with time, the entire nation got to see Sholay, his hometown probably boasts a mall, the television is another family member, the richest Indian in the world isn’t called Tata or Birla, every family has somebody employed in the IT sector, cell phones mean that we don’t have to book our long distance calls or wait years for a telephone connection, air travel is affordable, we win the occasional cricket match… and his kids have grown up into young men in his absence, his wife is no longer the girl he left behind.
Can you imagine?