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A different homecoming

By Onkar Singh
June 19, 2003 13:14 IST
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India Abroad, the oldest and largest circulated Indian-American weekly, has won the prestigious South Asian Journalists Association 2003 award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America. India Abroad is owned by

Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh, whose award-winning story we are carrying today on, and Senior Writer Jeet Thayil, whose story we will carry tomorrow, looked at the lives of Balbir and Sukhpal Singh Sodhi, Sikh brothers killed 10 months apart, one in a hate crime after 9/11 and the other by an assailant in his San Francisco taxi cab (India Abroad, September 13, 2002).

Jeet and Onkar will be honoured at the 2003 SAJA convention at Columbia University, New York City, June 20.

In 2002, and India Abroad won the All Media Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America for its powerful reporting and analysis (in words and photos) of 9/11 and its aftermath: the attacks, the victims and the hate crimes.

In 2001, and its subsidiary,, won a Special Recognition Award for their in-depth coverage of the immigrant smuggling ring run by Lakireddy Balireddy, a US-based landlord. It also won the award for Outstanding Story on South Asians in North America for Shobha Narayan's 'Confessions of a Cross-carrying Immigrant' and the award for Outstanding Editorial/Op-ed on South Asia for Amitava Kumar's 'Of Curry and the Making of Subcontinental Identity.'

For most, the telephone is an object of communication, a means of keeping in touch. For the Sodhis, it is an object of dread, a harbinger of sudden, violent death.

September 15, 2001, the telephone rang -- and Jaswant Singh Sodhi, 77, and wife Inderjit Kaur learnt that their son Balbir Singh had been shot dead in the United States (India Abroad, September 28, 2001).

August 4, 2002, the phone rang again -- and the couple learnt that another son, Sukhpal Singh, had been gunned down, again in the US (India Abroad, August 16, 2002).

"My sons were hard working, they had no enemies," wails Inderjit Kaur. Her sobs trigger the wails of Sukhpal's two young daughters Mandeep and Surinder, while his widow Parvinder Kaur fights to contain her emotions.

Inderjit Kaur was right -- neither Sukhpal nor Balbir had enemies, at least, not specific enemies. What they had were the religious accoutrements of turban and beard -- sufficient to trigger violent death in a land turned paranoid by the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001.

Balbir was shot dead in a parking lot in Mesa, Arizona. Sukhpal was gunned down in Daly City, California, while returning home after a tour of duty as cab driver. The survivors try to make sense of it all.

Jaswant Singh settled in Passiwal village in Kapurthala 40 years ago. "We own 16 houses in the village, out of a total of 32. We have more than 50 acres of land. My wife and I were happy we had done our bit for our children -- and now we have lost two sons within the space of one year."

Jaswant and surviving son Jagjit Singh take me on a tour of the winding, spiralling house -- and every footfall evokes fresh grief. Balbir, who intended to return once his newly acquired gas station business stabilised, had built the home.

"Look at this house. It is done in marble. There are 10 rooms and it is the best in the neighbourhood," says Jagjit.

"But what is the use? Its owner will never live in it."

Balbir has left his mark on a village of which his father has been sarpanch (village head), unopposed, for 40 years. Balbir's money funded the village Gurdwara Sahib, and plans are -- were -- on to construct a park for the children.

Balbir, a diploma holder in mechanical engineering from Ludhiana, left India in 1987. He started in Los Angeles as a cab driver, moved to San Francisco, then to Phoenix, Arizona.

He set up a gas station in 2000, with an attached fast food restaurant, at an investment of over $3 million.

"In his shop he kept candy for the kids; he gave gas on loan to hard-up customers, he had the best of relationships with his customers, white, brown or black. And then he was killed," recalls Jagjit, who after 10 years in the States had returned in 1998 to be with his ageing parents.

It was Balbir's wife Joginder Kaur who answered that first phone call, at 4 am on September 15, 2001. Her wail was the family's wake up call that morning.

Memories and tears flow in equal measure from Jaswant Singh. "Some three days later, I flew to the US; when I arrived in California five US police officers were waiting for us. They took our luggage, put us on the flight to Phoenix, came with us and attended Balbir's funeral. The US government took care of our travel within the US, went out of its way to make us comfortable.

"When we returned, everyone came to offer condolences — state officials, even former prime minister I K Gujral…"

Tears drown, for a while, the flood of memories.

Eleven months later, no one came when Sukhpal's body was brought back for a funeral on August 12 in his ancestral village.

"When my husband died, nobody from the state administration came to be with us in the hour of grief. Not even the deputy commissioner of Kapurthala. I was deeply hurt," Parwinder Kaur sobs.

Sukhpal Singh had a grocery business in Nandala, Kapurthala. Elder brother Harjit, while on a visit home in 1991, persuaded him to give the US a try.

"And it was Harjit who brought my husband's body back to India," Parwinder recalls, pointing to the irony.

Like Balbir, Sukhpal too was working on coming back home. His dream was to get himself a Green Card first. His application was approved in 1995, but the immigration officials kept delaying.

Sukhpal finally went to court -- seven years later, the judgment came, directing the INS to give him his Green Card.

This was in June 2002.

"Minutes after the judge gave the verdict, he called us, he was weeping as he told us about it. He hoped he would get his Green Card by October, and he could then come home and be with us for some time," recalls daughter Surinder Kaur.

His family had attempted, earlier, to visit him in the States.

"I applied for a visa on April 5, again on May 23, 2000, then again on October 9, 2001. Each time, a woman translator in the US embassy asked what I was going there for. 'If you go there and join your husband you will not come back,' she kept saying."

She and her son finally got a visa August 8 -- on humanitarian grounds, following the gunning down of her husband.

"I refused to go because it was of no use to me now that my husband was no more," says Parwinder Kaur, with indescribable dignity.

Today, she is left with memories -- and lingering echoes of a much-loved voice.

She last heard that voice August 2, her husband's 49th birthday. On that day, he called four, five times.

"My father was extremely happy," recalls daughter Mandeep. "He talked to my mother, told her to give us whatever we wanted. He told my mother if the girls want jewels, buy it for them without giving it a second thought.

"We were happy. Only, we wanted him to come back, he had been gone for so long. He did come back -- but not the way we wanted him to."

Next: 'I don't know why God picked my family to suffer so much pain'

Image: Dominic Xavier

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