Amrit stood outside Rikhi Book Depot. The woman who sat behind the counter held the receiver of a black Beetel landline against the slack folds of her left cheek. An identical red telephone lay next to the black one. A silver locket with the Sikh emblem – the double-edged sword, surrounded by a chakkar and flanked on either side by two single-edged swords – hung from her chest and rose and fell to the rhythm of her breathing.
A framed photograph of a middle-aged sardar hung on the wall behind her, partly covered in cellophane paper. The gigantic garland of plastic flowers that hung from the photograph grazed the woman’s head.
Amrit waited by the counter, but when the woman continued to speak in rapid Punjabi into the phone without so much as glancing at her, she moved closer to a bookshelf. The frayed spines of Paradise Lost, Principles and Practices of Banking, Frankenstein, Utopia, Marriage and Divorce Laws, The Doctor’s Dilemma lay stacked together, uncategorised by either genre or milieu. A ladder stood at a slant, its uppermost rung grazing a gigantic volume of Political Thought. Silas Marner lay wedged between Delhi Development Act, 1957, with Allied Acts, Rules and Regulations, and History of Medieval India. She tried to pull the novel out and immediately caused a minor dust storm on the shelves. Better not to touch anything, she thought, or Milton and Mary Shelley and Sir Thomas More and Shaw and all the very learned people who formulated theories and legitimised radical thought would come crashing down, and who knew if the pages of the books might splinter into a million pieces, damaged as they were by termites and silver fish.
The shelves that drew the most customers were the Competition Refresher and the Kit of Interviews series. Very little dust had been allowed to settle on these exam guidebooks, which were freshly bound and stacked in neat piles. The prospective examinees who lived within the ramparts of the Red Fort were all aspiring engineers, or doctors, or civil servants. What would that penniless maker of couplets – Ghalib, whose haveli in Gali Qasim Jan had only recently been repaired and turned into a ticketed venue of historical significance – have thought of an entire generation that could learn and recite someone else’s thoughts by rote, but couldn’t write their own thoughts on a page, let alone make poetry?
Prosaic but ambitious. Amrit was disappointed with the few students in the shop – probably boys and girls from the mohallas and bazaars around Nai Sarak. It would be futile to talk to them. To these young people, born after 1984, the Prime Minister’s assassination was just a multiple-choice question – When was India’s third Prime Minister killed? a) 31 October, 1984, b) 2 November, 1984, c) 5 December 1985.
Did they know, these kids, with their carefully trimmed stubbles, and fake Dolce & Gabbana logos on their t-shirts, did they know that it was here, in Rikhi Book Depot, that someone had tried to start a fire all those years ago?
Did they know that if a matchstick had been lit and thrown on the floor of this bookshop, Nai Sarak, where the streets are lined with paper – textbooks, calendars, wedding cards, visiting cards – would have turned into a heap of ash? The wind would have lifted the ash and scattered the remains of cindered literature across the ramparts of the Red Fort. Ash would have filled the fluted dome of Fatehpuri Masjid. Charred books would have demanded last rites; they would have formed their own memorial of embers, ablaze with the fury of dying unread, impossible to demolish.
Amrit moved slowly towards the counter; if there was anyone who knew why Rikhi Book Depot had not been burnt down that day in 1984, it was the woman with the phone receiver stuck to her ear. Everywhere else, the city had been a steady blaze of homes, shops and sardars. But Nai Sarak had been spared, even though most of the shops here were owned by Sikhs. She wanted to write about this “lucky episode”. She was certain that her editor at the national daily she worked for would call it that. But this lucky episode could also be the scoop she was looking for, in the series of stories about the 1984 riots that she intended to research and write on. A series her editor had already dismissed as an “exercise in futility”. He had ticked her off for “wasting precious working days on stale stories”. He had told her that many reporters, more “seasoned and skilled” than her, had already written about those few days of rampaging and murder, soon after the Prime Minister was killed by her Sikh bodyguards.
But Amrit wasn’t here because she wanted to impress her editor with unknown facts about the riot. She was here because of her Dadaji, who had nearly died that year.
She was here because she had finally embarked upon her own investigation of the riots, after years of reporting on inanities. All the stories she had heard from Dadaji, about a barsati that was burned down, about shops that were looted, about men who disappeared, about FIRs that could never be found, had led her to this self-assigned research and reportage that was of no consequence to anyone but herself. She was here because she had promised Dadaji that she would be here, and in every other place that had been besieged by a crowd that wanted blood for blood, many lives for one fallen leader, genocide for assassination.
“Sardar ka bachcha murdabad!” they had shouted, and she could hear them now, as though they stood outside Rikhi Book Depot, pelting it with stones.
Excerpted with permission from Stillborn Season: A Novel, Radhika Oberoi, Speaking Tiger.