A sacked construction worker scoops watery dal into his freshly washed hands and bites into the soggy food. While he eats, he recalls the rich chana dal and naan he was served at the gurudwara when he was at his hungriest. Famished and underpaid, he was always treated with kindness at the gurudwara by old sardars who served him hot food, recalling the teachings of Guru Nanak.

The goopy mess in his hands was mixed with the touch of dried blood from earlier. He continued to eat, because he was more hungry than he was guilty. And he knew it paid more to kill Sikhs rather than joining the mobs on the streets that could only proclaim that all sardars must die. He would join the rioters who poured kerosene over Sikhs who dared to go out on the streets, collecting the odd body part that didn’t turn to ash, to present later to the party leader. He didn’t know how much the compensation was, but a life was worth at least a few hundred rupees.

Radhika Oberoi tells us his story, along with those of many others, after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Stillborn Season, a novel based on the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. It is a compelling read, not least in light of the fact that, 34 years after the riots, Kamal Nath, who has been accused of instigating the mobs, has been appointed Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. After he was sworn in, several members of the Sikh community and BJP have highlighted his participation in the killings. Just hours before Nath formally took the oath as Chief Minister, Sajjan Kumar, another Congress leader was convicted by the Delhi High Court for his role in the riots and sentenced to life-imprisonment.

Multiple narratives

For the families of the victims, these outcomes have been bittersweet. However, justice comes not only in the form of verdicts and oaths, but also literature. Oberoi, who worked as a journalist for several years, and got her post-graduate degree in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, UK, treats the massacre with a rare literary empathy. Her novel, which is based in Delhi, where 2,433 alone died, blends the cityscape with the horrific violence that took place. The novel is neatly divided into two books with a prologue and epilogue. Oberoi’s writing style combines her finesse in prose writing with her experience in advertising and journalism.

The novel begins with the arrival of the Goodwill Ambassador from London, who is driven in a taxi by a Sikh man. He is in India to interview Indira Gandhi – not about her politics, though that does fascinate him – but about “the girl, who once attended St Mary’s Convent in a small town by the Ganges.” However, by the time he sets up his interview, a crew member announces her assassination by her two Sikh bodyguards.

Oberoi writes: “This book is the result of a last-minute bid to get into the University of East Anglia’s first Creative Writing workshop in India, held in Kolkata in 2013. A short story read and critiqued by a group of very bright people became the scaffolding for this enthusiastic but amateurish production.” Staying close to the nature of the short story, each chapter introduces a different character’s point of view, with Book I offering multiple narratives from right after the assassination.

In a block of flats in a posh area of South Delhi lives a professor from Delhi University, who worries about his newlywed Sikh couple neighbours. The couple escapes into a storage room once their landlord sees mobs prowling about the neighbourhood. Major Budhwar, another resident of the building, who tends to his garden all day, worries about his friend Jaspreet Singh, who is confined to his room and no longer comes out for morning walks after curfew is declared. Their granddaughters, Sweetie and Amrit, who are oblivious to the dangers around them play with paints in the cabbage patch. The lives of all such characters are blended perfectly into the narrative, giving voice to Sikhs, non-Sikhs, murderers, prisoners, business-owners, and frightened residents alike.

Looking back

Book II is a retrospective account, presented mostly through eyes of Amrit, the granddaughter of Jaspreet Singh, both of whom survived the massacre. Working as a journalist, she recalls the stories her grandfather had told her, and sets out to bring these stories into print. Despite her editor labelling the violence old news, she aims to write about these accounts, not in terms of statistical reports but real human stories, much as Oberoi does for her readers.

Amrit interviews old widows in Chandni Chowk, police officers on duty during the curfew, and brings up a tragic past, discovering their heart-churning attempts at getting justice. The author ends her novel with a dreamlike interview between the late prime minister and Amrit. The interview, which takes place in Indira Gandhi’s residence, is not an attempt at tying up loose ends, or bringing a neat climax to a “plot-driven” novel, but to understand gently the grievances that always exist, in the lives of the murderers and the murdered.

Oberoi provides nuance to tragedy:

“The sound was close enough to make a nerve throb on Balbir’s forehead, like a siren portending doom. He could hear fabric being pulled out and torn apart...He should jump out of the cabinet now and die like a sardar, like the son of a sardar, and not a mouse caught in a trap.” 

Her crisp sentences resonate the fear felt by the characters when the rioters take the street, wanting blood for blood. Oberoi’s main achievement in the novel is not just that she doesn’t exaggerate or make a spectacle out of the massacre, but that she is able to separate herself from the narrative, and yet personalise it enough for the reader to feel a real sense of grief and relief on reading the book.

Stillborn Season: A Novel, Radhika Oberoi, Speaking Tiger.