Like most Indians who were not in Delhi during those three fateful days in November 1984, Sarbpreet Singh considered any account of the massacre as an instance of civil unrest blown out of proportion.
“Even though I had to bunk in a friend’s hostel room for two days to avoid miscreants, I considered it a stray incident,” says Sarbpreet, who was a 24-year-old engineering student, at the time.
Despite mounting evidence that pointed to the contrary, Sarbpreet like everyone else, refused to believe a genocide had actually taken place.
“It was only a couple of years later, when I was in the United States and read accounts by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, that the enormity of what had transpired began to dawn on me. The fact that the documentation was undertaken by non-Sikhs who had nothing to gain added to its credibility.”
Responding to the turmoil in his heart, Sarbpreet penned Kultar’s Mime , a poem that captures the trauma of children who witnessed their parents being butchered. Written in 1990, Kultar’s Mime was resurrected in 2014 by Sarbpreet’s daughter, J Mehr Kaur, who adapted it for the stage. It ran to packed houses for two years in over 90 countries, including India.
“The feedback we got was terrific. People were grateful the play provided them with a platform to address their trauma, to open up about their own experience of this incident which they had never shared with a spouse or child before this,” says Sarbpreet, over a phone call from his home in Massachusetts.
The overwhelmingly positive response to Kultar’s Mime encouraged Sarbpreet to revisit his notes, which resulted in Night of the Restless Spirits . The book is a fictionalised version of real happenings comprising just eight chapters. Not for the faint-hearted, Night of the Restless Spirits , shows the events of 1984 through the prism of many lives and explores its far-reaching impact on members of the community as well as on non-Sikhs associated with them.
“It was difficult to write,” admits Sarbpreet. “It was hard to delve into the complexities of these events and strike a nuanced balance.”
Though the pogrom of 1984 is not ancient history, it has been successfully pushed under the carpet for decades. “There was never an incentive for any party to talk about it — neither the perpetrators who allowed things to get out of hand nor the victims who had always identified themselves as warriors and defenders of the weak, throughout India’s history.”
As cathartic as the process of writing this book was, Sarbpreet hopes above all else that the book stirs up the vestiges of humanity that he believes lie dormant in his fellow men. “There is an increasing intolerance towards those who are different. I hope Night of the Restless Spirits mitigates the numbness that society has against minorities; that the voices of the stifled and subdued are given a just hearing, that we learn from the past and such horrors are not repeated.”
With this book, Sarbpreet Singh touches on the fragility of life, survivor’s guilt, mob mentality and the power of one’s conscience as well its fickleness, to bring out the best and worst of human nature.
Night of the Restless Spirits is published by Penguin.