Beginning with the prime minister’s assassination, Radhika Oberoi’s slim debut novel Stillborn Season quickly throws the reader in the midst of the mayhem, the fear, and the uncertainty of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. I had to pause between the chapters to catch my breath.
To sum it up in one line, the novel is about a young witness, Amrit, who grows up to be a journalist. But the novel is much, much more than that. Oberoi lets the Delhi of those turbulent days invade the novel, bringing in a host of characters who are beyond stereotypes, and interweaving a not-much-discussed side of those violent days — the poignant stories of survival and of people saving each other. So the novel is as much about Delhi. In a span of 202 pages, Oberoi brings to life a textured city whose inhabitants connect with each other through blood, neighbourhood ties and the chain of events.
Each chapter is a different point of view. Each character has a language — from baby talk, neighbourhood gossip, beggar-speak, taxi-driver speak, ghost tones, to the cuss-word-laden North Indian vocabulary of the hired rioters and policemen. Each linguistic register reveals inner lives and personalities. The brilliant narration is a montage of small and big dramatic moments, sharp and visceral images, and symbols that linger in the mind long after the book is closed.
Most of what has been written about the anti-Sikh pogrom over the last 35 years is either broad-brushstroke rage and rhetoric, pedantic information, or literal reportage. Oberoi breaks this mould by making Amrit a journalist seeking human stories beyond the clichés. Through her search, Oberoi takes a fresh and intimate look at the violence. The novel proves that fiction can do what non-fiction cannot — tell a thousand untold stories in a way that makes the violence more real, and so indict it more sharply.
The writer is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.
Stillborn Season; Radhika Oberoi,